WORLDTEMPUS – 18 February 2013

Miguel SeabraTechnique_334321_0

Cutting-edge materials from the new millennium not only are eye-candy but also induce a technological aura that is especially pleasing to aficionados vying for the dernier cri in looks on a timepiece. Another clear trend seen throughout the past decade concerns black watches – from steel or titanium cases blackened with the most recent PVD (Physical Vapor Deposition, an electro-plasma procedure depositing a thin layer) or DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon, a deposit of carbon atoms on the surface using a vacuum process) techniques to more sophisticated cases made from carbon or ceramics. And ceramics seems to be outpacing every other material or procedure.

 

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It was obvious at the recent Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie that several brands were opting for ceramic, ceramic alloys, or ceramic combinations in some of their star models. Even Audemars Piguet, who proudly claimed mastery of the forged carbon technique in-house – the brand cooked and molded carbon in itsLe Brassus workshop – has been clearly turning to ceramics in its high-performance range. It’s not just the matter of a ceramic bezel on a forged carbon case: the body of most new Royal Oak Offshore models is fully crafted in ceramic. 

 

The ‘it’ material

Going beyond “simple” PVD and DLC coatings, ceramics is currently the material du jour in contemporary watchmaking. First used by Rado in a consistent way – since 1986 – further developed and made fashionable by Chanel with the J12 model, and featured on the bezels of such classics as Rolex and Omega, its use is now widespread. And understandably so: ceramic looks good, it’s light, comfortable, resistant, anti-corrosive, anti-allergenic, immune to brutal temperature changes and on top of that it can be polished or matte finished, providing not only a pleasant tactile appeal but also that sporty technological aura or stealthy military spirit some particular watches demand. Especially black ceramics – black being the pillar of fashion and providing the dark sophistication required by high-end sports or military-inspired watches.

 

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At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie, three brands in particular showcased relevant new models in ceramic for 2013: Audemars Piguet and IWC investing in that sporty technological aura and Panerai featuring a stealthy military spirit. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s sportier model also includes ceramic. Outside the Palexpo, at the Carrera 50 Years exhibition at the Sécheron hall, TAG Heuer introduced new ceramic bezels on its iconic chronograph line while unveiling, curiously in counter-cycle with Audemars Piguet, a Carrera Carbon Concept Chronograph made of a space-age, ultra-light yet hyper-resistant carbon composite named Carbon Matrix.


Ceramics and composites

There’s a downside to the use of ceramics, but only for the manufacturers. Ceramic is hard to work with: every stiff material needs extreme precision in the manufacturing process. Some timepieces start out as blocks of ceramic that are milled and machined, while other high-quality cases are made of a ceramic powder injected into a mould, then pressed and cooked at high heat (the proper word here is sintered). Two years ago, for its Chromatic line Chanel came up with a mixture of titanium and ceramics that experienced a final polish with diamond powder that makes the surface shine in a unique way.

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As expected, machining such an avant-garde material (ironically also the oldest artificial material produced by man) as high-tech ceramic – which is around seven times harder than steel and can only be scratched by diamond – is quite expensive, calling for the use of special machines and particular tools equipped with diamond-tipped milling cutters. Besides that, any blemish in the proceedings can shatter an entire production.

The high-performance sports watch approach
This IWC Ingenieur reference 3239 is not any different from this, especially since the dimensions are near the original measurements of those Genta designs. I recall my own Ingenieur reference 3227-01 being quite thick and heavy, which doesn’t really match with the original Genta concept. My Royal Oak ‘Jumbo’ (or Extra-Thin, as they call it these days) is just 39mm in diameter but wore a tad bit larger due to the incorporated lugs. This IWC Ingenieur reference 3239 has exactly the same slender feel to it and feels therefore closer to the original Genta layouts in my opinion.The end of the Ingenieur’s case is merely breathtaking. The satin brushed finish is fantastic and edges have this polished facet, this really goes for the case along with the bracelet. As everyone knows, there’s also a negative about it. The satin brushed elements are bound to get scratched, but perhaps that just adds a bit of character to the watch. When compared with the previous Ingenieur generation (3227), this 3239 benchmark has a crown guard. This crown guard looks really striking with its sharp edges and beautiful finish.

For starters, ceramic is featured in one of the absolute masterpieces of this SIHH: the Royal Oak Offshore Grande Complication by Audemars Piguet, which combines traditional watchmaking complications such as the minute repeater, perpetual calendar and split-seconds chronograph housed in the modern Royal Oak Offshore chassis. In fact, the watch case is in titanium or gold depending on the version – but around the skeletonized dial there is a black ceramic bezel. The crown and buttons are also in ceramic.

