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The History of Ceramic Watches with IWC

IWC Schaffhausen

If the recent glut of horological drops is anything to go by, ceramic is the 6,000-degree piece of hardwearing hotness that every watch collection needs. In fact, it’s a material that’s been blowing up over the past five years or so, with every watch with pretences to performance luxury flirting with it.

Ceramic, for the uninitiated is a material made using an inorganic powder, usually zirconium oxide. It’s then fired or sintered at incredibly high temperatures in a furnace until that powder becomes a solid mass of incredibly hard, smooth material. Change the formula of the powder, you change the colour it turns after the process.

IWC Schaffhausen manufacturer

But although ceramic is one of the most seemingly modern materials around – at least, all of the murmurings of high-tech and ultra-hard might have you think that – it’s actually a bit older than you might think. As a horological material it’s not exactly vintage, but it’s getting to the point where it might be considered retro.

Back in 1986, IWC, presiding over the picturesque region of Shaffhausen, introduced the world’s first ceramic wristwatch in, of all collections, the Da Vinci line. The Da Vinci of the time was the cutting-edge, forward-thinking member of IWC’s collection, so it’s perhaps not too much of a surprise. The Ref. 3755 perpetual calendar started off in black and was later joined by white ceramic, with a few funky-coloured concepts later still. And I really do mean funky. Pink ceramic anyone?

They weren’t the only ones using ceramic of course. Just a little later Rado began to make their name with the material and still do to this day. In fact, the Swatch Group brand is one of the deftest hands with the ultrahard. But even they rarely experiment with colour, which makes sense. It’s hard.

IWC Creative Director Christian Knoop and Oracle Time editor Sam Kessler

IWC Creative Director Christian Knoop and Oracle Time editor Sam Kessler

We got to appreciate just how hard on a recent visit to IWC’s incredibly impressive manufacturer in Schaffhausen. The modern haven to horology is that sweet spot between artisan crafts and larger-scale watchmaking, producing an impressive number of timepieces at both entry level and high complication levels. We also managed to grab a few words with Christian Knoop, Creative Director of IWC.

“The problem is,” he explains, “that you don’t know what colour you have until the ceramic is actually fired. At the beginning it looks just like any powder, and it’s only through the process in the kiln that the colour comes out.”

IWC Schaffhausen manufacturer materials

In short, every time you want to try out a new colour, you need to start from scratch. It’s incredibly labour intensive and, if you’re a perfectionist, enough to be driven to madness pinning down the precise, Dulux colour wheel hue you’re after. The prototyping phase with any new ceramic is by far the most time-consuming part of the process.

IWC Schaffhausen manufacturer materials

That’s not the same case with pure white or pure black; there’s no nuance there. You ask for one or the other, you know what you’re going to get before the kiln’s even fired up. It’s one of the main reasons both ends of the spectrum are so popular among watchmakers. On the one hand you had every vaguely militaristically modern timepiece going for a stealthy black; on the other women’s watches like the J12 making best use of white.

Indeed, IWC’s own modern era of ceramics really started with black. The first of the watchmaker’s TOP GUN timepieces appeared in 2007, which included, of course, a black ceramic case. It was a seriously cool, uncompromisingly hardwearing watch that in good part laid the groundwork for the influx of black ceramic timepieces that followed.

IWC Ceratanium furnace

Of course, once the alchemists behind the mix have the formula for the right colour, they can replicate it over and over, so consistency isn’t an issue. Once you’ve actually found that perfect shade of… well, whatever you want, you can repeat it, repeatedly.

That’s a good part of the reason IWC has been introducing the Mojave colour into a few more recent releases. They’ve nailed the perfect sandy desert ceramic and now they can apply it to pretty much everything else.

IWC Ceratanium watch parts

Perhaps more impressively however is IWC proprietary ceramic-like material, Ceratanium. While it sounds like the bastard lovechild of the ultra-lightweight metal and ceramic, they’re not exactly materials that you can mix with any serious expectations. One doesn’t melt, the other doesn’t sinter. So, what exactly is Ceratanium? Well, it’s the halfway house between the two.

Ceratanium hardness test
Ceratanium materials in stages

Watch parts are milled from bars of the stuff just like you would any metal. And indeed, other than a slight rippled look and vaguely different colour, the base material could be mistaken for titanium, if a touch heftier. But when put into a furnace, the top layer becomes ceramic. It’s not a layer, like DLC or PVD; it simply transitions from titanium-adjacent alloy to black ceramic. If you scratch down deep enough, you’ll get back to the raw metal, but scratching it’s easier said than done.

Perhaps more importantly however is that it doesn’t shrink like ceramic, which gets about a third smaller after sintering. That means you can make much smaller parts out of Ceratanium than you can ceramic, where the tolerances are far harsher than in a case. As you’re transforming easily milled parts into the finished product, you can turn out pushers, crowns and even pin buckles aplenty, before popping them in the oven until they’re done.

