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You can’t scratch this

The resilient qualities of zirconium oxide, or ceramic as we know it, make it an ideal watchmaking material. But when did watch companies start using it, and what are they doing with it now?


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By Dubai Watch Week

06 Jan, 2020

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It’s a frequent complaint made by first-time luxury watch owners. Why is it that the stainless steel watch they’ve just spent thousands of dollars on scratches so easily?

The answer is that most brands still use 316L stainless steel, which may only have a hardness of around 220 Vickers. That means you can’t bite into it, but knock it into stone, rock or another metal, and there’s every likelihood you’ll ding your precious new possession. Gold, of course, is far softer still.

Switzerland’s finest watch companies have invested millions into finding more suitable materials to extend the life of their watches. Material gains help explain in part why watch prices have gone up so much in recent times. Materials such as titanium are far more prevalent than they were, while some brands have managed to make cases out of sapphire crystal, one of the hardest materials known to man.

But the most commonly used advanced material in watchmaking is ceramic. Ceramic has many advantages over other materials. It’s hypoallergenic, biocompatible, almost completely scratch-resistant, adjusts quickly to skin temperature and loses little of its new quality over time. Not that it means much in watchmaking, but it’s also highly heat-resistant, so much so NASA used it to cover the now retired Space Shuttle to cope with the high temperatures experienced on re-entry.

The disadvantage of ceramic is that it’s much harder to work with. Manufacturing involves sintering zirconium-oxide powder (whose granules are roughly one fifth the diameter of a human hair) at temperatures of 1,450C. And the end product is notoriously brittle.

Space and time

Its superior properties were first noticed by long-time industry creative force Rado, which turned to ceramic in the late 1980s. It’s still pioneering its use today and was a leader in developing injection-moulding monocoque ceramic cases. The singe-piece plasma high-tech ceramic cases of its HyperChrome are said to be hardened to 1,250 Vickers.

While scratch resistance is the most obvious benefit, ceramic is also largely resistant to fading. Most coloured materials will fade when exposed to ultra-violet light, which is one of the reasons why bezels, the most exposed part of a watch case, are increasingly filled with ceramic inserts, particularly on recreation-focused design such as diver’s watches.

A quality signifier

Switzerland’s most powerful companies have turned to developing their own ceramics and ceramic-based materials. Rolex’s solution is Cerachrom, a ceramic it says takes 40 hours to produce, using a process involving heating the raw material to 1,500C to purify and harden it. The bezel of the current generation steel Daytona is made of Cerachrom, one of the reasons why the watch is so highly rated.

We’re also now seeing brands develop high-performing precious metals using ceramic. Omega’s reddish Ceragold, for example, bonds ceramic and 18-carat gold and claims to offer far-longer lasting colour; while Hublot’s Magic Gold is a fusion of 18-carat gold and ceramic said to have a hardness of a highly impressive 1,000 Vickers.

While talk of ceramic is now commonplace in watchmaking, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s had as big an impact on Swiss watchmaking as any material over the last decade, greatly improving the watches we buy. A ceramic bezel was a rarity not so long ago; now it’s a familiar quality signifier used even by brands at the lower end of the luxury spectrum.

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