Forged In Style

The humble steel sports watch has gone from being the reluctant option to a sell-out success.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The humble steel sports watch has gone from being the reluctant option to a sell-out success. 

Stainless steel watches are supposed to be the cheaper, thus more accessible versions of precious metal originals. Cut away the complications and the price tags become even less intimidating. But there are legendary exceptions, namely Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and Patek Philippe’s Nautilus. These are so popular that you’d be hard-pressed to find any stock in boutiques, and their prices in the secondhand market often far surpass the original retail price. The Nautilus Ref. 5711/1A is even said to have a waiting list of up to eight years. 

Material worth and function clearly aren’t the draw here, so their pull is derived largely from rarity and incredible design. Throw in an integrated bracelet and a sports watch instantly becomes chic enough for formal wear, so the versatility is an added bonus. Even brands that are better known for their dress watches have started to pick up on this trend. Vacheron Constantin and Girard-Perregaux have brought back their Overseas and Laureato collections respectively and this year sees the return of Chopard’s St. Moritz in the form of the Alpine Eagle, as well as Bell & Ross’s entirely new BR05. 

Even without the investment potential, we recommend these full-metal tickers because they successfully straddle the worlds of sport and elegance, and are usually engineered for utmost comfort to boot. Here are the ones to put on your shopping list – if you can.


It only took a few minutes for Gerald Genta to come up with the design for the Nautilus, but that quick sketch in a restaurant went on to result in one of the most sought-after collections by Patek Philippe. The Nautilus is now available in various materials and with numerous complications, but it is the steel, time-only Ref. 5711/1A that is considered the true successor of the original Ref. 3700. It may be modest in appearance and function, but Patek Philippe is only able to meet 10 percent of demand for the Ref. 5711/1A.

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This was the watch that started it all. Desperate to find a way to turn things around amid the quartz crisis, Audemars Piguet gave Gerald Genta one night to come up with a radical new watch that would save the company. It had to be steel, waterproof, and unlike anything the industry had seen before, and so Genta delivered the diving helmet-inspired Royal Oak. The price was audaciously high for a steel watch in 1972, and it took three years to sell 1,000 pieces, but once people got used to the notion of a luxury sports watch, the Royal Oak’s popularity soared.

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Vacheron Constantin’s entrant into the luxury sports watch category – the 222 designed by Jorg Hysek – didn’t make it out of the mid-1980s but it laid the groundwork for the more enduring Overseas collection. Launched in 1996, the Overseas borrowed the 222’s barrel-shaped case, notched bezel and integrated bracelet but design changes to the latter two are what made the collection much more contemporary. It continued to evolve over the last two decades but its most recent revamp in 2016 sees the watch at its most refined.

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Ultra-slim and thoroughly modern, Bvlgari’s Octo Finissimo family is an icon in the making. The purity of the design is most evident in the time-only, automatic model and a steel version followed a year after its titanium debut. The steel here achieves its unusual brightness thanks to a very thin coating of gold followed by palladium and rhodium plating. Its sandblasted texture further sets it apart from other steel watches. At 5.15mm, the watch is one of the thinnest automatic watches in the world.

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Exposed screws and a porthole-like bezel make Chopard’s newest collection reminiscent of Genta’s favourite design cues, but the Alpine Eagle should also be familiar because it was based on the St. Moritz, the very first watch Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele designed in 1980. At his son Karl-Fritz’s insistence, the St. Moritz was revived with a more streamlined design and a new name. It’s also the first time Chopard is using Lucent Steel, an alloy made from recycled stainless steel that is harder and shinier than regular steel. 

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The distinctive but somewhat forceful design language of Bell & Ross has taken a gentler, more commercial turn with the launch of its new BR05 collection this year. Its rounded square case and integrated bracelet – mixing brushed and polished steel – are clearly trying to pander to a market starved of steel Nautiluses and Royal Oaks but the large Arabic numerals retain the Bell & Ross DNA. The steel models are offered with black, grey or blue dials and the option of a leather strap, but a rose gold reference and a skeleton dial will soon join the collection.