To Be Franck, Bronze Is Better Than Gold
Image credit: Art Ancient.
Thump thump, clink clink, clang clang – three of the sounds that sum up table manners and sounds at the dining table across three epochs of Homos. During the Stone Age, the first upright walking pre-historic cavemen lived by way of blunt flintstone bowls and tools for millions of years. Around 6,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens made a monumental breakthrough by discovering and inventing the first alloy ever known to man, that is still one of the most utilitarian materials used in modern human history – Bronze. The Bronze Age was to last for over 2 thousand years, until the first blacksmiths learnt how to mill and manipulate iron, which, despite being able to corrode and rust, became much easier to obtain and produce. The Iron Age is said to have ended more than a thousand years ago, but Tony Stark will beg to differ – it’s the marvellous future of mankind.
For the sake of this horological tale, let’s expound on the 2nd runner-up material. Bronze comprises mostly of copper, fortified with tin. On its own, pure copper turns green when oxidized by air and water, then crumbles and falls apart. Fortunately for all of humankind, the Sumerians, one of the earliest known civilizations, were perceptive enough to supplement tenuous copper with just the right amount of tin with their primitive but revered metallurgy. With this precious revelation, the Sumerians of Mesopotamia were among the first to productively craft and forge bronze more than 5 millennia ago.
Little by little, the once-sacred know-how spread to the corners of the globe, and multitudes of civilizations and kingdoms exploited the amalgamated alloy’s viability by creating tools, armour, helmets, bladed weapons, building materials, statues and other innumerable ornaments. Despite its colour turning relatively quickly, the rife bronze alloy only oxidizes superficially when it reacts with air, moisture and the environment, forming a layer of copper oxide above the metal, usually pale-green in colour. The underlying metal is typically protected from further corrosion.
Virtually everything in every empire was made of bronze or some derivative of it. In fact, so widespread was the usefulness of bronze, that before glass was readily available, bronze mirrors were used in every society. Understandably, human culture was deeply entrenched in the Bronze Age that stretched from around 3,500 B.C. till circa 1,300 B.C., but not all good things last forever. The venerable and versatile bronze fell into jeopardy after more than 2,000 years of extensive production, when man learnt how to strike while the iron is hot – molten iron was easily wielded, and could be flattened in 3 strikes or less. And, along with the disruption of the tin trade that reduced supplies and sent the prices of one of the main components of bronze skyrocketing, the almost-ubiquitous reign of the copper-tin alloy slowly came to an end, paving the way for the Iron Age.
Fast forward to present day, aside from bronze’s usual concoction of copper and tin, other permutations can also consist of aluminium, manganese, nickel and zinc, and sometimes non-metals like phosphorus and silicon. These extra additives imbue the bronze alloy with outstanding stiffness, ductility and machinability, enabling it to be mass-produced as industrial machine parts, bearings, electrical components, gears and valves. Modern bronze is usually anti-magnetic, and is also used to make coins, musical instruments like saxophones, string windings of pianos and guitars, and even bells.
Interestingly, a certain bell bronze alloy has excellent resonant qualities with a desirable balance of durability and timbre – wouldn’t it be interesting to see a minute repeater in a bronze case? I digress.
Google “Bronze Watch”, and you will be inundated with a superfluity of copper-cased timepieces. As a matter of fact, the bronze craze only started to gain popularity in the past decade. Just how did such a common, relatively inexpensive metal compound with ancient origins and vast industrial applications find its way from Russell Crowe’s Gladiator arena to the luxury horological playing field?
Traditionally, wristwatches have been cased in either stainless steel or gold, because of their resistance to corrosion. The late luminary Gerald Genta, one of the watch industry’s most visionary designers, first introduced the bronze watch as a commercial timepiece in 1995. However, like his Nautilus and Royal Oak designs that only achieved international superstardom decades later, this reddish-brown pipe dream was too, a little ahead of its time.
