A History of Ceramics in Watchmaking
From the wood burning kilns of Ancient Greece to the launchpads at Cape Canaveral, ceramics have been an important part of culture of thousands of years.
For the last fifty years, watch brands have experimented with this enigmatic material, from bracelets to ball bearings, cases to crystals. By definition, ceramic is an enigma as it is an inorganic, non-metallic material that includes metallic compounds. It is strong under high pressure, yet can shatter on strong impact. Ceramic is used on cheap IKEA plates but also in watches costing tens of thousands of dollars.
Ceramic has been used by humanity to make vases, plates and artwork for since Ancient Greece.
The word itself, ceramic, was first used in the 1850s and is derived from the Greek word 'keramos', meaning potter's clay. Over the last 2000 years, the process of manufacturing ceramic has evolved from a wood fire kiln to industrial ovens roaring at 20,000 Celsius, but the basics have remained the same.
You stat with a slurry of ceramic material which is molded into the rough shape of the intended object. This blob of ceramic is several times the size of the end product as by baking the ceramic, also known as the sintering process, it will shrink and harden. After the numerous sintering processes, secondary features like beveled edges or facets are created by diamond tools. Why diamond tools? Because diamond is one of the few materials harder than ceramic which as a Mohs Hardness score of 9 (Diamond has a score of 10). After repeated grinding, tooling and polishing, the finished material is made.
There are many different types and uses of ceramic; brake pads on race cars, heat-absorbing tiles on spaceships and razor sharp knives to name a few. High-tech ceramics, as they are known today, are specifically engineered compounds which have a mixture of ionic and covalent bonds inside them. These bonds form a type of grain, like wood, and it is the variety of these interconnecting grains and bonds that allow for immense durability under pressure. However ceramic has very poor tensile strength so sudden knocks can cause the bonds to break. Unlike metals, whose bonds can quickly 'find' other bonds to latch onto, ceramic bonds can't do this and what starts as a small crack quickly starts a chain reaction that leads to shattering. This is why if you take a hammer to an stainless steel Oyster case, it will stay in one piece but will have a dent in it. If you take a hammer to the ceramic case of a Rado, then you'll have a fun time picking ceramic shards out of your carpet for weeks.
The size and shape of the ceramic piece will alter how strong it is.
The bigger the piece of ceramic, the stronger it will be. That seems like common sense but the shape of the ceramic also affects how strong it will be. A square block of ceramic will have a lot more variety of bonds than a flat ceramic tile, even if they have the same mass. In watchmaking, ceramic is often seen used in cases and bracelets which have enough mass, and therefore enough grain variety, to survive knocks. Ceramics are fundamentally unsuited for small and thin watchmaking components like staffs or wheels as they will shatter, whereas steel or other metals will just bend or dent. Bridges and plates could be made from ceramic but the material doesn't offer any noticeable benefits over traditional metals, and so hasn't caught on amongst watchmakers.
Rado was the first brand to experiment with ceramic with the release of the Diastar in 1962, the world's first scratch proof watch. 55 years later, the tungsten carbide cases of the Diastar are proof positive to that bold claim as other than faded lume or the dated case design, it is near impossible to notice the passage of time when looking at the watch. In 1973, Omega began work on developing cases made of cermet, a proprietary ceramic material made from aluminium oxide and tungsten carbide. After 8 years of research, Omega released the Seamaster Cermet, which now is dubbed the 'black tulip' after its distinctive black case.
This was an expensive watch to research and produce so it was only available via special order at the price of 5 times more than a Speedmaster. It wasn't an entirely ceramic watch as whilst the case was ceramic, the bracelet was made of steel with added ceramic tiles atop it. The Omega Cermet and the Rado Diastar weren't incredibly successful but were a proof of concept that ceramic could work in watchmaking. Eventually, both of these brand would become known for their work in ceramic watchmaking.
In 1986, IWC that proved that ceramic had a place in luxury watchmaking
The IWC Da Vinci Ref. 3755 was the first perpetual calendar chronograph with a ceramic case. It was also the first time that you had a choice of color, either black or white ceramic (There are rumors that a lime green case was made however I haven't seen any pictures that prove its existence). Like the Diastar, the case design of the Ref. 3755 is dated and it wouldn't be until 1994 that IWC would make a ceramic watch with a more traditional case, the Ref. 3705 ceramic Fliegerchronograph. This black ceramic cased chronograph in a black ceramic case is one of the rarest, modern IWC watches with less than 2000 estimated to have been produced between 1994 and 1998. Much like the 60s Diastar, the only sign of age on these watches is the fading tritium hour markers (and the grey hair of the owner lucky enough to buy one at launch).
