Those who innovate


The accelerating race for new materials

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July 2022


The accelerating race for new materials

In an industry dominated by age-old know-how, the introduction of new materials has accelerated in the 21st century. Almost every year, new alloys and composites are unveiled, and novel, original combinations are tested.

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or a long time, the favourite metal of watchmaking was gold – particularly for pocket watches, which, through their size and weight, quickly revealed the economic and cultural status of their owner.

With the advent of wristwatches, the watch acquired a more utilitarian role, and the use of noble materials was no longer necessary. That was when the search for new materials really took off.

Innovation in “unbreakable watch crystals” presented in Europa Star in 1954
Innovation in “unbreakable watch crystals” presented in Europa Star in 1954
©Europa Star Archives

The aims of this quest were many, and included resistance to shocks, scratches, corrosion and temperature variations, as well as lightness, anti-magnetism and precision. How has the watch industry incorporated these new materials, and which brands stand out?

The aims of this quest were many, and included resistance to shocks, scratches, corrosion and temperature variations, as well as lightness, anti-magnetism and precision.

A specialist of high-tech ceramic, Rado has made material research one of its strategic axes: in 1962, the brand launched the DiaStar, the first scratchproof watch on the market. Fourty years later, it presented the Rado V10K, made of high-tech diamond, which entered the Guinness World Records as the world's hardest watch with a strength of 10,000 Vickers.
A specialist of high-tech ceramic, Rado has made material research one of its strategic axes: in 1962, the brand launched the DiaStar, the first scratchproof watch on the market. Fourty years later, it presented the Rado V10K, made of high-tech diamond, which entered the Guinness World Records as the world’s hardest watch with a strength of 10,000 Vickers.
©Europa Star Archives

Steel is king

Steel was first chosen for its robustness and its affordability compared to gold. But the 1970s boosted its value, thanks to the introduction of the Royal Oak with its integral bracelet in 1972, followed by the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976. It marked a revolution: a new sport-chic market segment had been created.

The Royal Oak introduced in the pages of Europa Star in 1972
The Royal Oak introduced in the pages of Europa Star in 1972
©Europa Star Archives

Paradoxically, steel became more popular than gold, thanks to a price positioning that was... higher than that of gold. When it was first released, a Royal Oak cost CHF 3,300 while a Rolex Submariner was priced at only a third of that. Steel had succeeded in reintroducing the idea of rarity, creating desire and envy. Given the staggering prices that some models are fetching at auction, it seems to be doing similarly well today. There’s no doubt that these resounding successes, which augured the revival of mechanical watchmaking even in the midst of the quartz crisis, provided some ideas for the future.

The Nautilus in Europa Star in the 1970s
The Nautilus in Europa Star in the 1970s
©Europa Star Archives

New territory

In 1980, Hublot forged a new path by pairing a gold case with a rubber strap. This apparently crazy idea provoked its share of mockery and dubious looks at the time, but it began to define the DNA of the Swiss brand. Hublot would continue to develop new materials, including Magic Gold, which was introduced in 2011: a scratchproof 18K gold with a hardness of 1,000 on the Vickers scale.

The marriage of gold, steel and rubber: the birth of the Hublot watch in 1980
The marriage of gold, steel and rubber: the birth of the Hublot watch in 1980
©Europa Star Archives

Other brands were also exploring alloys. In 1986, IWC fashioned its Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar from zirconium, an ultra-strong high-pressure ceramic. This laid the foundations for the brand’s investment in materials research, which continues today and gave rise in 2017 to Ceratonium, an alloy of ceramic and titanium that boasts a hardness of 1,300 Vickers, far greater than grade 5 titanium’s score of 290.

In 1986, IWC unveils a new material, zirconium oxide, for its Da Vinci.
In 1986, IWC unveils a new material, zirconium oxide, for its Da Vinci.
©Europa Star Archives

TAG Heuer also experimented with new materials, in 1998 unveiling its Kirium Ti5 with the first ever mirror-polished grade 5 titanium case. The dial was made of carbon fibre and the strap of rubber. It was a small revolution.

Composite materials began to multiply, and a high technology wind blew through watchmaking. In 2002, Audemars Piguet launched its Royal Oak Concept, the first watch made of alacrite 602, an alloy of cobalt, chromium and tungsten with a hardness of 430 Vickers, far higher than that of steel (250). The watch also featured titanium bridges and plates, heralding new approaches to materials.

On the occasion of the 30 years of the Royal Oak in 2002, Audemars Piguet launches the experimental Royal Oak Concept with a case in alacrite 602.
On the occasion of the 30 years of the Royal Oak in 2002, Audemars Piguet launches the experimental Royal Oak Concept with a case in alacrite 602.
©Europa Star Archives

Other brands were opting for carbon. Candino released the C-F1, the “Carbon Watch”, entirely made of carbon fibre – case, dial and bracelet – but it would not last long.

