For a long time, watches were solely crafted in precious metals, namely gold and silver, as the gentility of their movements called for equally refined cases. When the Great Depression hit in 1929, watch manufacturers had to start sourcing for cheaper case substitutes, even reducing the dimensions at the time. Stainless steel was the most viable option, except that the tools needed to machine them were too weak to attain the desired shape and finish that were accomplished on gold and silver cases; steel alloys were much harder compared with precious metals by factors of up to 10.
An alloy, by definition, is a mixture of at least two different chemical elements, one of which is a metal. Creating a new alloy composition is not a scientific breakthrough. In fact, there are hundreds that are developed every year. In order for an idea to materialize, it requires the right bit of mix and match, where different types are carefully discerned before putting them into the pot. There’s an emphasis on the words “carefully discerned” because the physical attributes of each element needs to be accounted for in order to understand how they will interact in an alloy. For example, an attempt to mix aluminum and lead would result in separated layers, like oil to water.
It was English metallurgist Harry Brearley who is credited with the invention of stainless steel in the early 1900s, comprising iron, chromium and nickel. Yet even when Hans Wilsdorf sent the stainless steel Rolex Oyster travelling through the English Channel in 1927, it wasn’t until the ’70s that stainless steel became the new gold, emerged in a slew of fashionable sport timepieces heralded through Gerald Genta’s and Jorg Hysek’s designs. Thereafter the audacity of two-tone metal exoskeletons followed, which were accepted quickly as a combined classic must-have.
Where has this led us to? Well it’s very much akin to Italian pasta. There’s a very distinct tell between the tagliatelle that came from the cardboard box and the fresh version tossed in the combination of parsley and wild mushrooms. While the best experience would’ve come from nonna’s overprotective recipe, the saying goes that it’s always better to make it yourself. Using this analogy, it’s also a reason why it’s argued that in-house creations are much better valued. Watch manufacturers who produce their own movements and cases are perceived as more innovative than their neighbor across the road. With the emergence of new technology, machinery, and ongoing scientific discoveries, watch manufacturers have gone beyond market-ready goods and are instead concocting their very own mixes.
The subtle lustre of rose gold is often tied to feminine attributes, which probably explains its rising popularity in the jewelry scene from the early 2010s. In less than a decade, the metallic hue has splashed fashion runways, coated homeware, and even technology gadgets. At the height of gilded fashion, Omega developed its own mix of rose gold termed Sedna gold in 2013.
This in-house metal composition incorporated copper, palladium, and gold, constituting 75 per cent in the latter, classifying it as 18K gold. It was named for the dwarf planet Sedna, which possesses one of the reddest surfaces in the Solar System.
The first use of the material was inducted in the Constellation Sedna, released in a limited edition of 1,952 pieces, a number that reflected the debut year of Omega’s Constellation collection. The resulting alloy is a robust blush that leans towards red gold rather than pink. One could argue that mixing three raw metals isn’t quite groundbreaking metallurgy, but its inclusion of palladium (a lighter transition metal) instead of silver (which is commonly used) creates the enduring sheen of Sedna gold’s reddish hue. The flexibility in the creation of gold alloys results in various compositions that affect not only the color, but also its physical qualities.
On the polar end, it’s in A. Lange & Söhne’s DNA to oppose the idea of brandishing the Midas touch, and instead create a shade of yellow so subtle that it bounces between yellow and white gold depending on how the light hits. The composition of Honey Gold is a proprietary mix created for the brand, containing a high proportion of copper, gold, and traces of zinc. Its unique mix provides better resistance against scratches that is attributed to its hardness level at 320 Vickers, which is twice as hard as yellow gold. Thus to hand engrave a balance cock in Honey Gold requires a different set of tools as opposed to the ones used on German silver, and are fitted with harder steel blades to manipulate the surface.
According to CEO Wilhelm Schmid in a conversation with Nick Foulkes, the difficulties in producing the bespoke alloy were limited to finding the right supplier, and the number of watches they can produce is dependent on volume orders of Honey Gold – apparently about up to 600 watches a year. The latest Honey Gold iteration from the German manufacture was the Langematik Perpetual unveiled at this year’s SIHH, in a limited quantity at 100 watches.