Image credit: Kenneth Chen/ timezone.com
Genta’s copper creation, the bronze Gefica Chronograph, was designed with the intention to tarnish and turn decay-green. It’s distinct case design was marked by 2 rows of reverse dimples, which resemble a golf ball’s pot-holed surface, inversed. The copper concept did not catch on, but was reintroduced in 2007 – this time, in a gargantuan 47mm bronze case. While the Gefica re-release was aesthetically pleasing, consumers still could not accept that the watch would break out into a layer of radiation decay, the same way Bruce Banner would when exposed to gamma rays. To add more insult to injury, the case was changed to treated bronze that could not tarnish, shortly after its re-release.
With immense but welcome irony in 2011, the watch world stood on its horological head, utterly dumbfounded when Kampfschwimmer-storied Panerai unveiled its game-changing PAM382 Bronzo. Essentially, it was just another Luminor Submersible but this time, with a matte green dial, sealed with an aegis of a bronze case. The rotatable bezel was also in bronze, but the signature crown guard in bronze was icing on the cake. Although it wasn’t a new calibre, material or concept, nobody can deny its patina prowess – collectors were frantic like bees during a hive invasion.
Daytona Schmaytona – Bronzo please! Perhaps it’s the way “Bronzo” rolls off our tongues like Italian mobsters, but at its peak, collectors were shelling out sums more than double of its original retail price. It was THE watch to have, and grown men would giggle like teenage girls at Bieber when they got their hands on one. There are several bronze alloys that are highly resistant to corrosion by seawater, but the Panerai’s aim was deliberate – to facilitate surface decay and drive men mad. The timing was just perfect, and Panerai had singlehandedly reignited the Bronze Age in spectacular fashion – in watches.
Image credit: Timepiece Bank
All of a sudden, the disdainful corrosion on bronze cases became the must-have feature on the forearm. Layers of desirable lucid lime-green surface erosion exploded onto the horological scene, and the watch industry inevitably took notice by embracing the bronze craze with arms wide open. Once opposed to the idea, iconic brands like IWC, Zenith, Montblanc, Oris, Bell & Ross, Maurice Lacroix and Tudor have all jumped onto the bronze bandwagon and released their very own renditions of copper-tone timepieces that ooze irresistible patina over a few short weeks.
This year, for the first time, the haute horologer renowned as the Master of Complications has also jumped into fray with bronze knuckles. Usually accustomed to flashy and flamboyant time machines, Franck Muller has chosen a “less is more” approach for their primordial bronze timepiece, housed in the Valiant Vanguard case. At first glance, it would seem like a glorious chunk of gold from the wrist of a steadfast entrepreneur clad in a houndstooth suit, but there is more that meets the eye. Upon closer inspection, its charming but oxidizable aura oozes halcyon memories of yesteryear, and along with Franck Muller’s adventuresome numerals and curved-case back ergonomics, this honourable hunk of metal is the perfect link to bridge the past and the present.
An Asia Exclusive, the Vanguard’s handsome face is black PVD-treated, flanked by trademark bold-font stylistics. But alas, its dapper dial has 2 other variations to compliment its bronze garb – either a cream PVD-treated dial with matching indices, or brown-PVD with hollow indices. These non-ebon alternatives are limited editions of 28 pieces each. With such a robust repertoire of offerings spanning over 2 decades, the iconoclastic marque lives up to its penchant for having variety as its key spice in life.
Aside from its suave good looks, one may ask, is it worth its weight in gold bronze? For one, the trademark barrel-shaped case is the epitome of masculinity, and its heft instils confidence, as though bearing the weight of the forefathers on your forearm. Its warm amorous glow, along with subtle nautical accents around the inner bezel of the case, casually suggest an audience with crashing waves in a deckchair sipping Pina Colada. With a bronze screw-down crown complementing its metallic chestnut DNA, the Vanguard Bronze will be completely at home in the high-salt climate of the oceanside. And if you’re lucky, some hints of the Incredible Hulk might surface after brief non-gamma exposure while basking in the fresh saltwater sea breeze.
Image credit: Watch Time
Salt, moisture and the elements can actually beat down quite hard on bronze. Sometimes, toxic-green hues of surface corrosion appear, much to the chagrin of the sane, but to a certain breed of WIS (Watch Idiot Savant), it is love at first sight. Though it may look like the entire watch is decomposing, rest assured that the deformation is only skin deep. However, to be inducted into the hardcore bronze fanatics club, one must subject his or her copper-toned timepiece to ungainly atmospheric conditions to accelerate the process of surface deformation, making their (once) wrist-worthy watches look rusty and decrepit, even algae-infested.
