Materials in Watchmaking - From Traditional to Exotic

Jan 09, 2008
Nowadays, watchmakers have at their disposal a wide range of materials, including the ones traditionally used in horology as well as those you have probably never heard of before. Each material is highly appreciated by watchmakers for its own unique characteristics.

Enthralled with the future, watchmakers spend a lot of their time in a laboratory, experimenting with new types of materials relevant to the automotive, medical and aerospace industries. Watchmakers sitting in their atelier in the Swiss Jura Mountains are assembling parts made in high-tech environments.

As a result, watchmakers create timepieces that boast unforeseen metallurgical combinations, silicon-enhanced movements and cases produced from glossy high-tech ceramic - the material that has been used as a heat shield to provide protection to U.S. space shuttles re-entering the earth's atmosphere.

Before moving into the realms of exotic materials, let us first consider the ones that have been traditionally used in the watchmaking industry:

Steel: Steel watches are found among the most popular ones. They reflect the recent fashion trend for items produced from white metals.

Watches are produced from stainless steel that contains chromium. This material provides the case surface with protective coating and keeps it away from corrosion.

Gold: High-end watches are often produced from gold that comes in different tints. The most frequently-met tint of gold is yellow. However, if to combine gold with various base metals, such as copper or nickel, there appears white or rose gold, also known as pink or red gold.

Fineness of gold, implying the percentage of pure gold versus the percentage of base metals used in the alloy with gold, is expressed in karats. 18-karat gold (75 percent pure gold) is often used for producing watch cases. You will also come across watches produced from 14-karat gold (58 percent pure gold).

Gold-plated watch cases are produced from a base metal (for example, steel) covered with a thin layer of gold (10 microns or less in depth, with a micron equal to 1/1000 of a millimeter). The process of applying gold is known as electroplating.

Titanium: This is a white metal appreciated for its supreme durability. Titanium watches have become quite fashionable, partially due to the popularity of white metals.

Titanium as a dent-resistant material is also used for producing sports watches. It is 30 percent stronger than steel. It is characterized by two more considerable advantages - it is very light and corrosion-resistant.

It is also true that titanium is quite easily scratched, that is why watchmakers coat their titanium watches with a special protective material to lessen its vulnerability.

Aluminum: This material had not been used in watchmaking until the recent years. Today, aluminum is widely used in watch production as it boasts supreme durability and is tarnish- and rust- and corrosion-resistant.

Platinum: This precious material is used for producing most highly-priced timepieces.

Platinum is more expensive than gold. It is difficult to work with this metal. However, it is appreciated for its excellent qualities.

Platinum watches provide great exclusivity as the noble metal is 30 times more rare than gold. They will not wear out after long wearing as the platinum is more stable and denser than gold. It is extremely corrosion-resistant. One more advantage of platinum is that it is not allergenic. A wearer of a platinum watch with the skin sensitive to allergenic metals will surely enjoy wearing the exclusive and durable timepiece causing no harm to one's skin.

Carbon Fiber: This tough, lightweight material is applied for producing watch cases and dials. Actually, in watchmaking carbon fiber is used in combination with polymer for improved strength. As for the material's color, it is black or charcoal gray.

Some other materials, such as resin, plastic and rubber are often applied for producing cases of sports watches. These materials are valued due to the fact that they are sturdy, light and water- and corrosion-resistant.

All the materials mentioned above are quite commonly used in watchmaking. However, some brands enjoy experimenting with unusual materials, producing their cases and movements from most exotic metals one may think of - palladium, magnesium and a variety of arcane alloys.

Hublot is undoubtedly the leader in the field of experimenting with new materials. The brand, founded in 1980 by Carlo Crocco, commemorated its name in the watchmaking history, having introduced the first luxury gold watch accompanied by a natural rubber strap.

