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Watchmaking Case Materials: Who Dares Wins

In this final instilment of our materials deep dive we take on “the outliers”. The materials that don’t jump to mind quick as quickly as steel or gold might. So why talk about them if they don’t feature that often? Well, in truth, some brands are quite literally built on their development of materials, for example IWC and Ceramic in the Da Vinci. The IWC Da Vinci ref. 3755 was one of the first luxury watches made with a ceramic case; and the first perpetual calendar chronograph that used the material. It also came with a choice of a black or white case. And in truth, it should be no surprise give that watchmakers and designers have long worked on complications and mechanical innovations, so why not case materials? After all, they not only frame a watch, but they also play into the aesthetic deeply as well as the functionality with some materials being hugely robust, others very light and some scratch resistant. Below I will cover DLC, PVD, Titanium and ceramic, let’s get into it.

DLC

DLC stands for Diamond-like carbon, it is a coating applied directly to the material in question. In this case, watches. Primarily, DLC is used in the watch industry because it turns regular steel black as seen in models from Titan Black, Bamford and Hercules. The coating consists of carbon particles and is chemically applied to the object making the finish hugely durable and scratch resistant. After all, DLC is harder than steel, which means that a DLC coated watch has increased durability and resistance to scratches. The coating is only a few microns thick, which is hardly noticeable when a watch is in hand.

PVD

DLC is sometimes confused with PVD, and fairly so. A black watch is a black watch, right? In fact, PVD is not a coating, but a process of coating. PVD stands for Physical Vapour Deposition where you vaporize metals and bind them on a surface in layers inside a heated vacuum. With DLC, you use a form of carbon. The carbon is blasted onto the surface and then cooled down. A common concern of PVD coating is that if it scratches, the steel will stand out brightly and be hard to miss, and worse, re-coating a watch is not something that is commonly done, which can be an issue.

Ceramic

On a quest to create scratch-proof watches, several companies experimented with the material as early as the 1970s. In the 70’s Omega worked on the Seamaster Cermet which had a case made from their proprietary ceramic material cermet, made from aluminium oxide and tungsten carbide. In 1986 IWC Schaffhausen followed with the IWC Da Vinci ref. 3755. It was one of the first luxury watches made with a ceramic case; and the first perpetual calendar chronograph that used the material. It also came with a choice of a black or white case. And finally, in 1990 Rado launched the Rado Ceramica, the first watch to have a ceramic case and bracelet. While these watches were not commercially successful, they provided proof that working with ceramic presented many possibilities.

In 2005, Rolex patented their own ceramic known as Cerachrom. It was used on its bezels and was virtually scratch-proof, and fade-proof and we still see them to this day from Rolex.  

Titanium

Titanium watches are slightly different shade to stainless-steel , lighter in weight, and machined slightly differently to stainless steel as well. Titanium has become popular in recent years in the watch world due to its lightweight and high tensile properties. This allows for a less heavy watch, in comparison to the equivalent stainless-steel counterpart. 

Titanium is around 50% lighter than stainless steel, has a higher anti-magnetic resistance, and is more durable against impacts. It is worth noting that unlike ceramic, titanium will still pick up the occasional noticeable scratch, but if you are wearing something as light and robust as a titanium Panerai for example, you can’t complain really.

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