A few million years ago, a chunk of nickel-iron alloy was hurling through space on a collision course with Earth. Nothing too bad happened though as when it landed in the prehistoric era, it wasn’t the one that killed the dinosaurs. Instead, it sat in Namibia for a few millennia until the local Nama people discovered it. People being people, they soon started to make weapons out of it and by 1836 there was enough of it being used to pique the interest of Englishman J. E. Alexander. Brits being Brits, he collected up as much as he could find and took it back to London where its origins were analysed. It became the Gibeon Meteorite and over the next couple of centuries 33 fragments were collected.
Of the three types of meteorite – stony, stony-iron and iron – Gibeon, it turns out, was the latter. Cut open one of those fragments and we’re greeted with an array of metallic, geometric lines dubbed the Widmanstätten pattern, unique to each meteorite and formed as the metal has cooled over millions of years.
When most people look at it, they see something formed over millions of years, a miracle of astrophysical metallurgy. Rolex on the other hand, saw a funky dial.
That’s right, Rolex were the first brand to ever use meteorite in their watches and it was that very Gibeon meteorite that crowned their … well, it’s actually all but impossible to find out, even from the keepers of the Crown themselves. But since then, the Gibeon in particular has formed the dials of many watches over the years, which might sound like a tall order. But given how thin a meteorite dial actually is, there’s a lot of mileage in a single celestial rock, meaning it’s not nearly as rare as one might expect.
It also has some practical applications. Not only is the patterning unique to each dial – something every watchmaker using meteorite is very, very careful to point out – but the Gibeon is naturally corrosion-resistant thanks to its high nickel content. It’s like it was meant to be a watch dial. It is quite pricey though.
The Swedish equivalent however, the Muonionalusta, isn’t. Despite looking very similar, it lacks the nickel content of the Gibeon. That means rather than being resistant to rust, the Muonionalusta is the opposite. It’s incredibly quick to oxidise, to the point that it often needs to be plated to survive. If you see a cheap watch using meteorite – or meteorite jewellery on Etsy – it’s likely to be this.
Either way though, working with meteorite isn’t easy and just cutting a rock open won’t do much. Like any fine stone or woodworking, it’s all about cutting a cross-section to get the best grain. From there, you need to bring out the contrast with a bit of chemical etching. Nickel, being more corrosion resistant, stays as it is, while the iron-heavy aspects brighten, giving you the clear Widmanstätten pattern on most meteorite watch dials.
Now, while these kinds of extra-solar meteorites do indeed make up the majority of watch dials, there are others out there, ones which look considerably different than most. Last year, for example, Hermès brought out two variations on their superlative Arceau L’Heure De La Lune, one using a meteorite from the moon, another from Mars.
As these haven’t formed over the same kind of timeframes as Gibeon and Muonionalusta, they’re lacking the signature geometric patterns and instead just kind of look like pretty rocks. Which is in essence what they are. The Lunar meteorite is speckled black and grey while the Martian meteorite has a distinctive green tint. They also did one in Black Sahara, but as nobody seems to know where that particular rock is from – other than out of this world – it’s hard to comment.
All three are deadly serious watches, but it’s good to see that in recent years many more watchmakers have been dabbling in the alien. Back in 2019, those halcyon days when we could still travel, Piaget’s Watches and Wonders presentation was dominated by a gold-plated meteorite dialled Altiplano and its anthracite sibling. They had the same sort of patterning, but with two completely different looks.
If you’re more a traditionalist of course you can opt for Omega’s updated Moonwatch 321 with its tasteful meteorite subdials, or, to bring things full circle, the Rolex GMT-Master II in white gold and bright, beautiful meteorite.
Either way, it took millions of years for these lumps of metal to work their way through the cosmos to get to us, cooling slowly as they went before hurling into our atmosphere. It’s good to know we’re making the most of them.