Ceramic Timepieces Rise to the Top
by roberta naas
The True Thinline from Rado ($1,700) is the world’s thinnest high-tech ceramic watch. Its movement is as slim as a credit card, and the case measures just 5mm. The watch features a sapphire crystal dome, a super-thin rubber strap, and a ceramic buckle. Tourneau, King of Prussia Mall, 610-491-8801. This Invicta Russian Diver Skeleton Ceramic watch ($350) is created in a 42mm ceramic case with flame-fusion crystal, and it is water-resistant to 50 meters. JCPenney, King of Prussia Mall, 610-992-1096. From TW Steel, this ceramic bezel watch ($625) is crafted in steel with a rose-gold PVD case and a white dial, with a date window and a white leather strap. Nordstrom, Cherry Hill Mall, 856-773-5600.
Just about 30 years ago, one very forward-thinking watch brand named Rado unveiled a revolutionary new product—a high-tech ceramic watch. It was touted as ultra-scratch-resistant and super durable, thanks to the material Rado borrowed from the space industry: engineered ceramic. A pioneer in the field, Rado ventured where no other watchmakers had gone before, and it came out a winner.
Rado continues to lead in the field of high-tech ceramic timepieces, and has recently succeeded in building the world’s thinnest high-tech ceramic watch. The True Thinline spent several years in development and houses a movement as thin as a credit card. This watch, along with a host of other Rado timepieces, made the Malan Breton runway during New York’s prestigious Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week this past fall. Rado also offers its ceramic watches in black, white, and gray.
“We have been the leaders in high-tech ceramics, having engineered the finest materials first,” said Robert Brennan, Rado’s US brand president, during the recent opening of the company’s first boutique in the Americas, in St. Maarten. “It is important to offer not just durability, but also feel, fit, and technology, as well as fashion appeal.”
“In the Philadelphia region we’ve seen ceramic watches become increasingly more popular over the past eight years,” said Harvey Rovinsky, owner of Bernie Robbins Jewelers. “I think the high demand for them comes from their durability; the scratch-resistant material works well for any lifestyle, and it can be worn as your everyday watch. Also, the homogenous color palette lends itself to any wardrobe, so it’s versatile and flexible. This look works for casual or dress. What may have seemed like a passing trend when it began is certainly here to stay.” While most brands use ceramic in either black or white, in the past few years several companies have developed ceramic watches in colors such as midnight blue, chocolate brown, hues of pink, and silver.
Among those who create fashion-forward colorful ceramic watches are Fendi, which offers its Ceramic Chronograph model in various colors, including blue, white, and black, and Bell & Ross, which produces an Aviation blue ceramic BR03 in a surprising matte finish.
Engineered ceramic was developed in the 20th century for use in space vessels, in ceramic brake discs, and in medical and electronic equipment. Additionally, composite ceramics (those that make use of multiple materials, such as zirconium oxide, alumina, silicon carbide, and tungsten carbide) can be found in armored vehicles, airplanes, and even armored vests. Today dozens of brands—from the luxury field all the way to the fashion arena—are unveiling timepieces made of this high-tech material, working with metallurgists to develop their own specially blended ceramic materials. It is proof positive that this centuries-old craft still has a visionary element.
“If you consider the watchmaking geniuses of centuries ago, like Abraham Louis-Breguet, they were avant-garde in their day,” says Jean-Claude Biver, chairman of the board of Hublot, which uses ceramic on many of its Big Bang watches. “If these materials had existed in their world, they would have used them. We must not close our eyes; we must live with the future.”
Of course, adds Biver, the material must offer some added value; it cannot be used just for the sake of working with high-tech materials. With ceramics, the material renders a watch virtually scratchproof—theoretically, a 30-year-old high-tech ceramic watch, regularly worn, would still look brand-new today.
This nonmetallic solid material is engineered to meet very strict specifications. It is created via extreme heating and a subsequent cooling process. It has exceptionally high melting points and can withstand temperatures beyond 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit depending on the type of ceramic. It is incredibly hard, durable, lightweight, resistant to abrasion, and hypoallergenic, making it a coveted material for watch cases, bezels, even bracelets. Ceramic watches are also particularly appealing for sport and dive pieces, as they withstand chemical erosion and possess antimagnetic properties.
Like most things in life, all ceramic is not the same. Some companies fuse their ceramic with other products, interspersing it with steel for bracelets or using thinner layers of ceramic on their pieces to keep costs down. The ceramic of a luxury watch is typically of a different caliber than that of its affordable fashion counterparts. However, none can deny that the shiny finish of all ceramic makes it a pleasure to behold, drawing the attention of luxury and fashion watch brands alike. Indeed, from Swatch to Modus, Gc, Invicta, TW Steel, Michele Watches, TAG Heuer, and a host of other brands, cool ceramic timepieces are all the rage, and one would be hard-pressed not to find a leading Swiss watch brand with at least one ceramic line in its collection.
As ceramic enjoys the limelight, certain brands are further experimenting with mixing new materials into their watch cases. Panerai, for instance, has developed a composite of aluminum and ceramic that it uses for the case, bezel, and winding crown bridge on the matte-finished Panerai Luminor Marina Composite 1950 3 Days Automatic watch. It is created via an electrochemical process that transforms aluminum particles, making the material extremely lightweight but also incredibly hard and durable. “The development of this material and its application to watchmaking is not at all simple—it requires both the technical know-how and years of fine-tuning,” says Angelo Bonati, CEO of Officine Panerai.
No matter the price or style, high-tech ceramic is not only here to stay, but also here to grow with advanced technology and to offer great new time tantalizers.
photography by kenji toma