The evolution of watch materials is not just driven by the wide range of aesthetically diverse and interesting watches currently on the market. It’s also deeply intertwined with the evolution of watches themselves. At one time, watches only found their way to elite members of society. At the time, hand-crafted watches were mostly commission pieces. But, the advancement of watch materials allowed for the mass production of watches and their release into the consumer market. Here, we’ll look at how the development of new materials is impacting watches from the inside out.
It’s certainly easy to note the new materials used in the external design of watches. Offering an array of color and material selections has become standard for watchmakers who want to remain competitive in the market. But, the evolution of materials inside the watch isn’t always obvious. One of the most notable advancements in recent years has been the use of silicon in the watch movement.
At the heart of the mechanical movement is a delicate system comprising a hairspring, balance wheel, escapement wheel, and pallet mechanism. For centuries, metal was the material of choice. The downsides to metal are that it requires regular lubrication to prevent friction and it’s high susceptible to magnets, shock, temperature changes, and wear and tear.
The Introduction of Silicon
Now, manufacturers use silicon to create these imperative parts of the movement. It’s lighter, harder, and stronger than any metal and allows the movement to run at a much higher frequency, which means greater accuracy for the watch. Silicon parts are virtually frictionless, so there’s no need for lubrication, and they’re much more impervious to external forces. The only drawback to silicon is its potential tendency to become brittle over time. However, by bonding it with a synthetic-diamond or carbon coating this can reduce instability.
Replacing metal parts with silicon is just the beginning. The production of silicon parts is vastly different than the process used to produce metal components. The manufacture of silicon parts presents a new opportunity for watchmakers to completely rethink the shapes of these parts. This new geometry only continues to help improve the efficiency, performance, regulation, and reliability of the movements in production today.
Traditionally, the most common material used for the watch case is gold. This case houses the movement and the intricate inner workings. But, over time, the watchmaking industry has differentiated itself from the jewelry industry and aligned itself more firmly in its precision mechanics. Thus, horologists have looked to the automobile, medical, and aerospace industries for advancements in materials.
Since its debut in the 1930’s, stainless steel has arguably replaced gold as the most popular case material. It’s more affordable, lightweight, and highly resistant to corrosion. Titanium came onto the watch market several decades later, in the 1970’s. Similar to stainless steel, it’s lightweight and corrosion-resistant. However, while it’s even more durable, it can also be more costly. PVD, short for Physical Vapor Deposition, is another metal variation made of steel. It has a vacuum coating of oxides, carbides, or nitrides deposited by ionic attraction. It also provides increased durability, but, more importantly, it helps to reduce friction with other metal components.
Newer Materials in Cases
In more recent years, the range of watch materials for cases has spanned far beyond metals. Ceramic may still be in the early stages of research and development, but it’s quickly growing in popularity in watchmaking. It’s extremely lightweight and scratch resistant. Plus, its manufactured easily in a wide range of color options. The downsides are cost and its potential to be brittle, breaking upon strong impact.
Carbon fiber is another case material that’s in the experimental phases. Like ceramic, it’s tough, lightweight, and contemporary. Finally, the watch crystal is no longer the only place sapphire appears. Several brands are spearheading the trend of sapphire cases. Similar to its advantages over a glass crystal, sapphire provides a sturdy, scratch resistant material for the case. Like ceramic, it has the downside of becoming brittle and breaking on impact. However, it also provides the advantage of showcasing those mesmerizing inner workings.
Watchmaking, rooted in centuries of skilled craftsmanship, is a traditional art form . However, it has come a long way from the days of glass coverings on the watch face and easily-tarnished silver watch cases. You may not think of mechanical watches as a piece of technology, but, in fact, they are. And, the way in which these masterpieces in precision mechanics are crafted has evolved dramatically with the development of new materials.