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Timepieces of gold, stardust & feathers: How watchmaking is tearing up the tech rulebook

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From meteorites and peacock-feathers to specially alloyed gold and vacuum chambers, watchmakers’ new materials and innovations are catching the eye of their scientific and technological counterparts, reports Simon Brooke

Would you wear a watch made of steel? I’m guessing that the answer is probably “yes”. How about gold? Sounds good too. But would you wear a watch made of ceramic? Or wood? What about concrete or meteorite?

Over the last few years watchmakers have been expanding their choice of materials. Italian watchmaker Giuliano Mazzuoli took inspiration from a building site to create his ‘Cemento’, perfecting an advanced polishing process to make a super smooth variety of concrete for a range of chunky watches.

'Cemento'

Giuliano Mazzuoli’s ‘Cemento’

Elsewhere, watchmakers such as Jord in the US, have taken inspiration from nature, making timepieces in wood, while plumassier Nelly Saunier, one of the few remaining practitioners of the art of feather marquetry, cuts, shapes, and positions the ring feathers on watchfaces for Harry Winston.

Harry Winston's Premier Feathers watch

Harry Winston’s Premier Feathers watch

From the unusual to the (almost) unobtainable. Watch maison Romain Jerome has, not uncontroversially, incorporated part of the metal from the Titanic into its Titanic DNA Limited Edition, and Parmigiani Fleurier has taken meteorite – a substance that can be older than the Earth itself – and used it to create its Tonda 1950 range.

One of Romain Jerome Titanic DNA Limited Editions

One of Romain Jerome Titanic DNA Limited Editions

New materials, new possibilities

Great fun these gimmicks might be, but watch companies are very serious about the materials they use in their products. The technical challenge involved in creating a product that is light, robust, long-lasting and, above all, aesthetically pleasing in a highly competitive global industry, constantly drives innovation.

“New materials offer new possibilities and new possibilities sell watches,” says James Buttery, editor of luxury watch journal QP Magazine. “Traditional mechanical watches require cleaning and oiling every five years or so, this year Panerai released its Lab-ID watch with a movement built from carbon, ceramic, silicon and diamond-like carbon coatings instead of metallic alloys. This reduced points of friction and removed the need for lubrication. Panerai state the watch won’t need servicing for 50 years: That’s a colossal development.”

The march of time

As well as utilising the rarer elements of the natural world, manufacturers have been creating their own metals and materials for use in the myriad functions of the their watches. Hublot recently launched a range of watches made of something called ‘Texalium’.

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“Texalium is basically glass fibres coated in high purity aluminium then woven into a fabric,” explains Dr Russell Goodall, a reader in metallurgy at the Department of Materials, Science and Engineering, at the University of Sheffield. “It’s highly reflective and can be post-treated to give it some colouration. It is heavier and not as strong as carbon fibre, and basically used for its aesthetic properties.” Those properties are complemented on the watch by an aluminium coating that is 99.99% pure and approximately 200 angstroms thick – one angstrom being one ten-billionth of a metre. This coating produces a surface that is highly reflective and can render in different colours with all the lightness of carbon fibre. This sees the material used in fishing rods and surfboard fins, where it’s prized for its strength and suppleness.

Ceramics and watchmaking

Although over 27,000 years old, ceramics are by no means non-innovative. This most natural of materials is constantly being reinvented by watchmakers, with interesting crossovers into other industries. One variety in particular, zirconium dioxide, is gaining popularity. As well as watches, it pops up in parts for firearms, dentistry tools and rocket engine casings.

“It’s very hard and you’re less likely to find cracks and fissures [in it] than you are with some other ceramics. It’s also a very dense material,” says Giles Ellis, founder of the Schofield Watch Company. “But it’s great for colouring and colour runs through it, so if it chips you’re less likely to notice.” High-tech ceramic is also a signature material of watchmakers Rado.

RADO's ceramic edition

RADO’s ceramic edition

Ten times harder and two and a half times lighter than 18k gold, this material is also five times harder than steel but weighs only three quarters as much. Alongside this, another watchmaker, Zenith, has created a shock resistant alloy of titanium, niobium and aluminium called Zenithium, which they claim allows for a very robust “calibre” or mechanism.