 

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Alongside the Grande Complication, the manufacture from Le Brassus is also innovating within the Royal Oak Offshore collection by introducing two new models featuring a deep black, high-tech ceramic case band, bezel and easy-grip crowns: the Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph and the Royal Oak Offshore Diver. Audemars Piguet’s aquatic model appears this year for the first time in ceramics; the case band is treated to polished and satin-brushed finishes that represented a technical challenge due to the material’s extreme resistance to abrasion. The sophisticated finishing work on ceramics equals the high-quality of the finishes usually performed on the steel parts of the brand’s timepieces.

 

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Audemars Piguet claims that the choice of ceramics for both the diver and the chronograph has to do with its exceptional toughness and durability, disclosing that each ceramic element requires a far longer machining time: around 12 hours to make the case band of the new Royal Oak Offshore models, while the bezel calls for eight hours’ more work than the same part in steel. By the way, a couple of days after the end of the SIHH, Audemars Piguet ambassador Novak Djokovic lifted the Australian Open trophy with a special ceramic timepiece on his wrist: the Royal Oak Offshore Arnold Schwarzenegger The Legacy.


Fast cars, sleek timepieces

IWC’s narrative at this year’s SIHH was completely focused on the Ingenieur and the new association with the Mercedes Petronas Formula 1 Team, following a previous partnership with AMG. For Mercedes, the Black Series is the upper standard produced by its performance division AMG – enter the sleek 46 mm Ingenieur Automatic AMG Black Series Ceramic with black or brown dial, clearly one of the star models of the Schaffhausen-based brand for 2013. After all, Formula 1 is all about ceramic and composite materials.

 

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But the pole position in IWC’s completely remodeled Ingenieur line has to go to the spectacular Ingenieur Constant-Force Tourbillon housed in a platinum and (of course) ceramic case. Last year, IWC had already launched a Big Pilot Top Gun Perpetual Calendar as a tribute to its own pioneering role in the use of ceramics back in the 1980s.

The stealth military watch approach

Officine Panerai has been a major player in the use of ceramics and ceramic composite in high-end timepieces, including its top-notch Luminor 1950 Tourbillon GMT Ceramica – whose high-tech ceramic case based on zirconium provides an obscure look and also prevents the expensive timepiece from the agents of corrosion with that appealing matte black surface on top.

 

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One of the highlights of Panerai’s 2013 collection presented at the SIHH is undoubtedly the Pocket Watch Tourbillon GMT Ceramica housed in a 59 mm Radiomir case in ceramic made from zirconium oxide. The chain is composed of black ceramic as well; once the chain is removed, the watch can be transformed into a table clock by using the integrated special support, which holds the case. Also among the new sandblasted black ceramic products is the powerful Luminor Submersible 1950 3 Days Automatic Ceramica, which follows in the footsteps of the Black Seal and Tuttonero ceramic timepieces pieces from previous years.


The Cermet case

Jaeger-LeCoultre also has an interesting history with ceramics, choosing it from 2004 on for the ball bearings of its automatic calibers that don’t require oiling. And the Le Sentier manufacture chose ceramic again – albeit combined with metal – for the newest heir of the Deep Sea lineage that goes back to 1959. The “Grande Maison” unveiled a timepiece loyal to its classical inspiration while at the technical vanguard with its reinforced case in Cermet (composite name derived from ceramics and metal): the Deep Sea Chronograph Cermet.

 

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Jaeger-LeCoultre explains that Cermet is more resistant to shocks or pressure than pure ceramics and is also used in aeronautics and on Formula 1 racing-car engines because of its insensitivity to extreme temperatures. Moreover, its ceramic protective layer is more resistant to scratching than steel; the lightness of reinforced Cermet – weighing 66 percent less than titanium – makes it especially suited to a larger-diameter case and for professional diving purposes.

On to Baselworld

After all the “ceramization” seen at the SIHH, we can probably expect to see extraordinary, new timepieces made of high-tech alloy or hybrid ceramic from avant-garde industrial areas such as the aerospace and automotive at the end of April at Baselworld. Various exhibiting brands are quite fond of the use of the material, with Rado and Chanel in the front line. And let’s not forget Bell & Ross, Ermenegildo Zegna’s High Performance line (made by Girard-Perregaux) and, last but not the least, Hublot, whose highly publicized Magic Gold models introduced last year have a ceramic mix in the alloy. Che sera, ceramics…whatever will be the brand…