Faster, higher, stronger

The race was on. Materials became harder, more scratch-resistant, lighter, hypoallergenic, non-magnetic and resistant to temperature variations: there was no shortage of areas for improvement. Watchmaking drew its inspiration from the medical, automotive and aviation worlds.

Citizen pioneered the use of titanium in the watch industry with its X-8 Chronometer from 1970.
Citizen pioneered the use of titanium in the watch industry with its X-8 Chronometer from 1970.
©Europa Star Archives

Some brands made materials research their trademark by developing increasingly high-performing composites. In 2005, Richard Mille created the RM009 Felipe Massa, the first watch made from Alusic, a composite of aluminium and silicon carbide. After this model, the brand ingeniously introduced increasingly high-tech, stronger and lighter carbon composites. Today, the use of high-tech materials is one of its most distinctive features.

A specialist in ultralight timepieces (and having presented the world's thinnest watch this year), Richard Mille is a typical example of a contemporary watch brand that bases part of its success on materials research.
A specialist in ultralight timepieces (and having presented the world’s thinnest watch this year), Richard Mille is a typical example of a contemporary watch brand that bases part of its success on materials research.
©Europa Star Archives

Even the independents were getting involved, notably François-Paul Journe. In 2009, he brought out his Blue Chronometer in Tantalum, nicknamed “Tantalus’s Punishment” in reference to Greek mythology, because it is so hard to machine (it melts at 3,016°C and has a density of 16.65 kg/cm3). The metal offers absolute resistance to corrosion and wear and is perfectly biocompatible. It also increases the appeal and rarity of the master watchmaker’s timepieces even more.

Watchmaking drew its inspiration from the medical, automotive and aviation worlds.

Switzerland is home to several world-class laboratories in the field of materials research, including the EPFL in Lausanne, which has numerous collaborations with the watch industry.
Switzerland is home to several world-class laboratories in the field of materials research, including the EPFL in Lausanne, which has numerous collaborations with the watch industry.
©Europa Star Archives

In 2017 Panerai launched BMG (Bulk Metallic Glass), a metallic glass alloy of copper, aluminium, nickel, zirconium and titanium that is 70% harder than titanium alone, and offers the benefit of being anti-magnetic. Research continues today at Panerai with, for example, the introduction in 2021 of the Submersible eLAB-ID watch, made from 98.6% recycled materials.

When materials R&D and sustainability meet: last year, Panerai presented the Submersible eLAB-ID watch, made from 98.6% recycled materials.
When materials R&D and sustainability meet: last year, Panerai presented the Submersible eLAB-ID watch, made from 98.6% recycled materials.
©Europa Star Archives

The search for new, more environmentally responsible materials is accelerating. One of the pioneers is Swatch Group, which has long been interested in this area. As early as the 1990s, the watchmaking group experimented with corn-based plastics, but the technology failed to fulfil its early promise. Today, a new Swatch plastic has been born, bio-sourced from castor oil. Research is continuing and will no doubt intensify.

Swatch is banking on a new material, “bioceramic”, to equip many of its lines in the future.
Swatch is banking on a new material, “bioceramic”, to equip many of its lines in the future.
©Europa Star Archives

Components in the mix

In parallel with the R&D on case materials, research into the components of the watches themselves has also accelerated. First and foremost is the watch’s most vital component: the balance spring. Ulysse Nardin was the first to introduce silicon in 2001, closely followed by Patek Philippe, Rolex and Swatch Group.

Based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, or CSEM, was at the heart of the research that led to the development of the new silicon hairspring.
Based in Neuchâtel, Switzerland, the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology, or CSEM, was at the heart of the research that led to the development of the new silicon hairspring.
©Europa Star Archives

Recently, TAG Heuer innovated again with its carbon balance spring, introduced in the Calibre Heuer 02T Nanograph Tourbillon model in 2019. This technology is still in its infancy, but its advantages are countless, particularly in terms of resistance to magnetism and temperature variations.

As an alternative to silicon, the Research Institute for the Watch Division of LVMH has developed a carbon nanotube hairspring.
As an alternative to silicon, the Research Institute for the Watch Division of LVMH has developed a carbon nanotube hairspring.
©Europa Star Archives

This relentless quest for new materials is actually quite a recent development for watchmaking, considering its centuries-old history. But it has definitely contributed to giving a very modern and contemporary dimension to an industry built on its ancestral know-how. It has also opened up a world of creativity for every watch brand, enabling manufacturers and their customers alike to stand out from the crowd.

Made of niobium and zirconium, the Parachrom® balance spring is an exclusive Rolex technology.
Made of niobium and zirconium, the Parachrom® balance spring is an exclusive Rolex technology.
©Europa Star Archives

Materials, once status symbols, are now becoming markers of an avant-garde spirit. In the end, this ongoing research increases the watch industry’s influence, attracting new enthusiasts and forcing the brands to continue innovating and moving forward. Indeed, the big winner in this race is the industry as a whole.

This relentless quest for new materials is actually quite a recent development for watchmaking. But it has definitely contributed to giving a very modern and contemporary dimension to an industry built on its ancestral know-how.

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