Thursday 8 December 2016 12:36 pm

The alchemists of time: How watch companies combine age-old techniques with cutting edge materials

Let’s face it: a finely made timepiece is, in a rather nice twist of irony, a flashy anachronism. For starters, no one really needs a watch these days, finely made or not.

Secondly, the delicate concoction of wheels, springs and levers driving a mechanical watch is based on an ancient principle – 200-year-old technology that keeps worse time than the plastic digital that fell out of your cereal packet. So what is it that ties Switzerland’s tweezer-wielding boffins to their workbenches, when they could be enticed down from the Jura Mountains by any of Geneva’s engineering firms?

From ceramic cases on the outside, to self-lubricating silicon micro-mechanics ticking away inside, watches are fresher and more cutting-edge than ever.

Quite apart from the appeal of making something enduring ­and talismanic in our digital world, what’s increasingly keeping the Swiss watch positively Alpine fresh isn’t so much the clockwork ticking inside as its packaging. The mechanical watch is increasingly being spiked with lightweight, super-durable materials more at home in the suspension wishbone of an F1 car.

From ceramic cases on the outside, to self-lubricating silicon micro-mechanics ticking away inside, watches are fresher and more cutting-edge than ever – not through the efforts of classically trained watchmakers, but of canny watch CEOs with a hotline to Switzerland’s finest minds, scattered throughout neighbouring micro-tech facilities. Materials scientists are the watch industry’s newest recruits. And while you might think it’s evolution for the sake of evolution, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll see otherwise.

Scratching won’t get you very far with Hublot’s most recent breakthrough, however. Senad Hasanovic has been installed at Hublot’s factory on Lake Geneva for almost five years, as part of the “technology transfer” from Lausanne’s École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL). His job: to develop an 18-karat gold that won’t scratch.

Hasanovic’s resulting “Magic Gold” (the Swiss are better at watchmaking than they are marketing) was made by fusing 24-carat gold with a porous ceramic substrate under tremendous pressure and temperature, to give a scratch resistance of 1,000 Vickers. Normal 18-karat gold is 400 Vickers. Thus, Hublot’s “Metallurgy & Materials” division was born, and Hasanovic was installed in-house at the watch factory, lock, stock and winding barrel.

“Magic Gold offered me a great opportunity,” he says, “because Hublot is the watchmaker for materials. We’re now doing some crazy things with red ceramics, aluminium, carbon fibre… And why do we go to these lengths? Because, as a young brand, we can’t talk about heritage. Materials are the thing that differentiates us.”

It was experimentation with scratch resistance that kickstarted the modern-day materials revolution in the first place – at a time when most luxury watches were made of gold rather than steel, yet still worn during the weekend chores as well as weekday meetings.

Rado’s breakthrough in the sixties explicitly set out to resist such abuse. Its egg-shaped DiaStar Original looked like something Captain Kirk would wear, and for good reason: the case was formed not of steel or gold, but a newfangled ‘hardmetal’, tungsten carbide.

Hardmetal defined Rado’s ultra-futurist manifesto and by the eighties, Rado had mastered and pioneered the use of ultra-light and ultra-tough ceramic – a material that’s now found in watches from (but not necessarily made by; third-party tech facilities are notoriously secretive) IWC, Bell & Ross, Panerai and, most significantly, fashion darlings at Chanel. The latter’s monochrome ceramic bracelets just happen to echo Mademoiselle Coco’s iconic quilted handbag, and genuinely are made by Chanel’s own ceramic plant in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Rado’s sister company Comadur also makes all of its own ceramic components, and has recently invented a “high-tech plasma” ceramic. Gases activated at 20,000°C raise the temperature of finished white ceramic to a sizzling 900°C, transforming it into an otherworldly material with a mysterious metallic glow – without using any metal at all.

“Beyond the sheer novelty of using ceramic for our cases,” says Rado CEO Matthias Breschan, “more and more newcomers to the brand are realising that ceramic is nice to wear. It’s super-comfortable and thermally balanced with your skin.”

As a young brand, we can’t talk about heritage. Materials are the thing that differentiates us.

At the highest end of the luxury market, however, you have a much harder job convincing dyed-in-the-wool collectors that anything not encased in gold or platinum is a genuinely luxurious product. But a certain Frenchman called Richard Mille is proving to be very persuasive.

Monsieur Mille has been experimenting with the concept of weight reduction in ‘haute horlogerie’ from the very conception of his brand in 2000 – a revolutionary exercise in no-compromise technicality. He treated his cases like racing-car chassis, the ‘engine’ suspended from it, with nothing as superfluous as a dial to obscure its inner workings.

“When I first produced tourbillons with titanium and [aluminium-silicon alloy] Alusic cases, I was fighting against perceived value,” Mille recalls. “These could not be luxurious timepieces, people thought, because they did not weigh enough. However mentalities changed and soon my watches were appreciated for their extreme lightness, which is now associated with the best technology.”

