Journalists used to play a game to pass the time during presentations at Geneva’s annual SIHH watch fair. Called “SIHH Bingo”, it only lasted a couple of years, as it quickly transpired that the game itself – calling out the various and many clichés of watch marketing – was rather like shooting fish in a barrel. However, beyond all the “savoir-faire” and “brand DNAs” there are two words in SIHH Bingo that cannot be underestimated in their import to this craft: heritage and innovation.
Even the most futuristic-looking watches are driven by a concoction of cogs and springs with direct lineage to the breakthroughs made by 18th-century watchmakers. So how to innovate in an industry with such a deep heritage? Design, of course; but increasingly, the fastest-moving aspect of engineering: materials science. Conveniently, most watchmakers are located on the doorstep of pioneering facilities such as EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland. Hence the ongoing boom in ceramic, titanium, silicon, anti-magnetic alloys and super-resistance precious metals – both as packaging (the watch case) or in the engine itself (high-stress components such as the ticking balance).
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In watchmaking, as with many other sectors involving high-performance manufacturing, carbon fibre has become the poster child for innovation. Not only does its shiny black weave look beautiful, but it directly reflects the technology underpinning two of watch-making’s favourite sporting partners: motor racing and yachting. However, the sub-hair-breadth tolerances demanded by watch cases claiming to be water resistant have meant that woven-sheet carbon has been restricted to adornments such as dials and pushers. For a whole case to benefit from the properties of carbon fibre, something called forged carbon has become the number-one choice. It was created by an engineering company near Lyon, France, which helped top-end watchmaker Audemars Piguet develop the process on wristwatch scale for its Offshore sailing watches. The visual effect is dazzling: every watch has a unique, almost iridescent marbling. Now, ten years later, fellow watchmakers have caught up, including TAG Heuer, Bell & Ross and Maurice Lacroix.
If anyone was going to get around the issue of crafting a case to the tolerances demanded of a watertight watch, then it would be a watchmaker with close ties to a Formula One (F1) team. Step forward Oris, which has developed a manufacturing technique with its long-term F1 partner Williams to yield a fully-carbon monocoque case middle that weighs just 7.2g. The titanium case back and sapphire crystal can be mounted straight on, without the need for special gaskets. To create this composite, up to 35 sheets of pre-cut weave are layered manually in moulds and twice hardened under pressure at 130°C. No single layer is randomly oriented, giving a perfectly aligned carbon weave.
In 2017, it seems the smart money is now being placed on carbon technology’s new wave of composites – even in the sub-£1,000 sector. This is partly thanks to Victorinox’s surprise smash hit, the I.N.O.X. Since its launch in 2014, the Swiss Army Knife’s super-tough companion now constitutes 50 per cent of Victorinox’s timepiece sales. So the challenge facing the brand now is in diversifying a product that’s inherently future-proof. True to form, this year’s Baselworld saw the introduction of the I.N.O.X. Carbon – something that wouldn’t look out of place on Batman’s utility belt. But it was in fact a different sort of accessory that helped bring its resin-composite technology to fruition.
Among the 130 (yes, 130) tests devised to torture every I.N.O.X. watch to destruction (or not, as the case may be), including a high-spin washing-machine cycle and being run over by a tank, there’s a so-called handbag test. Brushing off loose change and a penknife with its blades deployed, the real bugbear for the prototype carbon I.N.O.X. was spilt cosmetics and mosquito repellent. They became absorbed by porous carbon and split the matrix. The impregnation of resin helped seal those pores and guarantee the watch’s imperviousness to more glamorous hazards.
At the highest end of the luxury market, you would have a much harder job convincing dyed-in-the-wool collectors that anything not encased in gold or platinum is a genuinely luxurious product. Richard Mille has proved most convincing in this argument. Mille has been experimenting with the concept of weight reduction in “haute horlogerie” from the launch of his brand in 2000. He treated his cases like racing-car chassis, the “engine” suspended from it, with not so much as a dial to impede performance.
This no-compromise “technicity” (ten points in SIHH Bingo) came to a head in January 2017, with Richard Mille and McLaren’s new shared-technology collaboration. The RM 50-03 Tourbillon Split Sec Chronograph Ultralight McLaren F1, to give it its full name, is a featherweight 40g, thanks to the use of a new material in watchmaking: Graph TPT, more commonly known as graphene. The atom-thick hexagonal lattice form of carbon was first isolated in 2004, earning university professors Andre Geimand and Konstantin Novoselov the 2010 Nobel Prize for physics.
Graphene is six times lighter than steel, but 200 times stronger, with a wealth of conductive and structural possibilities. A Graphene Institute has even been established in Manchester to exploit the material’s potential, and McLaren is working on integrating graphene into its cars. Which, of course, is how Mille had the opportunity to use it for his watches, created by impregnating carbon with a supercharged graphene resin.
The highest-profile iteration of graphene is the carbon nanotube, a cylindrical structure made possible by the innate flexibility of atom-thick graphene sheets. Owing to the material’s exceptional strength and stiffness, nanotubes have been constructed, using vapour deposition, to length: diameter ratios all the way up to 132,000,000:1. They are also completely antimagnetic, which makes them the perfect substrate for a wristwatch’s tightly wound balance spring, whose expansion and contraction every quarter of a second regulates the “tick” of the geartrain.
Zenith has achieved this with its new Defy El Primero 21. What steals the limelight is the high-frequency, 100th-of-a-second chronograph function, running off a completely separate geartrain and regulating assembly. Press the watch’s start button and the central hand flies around the dial once a second. This is achieved thanks to a balance that ticks at a breakneck 360,000 vibrations per hour, rather than 36,000, so you can’t blame LVMH’s top watchmaker for using something as tough as their patented “carbon matrix carbon nanotube” technology.
In most of the Defy El Primero 21 watches, however, you can’t even admire the nanotube balance springs – they’re either ticking too fast or hidden behind a dial. So hats off to MCT watches for making a spectacle of this century’s most promising scientific breakthrough. Only, you can’t actually see it at all.
The new Sequential One S110 Evo Vantablack from boutique horological think tank Manufacture Contemporaine Du Temps has collaborated with London-based sculptor and artist Anish Kapoor on a watch whose Transformers-style time display is adorned with an exclusive carbon construct. Vantablack was pioneered by UK manufacturer NanoSystem in the East Sussex coastal town of Newhaven. Its surface coating is best described as a “forest” of carbon nanotubes, which absorbs 97 per cent of optical light. The result is a watch dial of the deepest black – the next-best thing to an actual black hole.
When it comes to lightness, durability or looks alone, carbon really does seem to be every watchmaker’s ideal savoir-faire. (Bingo!)