The Rolex Metals Series: Stainless Steel
Traditional watchmaking is a fantastically complicated activity. Even the simplest movement, for example, will contain at least 100 separate components, all of which have to work together within tolerances measured in microns.
But just as important as the underlying mechanics is selecting the right material with which to make all the various aspects—from the tiniest wheel inside a caliber, to the housing of the watch itself.
At Rolex, the brand has always produced cases forged in a variety of different metals, from the hardwearing but humble stainless steel, to the shimmering opulence of platinum. In between, gold in all its flavors and purities have made an appearance at one time or another.
In this series, we are going to explore the various alloys Rolex has employed over the years, as well as the watches cast in that particular metal.
To start off, we’ll take a look at the most widely used; steel.
Rolex Stainless Steel
Stainless steel is so prevalent in watchmaking for a number of reasons. It is, firstly, an especially strong metal and so, as far as Rolex are concerned, it is the perfect choice for their collection, whether the industry-leading tool models or even the dressier pieces. It is a much harder material than gold or platinum, making it a more durable option for a watch meant to be worn everyday.
It is also the least expensive of all the metals used which, technically speaking, should make the steel models the cheapest to buy.
However, as anyone who has fancied grabbing themselves a steel Daytona or GMT-Master II in the last few years will tell you, that often isn’t the case.
Certain steel Rolex sports watches are massively popular, leading to huge shortages at Authorized Dealers for new models, and wildly ballooning prices, often outdoing gold or Rolesor versions of the same model, as secondary buys.
What Steel Does Rolex Use?
One of the most talked about developments at Rolex in the modern era was their transfer to a new grade of steel.
Up until the late 80s they, like the rest of the watchmaking industry, used what is known as 316L steel. Alternatively known as marine grade or surgical steel, 316 is the second most common type of the metal, and 316L is the low carbon version of it. It is made up of iron, chromium, nickel and molybdenum, with trace amounts of silicon, phosphorus and sulphur.
Extremely strong and durable, it has been used for decades across numerous fields, including the chemical and petrochemical industries, as well as in medical and food processing applications. Its resistance to corrosion also makes it an excellent choice for maritime functions—but, as Rolex found out, it is not infallible.
The company discovered that their dive watches, those that got particularly heavy use, were still susceptible to deterioration and pitting within the screw threads on the case backs. Salt water and sweat could eventually cause a decay, which wasn’t an issue with the watches made from gold and platinum.
The answer was a different type of steel, one which upped the amount of nickel and chromium, and also added copper. 904L was the clear choice, the extra elements giving it even greater resilience to chloride solutions, along with superior protection to sulphuric, phosphoric and acetic acids. It also had the bonus of being completely antimagnetic in all conditions, and it was able to hold a far greater polish than the previous alloy.
Its downsides were mainly the cost (about 2-3 times greater than 316L) and the fact that it was more difficult to work with, requiring expert technicians and more sophisticated machining.
In 1988, Rolex unveiled their first 904L steel model which was, fittingly enough, the Sea-Dweller. The novel material helped to separate Rolex even further from their competition, and also kept them a step ahead of one of their biggest problems; counterfeiters. Working with 904L is so difficult, expensive and specialized that practically no other legitimate watchmaker (with the exception of Ball) has taken it on, let alone the forgers.
In 2003 Rolex, at huge cost, switched their entire production line over to 904L, what they have recently dubbed Oystersteel. Like every other metal they use, it is forged in their own foundry, giving them the ability to completely regulate everything that goes into their products. That, and their unfailing quality control, is what continues to keep the brand at the forefront of the business.
Rolex Stainless Steel Watches
Almost every watch in the Rolex collection has been released in stainless steel.
For some, it is the only option available; for others, it is just one in a diverse range.
As a general rule, the sports/tool models will have been first released in steel, with the most popular (Submariner, Daytona, GMT-Master, etc.) then graduating to precious metal options later on.
At the more dressy end, certain pieces, like the Day-Date, have never had any steel anywhere in their makeup. But something like the Sky-Dweller or Yacht-Master, which were originally exclusively gold watches, have been issued in more recent years with a steel case, topped with a gold or platinum bezel. These are still commonly referred to as the ‘steel versions’.
You can tell the different types of metal a Rolex watch is forged from by its individual serial number. Depending on the age of the model, the number will be between four and six digits long and, apart from the very earliest examples, the last number signifies the material. In the case of stainless steel (either 316L or Oystersteel) that number is 0.
Below, we look at which models Rolex has released in steel, their reference numbers and years of production.
|5700||1958-1963 (Air-King Date)|
|126300||2016-Current (Datejust 41)|
The Datejust II
The Explorer II
The GMT-Master II
The Oysterquartz Datejust
The Oyster Perpetual
The Submariner Date
— Featured Photo Credit: BeckerTime’s Archive.