Jurassic Looks To Kill: The Patina Of Urwerk’s UR-105 T-Rex
Patina is one of the most the most hotly debated and widely coveted aspects of vintage watch collecting. Some believe the more patina the better in vintage watches, others that patina is just rust by another name.
But what exactly is patina? And why does it make a vintage watch so desirable?
Patina is the darkening, fading, or discoloring effect of a material oxidizing or becoming worn through time, use, and exposure to the elements. To a collector, the patina tells a story of the watch from its birth. It comes in many varied forms on dials, hands, cases, and crystals.
Patina could be powdery, barely glowing lume or a dial that is faded and cracked from a half century of sunshine. Some people prefer cases to have nicks, dings, and scratches to show it has been worn hard by a man with character. Worn case plating or, in the old and even new bronze cases now popular on modern wrists, oxidation bears witness to a life well worn (see Give Me Five! Bronze Watches At Baselworld From Hautlence, Urwerk, Bell & Ross, Tudor And Oris).
But if that explanation sounds a little too romantic, well, that is because it is. Patina does show those things, but what we may also forget is that patina is an example of failure.
Yup, I said failure.
And I’m not the first one to point this out, it’s really what the debate is all about; how much failure is acceptable? It’s not failure in the dramatic sense of toiling and failing to achieve dreams, but failing of a material to perform in the long term. This is really what patina is, a material failure.
When a color becomes faded, it means that the colored substrate (paint, epoxy, plating, tint, coating) has been damaged, usually by UV light or a reactive chemical causing pigments to be physically changed, which leads to the inability to reflect that specific color anymore.
A “tropical” dial undergoes a similar process whereby a black dial fades to brown; the exact cause is hotly debated.
If a dial becomes crazed, it means the coating dried out and shrank; if the hands are oxidized, it means the metal is reacting with the atmosphere and is actively changing from a pure metal state.
As an example, rust is a form of oxidation on carbon steel, so in many instances (though there are always exceptions) oxidation really isn’t a great thing. The same goes for cases, and yet a heavily oxidized 18-karat gold Rolex 6062 triple date moon phase with a star dial recently sold for almost a half million dollars more than a similar piece with a re-polished case at auction.
Why? Because the oxidation showed that the case hadn’t been touched. It was the good kind of patina (some said) because it made the watch more original, even if it may look like junk to some. Any watchmaker will tell you – scratch that, anybody who makes anything will tell you that the goal is to make something that doesn’t fail, doesn’t fade, doesn’t crack, and doesn’t break because the materials fail or the manufacturing process isn’t good enough.
Patina really just shows that some part of the product wasn’t made as well as it could be.
And yet, patina is desirable because it makes things look cool from today’s perspective. Some collectors will say that true patina can’t be faked or forced (even though science would argue otherwise), but that hasn’t stopped companies from having a go at making a watch with intentional patina.
This leads to my favorite example of intentional patina that exists today (sorry to all of the bronze-case-home-patina watch nerds out there), and it doesn’t come from usual suspects like Panerai or Helson but instead from the awesomely out-there brand Urwerk.
Dinosaurs and other old things
The watch is none other than the incredible UR-105 T-Rex, an extinct-reptile-inspired bronze creation using forced oxidation to create a dramatic patina on the surface, while the insides and the rear of the case remain crisp, black, and new, as one would expect from Urwerk.
My initial response was whoa, and this was the overwhelming response I saw when this watch made its debut at SIHH 2016 – though many saying whoa fell on the opposite side of the fence from me, strongly disliking what they were seeing.
There was no middle ground.
The upper case design is a natural extension of the clous de Paris engraving that is found on the hour satellite’s PEEK upper cover only on a much grander scale.
The texture grows in size as it radiates in a double spiral pattern from the “horns” surrounding the crown. This increase in size means the shapes transform from small pointed diamonds to flat top pyramids. The pattern actually does resemble how scales on certain reptiles grow and radiate from heads and limbs, even if this was something Urwerk’s team discovered after the creation of the pattern.
The “scales” of the bronze case are first machined and then shot-blasted with two levels of grit: the first eliminating tooling marks while the second, being very fine, produces a smoothed and slightly rounded surface.
The bronze is then prepped for “aging” by cleaning the surface of any residue, oils, or chemicals that could inhibit the oxidation process.
The next step is the real sciencey part: Urwerk introduces an oxidizing agent to the bronze causing a reaction that darkens the metal and creates an oxide layer. The copper component of the bronze is the most reactive, and a number of different chemicals or “oxidizing agents” can be utilized.
Vinegar, ammonia, and salt water will all oxidize brass and bronze in a relatively safe and slow way, but the traditional chemicals offer better control and a faster reaction.
Liver of Sulfur (which contains potassium sulfides) and aging solutions (which could contain hydrochloric, muriatic, or phosphoric acid, copper sulfate, selenium dioxide, and tellurium) create a fast-acting oxidation reaction that can be predicted and observed much more easily.
