Edgy Watchmakers' Material Links Time and Space
New York Times, April 11, 2007
Since the mechanical watchmaking revival began two decades ago, Switzerland's luxury timepiece brands have embraced two warring identities. One is obsessed with esoteric - and today largely irrelevant - mechanisms that hark back to a golden era when inventors like Abraham-Louis Breguet created the first complicated instruments to tell time accurately, about 200 years ago.
The other, enthralled with the future, is holed up in a laboratory, experimenting with materials that borrow heavily from the automotive, medical and aerospace industries. The result is the creation of watches boasting never-before-seen metallurgical combinations, silicon-enhanced movements and cases made of glossy high-tech ceramic - the material, for example, that has been used as a heat shield to protect U.S. space shuttles as they re-enter the earth's atmosphere.
"The most significant trend in watches over the last two years has been this explosion of experimentation with materials," says Joe Thompson, editor in chief of WatchTime magazine. "The romance is that you've got a wonderful watchmaker sitting in his atelier in the Jura mountains. He's there. But he's assembling parts made in high-tech environments. You'd think you were in NASA."
Thompson cites the runaway success of the sports watch segment and a concurrent trend, jumbo cases whose diameters regularly top 44 millimeters, or 1.7 inches, as two factors driving the industry to produce lighter and more durable watches.
The Swiss have long dabbled in new materials. In 1897, for example, Charles-Édouard Guillaume produced an iron-nickel alloy that eliminated temperature-related timekeeping errors. Synthetic sapphire crystals, harder and therefore more durable than plain glass crystals, became de rigueur in the 1960s. Audemars Piguet risked its luxury standing in 1972 by introducing its now-legendary Royal Oak in stainless steel.
The poster child for the watch industry's current technology play, however, is undoubtedly Hublot. The brand, founded in 1980 by Carlo Crocco, made watchmaking history by producing the first luxury gold watch on a natural rubber strap.
While the Swiss establishment considered Crocco's creation gauche - rubber, after all, was the material used for flip-flops and bottle stoppers - aristocratic Europeans, including King Juan Carlos of Spain, took to the avant-garde timepiece, which came scented with a delicate vanilla aroma. That the strap was corrosion-resistant, light, supple and durable added to its cachet.
The low-end knocked off Crocco's idea, but so, too, did the prestige brands. By the mid-1990s, many began to feature rubber, or a similar composite material, in their sport collections. The fashion world followed suit, co-opting the trend with models like the Dior Christal Rubber, fitted with a sapphire-studded rubber strap, grooved to resemble the look of links.
Hublot roused the industry again in 2005 with the Big Bang, a sporty mechanical chronograph that incorporated gold, ceramic, Kevlar, carbon, tungsten, tantalum and rubber in its design.
Founded on the vision of Hublot's chief executive, Jean-Claude Biver - a marketing whiz fresh from an 11-year stint at the Swatch Group - the Big Bang generates 65 percent of the company's annual turnover, which has nearly quadrupled over the past two years, to 96 million Swiss francs, or $78.7 million, from 26 million francs.
Biver calls the philosophy behind the Big Bang "fusion," a blend of traditional horological art and 21st-century watchmaking. "When tradition meets the future, then you are progressing and that's how you keep the art alive," he said.
This year, the collection will see the addition of the $22,900 Big Bang Gold Mat, whose pink gold case is treated with a new microblasting finishing method; the $220,000 Bigger Bang All Black tourbillon; and the $21,900 Big Bang King, a 48 millimeter-diameter diving watch available in gold or palladium, the lightest of the platinum group metals.
Emboldened by Hublot's success, the Swiss are now fixated on research and development, particularly in the metallurgical arena. One school of watchmakers - among them Patek Philippe and Ulysses Nardin - is placing its bets on silicon - or silicium as the industry prefers to call it - which eliminates the need for oil, theoretically reducing the amount of friction that can degrade a watch movement.