A glance at the wrists of watch collectors today tells an interesting story: Steel, titanium and even 18-karat gold watches have moved aside a bit to make room for the continuing emergence of models using alloys and other high-tech materials.
Top brands are continuing to invest millions in the development of cases from forged carbon, industrial sapphire, advanced ceramics and even proprietary gold mixtures that convey designers’ aesthetics and improve durability. While still in short supply, and often too pricey for the average wallet, these enhanced substances are making a provocative statement in time.
“Using new materials is, first and foremost, a wonderful laboratory that shows the unstoppable capacity of our industry to reinvent itself endlessly,” said Pascal Ravessoud, external affairs director and watchmaking expert at the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, an industry organization. “Brands have a very limited territory of expression — 2- to 2.5-square-inches on the wrist — so one big area of differentiation from the competition, along with aesthetics and movements, is going to be materials.”
To continually improve materials, brands have been adding substances like silica or other composites to existing ceramic and carbon base materials to create alloys that are harder, more scratch resistant and lighter in weight. And they have been using more complex manufacturing processes to improve the strength or durability of cases.
Roger Dubuis spent more than a year creating a special method to make its proprietary mineral composite fiber, a pure-white material unveiled in 2020 that was used again recently in the $75,000 limited-edition Excalibur SoHo Edition Monobalancier watch (exclusive to the brand’s new SoHo boutique in New York City).
The alloy was engineered from 99.95 percent silica using a sheet molding compound process, which involves layers of materials that are then compressed. The brand said a watch case made from the resulting material would be 2.5 times lighter in weight than ceramic and 13 percent lighter than sheet molding compound carbon.
“It used to be that a luxury watch was defined by how heavy it was because of the gold, but certain brands revolutionized that concept,” said Paul Boutros, head of watches in the Americas for Phillips auction house. Referring to the independent watchmaker Richard Mille, Mr. Boutros said, “He single-handedly inverted the notion of what luxury could be when lightness and shock absorption became this ultimate goal. These advanced materials help the brands achieve their objectives.”
In fact, Mr. Mille was one of the pioneers in the early 2000s, a leader in creating new case materials such as the then-revolutionary carbon fiber and sapphire because he insisted that a watch should be wearable no matter what the wearer was doing. The brand sought out athletes to wear watches in real-life test situations and has since equipped some of whom it calls “friends and partners” — including Rafael Nadal in tennis, Bubba Watson in golf and Nafi Thiam, a heptathlete — with pieces made of rugged materials that could keep pace with them.
“Imagine how it would be for us if someone like Rafi was wearing our watch while playing and it breaks, or the watch stops working,” Alexandre Mille, the brand’s global commercial director, said about Mr. Nadal. “We are more than prepared and ready so that doesn’t happen, because we won’t launch a watch in these high-tech materials unless it is perfect and fully tested to the craziest standards.”
To develop those materials and processes, brands have been using their own research and development laboratories. Hublot, for example, was among the first, opening in 2012 a metallurgy and materials laboratory within the research and development facility at its factory in Nyon, Switzerland. A team of eight specialists now work there.
Similarly, the research department at Richard Mille headquarters in Les Breuleux, Switzerland, is staffed with more than 30 designers and engineers, according to Mr. Mille, a son of one of the founders.
Brands also have turned to facilities and research universities like École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne for technical and micro-engineering assistance. In fact, Audemars Piguet worked closely with E.P.F.L. for more than a year to develop its Supersonnerie minute repeater watch, released in 2016. And some have partners in the aerospace or automotive sectors — tearing down the once-insular walls of the watchmaking world so inspiration from other fields can rush in.
“In watchmaking, sometimes you don’t get new ideas and innovations unless you have an outside partnership,” said Nicola Andreatta, chief executive of Roger Dubuis, which has long-term relationships with Lamborghini and Pirelli. “We are trying to open our perspectives and be inspired by different industries that take advantage of the technology, processes and materials,” adding that the Dubuis and Lamborghini teams meet regularly to develop concepts, designs and colors.
