Gold Luxury Watches Are the Ultimate Midas Touch of Timepieces

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Baltic HMS 002

When, in 1963, Hans Wilsdorf was finally succeeded by Andrew Heiniger, the new boss of Rolex knew he had to shake things up. He needed a watch that made a statement for being unlike anything Rolex had made before. He turned to Gerald Genta – the watch design legend-to- be – and, 60 years ago this year, the aptly-named King Midas would be launched.

The King Midas was a plain yet refined two-hander, though that description does not do the watch any favours. It features an asymmetrical pentagonal engraved case, with the winding crown shaped like a stylised sun, and placed on a minimalistic link bracelet. It was also gold, and in a big way: the King Midas was Rolex’s most expensive watch up until that time. It was also the heaviest gold watch then commercially available, and the first to use synthetic sapphire crystal glass.

The watch would find an unlikely fan in the perma-macho John Wayne and was, of course, the watch worn by Christopher Lee as Francesco Scaramanga, the villain in the James Bond film ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’, which marks its 50th anniversary this year. But the watch’s most apposite acolyte? The king of living large, aka The King, aka Elvis Presley; he would end up damaging his first of many by wearing it in the bath, such was his attachment to the watch.

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Hublot Big Bang Integral in King Gold

Perhaps this was the tipping point, the moment when gold moved from being a noble material for classic dress watches to making any watch it came in a totem of flashiness; at best, a kind of wearable insurance. It is a gold Art Deco Patek Philippe, after all, that Michael Douglas – free of any other form of money – hawks for cash in ‘The Game’ (1997) in order to get back to the US from Mexico. “A man with a watch like that doesn’t have a visa problem,” he is told.

“The gold watch defined the success of Rolex for many years. It was a commodity you could take anywhere with you and exchange for cash,” notes Edouard Meylan, the CEO of H. Moser and Cie, who says the watch he wore most last year was the brand’s black-dialled Streamliner in gold – not that he is planning to go on the run soon. “I would have felt uncomfortable wearing a gold watch before, so I’m not sure if I’ve changed or gold has. But there’s an intuitive feeling that gold is right again now. And there’s still the idea that if I have to flee in a hurry, I’ll take my gold watch with me.”

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Hublot Big Bang Integral in King Gold

Perhaps, as notes Nicholas Bowman-Scargill (founder of Farer watches), yellow gold is the perfect material for our uncertain times – pandemics, wars, cost of living crises – when we retrench in the security of tradition. “I’m not sure that yellow gold is fashionable again so much as dependable,” he suggests.

But the idea of the big gold watch as, first and foremost, a symbol of wealth and an expression of conspicuous consumption – one Genta was perhaps playing with – has cut deep. It is a trope cinema has acknowledged repeatedly. It was Douglas, again, who wore a gold Cartier Santos as Gordon Gekko in ‘Wall Street’ (1987). The gold watch is even used a totem of the growing wealth of stockbroker Jordan Belfort, as played by Leonardo DiCaprio, as he progresses through the story of ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013): from steel Seiko Solar to gold-plated TAG Heuer Series 1000 to solid gold TAG Heuer Series 2000. “You see this watch? You see this watch I’m wearing?” asks the brash salesman, played by Alec Baldwin, of his underlings in ‘Glenglarry Glen Ross’ (1992). “This watch costs more than your car”. It is a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day-Date, in gold of course.

The gold watch is the wrist candy of rappers and sheikhs – and, indeed, the wealth of emerging markets ensured there was a phase when many brands were only too willing to meet the demand for big and blingy gold watches in order to help pay the company loans. Undoubtedly, the gold watch is iconic, and the watch world of late has certainly been dipping its toe in golden waters again. Not just with less ostentatious red, white and rose gold either – a trend for some time now – but with the shinier stuff too: good old yellow gold.