Experience in the process
I have actually performed this exact process in the past while studying for my degree in model making. On a project in which I replicated a movie prop, I needed to create some antique-looking brass handles on a box and I undertook these steps to achieve some very nice results.
The process begins with the part to be oxidized submerged in the chemicals and allowed to oxidize. The reaction begins immediately and the change can be monitored until the desired level of oxidation is achieved. The part is then removed, washed to stop the reaction, and allowed to dry.
The component is then gently buffed with #0000 steel wool to remove a majority of the oxidation and re-expose the bronze. The steps are repeated with the valleys and inside corners getting darker and more contrasted to the buffed high points with each successive buffing.
This is where the skill comes in, and the exact look of the forced patina can be fine-tuned by hand over multiple soakings.
A couple long soakings will provide a very stark contrast between the oxidized and buffed areas, while many short soakings with allow a much more gradual shift to develop between the oxidized and buffed surfaces.
The gentler the touch with the buffing between soakings the more even the transition will be between light and dark. The final buffing will re-expose a small amount of bronze that will develop its own natural patina over time while the darker areas will be more protected from continued dramatic oxidation.
The process is rather straightforward if a bit time-consuming. If even more control is required the oxidizing chemicals can be brushed on, though the reaction happens much better when allowed to remain in contact with the material. The good part is that you can always re-blast or completely buff out the oxidation if you go too far and want to start again.
Just like heat-bluing on screws and hands, it takes patience to get it even and just right. But when you are done you have created a very old-feeling piece of metal that may have come straight out of a machine just a few hours before.
The rest is true Urwerk
This is more in-line with the entire rest of the UR-105 T-Rex, which features the same satellite system as the other UR-105 models. This is an extension of the UR-105 automatic line, so the movement has the added features of automatic winding control should you plan on being overly active or underwhelmingly still for longish periods.
The indication of the time is achieved via a wandering hour disk tracing minutes across the scale at the bottom. Each of the four satellite hour disks holds three hours that are changed via a three-pronged Maltese cross. This allows each disk to change by one position while hidden under the T-Rex’s hood.
The side and rear case is PVD-coated titanium, and Super-LumiNova helps to keep the time readable in the dark Urwerk style. The UR-105 watch is already an awesome piece, but the addition of the fantastical hand-patinated “bezel” creating a veritable beast on your wrist is just too good to ignore.
Even if forced patina isn’t true vintage, and the styling of the T-Rex doesn’t tickle some fancies, it cannot be denied that this is one of the best examples of intentional aging on a watch that exists right now. And it was accomplished by embracing failure and controlling it for a new purpose.
People will still debate about what is “good” and “bad” patina in watches, but the UR-105 T-Rex takes all the good things about vintage patina and does away with all the bad. Nothing is at risk of catastrophically failing and ruining the watch simply because it is in “original” condition.
I don’t really have a position on the patina debate beside the fact that I don’t want something that looks cool if it has the possibility of destroying something that I care about. I would replace cracked and faded dials, chipped enamel, oxidizing hands, and would probably even polish an old case (more for aesthetics).
But the finish on the T-Rex is something I would actually want, probably because it is like nice, worn leather. Leather is one of the few things that actually gets more usable with age and gains character in the process.
And I can only wait to see how much character the case of the UR-105 T-Rex gains as time goes by. While we all wait to see, how about a breakdown!
- Wowza Factor * 9.9 I have always loved Urwerk and its creations, and this direction for the T-Rex blew me away!
- Late Night Lust Appeal * 105.6 » 1,038.58 m/s2 More than enough energy to stop a charging Triceratops, the UR-105 T-Rex pulls enough Gs to keep you lusting all through the night.
- M.G.R. * 67.8 Any Urwerk movement deserves some accolade, and the 5.02 is no different. Even if it is hidden under a scaly cover!
- Added-Functionitis * N/A No added functions on this one, and who needs ‘em!? Instead we have a cool winding regulator and a typically awesome Urwerk display. No need for Gotta-HAVE-That cream even though it has some serious patina swelling.
- Ouch Outline * 12.1 Serious allergic reaction to titanium fibers embedded in your skin! Ugh, don’t ask. But trying not to itch is one tricky task! Still, to get my hands on this awesome piece of bronze . . . give me some more titanium mesh any day.
- Mermaid Moment * Just feel that surface! The smooth and soothing scales of a monster from long ago is surprisingly comforting. So comforting you’ll start thinking you need to find a caterer!
- Awesome Total * 765 Multiply the number of pieces in the limited edition (22) with the water-resistance rating in meters (30), then add the model number (105) for a terrifyingly vintage awesome total!
For more information, please visit www.urwerk.com/en/collection-105-collection.
Case: 39.5 x 53 x 16.8 mm, hand-patinated bronze and PVD-coated titanium
Movement: automatic Caliber UR 5.02 with adjustable winding regulation
Functions: hours, minutes
Price: 66,000 Swiss francs