Rado continued to develop the use of ceramic and in 1990, set upon a design ethos that would become the defacto look of the brand for the next 30 years. The Rado Ceramica was the first watch to have both a ceramic case and ceramic bracelet as previous watches like the Diastar and the Cermet were either fitted to leather straps or metal bracelets covered in ceramic tiles. During the 1990s, Rado develop plasma cermica. This variation started with regular ceramic but treated it to an additional sintering process at 20,000 degrees Celsius which creates a dazzling metallic sheen.
A real breakthrough in the use of high-tech ceramic in watchmaking came in 2002 when Jaeger-LeCoultre began using ceramic ball bearings.
Lubrication is the biggest Achilles' heel of mechanical movements; oil needs to be changed over time which can lead to inconvenient servicing for customers. Without oil, metal ball bearings will grind and this increases the risk of small pieces of metal polluting the movement.
As automatic watches became more popular during the 20th Century, the question of how to best lubricate the rotating mass was raised. In 1948 Eterna began using steel ball bearings without lubrication which seemed like a perfect solution, but over time the steel balls began to wear and affected the movement of the rotor. 70 years later, ceramic ball bearing appear to be a solution. Thanks to the hardness of ceramic, there is no need for lubrication as it is practically impervious to wear and tear like steel is. Now Jaeger-LeCoultre, Gerrard-Perregaux and Patek Philippe have begun using ceramic ball bearings in some of their mechanical calibers.
It is worth noting that the definition of ceramic can also include sapphire crystal as it is an inorganic, non-metallic material that contains metallic compounds, namely aluminum oxide. So whilst watches like the Richard Mille Pink Lady aren't marketed as ceramic cases, they technically are.
If IWC proved that ceramic had a place in luxury watchmaking, then Chanel showed that it could be fashionable. The Chanel J12 first came out in 2000 and it was the first all ceramic watch from a luxury fashion house. It was designed by Jacques Helleu and named for the J Class yachts used in the America's Cup yachting race that takes place every year. It was an interesting watch; a medium sized, unisex monochromatic ceramic watch with a rotating bezel and a sporty feel. 3 years later and Chanel gave their clients a choice of color when buying the J12, black or white. It's been those two colors ever since. The J12 has been copied by brands big and small since its release which is a perverse testament to its impact on watch design. Some more charitable than I might say that the TAG Heuer Ladies Formula 1 with ceramic insert (available only in black and white) is an original design, and that its similarity to the J12 is a coincidence. I don't buy it.
Since 2005, more and more sports watches have used ceramic bezels.
The inserts in rotating bezels on watches have been made of a variety of materials. The earliest Rolex GMT-Master Ref. 6542s had a bezel insert made from Bakelite but it was very brittle and was changed early into the production of the watch to a more durable plastic. For decades, the most common material for an insert was aluminum as it was durable, even if the paint atop it was not. Prolonged exposure to heat meant that the paint used would fade into what collectors today appreciate as 'ghost' bezels. Whilst the whims of collectors is currently about the beauty of an aged watch, the goal for watch brands is to create watches unaffected by the ravages of time. Ceramic bezels could offer this. Ceramic is corrosion resistant, virtually scratch-proof and is unaffected by UV rays so even forty years later, a blue bezel will be as blue as the day it was sold. Rolex began using ceramic bezels with their proprietary Cerachrom ceramic blend which added black, blue and later green and brown color choices to their collection
In 2009, Omega released the Seamaster Planet Ocean Liquid Metal Limited Edition which combined the hardness of ceramic with a titanium alloy used for the hour marker inserts. Using a laser beam to cut into the ceramic bezel, Omega then melted the titanium alloy and pressed it into the stencil like spaces to create a bezel and markers which are practically impervious to aging.
What used to be a major selling point for big brands, namely a ceramic bezel insert, is common place among the industry. As the pioneers of technology push the boundaries further and further, the results of their successes and failures trickle down to others who can reap the benefits. This democratization of watchmaking technology is a good thing as it continually pushes everyone forward.
