If you take a moment to think about high prestige watchmaking, these are probably the things that come to mind: gold or platinum cases (or finely finished stainless steel), a shiny, luxurious bracelet, or glittering rhodium-plated or German silver movements, decorated with traditional finishing. And, in many instances, this is in fact just what you get. Beautifully made watches usually look… well, beautiful!
However, more and more we are seeing the use of unconventional materials for the creation of high grade timepieces, in all facets – from the straps that join the things to our wrists, to the case materials, and even the movement itself. Considering that rubber straps on a luxury timepiece were once considered daring and avante garde, we have come quite a distance. Rubber now decorates bezels and chronograph buttons, as well as merging with traditional luxury materials like gold and platinum, as in the fabulously successful Hublot Big Bang watch series, or some of the elegantly sporty creations from Harry Winston Rare Timepieces.
Audemars Piguet would be one of the best examples of the “new” wave in luxury watchmaking. This manufacturer, without question one of the most historically important and prestigious in the world, has dived head first into pursuing many of these cutting edge materials and technologies. They were a pioneer as far back as the 1990’s when the Offshore Chronograph took the luxury sports watch scene by storm, showcasing rubber straps and chronograph pushpieces and crowns decorated with rubber; later, the Royal Oak Offshore Rubberclad came out, its famous octagonal bezel covered with a form fitting layer of rubber. At present, the company has made waves again with this year’s Royal Oak Offshore Alinghi Team Chronograph watch, with an incredibly lightweight, super strong case made from black-as-midnight forged carbon! Those who have had a chance to handle the watch say its unlike anything else they have ever seen – imagine a $20,000-plus luxury watch which is about as heavy (and flashy) as a Casio G-Shock! There is nothing lightweight, however, about the quality and constructive detail of this watch, to say nothing of the carbon forging procedure. Audemars Piguet has also been a leader in novel materials for movements as well; the stunning Millenary Maserati MC-12 Tourbillon watch employs a unique carbon mainplate to support the complex structure of the mechanism.
Then there is Patek Philippe and Breguet. Can you get any more classical than these two brands? Yet, Patek made waves in the last few years with their silicon escapement components, and Breguet has followed up with their own contributions in this regard, including a hairspring in silicon which may offer some very real potential advantages over traditional steel ones, not the least of which is an impressive resistance to magnetism and corrosion. This in turn means a much reduced likelihood of any unscheduled servicings – always a good thing!
This topic wouldn’t be complete without bringing up Ulysse Nardin, who have made pursuing the unusual and exotic a high brand priority. Aided by the brilliance of Dr. Ludwig Oeschlin and a talented team of watchmakers and designers, Ulysse Nardin has shown us the remarkable Freak and the subsequent Freak DIAMonSIL Carrousel-Tourbillon watch which is remarkable in both its function, and its Dual Ulysse escapement which utilizes both silicon and diamond to improve energy transmission, and component longevity. I admit to leaving literally piles of companies and/or watches unmentioned here, but if I go on much longer, this thing is going to be a sleep inducer rather than a blog.
Ultimately then, we are seeing a stimulating renaissance in the development of luxury watchmaking. From exclusive watches manufactured from radical and unconventional materials, to mechanical masterpieces whose function is optimized by digital-age components, the connoisseur has an unprecedented range of brilliant choices to add diversity and spice to his or her collection.