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From Sapphire Crystal to Out-of-this-World Complications: The Best Watches in the World

Innovative spins on traditional materials set these pieces apart.

best of the best watches illustration Illustration by Mathilde Crétier

The Big Idea: The Great Steel Rush

The absolute hottest material in watchmaking is the least valuable. Steel, traditionally popular with mass-market brands or for entry-level timepieces in a luxury watchmaker’s collection, is the metal of the moment no matter the price, and has been for a couple of years. Collectors are clamoring for it in such staggering numbers that nearly all top-tier companies—including high-horology heavyweights like F. P. Journe and Vacheron Constantin—have been getting in on the game with elevated timepieces fashioned from the humble alloy.

Revered German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne is one of the most recent converts. While the ultra-elite brand has been (quietly) known to make steel watches for collectors, its first series-produced steel-bracelet timepiece, the Odysseus, launched last year with a price tag of $30,800, a steal in the world of Lange. H. Moser & Cie’s crowning achievement of 2020, the steel Streamliner chronograph, comes in at $40,000. And last September, Vacheron Constantin introduced a production version of its historic Cornes de Vache 1955 in steel (it had previously been produced only in pink gold or platinum) for $39,000. These are vastly elevated prices for such a workaday material—of course, you’re also paying for exceptional movements—but collectors are increasingly choosing them over more precious metals, causing those pieces to skyrocket in price both at retail and on the secondary market.

While this fervor continues, some are quietly questioning whether the bubble is about to burst. Retailers say the demand shows no signs of waning: The beauty of steel is that it’s scratch-resistant and better suited to daily wear, especially for today’s casual dress code; the fact that it isn’t precious is exactly why it’s so desirable. But those same retailers admit these watches are overpriced given the material, and when you consider recent world events it’s hard to imagine how, at five figures and more, steel can continue to soar. Of course, prices for this year’s models are already set, so any dip, were it to happen, would still be a ways off—a year, maybe more. Still, when will the pendulum of popularity swing back to precious metals?

“There is going to be a massive return to yellow gold within the next two years,” says James Lamdin, founder of vintage-watch purveyor Analog/Shift. Gold is “currently wildly undervalued,” Lamdin says, and is being re-embraced by fashion-driven consumers and those who appreciate its timeless appeal. “And, yes, in general gold has gone up in value, and that helps—that’s another reason why I feel that, when this [gold] thing begins to pop, it’s going to pop considerably.”