Horological innovations Case studies
The addition of exotic materials to the surface of a watch case is not a new concept. But while for a long time this generally meant surface decoration, the development of composite materials now means they can be incorporated directly into the case material itself.
Anyone interested in watch publicity will immediately notice how much effort is spent on the watch’s history. Today, this is known as storytelling. Not to be confused with telling stories...
As in life, so in watchmaking. Children love to be told stories. They lull babies to sleep, reassure children and distract teenagers. Once childhood is over, however, stories no longer fit the bill. A mature adult wants facts. In watchmaking, the many “reissues” and “reinterpretations” sometimes give off a whiff of authenticity but fail to provide any substance. And that’s where some brands have come to realise that they need to go... further.
The tortoise’s first steps
It’s difficult to pinpoint which was the first company to give tangible substance to the history of its products, to incorporate external elements to support the legend. But Cartier, as is so often the case, probably opened the door. It was one of the first brands to incorporate an element completely alien to the watchmaking world into its pieces: tortoiseshell. At the time there were no stories to tell, just the wish to add a new and exclusive dimension to the concept of luxury. The company used the material in some of its table clocks, and from that point the idea took off.
If they were going to use tortoiseshell, why not include other elements, if they underpinned the DNA of the piece? Initially, the answer was obvious: because it wasn’t possible. Twenty-five years ago, cases were made of gold, steel or platinum; there were no composite materials that allowed the inclusion of external materials.
Golden age of creativity
But around the turn of the millennium we began to witness the appearance of exotic composites. RJ - Romain Jerome’s Une watch featured a case made of steel from the Titanic – a controversial idea given that the famous shipwreck cost the lives of 1500 people. Subsequently, the company extended the concept to other, less divisive subjects, such as the Statute of Liberty. Saint-Honoré wasn’t far behind, with its Tour Eiffel watch.
What about a work of art inside a watch? This idea germinated in the minds of Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel, leading to the conception of their Art Piece, which includes a micro-sculpture visible through the crown. This haute horlogerie project with its strong artistic dimension caught the imagination of Christophe Claret: the Aventicum includes a bust of Marcus Aurelius, or the Kaaba in Mecca.
Others latched on to the idea, but didn’t elevate it to such heights. Watchmaking is a serious business, but it doesn’t have to be. In Basel, Armin Strom unveiled a watch containing a 1762 cognac. Speake-Marin’s version featured a 1780 rum. A drop of claret, anyone?
In the absence of great vintages, watchmakers have turned to other unusual materials. They may or may not be precious, but they are always interesting. Italian watchmaker Giuliano Mazzuoli succeeded in making a watch case out of cement and marble. To fuse the two, he used sand, which is also the primary material of HYT’s Sand-Barth, whose case contains genuine sand from the island of St Barts in the Caribbean. The brand is no newcomer to the idea – the case of its H1 Cigar contained flecks of Cuban tobacco leaves. A precious material indeed, though not as precious as gold, the path explored by Richard Mille. At the beginning of the year the watchmaker unveiled an RM 037 whose NTPT carbon case contained real gold leaf. In the end, as far as materials go, no one can be expected to achieve the impossible. But there’s nothing to stop them trying!
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