Traditions have dictated the use of either precious metals like gold for watch cases. This eventually extended to include technical materials like steel and titanium. But more recently, we have seen the use of innovative and novel materials. Some are metal alloys like bronze and aluminium. Others are composite materials like carbon fibre, ceramic and the like. Here is our quick survey of the best six watches which adapts these materials for the construction of cases.
Six watches with that use novel materials the case
First off, we start with metal alloys. There are many “newer” metals to the traditional gold, platinum, steel, titanium, aluminium, tantalum and also bronze. So as a token representative of the metal alloys, we feature bronze as the material of choice. A material which is perhaps one of the older of the new alloys. Bronze has been chosen for its use aeons ago in diving bells and thus a logical extension for diving watch cases. But its revival was first popularised showcase its patina. Read our technical “how to” article on the art of the patina.
The first highly publicised bronze watch was the Panerai Bronzo released in 2011 as the 1950 three-days reserve with an olive dial. It was the first sports watch to feature a chunky 47mm case entirely made out of bronze, but one which uses the patina as a USP. All 1,000 pieces of that limited edition were rapidly snapped by devoted fans, and created quite a ruckus and rush for the watches. Panerai was in its heyday, and production was very limited. Resulting in much allocation issues around the world. The secondary prices soared well above retail, fuelling the hype. A later example is this Luminor Submersible 1950 from 2017. The Bronzos created quite a ruckus in the collecting community when it launched.
But our choice is not a Panerai, but a Tudor, and of a much more recent vintage. The Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight Bronze Boutique Edition retails for SGD 6,240. And to us the representative bronze watch. The “Goldilocks” 39mm case size is an excellent fit for most wrists. The case material is an alloy of bronze and aluminum, mixed to Tudor’s specifications. The ideal ‘Bronze’ case ages with time, visibly manifested with a darkening tone on the metal. Tudor’s ‘Bronze’ was designed to age with restraint, with a homogenous patina throughout the case but without the extreme spectrum of ‘greening’ on the metal.
Then for the composite material camp, we start with carbon fibre. Perhaps one which is ready to be migrated from novelty to the traditional material bin. Carbon fibre has been in use for some decades now. Of these we see at least two distinct ways in which this material is used. First is one which uses fibre bunched in a die with resin, and forged using immense pressures. Second is one built of layers of layers of carbon pre-pregnated with resin, and then fused together in high heat and pressures. Some of these may be further doped with other materials like graphene to improve the mechanical properties, others may be just “plain vanilla” carbon fibre.
The use of carbon in watch cases seem to be price agnostic, we find watches spanning the pricing spectrum from below SGD 1k to way above SGD 1M.
We kick off with an affordable carbon cased watch. Perhaps the most affordable. Luminox watches feature a proprietary material which they call Carbonox and Carbonox+. Carbonox was introduced by Luminox in 2006, and consists of carbon long bars or carbon powder in varying percentages depending on the model. The material is very rigid and has a hard finish. Besides being durable and lightweight, it is extremely comfortable to wear, shock, scratch resistant, and resistant to temperate changes. It has very strong chemical resistance and it ‘s non-metallic, anti-allergenic, and anti-magnetic. Carbonox+ is an improved material, introduced in 2016, used in the production of the Luminox Master Carbon SEAL 3800 Series. It uses the same carbon long bar compound, but with an increased carbon fibers count for 40% of the compound. With the increased fibres, it has a tensile strength that is twice as high as with Carbonox, while water absorption is three times lower. It also provide a very modern and distinctive gray color to the Luminox watches.
Our pick is the collaboration with Bear Gryllis. This model has striking good looks, and is touted to be as tough as the famed adventurer. The watch has a complex dial, and comes with a booklet where Bear gives tips on how to use the watch in a survival situations. Granted that most who buy these watches will never have their lifes at stake, but it is good to know that the Luminox Bear Grylls Survival 3740 is tough and fit for the job. Plus, the looks of the watch is rather attractive, with the loud orange strap, the always on glow in the dark lume, and the rugged proportions.
