Behold Watchmaking’s Most Comfortable Material: Titanium

Titanium watches are often marked as tough, but truthfully the benefits are far less sexy and far more practical.

Henry Phillips

Though the honor is often erroneously bestowed to Porsche Design, the world’s first titanium watch was made by Citizen in 1970. Citizen’s first electronic watch, the X8, had debuted four years earlier, but Citizen turned to the material to create a special edition — it’s estimated less than 2,000 were made.

In the decades that followed, titanium became a more commonplace material in watchmaking, though it’s mostly used in higher-end dive watches and other tool watches. Most are marketed as tough, and indeed titanium stonrger than most stainless steel alloys yet lighter. It’s also antimagnetic, resistant to heat and virtually corrosion-proof. Though what a lot of marketing material leaves out is that because titanium is softer than stainless steel, it’s generally more prone to scratches.

It’s only natural to assume, given the material’s strong connection to the aerospace and military industries, that toughness is titanium’s greatest attribute, but the real benefit is far less sexy and far more practical: It’s hypoallergenic. One drawback of many stainless steel alloys is that they contain nickel, and nickel is a deceptively common allergen. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, some 10 to 20 percent of the population is allergic. On people wth particularly sensitive reactions to nickel, even a stainless steel alloy can cause a bout of dermatitis.

Titanium, on the other hand, is the most “biocompatible” (read: hypoallergenic) metal in the world. This is because of a number of factors, but most notable among them is titanium’s resistance to corrosion — thanks to a protective oxide film that forms in the presence of oxygen — preventing it from reacting with its surrounding environment (e.g., your skin). This trait is the reason why titanium is so commonly utilized in medical implants and prosthetics. Similarly, it’s been increasingly adopted by jewelry makers for individuals who have reactions to gold or silver jewelry that contain some nickel.

Even for those who have no reactions to the nickel in stainless steel, titanium is in the end just a more comfortable material. Its lightweight nature makes has made it a stalwart in what would otherwise be hefty divers and tool watches, making daily and active wear easier and cooler — some feel downright nonexistent. And yes, some wearers prefer to tout the virtue of their hefty, chunky, masculine watches, but at the end of the day, the watch that’s most comfortable to wear is the one that feels like it isn’t there at all.

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