In 2013, Omega and Rolex made huge breakthroughs in ceramic technology
Rolex released the GMT-Master II Ref. 1157610 BLRN, an updated version of their classic GMT sports watch with a black and blue ceramic bezel insert. What was special about the bezel insert was that the two colors were part of one single piece, not two halves put together. What started as an all blue bezel insert was impregnated with special chemical compounds that would alter the color of the ceramic during the final sintering process. Rolex would continue to evolve this technology and in 2014, they would release the iconic 'Pepsi' bezel with red and blue colors on a single ceramic ring.
Omega released the Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon, the first ceramic chronograph to have the dial, buckle, crown and pushers made from ceramic. Usually these pieces are made from DLC or PVD coated steel so to have them be made of ceramic was, and still is, a really big accomplishment. The DSOTM was a breakout hit for Omega thanks to its unique look however initial availability was limited as the process to make the ceramic case was slow and costly. Since the released of the DSOTM, Omega have since capitalized on the success of the watch by releasing an entire Dark Side of the Moon Collection with such imaginative names as: Black Black, Sedna Black, Pitch Black, and Vintage Black. They have also released a Grey side and a White Side of the Moon watch as well.
Some readers might have noticed that nearly all the colors of ceramic mentioned up until now have been darker colors. Why not brighter colors? Does the watch industry hate the color yellow? The answer is no, its just that yellow and similar bright colors are difficult to make. The extreme temperatures of the sintering processes that shrinks and hardens the ceramic also 'burns away' bright colors. Sintering the ceramic at a lower temperature meant these colors could be kept but at the risk of the durability of the material.
Hublot was the first brand to release a watch with a red ceramic bezel, but it was only a proof of concept design rather than a production piece. Rolex's ceramic "Pepsi" bezel was the first to prove that red ceramic was capable of being produced on a larger scale. How Rolex was able to do this is a secret that Rolex plan to keep to themselves, even as more brands begin to master colorful ceramic.
In 2014, Omega released a Planet Ocean with an orange ceramic bezel. This was a major achievement for the brand as for several years, the Planet Ocean range was split with only the blue and black color variants having ceramic inserts, whilst the orange had the aluminum. Maybe because of the expense in making it, Omega have not continued making an orange ceramic bezel insert, and instead use an orange rubber segment as part of a larger bezel insert. An entire collection of ceramic cased Planet Oceans known as the 'Deep Black' collection was released in 2016 and in 2017, Omega released the 'Big Blue', a dive watch made of blue ceramic. Whilst I don't care for the aesthetics of these watches, the technical achievement of making a ceramic case durable enough to be used on a professional diving watch
Earlier this year, Audemars Piguet released the Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar, for the first time in ceramic. It took 600 hours of research and development before the watch entered into the production phase. Because of the hardness of ceramic, the vertical brush finishing on the bracelet takes six times as long on ceramic than it does on steel. Mechanically the watch is identical to the solid gold version that AP have made for several years, but perhaps the use of ceramic on a Royal Oak is a fitting tribute to its legacy.
The original Royal Oak was a luxury watch made of steel but priced far more expensive than gold. It wasn't the material that made it costly, but the design. Now 45 years later, it seems fitting that Audemars Piguet's first major use of ceramic would be in the Royal Oak line. Ceramic can cost a lot to create, but it is not a precious metal and again focuses what has always made the Royal Oak a classic watch, Gerald Genta's design.
As wonderful as ceramic can be, this writer is thinking about the long term implications of a near impervious material. Whilst personal taste of a crucial factor when collecting watches, some collectors and taste-makers have popularized the unique appeal of patina and faded bezels. Rolex Submariners that once had black bezels have faded over time to become a light grey or 'ghost bezel'. Speedmasters worn in tropical climates have bezels turn blue or brown. These watches might be technically imperfect, but they have a story and a sense of history which is something ceramic watches will never have. Every Omega Speedmaster Dark Side of The Moon, no matter the owner or the environment in which it is worn, will look identical.
Some collectors will claim this as 'the perfect watch' that will look the same throughout its life, I politely disagree. Maybe it's a sense of lost romanticism, but without those scratches, the dings, the faded black bezel turned blue, how would an owner be able to pick their identical watch from a sea of identical watches.