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What is the big deal of Rolex’s use of 904L steel?

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Starting in the early 2000’s Rolex use of 904L stainless steel transitioned from using the industry standard 316L stainless steel to 904L stainless steel. Rolex initially utilized 904L in the case only, but the newer sport watches utilize 904L in both the case and the bracelet.  Even though stainless steel is supposed to prevent rusting and pitting from ocean salt water and sweat, Rolex found excess wear in the caseback threads and watch case from salt water seeping into the threads and sitting there undisturbed for years between watch services.  Salt and other minerals proved to be catalysts for corrosion and deterioration around the threads that hold the caseback.

To prevent premature deterioration, Rolex moved to 904L, a stainless steel with slightly higher nickel and chromium content. 904L is also resistant to chloride, a potential cause for pitting and corrosion.

All Rolex stainless steel, platinum, and gold are made in the Rolex factory.

904L stainless steel is harder and does not machine well than other steels used in watches.  Subsequently, Rolex had to design its own tools to work with the material and utilizes a 250 ton press to stamp the initial cases.  In addition to higher rust, corrosion, and pitting resistance, 904L polishes quite well with the correct tools and know-how. The brushed finishes of 904L leave a warm grain that is somewhat harder to scratch, although watch strap scratches are almost entirely impossible to avoid.

Watch wearers who are sensitive to nickel might feel a difference wearing a Rolex, but it has not been reported to be a wide spread issue.

Although other watch manufacturers use 316L surgical quality stainless steel, Rolex sets itself apart by using a slightly harder, more chemical resistant steel that is yet another quality that sets Rolex into a different category watches of watches.

  • Celestias

    It would seem that you are posting false information. The 904l is indeed more corrosion resistant (under extreme chemical conditions), but 316l is harder, contrary to what you stated. Furthermore, 904l induces more allergic reactions than 316. Please do your homework next time.

    • The research I used indicated 904 being harder. Nevertheless, I made some edits to reflect your comments.

      • supersuper

        nice article. useful and to the point. 904L is more expensive due to the high price of nickel.

  • Jim

    I had to out my GMT II because of the nickel issue, wish Rolex would get it right.

    • Eric Bondi

      My Rolex Sub gives me a rash every time. Rolex has never responded.

  • Mutombo

    904L is a unstable austenitic stainless steel, due the higher chromium content. Isn’t harder than 316L but it resist better sea water corrosion. However, Monel and Hastelloy alloys are more sea water corrosion resistant, but aren’t steels, but nickel based alloys.

    Source: Me. I work for this

  • flyback

    Hey, I just had to stop wearing my new Rolex because I had a very bad nickel reaction. And, all the time I thought I could trust Rolex for their superior knowledge of metallurgy. Turns out they are more concerned with salt water corrosion and re-saleability ( the new steel makes the watch stay “young looking” ).

    Rolex, of all companies should NOT be making watches that cause allergic reactions, especially in an industry that is keenly aware of metal to skin contact. The wrist is a very thin skinned area of the body, and more porous as a result. 904L is poison, unless you are a SUBMARINE, as far as I’m concerned. Shame on Rolex.

    • Eric Bondi

      Yeah, 904 gives me a rash quick! I wrote Rolex several letters but they never responded.

  • Jack Madison

    Most of these comments are authored by imbeciles.
    What happened to sophistication? What happened to garnering some information and
    leaving with it in hand and happy someone was kind enough to post the information? If you disagree with it then politely question the author and move on.
    And then to bash Rolex?
    Ha!
    Some of the finest time pieces one may own and you wish to bawl about the metal?
    Grow up…men don’t complain. We do something until we figure it out and then we help the next guy.

    • Eric Bondi

      So I wear my Sub on a Nato strap because it gives me a rash very quickly… does that make me an imbecile? Rolex has ignored me for years.

  • bananabender

    ALL stainless steel is dirt cheap. The price difference between 316L and 304L is negligible. Both cost considerably less than $5 per kilo – enough to make five submariners.

    If Rolex was genuinely serious about corrosion resistance rather than (cheap marketing gimmicks) it would be using titanium or ceramic for it’s cases rather stainless steel.

  • Dan

    Hello, One of my rolex’s is a 2002 datejust all steel. The side of the steel case (On the 9/oc side) appears to have a bad metal porous area, i have had the watch lightly polished just to make sure it was not just a deep dent or scratch, but the jeweller agree’s that we think it is bad metal. Is this unusual, and will rolex do anything about replacing it do you think?

  • Eric Bondi

    Rolex 904 gives me a rash within 24 hours, and i’ve owned a Submariner since 2005. So now I wear it with a black NATO strap, reluctant to sell it because my mother gave it to me for my birthday, but looking to get an AP Royal Oak, but not sure what grade Stainless Steel AP uses.

  • Eric Bondi

    904 steel is bullshit, gives you a rash! don’t buy it. Buy Doxa, or AP Royal Oak, Blancpain, IWC, Omega… stuck with a mint 2005 Rolex Submariner that gives me a rash within hours, Rolex has never responded, and I’ve owed vintage Rolex and never had a rash problem.

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