Watch brands’ quest to differentiate themselves also demands that they pay close attention to the practical aspects and benefits of new components. If substances don’t offer real advantages, like better performance or improved comfort, then they are just gimmicks. “Sometimes launching a new material can be perceived as a marketing element or as a green washing initiative,” Mr. Ravessoud said, noting that brands must make the benefits of the materials clear to the consumer to achieve sales.
The Color Challenge
One of the most challenging aspects of improving existing materials like sapphire and ceramic alloys has been the effort to add color.
“Creating a new color of ceramic or sapphire is not easy at all,” said Raphael Nussbaumer, Hublot’s chief product and purchasing officer, noting it took two years to develop the brand’s new pale blue. “Working with these materials is a science, and every material, or different color of that material, takes a different formula to perfect it to achieve the right color, the right density and the right clarity. We can spend years developing a material and then a couple of more years to create a different color of the same material because the formula always changes.”
Similarly, Mr. Mille said that Richard Mille had spent almost three years trying to develop a special color (which he would not describe) for its thin ply technology quartz, marketed as Quartz T.P.T. In the end, however, it had to scrap the project. “When it came to closing the case and testing it for water proofing, there were leaks,” he said.
The carbon fiber produced by the company North Thin Ply Technology and the specially colored quartz crystals used for quartz fiber “didn’t work together,” Mr. Mille said. “The end result was too porous. But we never want to stop development or to stop pushing the line. We take all the time we need to make the product perfect and to not compromise on quality or wearability. That is what matters.”
Clear as Sapphire
Creating a watch with a case made entirely of industrial sapphire has been another time consuming endeavor. Brands say it often takes more than a month to create the raw material and then another month or so to mill and finish cases — although the material’s propensity to crack during milling often generates waste and, therefore, great expense.
Still, some brands, like Hublot and Richard Mille, have been willing to invest in adding color to sapphire. This effort also has taken years of research because the metal oxide that produces the color can change the development process and the purity of the resulting material.
“Color is really difficult to attain in sapphire because you have to introduce the metal oxide of the hue into the powder of the oxide of aluminum that makes the sapphire, and you don’t know if you have the right quality, purity and rich color until the entire heating process is done,” said Mr. Nussbaumer, adding that at the Watches and Wonders Geneva fair this week Hublot is to unveil a material two years in the making: purple sapphire, in the Big Bang Tourbillon Purple Sapphire Automatic ($200,000).
“Because of the time and expense involved in making many of these high-tech materials and their variations, most will never be mainstream in the watch market,” said Mr. Boutros of Phillips.
While none of the watch brands share their research and development budget numbers, all of those with highly advanced materials have said they are in the millions. That may well be one of the reasons that, for example, watches with sapphire cases from brands like Hublot, Richard Mille, Greubel Forsey, Jacob & Co. and others generally retail for more than $250,000.
However, “high-tech materials are not just a trend, they are an essential element of the luxury industry,” Lorenz Brunner, IWC Schaffhausen’s department manager for research and innovation, wrote in an email. In addition to luring buyers with the improved comfort of lightweight materials, he wrote, “Equally important are the aesthetics. Ceramic, for example, has a smooth surface that is also pleasant to touch. A particular advantage of ceramics in comparison to other materials is that they can be produced in different colors.”
Also at Watches and Wonders, IWC is to release its Top Gun Pilot’s watch in a dark green it calls Woodland, a tint that the brand said was about a year in the making. And Hublot, which already offers bright red and lemon yellow ceramic, is to unveil its new pale blue in the Big Bang Integral Blue Ceramic watch.
Despite the advances in materials, there are some purist collectors who still want a traditional gold watch, but hate the fact that gold scratches so easily. Brands listening to those customers are putting their research investment toward a different goal: technically advanced proprietary golds.
These alloys — including A. Lange & Söhne’s Honey Gold, Omega’s Canopus and Sedna golds, Rolex’s Everose, Hublot’s Magic and King golds and Panerai’s Goldtech or recently developed Platinumtech — offer something more than just a different name. They are all worked with additional materials (from metals to carbon, and even silica) that the brands say make them scratch resistant and impervious to heat or cold.
“Brands that have their own special formulas for gold that improve scratch resistance, and also offer a hue that is unique to them, makes them pretty appealing to collectors,” Mr. Boutros of Phillips said, “especially since most are made in limited numbers.”