Weigh to go: The new materials revolutionising the watch world
by Simon de Burton
Using ceramic, carbon fibre and Graph TPT, the very latest watches are lighter and more space age than ever, says Simon de Burton...
Brass, steel, gold and rubies were once the most exotic materials found in the average timepiece, but today’s watchmakers are working with a far more wide-ranging recipe book that makes use of ingredients such as zalium, tantalum, cermet and titanium, to say nothing of liquid metal, hard metal, ceramic and, of course, the ubiquitous carbon fibre. The aim of this 21st century alchemy is to make watches that are lighter, tougher and better looking on the outside, as well as more accurate, efficient and long lasting on the inside.
Watches made for nautical types are among the most obvious candidates for such materials, thanks to the challenging environment in which they are used. Salt water, extremes of temperature, knocks, shocks and the general rigours of life on board have encouraged the use of cases and components that don’t corrode and are often inspired by the strong and light metals and fibres used in modern marine construction.
One brand with longer links to the sea than most is Panerai, which began making watches during the 1930s after the Italian Navy asked it to develop waterproof, highly legible models for its dive teams. Today’s Panerai range maintains the distinctive look of those original watches, but they are often enhanced with ceramic, titanium or carbon fibre features. In 2015, for example, it unveiled a new version of its Luminor Submersible 1950 model with a case made from Carbotech, a specially layered form of carbon fibre with a natural “wave” pattern that had never before been used in the watch industry.
Earlier this year, the brand proved itself to be even more innovative when it pulled the wraps off the experimental LAB-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech, which is equipped with a movement made from ultra-low friction materials that don’t require additional lubricant. Diamond-like carbon, silicon and a tantalum-based ceramic have been used for key components, and the movement runs on just four jewel bearings. The dial, meanwhile, features gas-filled carbon nanotubes for increased luminosity. Just 50 will be made and they’ll be €50,000 apiece, plus you get a guarantee that the watch won’t need servicing for 50 years.
High-tech materials can also look darned good when used on a watch. Moritz Grossmann, for example, has started using a mixture of ceramic powder and resin, which it calls HyCeram. During manufacture, pockets are cut into the watch hands and filled with HyCeram; this can be produced in highly visible colours including lime green, orange or vibrant blue.
The automotive industry’s use of new materials similar to those used in boat building is also inspiring today’s leading watchmakers. Hublot has created one of its most technically impressive driving watches to date in celebration of this year’s 70th anniversary of its automotive partner, Ferrari. The Techframe Ferrari 70 Years Tourbillon Chronograph was developed with Ferrari’s design team, led by Flavio Manzoni, and houses a hand-wound Hublot movement within a modular lattice framework made from PEEK carbon (polyether ether ketone), although it can also be had in titanium or Hublot’s King Gold.
But it is avant garde watchmaker Richard Mille who is pushing the (carbon fibre) envelope more than anyone else. The RM 50-03 McLaren F1 (pictured top) is said to be the lightest split seconds tourbillon chronograph in the world. It incorporates a carbon-based material called Graph TPT, which was developed by Nobel Prize-winning scientists at the University of Manchester, to whom Mille was introduced by former McLaren boss Ron Dennis. Graph TPT is six times lighter than steel, 200 times as strong and demonstrates that less can be more – but not as well, perhaps, as the RM 50-03’s price tag. Each of the 75 being made will cost £996,500.