For completely different reasons than are the usual yardsticks of horological skills, sapphire-cased – or “see-through” – watches have become the latest measure of a manufacturer’s expertise. Unlike the brand-to-brand competitions based on the number of complications or variations on the tourbillon, both of which tax a company’s watchmaking prowess, working with sapphire as a case material presents an unusual challenge that has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with timekeeping. We are dealing solely with aesthetics.
With sapphire or other crystalline cases, the challenge is structural because the creation of cases involves materials that are tough to work with and which could prove brittle. As sapphire-cased watches are rarities – some are even one-offs – there isn’t exactly a wealth of statistics about shattered or cracked cases, any more than there are tales of smashed ceramic cases. Indeed, the lack of horror stories about now-common ceramic bodes well for sapphire, should the latter material prove more accessible. But is it worth it?
As more than one watch brand spokesperson will tell you, sapphire cases are instant talking points, they’re stunning in appearance and they are able to showcase movements in a way that even skeletons cannot do. Naturally, the brands ensure that the movements in sapphire cases are worth showing off: to the best of my knowledge, no-one has yet housed a Unitas workhorse or $2 quartz movement in a crystal enclosure. These are halo watches, and they look fabulous on all but the hairiest of wrists.
What is the appeal of a see-through case? Think of Cinderella’s slippers. We are talking total pellucidity with sapphire housings, although some brands have found clever halfway measures that provide nearly all of the transparency but with less in the way of engineering requirements. Thus, the dozen we’ve assembled here include monoblocs in which the cases were carved from solid, sandwiched construction that encases a sapphire centre section or the reverse – two pieces of sapphire to enclose the movement and frame – and even a transparent case not made of sapphire.