An Overview of Ceramic in watches
Ceramic. You've undoubtedly will have heard the word used over the last few years when it comes to materials used in the production of watches. It seems as if Ceramic has come from nowhere to take the industry by storm however for over fifty years now the use of ceramic in wristwatches has been gradually becoming more advanced and commonplace.
The use of ceramics by mankind goes back to nearly 30,000 BC as archeologists have discovered ceramic figurines made out of animal fat, clay, bone and ash baked in a rudimentary kiln in modern day Czech Republic. These figurines were a kind of a decorative fertility statue and it was only in 9000 BC that the first examples of the practical use for ceramic (storing grain and food) can be found. It is from the Ancient Greek word, keramos, meaning pottery that we get the word ceramic. Nearly 10,000 years later and whilst the technology used in making ceramics have advanced significantly, the essential process has remained the same. Processed clay, earthen elements and other materials are combined with water to formed into the intended shape. The ceramic is then placed inside a kiln and after a process of extreme heating and cooling, the finished product is complete. Modern day techniques involves injection molding, specialist alloys and a variety of cutting edge equipment that is world's apart from human kinds earlier attempts. I'm sure those ceramic technicians reading this are pulling their hair out simplifying their profession to two sentences however it covers the absolute basics. The development of ceramics in wristwatches is very interesting and the continuing development and use of the material over the last fifty years is probably one of the best decisions the industry has made.
In the watch industry there are always claims of being the first to develop this that or the other and ceramic is unfortunately no different. Popular belief is that Rado developed the first ceramic watch in 1962 with the Diastar however this was made out of Tungsten Carbide, an extremely scratch resistant substance...just not ceramic. From what I can find it is the Omega Seamaster Cermet aka The Black Tulip that was the first ceramic watch produced after ten years of research. The hardened ceramic was exceptionally expensive to produce (It had a retail price of nearly four times that of the Cal. 861 Speedmaster) so it never saw mass production ; the pattern of developing a new technology, having a limited run to prove that it can be made and then waiting for the technology to become financially viable will repeat several times over the course of fifty years.
IWC released the Da Vinci 19K Yellow Gold Ceramic Perpetual Calendar Moonphase Ref 3755 in an attempt to develop the perfect black case for their Da Vinci range of watches. Rather than the glossy metallic ceramic that was used by the Omega Cermet, the Zirconium Oxide case is a cool matt black contrasted against the yellow case buckle and pushers. The work that went into developing this watch would pave the way for the development of their first ceramic production model in 1994. The Ref 3755 was certainly the most complicated wristwatch ever produced in ceramic at the time and IWC still produce a perpetual calendar watch in ceramic, the Big Pilot Top Gun Ref 5029.
In the same year, Rado released the Integral which was the first ceramic watch released by a manufacture for mass production. The Integral used a steel case back to maintain strength and the links are enforced with the same gold PVD steel on the side however it is still a major accomplish to produce a watch on this scale with a new technology.
Following the development of the Da Vinci, the IWC 3705 Ceramic FliegerChronograph is the world's first all ceramic cased chronograph watch. The ceramic case added a 50% premium on top of the regular steel cased IWC chronographs and IWC only produced around 2000 or so for the five year run of this model. This watch is the first use outside of a limited trial run to use the high tech ceramic known as Zirconium Dioxide (ZRO2) which when fully treated is harder than steel and its crystalline atomic structure is such that it's highly crack resistance. This strength is how a substance traditionally thought of as brittle can be used to make entire cases, pushers and buckles without breaking.
Out of the selection of ceramic watches this is head and shoulders above the rest. A design aesthetic that still is as gorgeous today as it was twenty years ago, a classic pilot's design with modern materials. It's strengths lie in the simplicity of the design lies in traditional Swiss understated style rather than the glossy platinum coloured metallic Rado's or the Cermet of a few years before. A few years ago IWC released an updated version of the 3705 in the form of the Top Gun Miramar which in my opinion fails to capture the essence of the original. Due to the limited run of production these watches are very rare so if you see one at a good price then you should definitely invest.
Since 1987 the French fashion house Chanel had been making two fine wristwatches, the Premiere & Matelassé, however it was thirteen years later with the release of the all ceramic J12 that truly propelled Chanel into the limelight. At launch just Like the classic Model-T, you could have any could have any colour you wanted, as long as it was black as it wasn't until three years later than it would be available in white.
