Understanding innovation in luxury watch materials first requires knowing what properties these materials bring to the table. Their properties are the starting point that innovations spring from. These are generally concerns of lightness, durability, resistance to corrosion or scratching, and aesthetics. Watch materials fall under five categories: metals, ceramics, polymers, composites, and metalloids.
The Panerai Luminor Marina 1950 3 days Automatic Titanio uses a titanium case, which is half the weight of stainless steel, is corrosion-resistant, and anti-magnetic, and skin-friendly.
For general engineering purposes and in watchmaking, metals are used for their strength, hardness, toughness, lightness, and durability. Metals bear heavy loads, resist high temperatures and pressures, endure a lot of wear and tear in cyclic loads, but where timepieces are concerned, these stresses and demands take place on a smaller, more human level. For example, Jacques Cousteau’s Rolex Submariner and Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster only needed to be durable enough to undergo the pressures of undersea diving and the intense g-forces of space travel. As they are, metals and their properties already bring a lot to the watchmaking table.
Stainless steel is the workhorse of watchmaking metals. Alloyed with chromium, stainless steel forms a thin film, invisible to the human eye, that retards oxidation while maintaining a smooth finish on the surface. The material is likewise durable enough to accept a number of finishes: brushed, satin, matte, reflective, mirror, and so on. Lastly, stainless steel can endure the wear and tear of human use, lasting entire lifetimes.
Titanium offers additional improvements over stainless steel. First, it can bear up to five times the load ordinary steels can bear. Second, titanium weighs around half the weight of steel at the same volume. Thus a titanium watch case would offer the same durability as a stainless steel case but at a lighter weight. There are, however, certain stainless steel alloys that are more durable than titanium, but these are used for industrial purposes and hardly in watchmaking. Like stainless steel, titanium has an oxide layer that forms on its surface, making it both corrosion resistant and hypoallergenic—ideal for accessories.
Metallic properties and watch components
Flipping over a A. Lange & Sohne Saxonia, for example, would readily illustrate how metallic properties come into play in horology. The hand-polished, chamfered, or beveled parts all attest to the various metals malleability and ductility. The Glashutte waves and the circular, sunburst, and brushed finishes show how metals can, with expert skill, display a number of finishing touches that come together in one aesthetic effect.
Precious metals like gold, platinum, or sterling silver gain added hardness when electroplated with rhodium. By itself a precious metal with a high melting point and low malleability, rhodium is usually alloyed with nickel, palladium, and gold to become the white gold seen on many luxury timepieces. With sterling silver, it adds tarnish resistance and added shine. If used to set diamonds, its reflective qualities make them appear larger and to advantage.
Meanwhile, blued steel—seen on timepieces mostly as watch hands or screws—partially protects steel from oxidation by applying a surface layer of magnetite, the black oxide of iron. Chemical bluing creates a homogenous shade of blue throughout the metal’s surface; because horology requires some nuance from its materials, the preferred method is thermal bluing by hand. This involves laying the screws or watch hands on a tray, which is lined with brass filings to keep the temperature relatively constant, and heating the tray to around 220° C. The components acquire the blue shade to varying degrees—thinner areas acquire the blue shade more readily than thicker areas, resulting in several subtle shades of blues and purples.
A. Lange & Söhne is known for its use of precious materials and the degree of finishing it gives all parts of the watch—including the parts that won’t be normally seen, such as in this 1815 Annual Calendar.
Innovations in horological metals
A few years ago, tantalum was a dark horse in the watch case materials category. It is now generating a fair degree of interest, with its appearance on several timepieces: Hublot’s Big Bang Tantalum Mat, Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Leo Messi Edition, and the Panerai Luminor Marina series, among others. As a rare and hard metal, highly corrosion resistant and bioinert, tantalum lends itself well to haute horology. Aesthetically, a timepiece with a tantalum case or bezel would eschew the usual shine of other precious metals and convey a stealthy, matte-gray instead.
While this category includes non-metal inorganic compounds like glass, diamond & sapphire crystals, and graphite, this also includes engineering ceramics that have been used in watch cases and other watch components. Ceramics are the hardest class of materials known. They are around three to four times stronger than stainless steel. Ceramics resist wear and tear easily, maintaining a smooth surface and low friction for a long time. They are also lighter than stainless steel or titanium. With their low density—as low as that of aluminum—and their high hardness, ceramics are an ideal material for watchmaking.
However, ceramics are prone to breaking when hit with a strong enough impact. Ceramics are strong when they come under compression, but their strength is reduced by up to 15 times when under tension; ceramics are not as flexible and ductile as metals. All the same, timepieces with ceramic cases or components are less likely to encounter high-force impacts as say, ceramic aerospace components or industrial tools. Used in a timepiece, ceramics are guaranteed to last several lifetimes, maintaining their smooth finish and low-friction operations.
The Rolex Submariner uses a ceramic insert, called Cerachrom, for its unidirectional rotating bezel. The material is extremely hard, corrosion-resistant, scratch proof, and its color is unaffected by ultraviolet rays.
Innovations in horological ceramics
Rado set the precedent by being the first to use engineered ceramics for its timepieces. This blends oxides, carbides, nitrates, and zirconium to create a durable, scratch-resistant material that can be shaped into watch cases.
It is for these properties that ceramics find use in many luxury watch bezels, as seen on several Rolex lines, Hublot’s Big Bang, Panerai’s Luminor 1950 series, Omega’s Dark Side of the Moon—all timepieces that require the durability and resistance of ceramics to keep up with their wearer’s active lifestyles.
The Roger Dubuis Excalibur Aventador S is a perfect example of what can be done using forged carbon. It possesses shapes that cannot be molded into place using traditional methods.
Carbon fiber was a big hit when it was first used in watches. It was high-tech and advanced, lightweight and strong, and the depth of the checkerboard pattern was mesmerizing to look at. But manufacturing processes have changed. Now, we have forged carbon, a material that looks similar to granite because of its manufacturing process. Instead of layering carbon sheets on top of a mold and injecting resin like a traditional carbon weave, forged carbon is made out of fiber paste mixed with resin squeezed to produce any shape or form possible. It is strong all around but may not be as strong at a specific direction like traditional carbon; the carbon weave can be tuned to be strong at a specific direction. However, forged carbon is easier and cheaper to produce.
The Patek Philippe Aquanaut Travel Time Advanced Research is a special release of Patek Philippe to showcase their craftsmanship using different materials, including Silicon, which is used on the escape wheel and pallet fork.
The latest innovation in watchmaking is the use of a metalloid called, Silicon. Not to be confused with Silicone, which is a liquid or rubber-like synthetic material. Silicon, on the other hand, is a natural element that has both metallic and non-metallic properties. It’s the 2nd most abundant element in the Earth’s crust and it is used in bricks, glass, & in electronic devices. So you might be wondering what use does Silicon have in watches. Well, it plays an integral part in the movement, specifically the balance spring, lever and anchor wheel. It’s anti-magnetic, corrosion resistant, unaffected by temperature changes, generates very little friction, and can be shaped into any form.
This piece was originally published in the print version of Lucerne Luxe Magazine, and condensed for brevity.