One common loony bin activity is to force bronze watches through vitriolic chemical treatments to achieve that foreboding mysterious sunken treasure look. This remains one of the true paradoxes of the watch industry – buying something new and unmolested, and then making it look like Yoda ASAP. Just like how some women shave off all their eyebrows, only to draw them back on, we homo sapiens are a strange bunch indeed.
It may seem like another passing fad, but bronze watches may yet be here to stay. So, just why are these watches in seemingly inexpensively-cased materials so sought after, and even considered as luxury timepieces?
Arguably, there needs to be some sort of vintage consumable in everyone’s collection, whether it be a pen, jewellery, jeans, or for the vast minority of those with inexhaustible bank accounts, a garage full of vintage cars. Perhaps one of the main reasons for the bronze boon could be the unique personal relationship and interaction with the wearer – after all, its vintage good looks is inspired by our very own sweat, rolling good times and everyday experiences.
Unlike real vintage watches from at least half a century ago that have acquired that killer patina, and only get better with age, bronze watches ripen with a classic mature brown hide in a much, much shorter time. They also don’t cost an arm or a leg, most of the time. Whatever the (patinated) case, it may very likely be our inherent desire to stay connected to the past – as Marshall McLuhan famously said, we march backwards into the future. The new moral of the bronze story is, the dirtier and more decayed it looks, the better.
If, for whatever reason, one is tempted to commit cardinal sin by wiping away the precious algae-infested surface, there are 4 simple household items to recommend as accessories to the crime - baking soda, Ms Lemon, rubber gloves and Mr Toothbrush. For this unimaginable act of perjury, it is best to not have an alibi, kill all trails, and dispose of the evidence properly after the spiritual cleansing is fulfilled.
But if ye enters not into temptation, although the spirit indeed is willing, the flesh may not necessarily be weak. As bronze will react with sweat and body acids to form copper chloride, all forms of human skin are susceptible to turning goblin green if in direct contact. Furthermore, some bronze alloys also contain nickel, which is a common skin irritant that always incites an annoying rash. This necessitates that all bronze timepieces have non-bronze case backs.
The Franck Muller Vanguard Bronze is fortified by a broad stainless steel engraved case back, and while a leather or nato strap may be the perfect aesthetical option to complement its contemporary-vintage appeal, a rubber strap would undoubtedly be the most practical. Fortunately, the monochromatic metal Vanguard timepiece has been endowed with a rubber strap that features stitched leather on the front side, and is fastened with a bronze deployant buckle – a winning trifecta.
At this juncture of horological evolution, watch collectors are compelled to add at least one bronze timepiece into their list of must-haves. This is certainly a good problem, for watch manufacturers at least. Once out in the bronze battlefield, which weapon of choice should a budding bronze WIS slap on to his wrist? Well, to start the copper ball rolling, the Franck Muller Vanguard Bronze is the perfect marriage of past and present - an ancient alloy integrated into an avante-garde barrel-shaped wrist ward. Dripping with sleek simplicity, the Vanguard Bronze works well as an everyday wearer, and would look smashing with a suit too. The only problem is, which of the 3 sleek versions to pick – bronze away!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sumerian Beer Sipper
A ticker since he was first a kicker, his horological obsession began in the 80s as a puckish child with the usual suspects – Nintendo’s Game & Watch, Casio, Swatch, TAG Heuer (multicoloured F1), and who can forget the retro-futuristic Takara robot wristwatch? Three decades on, as mature as Linus and his blanket, it is impossible to take a shower or go to bed without being wristed with a timekeeper. So, why the moniker? The Sumerians were the earliest AAs some 6,000 years ago, being the first to concoct the jolly draft and sipped it through straws in halcyon merriment. Everybody brews in some way or another, so let’s cheers with a bubbly brew-ha, a vital aspect of joie de vivre! And, when energy levels run low, it’s time for il dolce far niente with a decimal repeater and Chianti. Aah, the sweetness..