Initially, Crocco's gold-rubber creation aroused skepticism among the representatives of the Swiss watchmaking industry - rubber, after all, was used as the material for producing flip-flops and bottle stoppers. However, some aristocratic Europeans, including King Juan Carlos of Spain, were charmed to the avant-garde timepiece, scented with a delicate vanilla aroma. The popularity of the watch was boosted by the fact that its rubber strap was corrosion-resistant, light, supple and durable.

Finally, Crocco's revolutionary idea was knocked off by many prestige brands. By the mid-1990s, the horology world was joined by numerous sports watch models featuring rubber, or a similar composite material.

Hublot stirred up the industry again in 2005, having created its legendary Big Bang, a sporty mechanical chronograph that successfully incorporated gold with ceramic, Kevlar, tantalum, tungsten, carbon and rubber.

Hublot's chief executive, Jean-Claude Biver, has called the philosophy behind the Big Bang 'Fusion,' implying the union of traditional horological art and 21st-century watchmaking. Thus, maintaining tradition, Hublot is moving towards the future, progressing and keeping the art alive.

Inspired by the success of the Hublot Big Bang, the Swiss watchmaking brands have presently concentrated on research and development, and the metallurgical arena in particular.

Some watchmakers, including Patek Philippe and Ulysses Nardin, experiment with silicon - or silicium, as it is also called in the industry. One of the greatest advantages of silicon is that it eliminates the need for oil, and theoretically reduces the amount of friction, thus prolonging the life of a watch movement.

Following the days when heaviness of a watch implied value, today watchmakers explore the field of light metals. Watchmaking companies have built close partnership with the world of car racing with its nimbler, faster machines.

In 2006 Richard Mille developed the RM 009 tourbillon for Felipe Massa, the Formula One Brazilian driver. The watch (without the strap) weighs just 30 grams (equal to 1.06 ounces). The baseplate of its movement is made of aluminum lithium, while its case is produced from Alusic, an amazing space-age metal developed in a centrifuge.

For 2007, Richard Mille has focused its attention on strength rather than weight. The RM012 tourbillon has been crafted in an aluminum, magnesium and silicon alloy characterized by supreme corrosion-resistance and great ability to absorb vibrations.

High-tech ceramic has also become really popular among watchmakers due to its light weight, scratch-resistance, durability and smooth touch. IWC Schaffhausen watchmaking specialists opted for high-tech black ceramic for the case of the IWC 2007 Top Gun edition of the Pilot's Watch Double Chronograph, while the operating elements of the timepiece are crafted in matte gray titanium.

Rado became the first brand to use scratch-resistant materials in 1962 when it introduced the DiaStar crafted in a titanium and tungsten-carbide alloy.

That breakthrough initiated the use of a great variety of materials, including high-tech ceramics in the 1980s. In 2007, Rado turned back to ceramics, having developed an all-white timepiece - the True White Pure Jubile.

Anonimo's Polluce watch is housed in a case produced from a bronze alloy, a mixture of bronze, aluminum, iron and nickel, often used for making torpedo flanges and airplane propellers. The case of the timepiece is tough and corrosion-resistant.

Ulysse Nardin and Custos belong to a few watch brands that offer watches with palladium cases. Palladium is a metal from the platinum family. It is greatly appreciated for its high luster and extreme durability.

The Ultime watch introduced by Villemont boasts a case produced from an unusual alloy also called 'Ultime'- palladium, platinum and ruthenium.

New Zenith Defy Xtreme sports watch collection comprises timepieces with the movement's bridges, balance and pallet cocks containing Zenithium, an exclusive, ultra-light and ultra-shock-resistant alloy, a combination of titanium and hyper-density steel for greater strength, and niobium for its form memory. The brand describes its innovative Zenithium as indestructible.

The Gerald Genta Octo Black Spirit has plates and bridges produced from Arcap, an alloy composed of zinc, copper and nickel. The brand's watchmakers galvanized the movement with blackened gold.

Ref. 5197 developed by Breguet has become the first watch ever to use silicon for the anchor, hairspring and escape wheel.

Hublot Mag Bang boasts a case, bezel and case-back produced from magnesium.

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