It passes most people that Hublot is just as serious about producing precise watch mechanics, as it is about creating powerful case designs, but their Nyon manufacture reveals plenty about their research efforts. Hublot’s first brush with innovative metallurgy was in 2011 when the manufacture collaborated with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EFPL). Jean Claude-Biver, then-CEO of Hublot, and Andreas Mortensen, a Professor at EFPL, introduced Magic Gold, a metallic fusion of 24k gold and boron carbide. Boron carbide is one of the hardest known substances on earth with a Vickers Hardness of 38 GPa that follows behind cubic boron nitride (48 GPa) and diamond (115 GPa).
This is manipulated by compacting ceramic powder via cold isostatic pressing which allows the porous material to be uniformly packed into specific molds. The ceramic is hardened at high temperatures to finalize the shape and injected with molten liquid gold under extremely high pressure and temperature to fuse the precious metal into the ceramic pores. This particular mixture of carbon and gold produces a material that is not only unbreakable but unscratchable, with an increased strength of about 1,000 Vickers. While pure gold starts off as a glistening gleam, the addition of carbon powder leaves the colour with a dull olive shade, which doesn’t add much lustre, but at this point, it’s function over aesthetics. In each Magic Gold crafted timepiece, the case is branded with ‘Gold 750’ and a ‘Hublot’ logo to indicate its authenticity.
Metal by Nature
One of the most trendsetting materials in watchmaking that has had an increased presence in the 21st century was the introduction of ceramic. No doubt Rado was the first to utilise ceramic in the Diastar in 1962, but IWC has fused the compound with titanium to create Ceratanium, a hybrid that bears both desirable traits of unbreakability and high scratch-resistance. The composite was a five-year development with input from in-house material experts and thorough research to finalise a special manufacturing process.
It starts off with a blank that is machined to give the various case components their final shape. As it is heated in the furnace, oxygen is diffused into the upper layers of the material where the surface becomes ceramic. The integrity of the material’s purity is crucial to bond these together, forming the desired matte black surface with the properties of extreme hardness and scratch resistance. Following the debut of the Ceratanium case in the Aquatimer Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month Edition “50 Years Aquatimer” in 2017, the alloy was used in a new Top Gun collection that was unveiled at this year’s SIHH, which also marks the first time the material is used for an unlimited watch.
Before forming his watch squad, Max Büsser served as the CEO of Harry Winston where he launched the Z sports watch range in 2004. The first series was the Z-1, a world first with a triple retrograde chronograph and created from a zirconium alloy called Zalium. “Zalium is made from zirconium, a rare earth. You can use it to create a very tough metal that is non-toxic. Zalium was created by Ronald Winston, President of Harry Winston, who is also a chemical engineer. We decided that if this was going to be our first non-precious metal watch, then its material had to be a world first,” said Büsser. “It’s challenging to work with as it causes tremendous wear on machines because it is so hard.” It is a dominant material used consistently throughout its Z series watches, favored for its light weight and extreme resistance to corrosion.
This brings us to Roger Dubuis’ world of powdered metallurgy when they developed an extremely corrosion-resistant alloy made of cobalt and chromium. It was used in the Excalibur Quatuor Cobalt MicroMelt, in a very miniscule production of eight pieces using MicroMelt technology in development with steel industry company Carpenter Technology Corporation. There are three main methods when it comes to creating metal alloys, one of which is powdered metallurgy (the other two are heating and melting, and ion implantation). The alloy is melted and atomised into a fine powder by exposing it to a high-pressure stream of gas using a dedicated vacuum induction melting gas atomisation unit. It is then blended and poured into canisters that are sealed and subjected to hot isostatic pressing (a process that reduces its porosity to increase density) before being hot-worked to produce hot-rolled bars and then processed to its finished size.
The result is an extremely durable and corrosion-resistant composite attributed to the formation of a passive protective film. Roger Dubuis’ partnerships with automotive brands like Lamborghini and Pirelli have created a synergy that is evident in the creation of new watch materials, like implementing the use of CarTech Micro-Melt BioDur CCMTM, an alloy used in high-tech industries such as the automotive, aeronautical and aerospace sectors. In producing the Cobalt MicroMelt, Dorothée Henrio, Marketing Director of RD, says, “the idea for us is to provide our customers with something which is technically speaking, compelling with the aesthetics to match. When we worked with Carpenter Technology, we found that they could provide many types of combinations between precious materials – with varying properties that can be adapted to watchmaking.”
Whether you’re a traditional watchmaker or an avant-garde developer, metallurgy has delivered useful and and elegant results for these brands and more in the last decade. New technologies will surely deliver additional impact in the years to come.