In the Mix – advanced watch materials explained


As one irate designer, on edge about the overuse – and misuse – of Carbon Fibre in watch design recently informed me, there’s nothing new about carbon fibre. “It’s the hottest thing of 1968,” he vented.

What might sound like exaggeration does in fact understate the lifespan of what should correctly be referred to as Carbon fibre-reinforced polymer (CFRP), which was pioneered in 1963 by the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough and later patented by the MOD. William Watt’s team developed a technique for bonding carbon fibres with polyacrylonitrile using a multistage heating process. The result was a material stronger than steel and yet considerably lighter.

The carbon fibres used in the process are even older, having first been created by Thomas Edison in 1879 as he developed filaments for his light bulb and carbonised slivers of bamboo.

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At the time, CFRP was the latest and greatest achievement in the field of composite materials, which include plywood, concrete and papier-mache or any material created from mixing two or more others. Wattle and daub, a mixture of mud or dung and straw, is the oldest known composite material, having been first been used in construction 6,000 years ago.

Carbon fibre-reinforced polymer, now more commonly referred to as simply Carbon Fibre, went from being an advanced material used in aeronautical engineering and space programmes before filtering down to motoring racing and finally, consumer products. It was undeniably Carbon Fibre’s unique weave structure that drove demand in the consumer sector, a visual cue suggesting enhanced performance.

The suggestion of that performance mattered a great deal more than the actual weight saved or the increase in strength achieved when the material reached the consumer domain. If a Formula 1 team replaced a car’s metal components with Carbon Fibre, it might reduce its weight by tens of kilograms and give itself a real advantage in a race. But if a manufacturer uses the material to produce a lighter watch it matters not a jot to anyone in real-world terms.

As with its use in professional sectors, Carbon Fibre was initially used by watch manufacturers for technical watches with sporting applications, such as chronographs, before filtering down to more mainstream collections.

New carbon composites are being developed all the time and watch manufacturers are keen to adopt them, especially if they bring something new to the table. At SIHH in January, Panerai introduced its Luminor Submersible 1950 Carbotech, a form of carbon composite new to the watch industry. The material involves stacking thin sheets of Carbon Fibre, one on top of the other at differing angles, before being bonded together with a polymer. The resulting solid can then be milled to create forms, such as watch cases, with a distinct matt finish and wave-like pattern that differs for every piece created.

A spokesman for Panerai informed WatchPro that the carbon fibres used to form every sheet are especially long to ensure ‘aesthetic uniformity’. The process of stacking the sheets at differing angles also adds strength and durability.

TAG Heuer, with its roots in sports timing and motorsport, is exactly the kind of watch manufacturer you might expect to embrace advanced composites and in 2013 it did just that with the TAG Heuer Carrera CMC Concept Chronograph, a bullhead design using the brand’s 1887 calibre. That alone was nothing remarkable and certainly not worthy of ‘concept’ status, but TAG Heuer had manufactured the bullhead case from a new material it was experimenting with, Carbon Matrix Composite or CMC, meaning the complete case including caseback, bezel and lugs weighed just 19g.

Marc Walti, TAG Heuer’s product director, explained to WatchPro that CMC begins as thin carbon layers placed at a specific orientation in a mould and heated while under pressure (3000 bar) to form components that require very little in the way of machining – which risks splitting the carbon fibres – or finishing and are resistant to abrasion.

At Baselworld 2015 TAG Heuer unveiled its Monaco V4 Phantom, a stealthy black version of its sole venture into haute horlogerie. The Phantom not only uses CMC for its case, but also for its seven bridges. TAG Heuer has tweaked the production slightly in the intervening two years and micro-blasting the Phantom’s CMC components reveals the unidirectional nature of the material, with a finish reminiscent of vertical brushing.

Walti continued: “One expensive thing is the mould, but the price stays the same if you’re doing one, 100, 1,000 or more. So basically it could be cost-efficient and pretty easy to implement, then again, the consumers are not always waiting for this kind of material which limits the volume of production.”

The product director hints that CMC could eventually find its way into TAG Heuer’s core collections should there be the demand, saying: “That will be the choice of the consumer; we’re ready to do more if necessary.”

One carbon composite material that eschews appearances that are uniform or unidirectional is Forged Carbon. The registered brand made its first appearance in watchmaking in 2007 when Audemars Piguet began working with aeronautical composite specialist Vincent Duqueine, head of the French company Carbone Forge. The first watch to result from the collaboration, the Royal Oak Offshore Alinghi Team, weighed in at 92g while the gold equivalent was 461g.

Forged Carbon’s carbon fibres are distributed in the mould in random bundles resulting in a finished product with a soft, similarly random appearance which has gained much popularity amongst the watch-buying public since. Manufacturers have also managed to create CFRP processes that mimic the finished look of Forged Carbon, making carbon watches available at most price points.

But carbon composites aren’t the only frontier for wear-resistant, lightweight cases. Ceramics have become one of the cornerstone materials for watch manufacturers looking to produce pieces that refuse to age. Ceramic is particularly scratch-resistant and has found a natural home in components that receive the lion’s share of contact such as bezels, pushers and crowns although some manufacturers such as Rado and Chanel have pushed ahead with full ceramic watch designs.

Maurice Lacroix turned to ceramic, at least in part, when it came to develop its Powerlite alloy. The alloy of aluminium, magnesium, titanium, zirconium and ceramic is twice as light as stainless steel and yet twice as hard. The unique alloy also reacts well to anodisation, allowing the colouring to penetrate the material up to a depth of 25 microns.

Australian watch manufacturer Bausele recently revealed that its latest watch, the flagship Terra Australis, would, in part, be constructed from a proprietary ceramic called Bauselite that had been developed for Bausele by Prof. David A. Lewis, of the Flinders Centre for NanoScale Science and Technology School of Chemical and Physical Sciences.

Prof. Lewis explained the project to WatchPro: “Bausele were interested in looking outside the design limitations of standard materials. We worked in partnership to look at materials that were strong, lightweight and robust and most importantly compatible with cost-effective, high-precision low-volume manufacturing. We were then able to develop Bauselite to meet these demands.”

The team is in the process of patenting its work on Bauselite and as such Prof. Lewis dodges the specifics of his new material but insists it takes a very different approach to other ceramics being used in watchmaking and its strengths lie in the ability to form “parts with precise holes and complex shapes which enables parts to be manufactured with a unique design style”.

Bauselite components are also made-to-form with high precision and require no post machining. Prof. Lewis also believes the low reject rates he has witnessed makes Bauselite a reliable manufacturing material.

But ceramics are not limited to isolated use and Hublot has employed the inherent hardness of the material to create the world’s hardest gold alloy, the scratch-resistant Magic Gold. All forms of gold below 24ct or pure gold are alloyed with other materials to either make gold more hard-wearing and more cost-effective. Hublot took the decision that the remaining 25% of its 18ct gold would be formed from ceramic rather than other metals.

Magic Gold is created by first baking a ceramic form in the shape required. The heat creates a porous structure into which molten pure gold is injected under pressure, bonding it with the ceramic.

The development of Carbon Fibre might well date back to the 1960s but it served as a jumping off point for scientists and engineers to create materials with new structural and aesthetic properties that continues today. The recent advent of nanotechnology promises to allow a continuation in the same vein, with previously unheard of possibilities, ensuring that watchmakers will never be deprived of new and exciting materials from which to create.

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Tags : advanced materialsaudemars piguetbauselecarbon compositecarbon fibreceramicforged carbonmaurice lacroixpaneraiTag Heuer
James Buttery

The author James Buttery

Editor of WatchPro, the WatchPro Hot 100 and The Luxury Report.