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May 31, 2017updated Feb 03, 2020

High-Tech Materials in Watchmaking

By Roberta Naas

This story originally appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.

Richard Mille, RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1, $980,000

Timepieces have moved on from the days of only gold and steel – and the properties afforded by cutting-edge alloys nowadays leave us wondering what could possibly come next.

The watch industry has come a long way from its stainless steel and 18K gold days. Mind you, those materials are still tried-and-true for watch cases, but over time the industry turned to newer materials with properties more in tune with today’s needs. Top watch brands strive to develop new alloys and to improve existing materials, and have turned to outside industries for new ideas.

A few decades ago, gold and steel were joined by then-high-tech materials such as scratch-resistant ceramic and ultra-lightweight titanium. These were followed by carbon fiber and eventually carbon fused under extreme heat with other materials to form a case so rugged and durable that it seemed impossible to believe. Today, as a result of at least a decade of looking for material perfection, the industry is filled with space-age materials that are cutting-edge alloys borrowed from the aeronautic or auto-racing world, or that are developed in-house in tandem with scientific companies.

Ulysse Nardin InnoVision 2 Concept watch

These new non-corrosive, lightweight materials run the gamut from rubber- or titanium-infused alloys to liquid metals, forged carbon and more. They are typically hypoallergenic alloys with long life spans. Time and again, however, top watch brands investing hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars into the research and development of these materials, insist that it is really all about the benefits and properties of the product being used rather than being “first” with it. Still, the watch world is witnessing a marathon of invention and innovation in movement part materials that reduce friction and offer long-lasting life with a less frequent need for servicing, and watch cases, bezels and bracelets that can go the distance with today’s active lifestyles.

Leaders in the field include Ulysse Nardin, Richard Mille and Panerai, among others. At this year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie exhibit in Geneva, each of these brands surprised us with cutting-edge new materials that have us wondering what could possibly be next.

Panerai LAB-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech, $51,000

Easily one of the year’s outstanding watches is the Ulysse Nardin InnoVision 2 concept watch, which is packed with 10 patents and 10 innovations. Ulysse Nardin is a long-time pioneer in new materials for movement parts, including silicium and DIAMonSIL (a diamond silicon substance). These materials help to reduce friction and the need for lubrication, which ultimately reduces servicing. InnoVision 2 features a sapphire-coated silicium bridge developed with the EPFL technological school in Lausanne, Switzerland, and uses other new materials that are patent pending. Additionally, certain movement parts, as well as the 3D minute hand, are made from glass, marking the first time glass has been used inside a caliber. While this is a concept watch not going into regular production, it is highly likely that many, if not all, innovations will find their way into future Ulysse Nardin watches.

Also breaking new ground, Richard Mille, another materials genius, unveiled the lightest-weight tourbillon split-second chronograph watch in the world. Weighing in at just 38 grams, about 1.3oz, the RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Seconds Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1 is a study in high tech – much like F1 cars themselves. The watch has a strap made of a top-secret material that weighs just 2 grams. Co-branded with McLaren-Honda, it features a case of specially made Graph TPT and North Thin Ply Technology Carbon – materials not typically used in watches.

Officine Panerai is another leader. The brand’s all-new LAB-ID Luminor 1950 Carbotech watch could be the brand’s most high-tech piece yet. The case is made of Carbotech, a composite material formed by layering, heating and bonding carbon fiber and polymer polyether ether ketone (PEEK) geared for durability. The black dial is also high-tech. It is made using carbon nanotubes that absorb the light and give a rich, dark black color said to be the blackest black that can be achieved. Behind it is a lower dial with electric blue Super-LumiNova numerals and hands. The watch is covered by an unprecedented 50-year warranty because of the lubricant-free movement materials, high-tech case and dial.

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