TRENDS: Alternative materials in watch design


While stainless steel, gold and leather remain at the forefront of watchmaking, a host of brands are using more alternative materials. Kathryn Bishop takes a closer look at the watches imaginatively incorporating denim, sand, ships, blood, garlic, volcanoes, straw, cricket balls, dino poo…

A watch might be the sum of its many parts, but it does not have to be limited by them. In fact, a growing number of today’s watchmakers and brands are getting to grips with less than typical materials to create watches that stand out from the crowd.

Brands from Swatch and Hublot through to RJ Romain-Jerome, Hermès and Bremont have played with fabric, wood, rock and straw to give their timepieces a fresh point of interest. But how are these materials being used and what kinds of effect – and resulting appeal – do they offer?

Many brands like to link watchmaking to their cultural roots. The result of this is often timepieces that pay homage to certain cities or designers, for example Nomos Glashütte and its Zurich watch, or Girard-Perregaux with its Le Corbusier timepieces.

For other brands it is a chance to get to grips with materials native to their home countries. For emerging Swiss-Australian brand Bausele – a name that combines the letters of the phrase Beyond Australian elements – this has meant using raw materials extracted from the ground. It has placed small amounts of coal, sand or red earth from Australia into the glass-covered crowns of its watches, as a reminder of the brand’s origins.

Bausele founder Christophe Hoppe explains: “I was looking for an interesting and different concept or DNA for a watch brand for some time and Australia gave me that inspiration. What makes Bausele watches different is that each watch holds a piece of Australia in the crown. The beige dial [version] holds sand from a famous Australian beach, the red dial has red earth and the black dial has coal in the crown.”

At the fashion end of the market, Italian-founded brand WeWood creates timepieces with wooden cases and bracelets, utilising plain and dyed woods that it promotes as non-toxic and 100% natural. Most of its timepieces retail for less than £100. The watches are especially lightweight and are made with trend-led styles, including large and rectangular case styles that play on WeWood’s Italian origins – a nation known for its production of oversized timepieces from brands such as U-Boat and Panerai.

Straw is a product normally associated with farming and thatched roofs, rarely commanding much of a luxury status. But when used by a famous luxury brand, Hermès to be precise, straw gains instant desirability.

Hermès used the art of straw marquetry to decorate the dials of its two Arceau Marqueterie de Paille models, taking inspiration from furniture created by Jean-Michel Frank. And while straw might seem humble, the brand has added that special something by using rye straw, produced by only one farm in France, that is coloured on the spot and then laid out flat to dry. The weather and humidity ensures the colour of each batch is never quite the same.

When used, the subtle colour changes help to illuminate the marquetry motifs, which are glued in the same way as leather book binding before being assembled on the watch dial.

Cotton, in its rugged twill form as denim, has also made an appearance in watches recently. At the fashion end of the market Swatch unveiled a collection of denim strap watches, then Hublot presented what it says is the first luxury watch collection made with denim, its Jeans collection created in collaboration with fashion brand Dsquared2, using Italian denim.

Using materials that have been resurrected has enabled several watch brands to give their timepieces a quirky USP and their retailers the chance to tell a story to shoppers.

At British brand Schofield, its founder Giles Ellis likes to apply outside materials and manufacturing techniques to watchmaking to test the limitations of his ideas. This year he is set to unveil a watch featuring a rich, red leather strap made from the same leather as English cricket balls. The strap will come complete with cricket ball-style white stitching and – as a little added quirk – the red dye will rub off on the wearer’s shirtsleeve, giving the appearance of a bowler’s trouser leg during a match.

Fellow British brand Bremont also got to grips with something altogether English for its Victory timepiece, teaming with The National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth to launch a watch containing oak timber and copper from the much-famed vessel HMS Victory. The boat is undergoing a major preservation scheme and Bremont was able to secure material from the ship that it has carefully embedded in its run of Victory limited-edition timepieces. Each watch features a caseback inlaid with original oak from HMS Victory and an original hand-engraved copper PVD treated inner barrel using material from the ship.

But alternative materials are not just the reserve of modern companies like Bremont and Schofield. Comitti – a British horological company that dates back more than 150 years – has opted to combine its highly traditional regulators with a less than classic material, perspex. In what was originally a design for Queen Elizabeth to commemorate her Diamond Jubilee, Comitti joined forces with perspex furniture maker Zone to create a floor clock with a difference (see p45).

The perspex designed required both old and new techniques, with each clock meticulously hand finished, while laser and CAD programs allow for fine cutting of the detailed, Palladian-inspired shapes of the clock. The pairing of the brass and steel movement from Comitti with meticulously flawless perspex is not an obvious one, but the result is a fresh take on horology and breathes fresh life into both companies and their capabilities.

While straw, wood and plastics are relatively safe materials, other watch brands have dared to shake things up with timepieces that carry everything from fossilised dinosaur faeces – yes, you read that right – right through to a watchmaker’s own blood.

RJ Romain-Jerome and Artya are two brands that have taken steps to create horological wonders akin to no other. While their histories are interlaced – Artya’s founder Yvan Arpa was once chief executive at Romain-Jerome – they are both boundary pushing in their own unique ways.

Arpa says his aim with Artya is to avoid what has happened to millenary. Two generations ago hat makers enjoyed a booming trade with many people ordering bespoke hats, but now hats are worn mostly as fashion accessories rather than as an essential item of clothing. Arpa says he wants his watches to still be desired in two generations time, not befalling the fate of milliners amid the rise of technology that threatens the need for watches.

To date, Arpa has explored all kinds of materials, applying butterflies and spiders to his watch dials and, at the more extreme end, the aforementioned fossilised dinosaur faeces, concrete, and real silver bullets stuffed with garlic, each boasting its own back story. Perhaps most extreme of all is Arpa’s own blood, which he had to convince his wife to let him use in his watchmaking.

“When I was looking at the watch industry all the main players have a very clear and strong DNA, which is good but it is also their prison as they cannot make any product or concept that doesn’t follow their DNA, even if it could be very successful,” explains Arpa. “I want Artya to have the most creative DNA possible, allowing me to put ideas and creativity at the centre of the brand and reinvent ourselves constantly but keeping some strong visual identity between all unique creations.”

The notion of brand DNA continues to flow at Arpa’s former stomping ground Romain-Jerome. The brand strives to create concept watches based on the notion of “DNA of famous legends”, building historical events into its watches.

Romain Jerome chief executive Manuel Emch explains: “This approach gives us a lot of creative freedom. It helps us to think in an iconoclastic way and to push boundaries in terms of innovation and design. We are much more daring and innovative than most watch brands.”

Romain-Jerome, in its quest to put history on wrists, has made all of its timepieces limited editions. To date, its watches have included recovered material from the Titanic and the Apollo 11 space shuttle, as well as moon dust and sculpted lava from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010, grounding flights across the world.

The brand acquires materials from auctions, or sometimes through being contacted directly. “That’s what happened with the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation which contacted us because they liked our philosophy,” reveals Emch. “Fragments of the Statue of Liberty were recovered during the restoration work undertaken for its centenary. They provided us with the historical artefacts that we incorporated into
the dial.”

Romain-Jerome uses alternative and unusual materials in its watches “that would create a certain controversy liable to stimulate creativity”. In the very least, the one thing that a less-than-typical material can do when applied to watchmaking is create a talking point. And if there is one thing brands like, it’s to be talked about, no matter how extreme the subject might be.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue of WatchPro. To read a digital version of the magazine in full online, click here.





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