Watch Your Weight

With the traditional wind-up wristwatch more popular than ever, we explore how the Swiss are staying at the cutting edge with high-tech, lightweight materials science 

With speculation whirling about who will play the next James Bond, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the portrait featured here for a particularly dramatic teaser – 007’s scheming, megalomaniacal nemesis standing menacingly by his weapon of global destruction. But Senad Hasanovic is very much fact, not fiction, and he couldn’t be more self-effacing if he tried. 

The 33-year-old has been installed at Hublot’s factory on Lake Geneva for almost four years now, as, in his words, “part of the technology transfer” from Lausanne’s École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL). He’s no mere accessory to his elaborate equipment – Hasanovic worked for two years at EPFL on Hublot’s tough commission to the school: to develop an 18-carat gold that wouldn’t scratch. Hasanovic’s resulting Magic Gold was made by fusing 24-carat gold with a porous ceramic substrate under tremendous pressure and temperature, to give a scratch resistance of 1,000 Vickers. Normal 18-carat gold is 400 Vickers, by comparison. Thus, Hublot’s Metallurgy and Materials division was born, and Hasanovic was installed in-house at the watch factory, lock, stock and barrel.

“Magic Gold offered me a great opportunity,” enthuses Hasanovic, who originally joined EPFL after completing a master’s degree, majoring in carbon fibre. “Hublot is the watchmaker for materials – we’re now doing some crazy things with red ceramics, aluminium and carbon fibre…”

“Why do we go to these lengths?” he adds. “It’s because, as a young brand, we can’t talk about heritage, so materials are the thing that differentiates us. And now we have the foundry in-house, the cool thing is that we can continue to experiment.”

A finely made timepiece is a baffling anachronism. For starters, no one really needs a watch these days, finely made or not. Second, a finely made watch is still driven by a delicate concoction of wheels, springs and levers – 200-year-old technology that keeps worse time than the placky digital that fell out of your cereal packet this morning. So what’s tying Switzerland’s lab-coated boffins to their workbenches, tweezers in hand, when they could easily be enticed down from Watch Valley by any of Geneva’s micro-tech firms?

The plasma oven at Rado’s Comadur case-making facility

What’s keeping the Swiss watch positively Alpine fresh isn’t so much the clockwork ticking inside, as its packaging. The anachronism that is the mechanical watch is increasingly being spiked with lightweight yet super-durable materials, some of which are more at home in the suspension wishbone of an F1 car. 

From ceramic cases on the outside, to self-lubricating silicon micro-mechanics ticking away inside, watches are fresher and more cutting-edge than ever. Not through the efforts of classically trained watchmakers, however, but because of canny watch CEOs with a hotline to Switzerland’s finest minds, scattered throughout neighbouring micro-tech facilities. And while you might think it’s evolution for evolution’s sake, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll soon discover otherwise.

Scratching won’t get you very far in the seminal case, however, as Rado’s breakthrough in the ’60s explicitly set out to resist such abuse. Its egg-shaped DiaStar Original looked like something Captain Kirk would wear, and for good reason – the case was formed not of steel, but a newfangled hard metal called tungsten carbide. It defined Rado’s ultra-futurist manifesto and by the ’80s, Rado had mastered and pioneered the use of ultra-light and ultra-tough ceramic. It’s a material that’s now found in watches from (but not necessarily made by – third-party tech facilities are notoriously secretive) IWC, Bell & Ross and Panerai, plus fashion darlings Ralph Lauren and Chanel, whose monochrome ceramic bracelets just happen to echo Mademoiselle Coco’s iconic quilted handbag (and really are made by Chanel’s own ceramic facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds). 

Rado’s sister company, Comadur, makes all of its ceramic components and has recently innovated so-called ‘high-tech plasma’ ceramic. Gases activated at 20,000°C raise the temperature of finished white ceramic to a sizzling 900°C, transforming it into an otherworldly material with a mysterious metallic glow, without using any metal at all.

“Beyond the sheer novelty of using ceramic for our cases,” says Rado CEO Matthias Breschan, “more and more newcomers to the brand are realising that ceramic is nice to wear. It’s super comfortable, and thermally balanced with your skin.”

At the highest end of the luxury market, however, you have a much harder job convincing dyed-in-the-wool collectors that anything not encased in gold or platinum is a genuinely luxurious product. But a certain Frenchman called Richard Mille has proved most convincing in this argument. 

The sintering oven at Rado’s casemaker, Comadur, in which ceramic components are baked for 24 hours

Mille has been experimenting with the concept of weight reduction in haute horlogerie since the conception of his brand in 2000 – a revolutionary exercise in no-compromise technicality. He treated his cases like racing car chassis, the ‘engine’ suspended from it, with nothing as superfluous as a dial to obscure its inner workings. 

“When I first produced tourbillons with titanium and ALUSIC cases and carbon base plates, I was fighting against perceived value,” Mille recalls. “A titanium watch could not be a luxurious timepiece as it did not weigh enough. However, mentalities rapidly changed and gradually amateurs soon appreciated my watches for their extreme lightness associated with the best technology.”