Ceratanium manufacturer

Ceratanium is also a material that IWC produce in-house. The importance of that can’t be understated. With so many watchmakers using the same producers for parts big, small and more often undisclosed, it’s good to know what something IWC claims as their own is actually, well, their own.

It’s one of the more impressive parts of their already impressive Shaffhausen manufacturer and, as said manufacturer actually begins to fill up as the watchmaker continues to grow, will become a unique facet of IWC’s watchmaking. For now, Ceratanium is here to stay and, as their latest quarter of releases shows, make its presence felt. Which brings us to…

IWC New Pilot’s Watches Collection 2022

IWC’s release slate this year is all about ceramic. After the last 900-odd words that shouldn’t come as a surprise. If it does, I apologise for being quite so subtle. So, let’s take a look at exactly how IWC have leveraged their ceramic-led expertise in their shiny new releases for the year.

Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition

IWC Top Gun Edition Ceramic Editions 2022

Pilot’s Watch Chronograph Top Gun Edition Lake Tahoe and Woodland Green are the first two releases and they come in a pair. If you were paying attention to the Mojave edition from a couple of years back, you’ll know roughly what to expect here – well, one more than the other – as it’s now being joined by a woodland green and a pure, bright white.

IWC Top Gun Edition Ceramic Editions 'Woodland'
IWC Top Gun Edition Ceramic Editions 'Woodland'

Let’s start with the Woodland, which is likely going to be the more popular of the two. It’s a monochrome look, with the case, strap and dial all rendered in the exact same colour. Given what I mentioned about making coloured ceramic earlier, that’s a lot harder to do than you might think. It’s a perfect follow-on from the Mojave and not only taps into the watchmaking colour of the moment, but works as a military take on the Top Gun chronograph formula.

IWC Top Gun Edition Ceramic Editions 'Lake Tahoe'
IWC Top Gun Edition Ceramic Editions 'Lake Tahoe'

The Lake Tahoe is a bit more unusual. It’s the opposite of your blacked out stealth piece, though offers the same level of high contrast with a black dial. White on white isn’t exactly easy to read. It’s modelled slightly after IWC’s recent spacefaring Inspiration pieces, but you can actually buy it. Thank god, because of the pair this is the one I would personally opt for. Yes it’s flashy, but I love it. In fact, my only issue is the steel pushers and crowns. When the dial’s black and the pushers on the green version are black, why not black here?

Both pieces are a less-than-svelte 44.5mm across, perfect for an uncompromising pilots’ watch, and come equipped with the IWC calibre 69380 automatic movement with a 46-hour power reserve.

The Specs

  • 44.5mm white or green ceramic case with 60m water resistance
  • IWC Calibre 69380 automatic movement with 46-hour power reserve
  • £9,350, limited annual production of 1,000 pieces per colour

Big Pilot’s Watch 43 Top Gun

Big Pilot’s Watch Top Gun Edition Ceratanium

The smaller, 43mm Big Pilot was long overdue when it was released back in 2021, a more accessible take on the oversized aviation icon. Now, not only is it appearing as part of the Top Gun collection, but it’s also in Ceratanium.

Now, sure, I completely get that a professional pilots’ watch should really be a chronograph. They’re a back-up instrument but should still be able to easily and accurately time events. But I can’t help but love the clear legibility and more classical aviation good looks of this particular Top Gun entrant.

Big Pilot’s Watch Top Gun Edition Ceratanium

It’s not the first Big Pilot in the collection of course; there was a Mojave version before this. But in direct opposition to that model’s sandy monochrome, this version’s high contrast white-on-black looks a lot more professional, particularly with the red TOP GUN lettering front and centre – essentially the oversized crown version of the original IWC Top Gun timepiece. If it doesn’t make a cameo in Maverick, there is no justice in the world.

The Specs

  • 43.8mm ceratanium case with 100m water resistance
  • IWC Calibre 82100 automatic movement with 60-hour power reserve
  • £8,600

Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 Top Gun Ceratanium

IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 Top Gun Ceratanium

What IWC calls a double chronograph we’d more readily call a rattrapante, but the result’s the same: a split-seconds chronograph that allows you to time two events simultaneously using a double hand. Push the chronograph stopper once, one half of the hand will stop while the other keeps going. Press it again to stop them both before resetting.

IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 Top Gun Ceratanium

It’s a complication that’s been a big part of the Top Gun collection, despite being ostensibly one of the most rarefied grand complications out there. In fact, it came in a similar colourway back in 2019, with dark numerals on a black dial with a ceratanium case. In this version though, the previous red highlights on the pushers have been removed – and the 10 o’clock pusher has gone entirely – for a simpler, stealthier take on the watch.

It’s an incredibly cool, technical timepiece with tactical overtones and, coloured ceramics aside, what the performance-led sub-collection is all about.

The Specs

  • 41mm ceratanium case with 100m water resistance
  • IWC Calibre 69385 automatic movement with 46-hour power reserve
  • £11,000

More details at IWC.

1 Comment

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  • I have one in rotation since it pairs well with business attire, casual friday or even jeans and I consistently get complimented on it whenever I wear it.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.