What was unique about the J12, especially coming from a Haute Couture fashion house, is that it was designed like a sports watch rather than a dress piece.Rather than the overtly masculine utilitarian design of the FleigerChronograph, the J12 was elegant enough for a woman to wear yet had enough hints of a dive watch (crown guards, diving bezel) to appeal to men. The functional and stylish design is what made the J12 a classic and Chanel has since made many variables throughout the years.
At Baselworld Rolex announce Cerachrom, a patented Rolex produced ceramic to be featured in the GMT Master II where the colour is unaffected by ultraviolet rays with the graduations made from platinum. Over the years Rolex expanded the use of Cerachrom in the Submariner and YachtMaster models with colours in Blue, Black and Green. This is when the use of ceramics in bezels started to become common place and I think it's one of the best moves the industry has made.
Until the industry develops a ceramic that is indistinguishable from the look and feel of a steel case then ceramic bezels are where we'll see the majority of ceramic used. Some may mourn the loss of the aluminium bezel and the fading that can occur over time but like all aspects of a technology, things have to change to advance and become better. Yesterday's faded bezel will be tomorrow's ceramic which reacted to X to become Y as the collectors market will always find something desirable about vintage watches. With the mass use of ceramic barely a decade old, we still do not know what happens to these high tech ceramics over a long period of time.
Omega released the Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean LiquidMetal Limited Edition to showcase their use of the Liquidmetal alloy that is used for the graduations and numbers on the bezel. The finished ceramic bezel is cut into with an 8000 watt laser to form the indentations and the LiquidMetal alloy (Zirconium,Titanium, Copper, Nickel and Beryllium) is heat flattened into these gaps to form a perfectly smooth and near scratch proof graduations. For all intents and purposes this is Omega's equivalent of Rolex's Cerachrom with a non-precious metal alloy used instead of Platinum. There are some visual differences between the colours of black but for the lay person these ceramics are identical. It should be noted that the Liquidmetal is infact a trademarked product and not developed by Omega themselves. A few years later Omega patented the process of bonding 18K Gold in with a ceramic bezel with the finished product dubbing the process "CeraGold".
All Omega Planet Oceans and the new Seamaster 300 use the LiquidMetal alloy as part of their bezels however the Seamaster Professional 300M does not in an effort to keep their best selling watch at an affordable price. This is also the reason that Omega have not chosen to upgrade the movement inside the 300M from a Co-Axial movement to a Co-Axial Calibre Movement.
Rolex release the GMT Master II Ref 116710 BLNR (Blue-Noir), the first time a single piece of ceramic has been formed into two separate colours. Dubbed by fans "The Batman" after the Caped Crusaders original costume of deep black and blue, this watch was the first time Rolex used these colours for their classic GMT and this was very successful. What made this watch unique is that instead of having two separate half rings of two different colours, Rolex had developed a technique to transform a single ring of ceramic into two different colours. No bleeding from colour to colour and no gradual fading either, just an instantaneous change half way which is truly a technical marvel.
Speaking of technical marvels, Omega released the Dark Side of the Moon which would become one of their greatest successes in recent memory. The case is crafted from a single block of ceramic with ceramic pushers, buckle and dial and is an absolute delight to behold. The stunning 9300 Calibre movement is set right into the ceramic mono-block with just a domed sapphire crystal back displaying it's full glory. Written on the dial in faint script is Zr02, the scientific abbreviation for Zirconium dioxide, the high tech ceramic now used throughout the industry. To craft a single block of ceramic into a watch case is a mean technical feat, particularly when used in the Speedmaster range where collectors and fans don't like too much radical changes to the design.
Perhaps drowned out in attention given to the GMT Master or the Dark Side of the Moon (Or even their own massive amount of limited editions), a few months later Hublot announced to slightly less aplomb the Hublot Red Ceramic Classic fusion Tourbillon. For those with keen eyes, you'll have noticed that the ceramics that have been released so far have been dark in colour. Other than white, black and other dark colours, getting a bright colour ceramic is very hard to produce as during the baking process the colour simply fades away. Hublot showed the world that creating a red ceramic could be done and surely enough, the race to complete the ceramic rainbow was on. As always, the first round of a new technology is very expensive to produce so only one watch was ever made which was sold at the OnlyWatch Charity Auction back in September 2013.