Mega bucks time! And the use of exotic materials is certainly no stranger to Richard Mille. First consider the RM35-01 Rafael Nadal introcuded in 2014. The case is is made of a base material called Carbon TPT, which comprises of 600 parallel layers of carbon fibre filaments. These layers are about 30 microns thick each, and are impregnated with a resin and woven in a CNC machine which changes orientation by 45° between layers. The layers are then heated to cure the resin and machined to shape.
Then, in 2017, RM introduces the newest collaboration effort: the wonder kid on the block: Graph TPT with graphene, in the RM50-03, released at CHF 980,000 and now sold out. It starts off with a base of Carbon TPT but uses a supercharged resin containing graphene. This model features a tripartite case crafted in Carbon TPT. The base is Carbon TPT, but is then supercharged with resin containing graphene. Graph TPT is currently exclusively used in watchmaking by Richard Mille.
Sapphire glass has become a rather standard material for watch crystals. But its use in a watch case is perhaps a more recent innovation. Hublot is one of the pioneers of the sapphire glass case, with their Big Bang Sapphire making waves in the industry. Watches like their Big Bang Unico Sapphire are very interesting watches featuring cases which are almost transparent. They followed up with the series in coloured sapphire like the Big Bang Tourbillon Sapphire released in 2023.
But we seek an even more innovative material. This one pioneered by Girard-Perregaux by mixing a carbon fibre base with glass. Carbon Glass is a new material is made from a patented manufacturing process which hinges on the use of extreme compression combined with an injection technique at high-temperature. The result is a block of matter which is homogeneous in all directions.
The material debuted in the Laureato Absolute Rock which carries a highly attractive retail price of SGD 23,300. The visual aesthetic of the material is rather striking with the integration of blue glass fibers into the carbon. Each piece is thus unique, with a character of its own. Other colours are possible, but the launch watch has a vibrant blue seen in the shards within, which seem to have a glow of their own. The major advantage of this technique is that a perfect seal is achieved through the material’s impermeability: GP claims that no other carbon manufacturing technique matches this level of air-tightness without a container.
Next ceramic. Ceramics are typically hard, brittle, heat-resistant, and corrosion-resistant. The material is inorganic and non-metallic material, though modern methods can incorporate metal into the ceramic mix to give a bright and unmistakably metallic appearance to the watches. Ceramics start as a clay like material, and fabrication is either by the action of heat, or at lower temperatures using precipitation reactions from high-purity chemical solutions.
Any discussion of the use of ceramics in watches must include the original – Rado, who first pioneered the use of ceramics in their scratch resistant watches since the . In 1962, Rado also pioneered the use of Tungsten Carbide in watch cases, with the first DiaStar. In 1968, Rado made the world’s first ceramic cased watch.
And our pick is the latest DiaStar, now christened as the Original Skeleton (SGD 2,950), which uses a Ceramos, an innovative composite material. It combines the hardness properties of ceramics (around 90 % titanium carbide) with the toughness and lustre of a metal alloy – in other words, the best of both worlds.
Retailing at SGD 194, the Swatch Big Bold NEXT extends the collection using Bioceramic. The case material is bio-sourced base of 30% is from castor oil – an oil extracted from the beans of the castor plant (Ricinus communis). The oil is made into beads which is combined with ceramic to form the new material. The base pure material is a bright white, used in the White model. And pigments are added to produce the other colours – Black, Grey, Pink and Blue.
This is really a fun watch. It is uber cool looking, with the fun element played up by the use of the innovative material, which is so nice to the touch. And despite being 47mm in diameter, it wears superbly on regular wrists and even smaller ones. The entire case and bracelet seem to just wrap itself around the wrist for a good comfortable fit.
So here are our picks. We know there are many, many others out there. What would you have chosen, or what other non-traditional material would you like to see in the manufacture of watch cases?