It’s a basic of most summer wardrobes, a fabric we associate with balmy days and endless summer nights, worn for its ability to regulate body temperature and help us stay cool. It’s also one of the first fibres to have been domesticated, pre-dating low-cost holidays by several thousand years. Flax, from which linen is derived, is known to have been grown in Asia nine thousand years BC. The Egyptians used linen bandages for mummification. Fast forward to 2015, and the launch by Hublot of the Big Bang Gold Linen collection, followed by this year’s Big Bang Linen. This is the first time a watch case has been made with linen fibres. So, what’s the lowdown on linen?
A natural challenger
A serious rival to carbon, linen’s properties have a lot to offer today’s high-tech automotive, aeronautic and sports equipment industries. Firstly, it has the advantage of combining strength with lightness. Its environmental credentials also outweigh those of carbon, which is a petroleum derivative. European manufacturers even have a supply on their doorstep, as flax is widely grown on the continent, particularly in France and Belgium. Hublot has acquired exclusive use of a one-hectare flax field in Switzerland’s Emmental region. The flax is organically grown and transformed to produce enough linen for a thousand watches.
If linen has this many advantages, why has it taken so long for it to appear in watches elsewhere than straps? Simply because even after careful drying and treatment, its fibres still contain traces of humidity, the “enemy within” for a watch mechanism that leads to corrosion, condensation, even mould! Before any watchmaker dare introduce linen into a watch, new methods had to be developed that would thoroughly dry the fibres. At the same time, these methods have opened up fabulous new perspectives for incorporating other natural, organic materials into watches, such as feathers, leather, tobacco leaves, wood and other fibres.
The case for linen
Prior to resolving the question of linen’s moisture content, watchmakers had focused on its aesthetic properties, and in particular its woven aspect as vintage watch expert Roy Davidoff reminds us: “Waffle dials and textile dials, with a vertical pattern, were all the rage in the mid-twentieth century. Several brands, including Rolex and Omega, featured this type of dial in their collections.” The trick was to reproduce the look of woven linen on metal by means of various decorative techniques.
Never one to do things by halves, Hublot has researched ways to apply linen to virtually the entire watch, i.e. the strap, the dial and the case, a first in watchmaking. “We were already specialists in carbon fibre. All we’ve done is substitute linen fibres,” explains Mathias Buttet, head of research and development at Hublot. “After three years investigating methods to produce a sufficiently dry fibre, we can now put the results to use.” To make a linen case, five to ten layers of hand-woven fibres alternate with epoxy resin – the same process as for carbon cases.
The Big Bang Gold Linen features a linen fibre case with gold incrustations that produces an organic, luminous effect. The Big Bang Linen collection goes the whole hog, with straps, dials and cases in linen fibre. These monochrome creations take advantage of much finer, natural pigments to develop a more uniform colour. “Unlike carbon fibre, linen lends itself to an infinite palette of shades,” notes Mathias Buttet. Is there nothing linen can’t do?