Not wanting to rest on their laurels after the 2013's BLNR, Rolex release the GMT Master II Ref 116719BLRO, reviving the classic Red and Blue "Pepsi" bezel for the first time in ceramic. It's safe to say no-one expected this watch at Baselworld and everyone was blown away, if not by the technology but at very least the price. Rolex had gone to great lengths to create the perfect colour red in ceramic so the BLRO (Bleu-Rouge) is only available in white gold at a price of approximately $40,000. Perhaps several years down the line when the process of crafting red ceramic is less costly we'll see a version of this in steel but Rolex are notoriously quiet on their future plans so only time will tell. I've read the patent for the colouring process and it's safe to say I don't have a future in macro ceramic technology or as a patent clerk. The development and advancements in ceramic processing technology does go to show how dedicated Rolex is to perfecting different colours. I'm not the biggest fan of their watches but I have a lot of respect for Rolex and their watchmaking skill if I had $20,000 spare....I'd probably buy the DSotM but this watch would certainly make me pause for a moment.
Like Rolex, Omega didn't want to be outdone by their previous selves and released the Lunar Dust Grey Side of the Moon and a special Limited Edition Planet Ocean with an Orange Ceramic Bezel. Formed from a single block of white ceramic, it is only after plasma treatment that unique grey look to this watch is formed. Whilst the buckle and pushers remain ceramic, Omega chose to use a sand blasted disc of Platinum for the dial intending to mimic the dusty surface of the moon. I liked the unique grey look to this watch, especially the dial but this watch certainly divided opinion more the the Dark Side of the Moon. Maybe in a few years it will as much of a classic but unfortunately I think it's always going to be the baby brother to the DSotM. It is really interesting in seeing the different roads that Rolex and Omega have gone down in regards to the development in ceramic technology with Rolex focusing on expanding the choice of bright colour and Omega focusing on ceramic cases but in easier colours to produce (Again I'm sure those ceramic technicians are frothing at the mouth when I say making grey ceramic is easy).
Omega release the White side of the Moon and the Dark Side of the Moon Collection. Now I'm going to be frank and say that I think the WSotM is rather garish. Admittedly I haven't seen it in the flesh yet but I'm not a fan of all white watches and this piece is no exception. When it's being shown at a boutique near me I'll check it out and hopefully change my mind but I'm not convinced. Other than completing the "Dark/Grey/White" of the Moon Trifecta, I imagine the production of this watch has to do with the manufacture process of the Grey Side of the moon which starts out as a white ceramic and is turned gray by plasma treatment. Perhaps keeping it as a white ceramic was relatively easy in terms of production? Omega had been teasing before the announcement with a series of photos showing a white cube being slowly chipped away to reveal a white space helmet. I think once the first image hit many assumed correctly that it would be the WSotM however the reveal of the Dark Side of the Moon collection was a big surprise to at least myself. The somewhat limited availability of the DSotM was due to the slow manufacturing process and the release of five new ceramic pieces show that whatever was slowing them down before is no longer a problem. The Dark Side of the Moon Collection has been expanded with four new variants othering a slightly different take on the original ; the Black Black for fans of near unreadable tactical watches, the Sedna Black which makes excellent use of Omega's Red Gold alloy in the bezel and hour markers, the Pitch Black for those Vin Diesel fans and for those of readable tactical watches and the Vintage Black complete with faux aged SuperLuminova and classically styled leather strap.
2016 & Beyond
I'm unsure of what the next advancement in ceramic technology will be over the coming years. With the development of the usual colours found in bezels I can't see any further interest in getting any other colours past the point of novelty (Reddy Teal bezel anyone?). With Omega completing the "Side of the Moon" range, perhaps we'll see a Seamaster in ceramic in the near future with equivalent water resistance to that of steel?. As I said above I think where the industry may take ceramic technology is towards getting a ceramic look and feel exactly like steel but I think many in the industry, especially dealers, might not care for the idea initially. Having a mint condition watch fifty years after release isn't as special if it's practically scratch proof and every owner has one in the same condition . In the immediate future I'd like to get the ceramic process affordable for entry level watchs and the ditching of aluminium bezels ; The short reign of Aluminium bezels is fading away and the very long reign of ceramic has only just begun.