It wasn’t just amateurs, but leading sportsmen too. Handling Rafael Nadal’s Richard Mille RM 27 watch for the first time provoked laughter. Not just because its delicate mechanics kept good time despite Rafa’s punishing swing, but mainly because it’s so surreally light – less than 20 grams, strap included – that it actually floats in water, thanks to the use of lithium-alloy, usually used in satellites and F1 cars. The case of Rafa’s latest version, the RM 27-02, is a cocktail of carbon and quartz, weighs just 19 grams, and costs a princely $800,000 (give or take a few grand).

Increasingly, the smart money is on new, proprietary composites. The latest and greatest is Breitlight, which, as the punning name suggests, is exclusive to Breitling. It packages a 50mm beast of a 24-hour chronograph, the Avenger Hurricane (£6,450), which wouldn’t look out of place on Batman’s utility belt. Like a Swatch, it’s plastic, but plastic as you’ve never known it. It’s a polymer composite spiked with carbon fibre, similar to that used for Glock’s signature pistol. The upshot of which is that it’s 3.3 times lighter than steel, yet almost impossible to dent, scratch or corrode.

Smartwatches may be (temporarily) snatching all the attention from ‘proper’ watches, but, for now at least, traditional watches are proving that the use of high-tech materials can keep them relevant in the 21st century, as well as smart in their own right.

This article is taken from Port issue 19.

Fabrizio Buonamassa: Tiny, not tinny

No one expected the world’s thinnest chiming watch to come from Roman jeweller Bulgari, least of all for it to be hewn from deeply resonant titanium. Here, creative boss Fabrizio Buonamassa reveals how this remarkable timepiece came to be

Records in watchmaking generally feel like a way of brands marking territory, rather than something that benefits the buyer. However, Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater is a record-breaker with a difference – it may be the world’s thinnest minute repeater, but it was also designed to be an ‘everyday wearer’.

“It is a stealth watch with a stealth complication,” explains Fabrizio Buonamassa, Bulgari’s charismatic chief watch designer. “It is an industrial design product; something that should be worn every day and that isn’t exclusive.

“Essentially, we needed a new Finissimo iteration and I’ve always thought that the minute repeater was one of the most noble complications,” he adds, “so I started sketching.”

This, perhaps, belies the sheer level of technical mastery at play here, of which its thinness is only a part. In this world, there are very few thin minute repeaters – so-called for their ability to read-out the time to the nearest minute, by striking the hours on a low-tuned metal wire ‘gong’ encircling the movement, followed by the quarters with a ‘ding dong’ on both a second high-tuned gong and the low-tuned gong, followed by the remaining minutes within that quarter on just the high gong. Prior to this year, Jaeger-LeCoultre held the record with its Hybris Mechanica 11, which comes in at 7.9mm thick, though it does also house a whirling ‘tourbillon’ complication. 

Bulgari has excelled that record by squashing its movement down to 6.85mm; something it achieved by attaching the winding barrel to the bottom plate rather than placing them under their own bridge, as well as using a totally flat balance spring.

However, the innovation doesn’t stop there.

“I wanted the watch to be made in titanium,” says Buonamassa, “because it would give space to the movement.” What he means is that by using titanium instead of luxury watchmaking’s stock-in-trade gold or steel, the metal’s richer resonance reduces the need to use so much of it for a similar audible effect. But achieving a 30m-water-resistant case with all its unforgiving tolerances while using such a brittle material is a real headache, as the Octo’s case design is already notoriously tricky in something as soft as gold, thanks to its jigsaw puzzle of 110 facets, edges and angles – all milled from a single lump of metal over the course of 18 operations and plenty of rejects.

The other major difference about this minute repeater is that it is a ‘digital’ minute repeater. So, rather than chiming the hours, quarters and then subsequent extra minutes, once the push-piece at nine o’clock is depressed, a single hammer ‘dongs’ the hour, then two hammers take it in turns to ‘ding dong’ however many 10-minute intervals have elapsed since the top of the hour. Finally, a single hammer ‘dings’ out the remaining minutes. You can just about see this mechanical ballet dancing away beneath the dial, thanks to its stencilled indices – a titillating peep show of horological delights, which also happens to amplify the sound a touch more. 

But this isn’t just a horological masterpiece; in keeping with Buonamassa’s guiding principle that, at Bulgari, “beauty follows function, not form,” it also looks incredibly elegant on the wrist.

“When I was sketching the design, I thought it would be perfect for the Octo shape, especially as the tuxedo and thin watch trends have been very strong for us,” he says. “And it is also down to Bulgari to break the rules in this arena, which isn’t easy when people’s expectations of us are so high.”

Bulgari has certainly challenged people’s expectations of what a high-complication watch should be by making something wearable, rather than something designed to be kept in a safe; it’s a watch for the customer, rather than for the record books. That it has managed to garner the title of ‘world’s thinnest minute repeater’ seems to be, for Buonamassa at least, merely a delightful coincidence.

This article was originally published in our new horology supplement TENTEN, available with PORT issue 19. Out now.

Photography Benjamin McMahon