Rado's fancy oven for baking watches

This fusion of horologie and technology soon attracted leading sportsmen, and not only when they were hoisting the silverware, but while they were wielding their racquets or clubs; previously unheard-of in sports, where nothing should impede wrist movement. Rafael Nadal’s surreally light Richard Mille RM 27 kept good time in spite of his punishing swing.

Less than 20g, strap included, it actually floats in water, thanks to the use of lithium-alloy, usually employed in satellites and F1 cars. The case of Rafa’s latest version, the RM 27-02 is a cocktail of carbon and quartz, weighs just 19 grams and costs a princely $800,000 (give or take a few grand).

On a broader, more ‘accessible’ scale, it is carbon fibre that’s become the posterboy for the super-light revolution. Not only does its shiny black weave look cool, but it directly reflects the technology underpinning two of watchmaking’s favourite sporting partners: motorracing and yachting.

However, the sub-hair-breadth tolerances demanded by watch cases claiming to be water resistant mean woven-sheet carbon has been restricted to adornments such as dials and pushers. For a whole case to benefit from carbon fibre’s properties, something called ‘forged carbon’ is the only choice.

It was first invented by a tiny engineering company near Lyon for aircraft propellers, and was adopted by watchmaker Audemars Piguet for its Offshore sailing watches. The visual effect is dazzling: every watch has a unique, almost iridescent marbling thanks to the random assortment of the fibre.

But that was 2007, and now a slew of watchmakers have caught up with AP – most notably F1 timekeeper TAG Heuer, whose V-engine Monaco V4 looks more suited to Batman’s utility belt than the wrists of a pitcrew.

If anyone was going to get around the issue of crafting a case to the tolerances demanded by a watertight watch case, with whole carbon-fibre sheets rather than strands stuffed into a mould, then it would be a watchmaker with close ties to F1.

Step forward Oris, who has developed a manufacturing technique with its long-term partner Williams to yield a fully-carbon monocoque case middle, weighing just 7.2g. To make this unique composite, up to 35 sheets of pre-cut weave are layered manually in individual moulds and twice hardened in special ovens under pressure at 130°C. No single layer is randomly oriented, giving a perfectly aligned carbon weave.

It’s plastic, but plastic as you’ve never known it: a polymer composite spiked with carbon fibre, similar to that used for the Glock pistol.

Increasingly, however, the smart money is on rather more obscure composites, most often stemming from the edgiest sector going when it comes to materials innovation: aerospace. Trust Breitling, then – every pilot’s favourite watch brand – to boast the latest and greatest, unveiled at this year’s Basel watch fair: ‘Breitlight’.

As the punning/rhyming name suggests, it’s exclusive to Breitling, and it’s packaging up the new Avenger Hurricane (£6,450) – a 50mm beast of a 24-hour chronograph.

It’s plastic, but plastic as you’ve never known it: a polymer composite spiked with carbon fibre, quite similar to that used for the Glock pistol. The upshot of which is that it’s 3.3 times lighter than steel yet almost impossible to dent, scratch or corrode.

Surprisingly, even Marilyn Monroe’s favourite jeweller Harry Winston has a big-hitting composite alloy to its name. In keeping with the Marvel-comics school of nomenclature that ‘Breitlight’ seems to have followed, the metal alloy ‘Zalium’ can be found encasing every watch launched under the ‘Project Z’ umbrella, lending them an ethereal, smoky grey hue.

The latest, the Z10, is kitted out with a double retrograde display with its mechanism exposed with suitably techy panache.

Hublot's Magic Gold

The lightweight trend isn’t all at the top-end, either. At the opposite end of the scale, aluminium is currently having something of a moment. Swatch, ever the zeitgeist-capturer, released 29 new “XLite” models this year (from £76), featuring tough aluminium carcass with bright plastic inserts and panels.

The materials innovation doesn’t just serve watchmaking’s pursuit of hardness or lightness. In the case of sapphire crystal, it’s all about shedding light onto the mechanics within.

The idea of casing a watch entirely in solid synthetic sapphire first came to light in 2012, when Richard Mille released the RM 056. Its $1.65m pricetag reflected the time taken to mill out the complex shapes from such a hard, brittle substrate, which stretched to weeks.

Smartwatches may be temporarily snatching attention from “proper” watches, but the Swiss watch industry is proving that the real innovations in this most traditional of industries are still coming from the mountains of Switzerland.

Even then, most of the money went towards cases that ended up on the reject pile. But in 2015 we began to see more fully crystallised cases, for significantly less cash – notably from H Moser & Cie, Rebellion, MB&F and Bell & Ross.

Whether the patent ran out and everyone wanted to undercut Mille, or some bright spark innovated a simpler, more reliable method, we’ll never know. But come January 2016, it was – surprise, surprise – that master of materials Hublot which truly democratised this ultimate expression of materials innovation, with a Big Bang Unico chronograph retailing at £43,600 – about a 30th of the price of an RM 56-01.

Smartwatches may be temporarily snatching attention from “proper” watches, but the Swiss watch industry is proving that the real innovations in this most traditional of industries are still coming from the mountains of Switzerland, not the west coast of America.