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Watches & Wonders 2020: material world
Watches & Wonders

Watches & Wonders 2020: material world

Thursday, 30 April 2020
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Marie de Pimodan-Bugnon
Freelance journalist

“One must be absolutely modern.”

Arthur Rimbaud

It takes passion, a healthy dose of curiosity and a sense of wonderment to convey the innumerable facets of watchmaking…

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5 min read

Certain brands at Watches & Wonders have kicked their R&D into overdrive, resulting in futuristic materials that make stronger, lighter, more resilient watches a reality.

Is it true that watchmakers like to “tech their time”? The last two seasons of new releases have given us a slew of innovative materials, with coloured ceramic, Ceratanium and bulk metallic glass sharing the billing with new gold alloys. Won over by their physical properties and avant-garde appearance, some brands are looking to the engineers and alchemists of their R&D divisions to come up with the next generation of high-tech materials with which to defy time.

Be astonished by Roger Dubuis

Roger Dubuis jumps in with not one but two extravagant watches, neither of which shows any restraint in its exploration of avant-garde technology. One, the Excalibur Twofold, spotlights the brand’s signature double flying tourbillon in an imposing 45mm case, sculpted from an ultra-white Mineral Composite Fiber (MCF). Developed by Roger Dubuis’ R&D centre – nicknamed Q Lab in reference to James Bond – it consists of 99.95% silica and is shaped by a sheet moulding compound process. “We wanted a white watch,” says Grégory Bruttin, Product Strategy Director at Roger Dubuis. “White is the most challenging colour to produce. We could have gone for ceramic only it’s heavy, not to mention difficult to machine. This new material is much lighter, offers the same resilience as carbon and is UV-resistant.”

A material must improve durability, guarantee greater comfort and create a visual distinction.
Grégory Bruttin

Another innovation spotted on this eight-piece limited edition: every angle of the bridges is coated with MCF then highlighted with a luminescent treatment that glows in the dark for 60% longer than standard lume. This capacity to light up the night continues on the wrist, courtesy of the strap in rubber that actually emits a green glow thanks to LumiSuperBiwiNova technology. “Our material innovations follow a clear three-point strategy,” continues Grégory Bruttin. “Each point relates to a customer benefit. The material must improve the watch’s durability, it must guarantee greater comfort and it must create a visual distinction. We develop a new material on condition it meets at least two of these criteria. That way we can focus our R&D rather than heading in all directions.” Naturally, the same strategy presided over the creation of the Excalibur Diabolus in Machina minute repeater flying tourbillon, packaged in a cobalt-chromium alloy. “This is an extremely pure alloy that’s very difficult to work with, but whose exceptionally homogenous composition ensures that the sound carries perfectly and the notes resonate for a long time.”

Panerai's high fibre diet

Panerai’s 2020 releases are also geared towards high-tech materials, with a view to performance, ethical practices or robustness. The titanium case of the Luminor Luna Rossa GMT – 44mm (PAM01036) – the Official Watch for the Challenger of Record of the 36th America’s Cup – opens onto a dial coated with a thin layer of the same sailcloth used on Luna Rossa’s AC75 monohull racing boat. As for the five Submersible EcoPangaea™ Tourbillon GMT – 50mm Mike Horn Edition watches (PAM01108), they incorporate a high-tech steel using metal that was repurposed from the propeller shaft of the Pangaea, explorer Mike Horn’s 35-metre sailing ship.

Luminor Luna Rossa GMT 44mm (PAM01036) © Panerai
Luminor Luna Rossa GMT 44mm (PAM01036) © Panerai

Yet another example of innovation in materials, the titanium case of the Luminor Marina – 44mm (PAM01662) is produced by direct metal laser sintering (DMLS), a 3D-printing technology that involves sedimentation of titanium powder in successive 30-micron (0.03mm) layers. On this execution, the bezel, the crown and the lever for the Safety Lock crown protection bridge are in Carbotech. The same proprietary carbon composite appears on the crown and crown lever of the Luminor Marina Fibratech™ – 44mm (PAM01663), the model Panerai has chosen to debut Fibratech, another futuristic material to come out of its Laboratorio di Idee. Composed of natural, eco-sustainable fibres, it is 60% lighter than steel, resilient and highly resistant to corrosion. Sure to withstand hard knocks while feeling comfortable on the wrist.

Why innovate?

Innovation isn’t just about flexing muscle or getting noticed. New materials are the guarantee of improved comfort, lightness or strength: three good reasons to break the mould and replace conventional metals with innovative alloys. Behind Piaget’s quest for absolute thinness lies a cobalt-based alloy which, while much harder to machine than gold, is 2.3 times stronger. It is this strength that enables the Altiplano Ultimate Concept, the world’s thinnest manual-winding watch, to withstand shocks despite being a mere 2mm “thick”.

Altiplano Ultimate Concept © Piaget
Altiplano Ultimate Concept © Piaget

At Rebellion, the style may be diametrically opposed, the constraints are exactly the same. In addition to a disruptive design and highly complex movement, the Weap-One Diamond Asymmetrical Flying Tourbillon features a tourbillon cage made out of flat atomic diamond, a scratch-resistant and unbreakable material found in the aerospace industry. The Japanese company Adamant Namiki Precision has developed and patented a production process. It takes a full 40 days to grow one millimetre of this synthetic diamond. That’s 280 days to produce the 7mm required for the tourbillon cage. Then a further 80 days of plasma fusion CMP polishing. In all, an entire year to produce just one of these truly unique tourbillon cages. Understandably, Rebellion is showing off this innovation inside the Weap-One’s atypical cylindrical case in titanium and sapphire for a high-tech view of the tick-tock of time.

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