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Piaget Polo 79

There is Vacheron Constantin – with its Overseas tourbillon; Waldor & Co – with its Avant 39 EZE; Chopard – with its Mille Miglia; Longines – with its Master GMT: on and on the wristwatch landscape is aglow. Even brands associated with functional minimalism – Nomos Glashutte, for example, with its Lux Hermelin – or micro-brands associated with affordability – Baltic, for instance, with its HMS 002 – are getting into gold. In the latter example, it is the colour and not the material.

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Piaget Polo 79

George Bamford, of Bamford Watches, highlights Breitling’s collaboration with Victoria Beckham on the Chronomat 36 – with the most striking option in yellow gold – and Piaget’s revived Polo 79 model. “That’s already being touted as ‘the watch of 2024’ and, Christ, that’s a real chunk of gold,” he exclaims. “You look at that and it’s very hard to explain gold’s allure other than to point out that it’s a remarkably expressive material, in its play with light, in its various shades, its weight and softness [literally and figuratively] such that I think even scratches enhance its appeal, in its connection to the Earth. I think rose gold has been a kind of gateway drug to getting us back into yellow gold, into making it acceptable again”.

Certainly, the draw of gold has been deeply human for millennia – the Egyptians and Aztecs both delighted in the metal even though it was relatively abundant compared with more prosaic but useful base metals the likes of iron which were more highly prized (archaeological evidence suggests that human societies were using gold before they figured out how to work iron – Ed). Gold resonates from the Christian nativity story to the flakes sprinkled on otherwise pedestrian dishes and cocktails to warrant stupid prices. It is why gold watches have traditionally been given for landmark birthdays, or on retirement – a tradition said to have been started by Pepsi Co. in the 1940s – or to mark a special achievement.

Albert Einstein, for example, was given a yellow gold Longines by the Zionist convention in Los Angeles in 1931. Becoming the US President has been marked with the precious metal since 1951, when Rolex gave Dwight Eisenhower, the five-star general, and soon-to-be President, a gold Date-Just. Gold signifies the top spot: when Florida State Senator Grant Stockdale commissioned a gold Omega Ultra Thin as a gift for John F. Kennedy – inscribed with ‘President of the United States’ – Kennedy had not yet won the election.

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H. Moser & Cie Streamliner Tourbillon Wyoming Jade in red gold

“The symbolism of gold is strong and deeply rooted in the history of watchmaking and jewellery, and I believe that no material can replace it,” reckons Bruno Belamich, co-founder and design boss of Bell & Ross, which last year made the metalwork on even its most utilitarian of designs, with the BR 05 Green Gold. “Gold is a noble material that combines several characteristics: the preciousness of its material, the light and symbolism of power through its colour, and finally, yes, gold does display a certain status”.

But does that mean gold is still inescapably burdened with those more negative associations too? As Bart Gronefeld has it, you can have a Gronefeld watch in any gold as long as it is not yellow. “We don’t do yellow gold because for me it’s just to show-off,” he says. “It’s making a statement about being gold. You need a certain confidence to wear gold, I think, but it’s interesting to see even young people opt for gold-coloured Casios now.”

Bowman-Scargill argues the cycle may now be shifting in yellow gold’s favour. “There’s still a feeling of glamour, decadence and luxury in rose, red and pink golds without the [questionable] overtones of yellow gold,” he says. ”Because the 1980s were all about yellow gold [and record prices for yellow gold too], it came to represent success. It went away in the 1990s. But now I think yellow gold is working again as a response to the market saturation of rose gold and steel. Of course, some yellow-gold watches are unashamedly brash. But yellow gold doesn’t have to signal success. Worn in the right way it can signal sophistication, classicism, warmth.”

Bell & Ross BR 05 in Green Gold

Certainly, the rise of interest in vintage watches has helped to drive interest in yellow gold. So have watchmakers’ growing readiness to apply various technological advances to it. Pure gold, at 24k, is completely corrosion-proof, which is why it used to be used for internal watch parts too. But it is also a soft metal, easily machined, but prone to dents and wear. That is why mixing gold with other metals to produce alloys was first done to add hardness – these days 18k gold, 75 percent pure, is about as premium as it gets.

