The different types of new watch materials and how it has changed the industry.

For almost two hundred and fifty years haute horlogerie has “advanced” through the constant refinement of mechanics and the dogged development of novel complications.  At least that’s been the “evergreen” press release for… well, decades.  But let’s face it, a mechanical watch, no matter its pedigree, with its gears, springs and levers, is a deliberate anachronism and is a product of a technology that has barely changed in over two hundred years.   A mechanical watch, in fact, keeps worse time that the green LED quartz clock on your average microwave oven. 

So how exactly does the modern mechanical watch industry move forward?  Well, if the past couple of years is any indication, it isn’t so much the clockwork ticking inside that’s considered “cutting edge,” but more of its packaging.  That’s right, innovative new materials is the name of the game today and the longer it takes to develop and how difficult the material is to mill, machine, polish and produce, the more exotic the material is and the higher its demand tends to be.

Just take a glance at the wrists of some of the biggest watch collectors today: steel, titanium and even 18K gold watches have taken a backseat to watches with exotic jargon like forged carbon, industrial sapphire, advanced ceramics and proprietary gold alloys that not only give aesthetics a good shot in the arm but writes extensive new chapters to the durability story.

“Using new materials is, first and foremost, a wonderful laboratory that shows the unstoppable capacity of our industry to reinvent itself endlessly,” said Pascal Ravessoud, external affairs director, and watchmaking expert at the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie.  “Brands have a very limited territory of expression — 2- to 2.5-square-inches on the wrist — so one big area of differentiation from the competition, along with aesthetics and movements, is going to be materials.”

Up until now, the development of materials science has been slow but steady.  Remember the ethereal sheen of Rado’s tungsten-carbide ‘Hardmetal’ cases from the Sixties?  How about Porsche Design’s and Citizen’s unprecedented use of titanium in the Seventies?  Not to mention, the debut of appropriately glossy ceramic in the Eighties by Rado (again).  It wasn’t until the turn of the century, in fact, that independent watchmakers like Richard Mille started turning things up to 11, becoming the first to harness what was only inevitable for every high-end watch brand with their logo on an F1 car or America’s Cup catamaran: carbon.

Indeed, French watchmaker Richard Mille leads the pack in creating carbon alloys like Carbon TPT, or Quartz TPT simply because he insisted that a watch should be wearable no matter what the wearer was doing.  This is why the watchmaker’s go-to watch ambassadors have been athletes making the likes of Rafa Nadal for tennis, Bubba Watson for golf, and Nafi Thiam, a heptathlete, part of a very exclusive club of high-performance individuals “performing” for the very first time with high-tech mechanical timepieces strapped to their wrists when merely a decade ago there were none.

These types of sports traditionally wreaked havoc on mechanical timepieces.  “Imagine how it would be for us if someone like Rafi was wearing our watch while playing and it breaks, or the watch stops working,” said Alexandre Mille, the brand’s global commercial director, about Mr. Nadal.  “We are more than prepared and ready so that doesn’t happen, because we won’t launch a watch in these high-tech materials unless it is perfect and fully tested to the craziest standards.”

Other watchmakers notably working with carbon is Ulysse Nardin with ‘Carbonium’ and Girard-Perregaux and its ‘carbon glass’, which takes the organic, grained nature of these materials and runs with it.  And to do this, watchmakers like Mille have put up their own research and development laboratories, which in Mille’s case is in Les Breuleux, Switzerland and staffed by more than 30 designers and engineers.  Hublot, another watchmaker at the forefront of materials development, opened a metallurgy and materials lab inside their research and development facility in Nyon, Switzerland in 2012 and staffed it with a team of eight specialists, one of the most famous results of which is colored sapphire.

“Creating a new color of ceramic or sapphire is not easy at all,” says Raphael Nussbaumer, Hublot’s chief product and purchasing officer, noting it took two years to develop the brand’s new pale blue.  “Working with these materials is a science, and every material, or different color of that material, takes a different formula to perfect it to achieve the right color, the right density and the right clarity.  We can spend years developing a material and then a couple of more years to create a different color of the same material because the formula always changes.”

Creating a watchcase made entirely of industrial sapphire is no joke.  It takes more than a month to create the raw material and another month just to mill and finish the cases.  Not to mention sapphire tends to crack during the milling adding great expense.  Naturally, that didn’t stop Richard Mille or Hublot. 

For cult Italian watchmaker, Panerai, the likes of ceramic, the layered carbon-fibre sheets of its proprietary Carbotech, as well as other exotic materials have given its iconic cushion case a new lease in life.  For this year’s Submersible line, for example, Panerai has put humble titanium at the forefront, albeit in ‘Eco’ guise.  Co-developed with French mining and metallurgical group Eramet, which set up Europe’s first aviation-grade titanium recycling plant, recycled titanium will prevent the emission of 100,000 tons of CO2, consuming four times less than the conventional ore-based production channel.  Indeed, an estimated 100kt of titanium ingots are consumed by the aviation and watchmaking industry, a fraction of which will be diverted to Schaffhausen-based watchmaker, IWC, which will combine it with another notoriously tricky material: ceramic. 

IWC’s ‘Ceratanium’ cases debuted with the Aquatimer diver, as well as the Top Gun Double Chronograph pilot’s watch, and combines the lightness and toughness of titanium with the smooth and scratch-proof aesthetic of ceramic.  The material is milled, turned, drilled and polished into its finished shape before being baked in an oven.  The sintering process causes a structural change in the titanium and causes the ceramic coating to bond directly to its surface, resulting in a distinctively sinister black sheen that’ll never scratch.

And then there’s gold.  But not just any gold but gold alloys like A. Lange & Söhne’s Honey Gold, Omega’s Canopus and Sedna golds, Panerai’s Goldtech, Hublot’s silly “Magic” and King Golds, and of course, Rolex’s Everose, all because some purists simply cannot let go of the material.  And because gold is known to scratch at the drop of a hat, watchmakers began working the material with other materials: metals,  carbon, silica, you name it all to make their gold alloy scratch resistant and impervious to heat or cold.

“Brands that have their own special formulas for gold that improve scratch resistance, and also offer a hue that is unique to them, makes them pretty appealing to collectors,” said Mr. Boutros of Phillips, “especially since most are made in limited numbers.”

That was just a preliminary on the new materials leading the new-found growth of the watchmaking industry.  Newer materials, however, are being developed by watchmakers every day and will surely drive the anachronistic industry into tomorrow.