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Watches: The hard metals race

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Clay nanoparticles. Jet fighter parts. ‘Magic Gold’. As horology expert Simon de Burton reveals, nothing is too far-out for the world’s leading watchmakers

You know watchmaking has become serious when one of the leading brands announces that it has invented a new type of gold. That’s what happened at Hublot, which recently created the first chunk of what the celebrated ‘fusion’ watchmaker calls ‘Magic Gold’.

Hublot, which has made its name by mixing materials as diverse as rubber, carbon fibre, magnesium, diamonds and even bulletproof cermet, pulled off the ultimate in horological alchemy by blending 24-carat gold with a ceramic made from boron carbide powder.

The result is a gold that scores almost 1,000 on the Vickers test of hardness, meaning it’s about two-and-a-half times tougher than 18 carat and therefore highly suitable for making watch cases, bracelets and bezels.

And it only gets more complicated. In order to create such parts, the ceramic is moulded to shape and then injected with molten 24-carat liquid gold under ultra-high pressure, creating the world’s first scratchproof gold.

In order to stay ahead of the game, manufacturers have no option but to continually push the boundaries of creativity. The lexicon has grown somewhat and now contains exotic substances such as palladium, zalium, tantalum and titanium, not to mention liquid metal, nobium and ceramic.

The jet age

Richard Mille, for example, has dipped into the world of jet-fighter design for part of his RM021 Aerodyne hand-wound tourbillon – its movement baseplate features (deep breath) honeycombed orthorhombic titanium. US flight technology firm ATI Aerospace refers to this as a ‘mission critical metallic’, in other words, a metal structure that prevents everything from falling apart when the going gets tough. Even in a thin, foil form, the material remains strong at anything up to 1,200F – which means that, in the rather cooler interior of the RM021, the baseplate should never become distorted and therefore the movement less prone to fluctuations in accuracy.

And here, of course, we come to that great anomaly of the luxury watch world: timepieces with mechanical movements are far harder to produce than quartz-powered ones, use many more components and are therefore considerably more expensive – yet they are nowhere near as accurate.

Citizen’s new Eco-Drive Satellite Wave Air, for example, boasts a solar-powered quartz movement that uses satellite technology to self-adjust to the time zone of any one of 26 cities – yet it costs just £1,795.

Mechanical-only watches, however, are truly coveted by connoisseurs. But all those gears, wheels and cogs require some sort of lubricant to keep them running smoothly – and when that lubricant degrades it clogs and causes drag, resulting in a watch that keeps time erratically. Most makers would like to do away with lubricant. Some, including Patek Philippe, Ulysse Nardin and Breguet have used silicone to produce crucial components such as balance springs and escape wheels – the material lends itself to watchmaking because it is corrosion-resistant, anti-magnetic, ultra light and, best of all, doesn’t need lubricating.

But now, plain silicone looks set to be superseded as Ulysse Nardin and other brands begin to experiment by coating silicone parts with a film of synthetic diamond to provide even less friction and greater longevity – all in the name of a level of accuracy that it’s unlikely the average watch-wearer will ever be able to appreciate.

High-end watches are not, of course, simply about trying to achieve the impossible task of keeping time to the nth degree – they are about extending the limits of micro-engineering and perpetuating the science of clockwork.

Vacuum-packed

It is for that reason that Jaeger-LeCoultre developed its Master Compressor Extreme Lab concept watch, which eliminated the need for lubricant with a movement made from exotic materials. The watch costs around £250,000 and was made in an extremely limited number, but elements of the movement are gradually being incorporated into the brand’s mainstream models.

Similarly, Cartier has revealed concepts such as the iD Two, which has a transparent case made from Ceramyst, a ceramic developed for the defence industry and used to make windshields for tanks and the White House’s bomb-resistant windows.

What’s more remarkable is that the inside of the 42mm case is devoid of air. On final assembly, the air is sucked out of the watch through a hole which is then sealed with the winding stem. Creating a vacuum means that energy losses caused by air friction within a normal case are reduced by 60 per cent. The treatment also means that the back of the watch doesn’t need screws to attach it – it’s sucked into place.

The wizardry doesn’t end there, however. Gaskets ‘doped’ with clay nanoparticles should ensure the case won’t return to standard atmospheric pressure for at least a decade. The movement boasts two winding barrels, each of which is equipped with a pair of springs – made not from steel but from glass microfibres which, it’s claimed, produce greater power and deliver it in a more linear fashion.

But even Cartier’s space-age prototype faces a challenge in the eccentricity stakes from niche brand HYT. The so-called ‘hydro-mechanical horologists’ have designed a watch that incorporates a pair of piston-like components which display the hour by gradually pumping two liquids, one clear and one brightly coloured, around a tube surrounding the edge of the dial. Now that really does bring a new meaning to the words ‘the tides of time’…

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