Many watch materials have stood the test of time, but that doesn’t stop the leading Swiss brands from pushing the boundaries of materials science. Here’s a round-up of watch materials both classic and modern.
The most commonly used watch material of all is stainless steel. It is a strong compound metal alloy, mixed from several elements including nickel, iron mixed with carbon, and chromium (the latter of which makes it resistant to rust). First used in wristwatches back in the 1930s, stainless steel is durable, highly resistant to corrosion and light on the wrist. Stainless-steel watches are brushed to create a somewhat rugged appearance, or else polished for shine. Some watches even have both treatments, such as TAG Heuer’s fine-brushed and polished Formula 1 Men’s Grey 43mm Quartz Chronograph. An iconic stainless-steel model includes the OMEGA’s Speedmaster Professional. With its bevelled and polished edges, the Speedmaster has been an incredible timepiece ever since its creation in 1957, and there could be no better showcase for the exceptional qualities of the material.
When it comes to creating something of beauty and undeniable quality, gold remains unassailable. Using it to its full potential has been a lifelong obsession for many of the world’s most gifted watch designers and materials scientists.
The precious metal is pure gold when in its 24-carat form, although many luxury watches and items of jewellery use 18-carat gold. The material comes in several different forms, depending on what it has been combined with. Yellow-gold is an alloy of gold, silver, copper and zinc, and gives a rich, lustrous gleam; white-gold is gold mixed with nickel, silver or palladium, and offers a more understated elegance; while the increasingly popular rose-gold is an alloy of gold, copper and silver. As well as its inherent radiance, gold in its purest form is tarnish- and corrosion-resistant, not to mention durable, and lends itself especially well to dress watches, as can be seen in the latest Nautilus and Twenty-4 models from Patek Philippe (limited availability).
Find out more on the history of Patek Philippe here.
The best timepiece designers want their creations to look stunning without compromising on longevity or practicality – hence the never-ending quest to find the perfect material. Even more durable than stainless steel, titanium made its watch debut in the 1970s, and has become a staple material for diving watches. Why? Because it’s light, non-magnetic and highly resistant to corrosion, even in salt water. It’s also hypoallergenic – a great feature if you suffer from metal allergies. Furthermore, it’s hard to find a tougher material in the watchmaking world: titanium watches are frequently made with Grade 5 titanium, which is five times stronger than steel but only half the weight (hence its use for larger timepieces that might otherwise be too heavy on your wrist).
Ceramic is a high-tech variant that is created from non-metallic powders that are heated at high temperatures, producing a durable solid material that is lighter than steel or titanium. It wasn’t until the 1980s that it was first used for watch cases and bracelets (IWC led the way with a ceramic-cased Da Vinci in 1986), but it’s now a familiar sight in our showrooms, especially in the bezels of the world’s best sports watches.
Ceramic has an ornate, highly polished look and a luxurious texture, yet it also scores well on durability – so high are its levels of heat-resistance that NASA used it for the shields of the Space Shuttle. Watch fans love the fact that ceramic-based watches are relatively easy to clean, and while it was once only available in black, white or silver, it’s now possible to create the ceramic in a range of colours. A recent breakthrough came in 2017, when Audemars Piguet debuted an all-black, all-ceramic version of the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, and Hublot is just one of the other leading brands to embrace the full potential of the material, as seen in its blue Spirit Of The Big Bang with micro-blasted black ceramic case and bezel.
Watch designers recognise the enduring appeal of simplicity, but when it comes to materials, they are never scared to reach for complex, high-tech solutions. Taking their lead from the automotive and aerospace industries, Audemars Piguet and TAG Heuer are just two of the brands to have embraced ultra-lightweight, ultra-robust carbon fibre as a key material.
Many watch enthusiasts also love the dramatic results of a diamond-like carbon (DLC) coating: applied by a process called PVD, in which the coating is fired onto the surface of the watch and then immediately cooled, DLC is impervious to wear and tear, so your timepiece will never be without its glossy sheen. Carbotech, a reinforced version of carbon fibre, is a key feature of Panerai’s utility-led designs – and Panerai is certainly not the only manufacture to be working with cutting-edge proprietary materials.
Many watch houses have poured years of research into perfecting their own bespoke solutions. From Oystersteel to Cerachrom to Rolesium, Rolex has been meticulous in the way it has developed and then constantly re-evaluated its own inventory of materials. Omega’s appetite for innovation has brought us Ceragold, a glorious blend of ceramic and 18-carat gold, along with a reddish-hued mix of copper, gold and palladium called Sedna. And Hublot’s mastery of materials is best demonstrated by its very own Magic Gold, a scratch-proof composite of ceramic and liquid gold.
The new Bronze Age?
Though its use as a watch material is still comparatively rare, bronze has certainly caused a stir in the market over the past few years. At least some of this is down to the Tudor Black Bay Bronze, which attracted much attention – and admiration – on its launch back in 2016. Created entirely in bronze (aside from a steel case back coated in bronze-coloured PVD), its design is redolent of vintage nautical instruments and diving equipment – so what could be more appropriate for a family of diving watches? Following its success, a new Black Bay Bronze was introduced earlier this year, boasting a chic slate-grey dial.
Bronze, a mix of copper and tin (with other materials often added to the blend for good measure), was first created around 6000 years ago. It’s anti-magnetic and ductile, both of which are big plus-points for the watch designer. But bronze’s unique selling point is its appearance – and the way it evolves. Contact with air causes the outer layer to oxidise, producing a patina that over time will give your watch a completely unique look. Only the surface is affected, however, with the underlying metal left protected from corrosion (its resistance to seawater is why it was once commonly used for seafaring equipment).
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