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Watches: metal of the gods

Titanium was once rarer than rare in the world of watches, but that’s no longer the case

Published: 24 Mar 2023

Lightweight and strong, titanium has been used for everything from armour plating and alloy wheels, to replacement hips and Russian subs. But for more than a century after its discovery by a Cornish vicar, the metal was little more than a name on the periodic table with no real practical use. And its use in the watch industry has always been rare... until now.

Landed gent, clergyman and amateur chemist William Gregor first extracted titanium in 1791, while analysing black sand taken from the beach near his family estate in Cornwall. The metal was initially called gregorite after the good vicar, but a man in Germany discovered it independently a short while later, calling it titanium after the Greeks’ mythological Titans, and the name stuck. Titanium did not quite live up to its godly name at first. It is abundant, but not easy to extract from its ore, so wasn’t produced in any significant quantities until the mid-20th century. Among its earliest uses was as a paint additive, but it really took off in the Sixties with the launch of the largely titanium Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the US air force’s record breaking superjet.

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It was heat resistance that made titanium a favourite for the aerospace industry, but its corrosion resistance also means it is useful at sea, where it is fashioned into propeller shafts and marine pipelines. Titanium is also non-toxic, making it suitable for a whole range of medical purposes, from heart valves to hearing aids.

All of these qualities brought titanium to the attention of the Japanese watch firm Citizen, which was testing out innovative materials. In 1970 it launched the X-8 Chronometer, the first titanium watch. The company has continued to develop the material and has its own trademarked version, called Super Titanium.

Despite this, other watch companies were slow to get on the titanium bandwagon. As well as the costs of extraction, it is more difficult to process than other metals, as the prized hardness and heat resistance make it tougher to mould and polish. But the modern watch industry loves a challenge – with thousands of companies competing for wrist space, boldness is a must. It’s taken a while, but there are now loads of titanium timepieces from pricey to high street for anyone wanting an über tough watch.

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