Gold – at the cutting edge

Like ceramics, gold has been used for centuries; although it does enjoy a horological heritage, its modern uses are no less innovative. Hublot has produced something it boldly calls ‘Magic Gold’: an 18 carat scratch-proof gold alloy. Recently, the company has also introduced a version called ‘King Gold’. Five per cent of this red gold is platinum, adding to its value, while the copper content inherent in red gold is increased to emphasise its deep hue. In 2013 Omega introduced Sedna gold, a blend of gold, copper and palladium which helps to maintain its reddish lustre. Three years later, watchmakers Richard Mille began combining a specially developed ultra-thin form of carbon with dozens of layers of gold leaf, none of which are more than 10 microns thick.

Hublot's Magic Gold

Hublot’s Magic Gold

As watchmakers innovate with all these materials, the rest of society also benefits says Buttery: “The micro-engineering industry is huge in Switzerland, perhaps that all stems from the country’s expertise in watchmaking. There is an annual trade fair in Geneva that showcases the latest industrial developments in the fields of watchmaking, jewellery, micro-technology and medical technology, so there are clearly strong parallels.”

Those parallels are especially prevalent for gold at the very cutting edge of technology. At University College London gold nanoparticle technology is being used to sense the presence of HIV/AIDS molecules at very low concentrations. NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, due to be launched this year, will be able to search for the first galaxies to form in the universe thanks to the microscopically-thin gold coating of its 18 hexagonal mirror segments, that exploit the metal’s excellent capability for infrared light reflection.

NASA's James Webb telescope

NASA’s James Webb telescope

Synthetic sapphires

The more cosmetic elements of horology also have a socially benevolent shine. Like gold, diamonds have been used in dress watches for decades but now a new generation of ‘synthetic’ sapphires are opening up exciting possibilities. They’re grown in laboratories with melted aluminium-oxide, which, when cooled, forms cylindrical crystals known as ‘boules’.  These can be sliced and then polished, often with diamond powder, to create a perfectly smooth, transparent case. Sapphire is now also used as a transparent but scratch resistant screen for barcode scanners, smart phone camera lenses and shatter resistant windows in armoured vehicles.

Other new materials also have practical purposes. Creating hands and numerals that glow in the dark presents a challenge to watchmakers because it often involves radioactive substances. Manufacturers are increasingly opting for strontium aluminate, a non-radioactive metal oxide compound, which can be used and treated in different ways to make it shine brighter and for longer. A variation of this material is now being used for emergency signage in the International Space Station and at the Pentagon.

PEEKing into the future

Bulgari is one of a number of watch “maisons” using another new substance called Polyether Ether Ketone (PEEK). The idea is to make Bulgari’s Diagono Magnesium as robust and light as possible while protecting its workings. “PEEK is used as a high performance plastic and also a matrix material in composites,” says the University of Sheffield’s Dr Russell Goodall. “It’s not the cheapest material but is increasingly used in high performance plastic or composite applications where money isn’t an issue. It’s used in demanding applications, including bearings, piston parts, pumps, high-performance liquid chromatography columns, compressor plate valves and electrical cable insulation.” PEEK is also considered an advanced biomaterial perfect for medical implants, he says. “For example, with a high-resolution magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), for creating a partial replacement skull in neurosurgical applications.”

Jord's wooden edition

Jord’s wooden edition

Functionality in watches is also being copied by other industries. Accuracy of timekeeping is driving accuracy in other technologies. For instance, since 80% of the friction in a mechanical movement is caused by air, Cartier has created a sealed crystal watch case with a movement that operates in a 99.8% vacuum: an innovation with implications for measurement and mechanics: Girard Perregeaux has developed an energy regulator to compensate for the slowing of the spring in a watch as it unwinds, as well as a silicon blade just one sixth of the width of a human hair that compensates for any variations in power – another development with potentially enormous benefits for other technologies.

“Watchmaking is engineering, just on a much smaller scale,” says Buttery. “The same developments that might make a jet turbine spin more freely or produce more precise surgical instruments will almost certainly improve the performance of a mechanical movement, it’s all a question of application.”

Simon Brooke is a journalist and speech writer previously writing for The Times, The Financial Times and The Telegraph  

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