In recent years, aiming to rise above ‘standard’ gold, brands have developed their own alloys as much for effect as for function. Hublot, for instance, has its red King Gold – with added copper and platinum to stabilise the colour but also to neutralise oxidation – and its Magic Gold, a blend of gold and ceramic – and hence what the company claims as being the first scratch-proof gold.

Rolex, famously, even has its own gold foundry and so developed its proprietary Everose, with a secret formula aiming to combat the fact that rose gold fades over time, especially when exposed to chlorinated or salt water. Swatch Group also has a foundry, which has led to the creation of Omega’s reddish Sedna gold, an alloy with copper and palladium, and its Moonshine gold, a subtle yellow gold akin to the colour of the moon at night. A Lange & Söhne has its honey gold, twice as hard as yellow gold; Chanel its ‘beige’ gold, in homage to one of Coco Chanel’s favourite shades.

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Even the colour gold has pulling power: Rado, known for its ceramic pieces, has developed a PVD coating in yellow and rose gold, and a golden Ceramos, its proprietary composite material developed precisely to retain the hardy properties of ceramics without losing the lustre of metal alloys. Golden Ceramos Dia-Star and Captain Cook models are among its latest.

“It’s a technological gold, with the colour of gold representing value,” says Rado’s CEO Adrian Bossard, making a philosophical point. “There have certainly been periods of my career when only steel mattered. But it’s interesting both how gold has come back heavily and found appeal with younger customers too.” As he points out, yellow gold, to them, is a novelty.

These ‘technological golds’ have been imbued with functionality. But maybe gold does have a kind of functionality of its own. “Gold is akin to art in that it serves a deep psychological purpose without being at all functional,” suggests Bowman-Scargill. “If gold has a function, it is in the way it makes you feel”.

Can a watch brand act on just a feeling? For some brands, gold is a step too far not for reasons of its image, so much as for its cost. Gold signifies wealth, after all, precisely because it is expensive. That, as Edouard Meylan stresses, has meant that for most manufacturers committing to making a model in gold, it requires more than taking the cultural temperature of the metal.

“Making a model in gold isn’t so much a technical issue so much as one of finance – you need to have the money upfront, the millions you need for the funds of gold required, and that’s a barrier to entry [to making a watch in gold] for many brands,” he explains – indeed, special processes are required to work with gold precisely to absolutely minimise wastage. “You’re taking a bet not just on the success of the model you’re making in gold, but on the future value of the gold itself too”.

Back when Pepsi Co. started making its golden gesture to its retirees, the price of gold was around USD 34 an ounce. Today it hovers around a whopping USD 2,000. You might imagine that would put most people off buying a gold watch. But, for the moment at least, it is all relative. With the price premium on stainless steel models rocketing, buying one in gold starts to make more sense: back in 1974, an 18k solid gold Rolex Submariner retailed at eight times the price of its steel equivalent; now it is four times. All the same, watchmakers have to consider very carefully whether to commit to making a model in gold at all.

And maybe, in years to come, they just will not bother. Perhaps by then the gold watch will have lost its power to signal status with quite the potency that it once had. Meylan argues, for sheer showoff capacity, yellow gold – “once considered the flashy gold, not the gold of good taste,” he reckons – has now been trumped not by palladium or iridium or rhodium – all precious metals more valuable than gold – but by high engineering.

“Carbon fibre has become the new gold,” he laughs. “If you want a really showy watch now you don’t wear gold. You wear something by, say, Richard Mille”. By that logic, it cannot be long before it is advanced materials – biopolymers, graphene, alloys the likes of CrCoNi (after chromium, cobalt and nickel) which last year set the highest toughness ever recorded of any material – that becomes valued over something that is just dug out of the ground. But then, there is still that bit about feelings, which tend to be a bit soft, just like gold, and humans have had a soft spot for the stuff since forever.

This article first appeared on WOW’s Spring 2024 issue.

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