While some watchmakers see opportunities for the advancement of haute horology in refined mechanics and novel complications, the vast majority of brands are instead perfecting their timepieces with the introduction of ever newer, ever more advanced materials.
While NASA may be struggling for budget, watchmakers are apparently not if their R&D departments are anything to go by, and every year some new alloy, composite or other cutting-edge material is announced with a funky new name. To cut through all the science-adjacent jargon, we’ve decided to go through the main materials used in watchmaking, what they are and why they’re being used.
The most common composite in watchmaking is Carbon Fibre, which thanks to marques like McLaren, is shorthand for racing performance. It’s made up of tiny, micro-thin fibres that when twisted together like yarn become ten times stronger than steel, at least at the upper end of the scale, while being five times lighter. Then there’s forged carbon which uses the same base material, but suspends it in a resin to strengthen it, allowing easily usable blocks of material. Carbon however is just the tip of the composite iceberg. Many watchmakers over the years have been experimenting with similar concepts – lightweight polymers suspended in an epoxy resin – to create ever lighter, ever more durable materials.
Leading the pack is Richard Mille, and these kinds of composites have come to define their style over the years. They’re also the reason their sporting ambassador can wear their oversized watches while playing. Carbon TPT®, Quartz TPT®, they’re at the bleeding edge of materials. Unfortunately, they also feel a lot like plastic. Otherwise, materials like Ulysse Nardin’s Carbonium and Girard-Perregaux’s ‘carbon glass’ take the organic, grained nature of these materials and run with it.
This material is in pretty high demand in the watch world. It has everything a fine timepiece could want: hardness, corrosion resistance, light weight and, at least these days, the potential for colour. Zirconium Oxide Ceramic is made by firing a base material in incredible heat until it becomes a solid block of ultra-hardness. This isn’t just a labour-intensive production method; it makes ceramic relatively difficult to work with even once its cooled.
It’s phenomenally hard at 1200 HV but brittle, and a slight mistake while milling could result in the whole piece being scrapped. That also means that if you do manage to scratch your sexy ceramic bracelet, you can’t just get it buffed out. Until recent years it was also a little restrictive of a material, available in mostly greys and blacks. Now though we have Hublot with their intensely bright coloured versions, IWC’s sandy Mojave numbers and many more besides, all in that sleek, futuristic feel and finish.
The most common aerospace material to find its way into watches, titanium is basically stainless steel but better. It’s lighter, more anti-magnetic and more durable at 350 HV. It can still scratch like other metals, but because of its natural oxidisation smaller scratches become less visible over time. There are only two real downsides to titanium. First, there’s the higher price compared to steel. Second, there’s the finish.
Titanium has a distinctive grey look that some collectors like, others find incredibly dull and flat. Seiko at least have gone some way to alleviating the latter with their incredible, brightly polished titanium. As far as I’m aware Grand Seiko is the only watchmaker doing this but given the results, I doubt that it’ll stay that way for long. Given sustainability is at the forefront of brand thinking these days, it’s also worth noting that Panerai’s own Eco-Titanium is completely recycled and still aviation grade.
For years now Silicon has been considered one of the holy grails of watchmaking, a material delicate and flexible enough to be used in movements but is non-magnetic, has incredible corrosion resistance and has a smooth surface to lessen friction within the movement even without lubrication. Because silicon is an overachiever, it’s also shock resistant.
It has everything. It’s why the watch world at large – Omega and the rest of Swatch Group especially – has adopted it as the ultimate material for balance springs and escapements. Some, like Zenith, have even gone a step further and used the material for innovative new movements like seen in their Defy LAB. In its natural form, silicon – or silicium depending on who you’re talking to – is a shiny dark grey, but in its refined, usable form you’ll often recognise it for its eye-catching purple sheen.
Sapphire crystal isn’t exactly cutting-edge any more but it’s worth discussing given the surge in full sapphire-cased watches we’ve been seeing. Sapphire glass is indeed the same basic compound as the gemstones, but without any of the impurities that lead to those kinds of beautiful colours. The synthetic material is grown in sheets from crystalline aluminium oxides under high temperatures, and as such is a crystal rather than a glass. It’s the second hardest material to diamond – 2200 HV compared to diamond’s 10,000 HV – meaning some intense saws are needed to mill it into a form fit to protect your watch dial.
Or in the case of everyone from Aventi to Bell & Ross to Girard-Perregaux, your entire watch. It was first used by Rolex in the ref. 5100 in 1970 but these days it’s on every decent timepiece that’s not going to space. Perhaps more radically, as they have been doing in ceramic, Hublot has been creating a series of full coloured sapphire watches a la the Big Bang Tourbillon Automatic Orange Sapphire. Can’t quite imagine Rolex doing that.
And now we get to the section that should really just be called ‘everything else’. I’m sure you know that an alloy is any combination of metals, meaning that most case metals in watchmaking are an alloy of some sort. That means it ranges from various colours of rose gold – each different hue is a different combination of gold, copper and other metals – to super-strong titanium mixes. Some brands even combine precious metals with practical ones to create an alloy with the best of both, creating hardwearing golds that balance luxury with practicality, like Armour Gold from IWC.
If you can physically meld them together, there’s likely a watchmaker giving it a go. There are even combinations of metals and other materials like the Cermet – ceramic and metal – that you can find here and there in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s collection, or Ceratanium, a more obvious combination of ceramic and titanium that IWC has adopted. They’re not alloys in the traditional sense, but the concept’s the same.