The Curious CASE of your Wristwatch - Part 1

 

Sameer wouldn't stop, he stalked us through the shop floor, threw jargons at us: Reverse Osmosis, Mineral Boosters, Ultraviolet Protection, he tried to make the brand appear smart while he seemed desperate to make a sale. But no talk of Bangalore's water quality.

He tried to make the brand appear smart while he seemed desperate to make a sale.

6 out of 10 samples of drinking water from around Bangalore are found unfit for consumption containing high levels of biological impurities. We learned that from the omnipresent search engine of our lives, and not from Sameer or the other salesmen. Their offer? Hurried pitches about how cool the technology was, how everything was controlled through a smartphone, and worse a 25% discount.

This story isn't about drinking water though, rather the apparent but mysterious refusal by brands to inform consumers about the basics. Watch brands aren't any different. Earlier, we expressed our disappointment in watch brands that fail at, and consumer electronics brands that do an excellent job at, educating the consumer.

This story is about the apparent but mysterious refusal by brands to inform consumers about the basics.

Wristwatch connoisseurs are a fantastic group of people; they love their watches and the stories that go along with them. We have a lot of conversations about wristwatches (not just ours) with a whole lot of people, and we get a lot of questions. One question we wish we get more often is about watch cases.

As a continuation of our #wristwatchiq series, we break down one of the oft-ignored basics of watches today: the Watch Case.

A watch case is what holds the entire watch together; it is what you wear on your wrist. It houses the movement, the dial (a.k.a the 'face'), the hands, the crystal. It is perhaps the most critical part of your watch, second only to the movement.

In a series of posts, we will cover the fundamentals of Watch Cases starting with Materials in this post, followed by design, construction, finishing, water-resistance, and plating.

Although precious metals were almost always used in the early days of watchmaking. Stainless Steel (SS) has become the de facto choice for all wristwatches today. All SS aren't made equal though, there are different grades of SS that one needs to know and understand. There are also watches that aren't made with SS at all, mostly at the bottom end of the price ranges, and then the ones made with exotic materials like Titanium, Ceramic, or Damascus.

SS is an alloy made of iron, carbon, and chromium. It is proven to have a very high resistance to corrosion, stain, or rust when in contact with water, moisture, or humidity. And hence, like many other applications, watchmakers have moved to SS watches, as opposed to watches made entirely of precious metals.

Faux-SS:

Although not used at all in high-end watchmaking, you will find fashion watch brands, and other low priced watches use copper-nickel alloys, aluminum-bronze alloys, and in some cases brass too. They're all plated to look like SS, but aren't.

These watches have a very low life-span starting to show rust, stains, corrosion within just a few months of wear.

304L

The most common quality grade of stainless steel is 304L. This grade contains between 18 and 20 percent chromium and up to 12 percent nickel. Stainless steel watches with the 304L grade have a high resistance to rust and withstands corrosion from most oxidising acids. However, the weakness of 304L is that it is susceptible to corrosion from chloride solutions. Swimmers, beware!

316L

Most high-end watchmakers choose 316L SS. 316L incorporates 2-3 percent molybdenum – an element that increases the corrosion resistance against chlorides. Due to its superior qualities, 316L is often referred to as surgical grade stainless steel (it is the grade used in biomedical applications) or marine grade stainless steel (since it’s beneficial in marine environments).

904L

904L is the SS grade used by Rolex and most recently by a few other watchmakers. It has superior resistance to corrosion due to its high amounts of chromium (19-23%), molybdenum (5%) and nickel (23-28%). However, the top grade quality of 904L also makes it prohibitively expensive for most watch brands.

Titanium

Titanium is a sturdy metal, as strong as steel, but is much less dense. It is highly durable, corrosion resistant while being very light and malleable for machining. Due to these characteristics, watchmakers have begun to use Titanium in high-end watchmaking.

There are more exotic materials like Ceramic, Damascus, and Sapphire Crystals used in modern watchmaking, but we'll save those for another day.

In Part 2 of this story, we will discuss Case design, construction, and finishing — all equally important when you decide on buying your watch.

So, when you're buying your next watch, look around, do some research about the case material, ask the salesman (good luck with that!). Choose materials with a high lifespan especially when you're putting down top dollar on those watches. And most importantly, one that suits your lifestyle.