What’s a ceramic watch, then?
We hear all about them, but what are ceramic watches made out of, and why would you get one?
So what’s the big deal with ceramics? Well, apart from the ability to tint the material in broadly whichever hue one feels inclined to (ably demonstrated by Girard-Perregaux and its Ruby-Rhod-worthy super-green Laureato), there’s a properly practical reason behind it.
Metal, pretty much regardless of how tough and resilient it might be, is still susceptible to scratches. Gold, platinum and other metals with big atomic numbers scratch easily – and in the case of something like a platinum wedding ring, offers a wonderful patination that tells more stories with each year you’re married – but even truly Tonka-shaming steel and titanium can still get scratched.
It's not down to strength, durability or the quality of the metal, but purely a quirk of chemistry – steel might still be a byword for strength, but it lacks hardness. At least comparatively, anyway.
Apparently, the enamel on your teeth is stronger than regular steel, a titbit you should absolutely not test for its veracity. Stainless steel – the sort used in watches, with names like 316L and 904L – is much harder (and therefore resistant to scratches), but it can’t get through the slings and arrows of daily life without earning a few battle scars.
Ceramics, on the other hand, are extraordinarily hard. Not always tough – just remember your mother’s favourite vase or earthenware pot that you broke as a kid – but definitely hard. That’s why you can crumble bits of brick with your bare hands, but they’ll still scratch your watch. So the answer, obviously, is to fight hardness with hardness. Like putting Duncan Ferguson up against Vinnie Jones, or something.
Omega was working with ceramics in the 1970s with the Seamaster Cermet, which used materials like tungsten carbide in the mix. That’s the material used for armour-piercing shells and industrial cutting tools. So, tough enough.
Brands like IWC and Rado brought out ceramic watches in the late Eighties and early Nineties... to not a great deal of commercial success, if we’re honest. But it’s come along since then: Omega, Panerai, Bulgari, Bell and Ross, Zenith, Hublot – and yes, IWC and Rado – all do ceramic watches these days, and actually make money doing so. Rolex went another way with it, changing the bezels on its Submariner (et al) from aluminium to ceramic and taking the most-scratched, quickest-fading part of its watches and making it about as enduring as a Roman road. The proprietary ceramic, which Rolex calls Cerachrom, is so hard that polishing it requires nothing short of diamonds. Luckily, unless you’re the sort to drag industrial cutting wheels across your Rolex (and aren’t we all), it’s the first and only time it needs to happen.
Much like metal alloys, ceramics can use a blend of various compounds to achieve the strength and hardiness the manufacturer needs, but dive in at all and you’ll see one word repeated more than any other: carbide. That’s the scientific name for (as it basically spells out) a compound of carbon and another element. Silicon carbide finds use in clutch discs and bulletproof vests, while titanium carbide (not to be confused with Pagani’s carbotanium) is used on the heat shields of spacecraft.
Of course, nothing comes for free in this world, so you’ll be unsurprised to learn that ceramics, tough as they might be, still come with some drawbacks. There’s less of a propensity to scratch in day-to-day use, but seriously hard drops or hits can chip or crack the case. And while polishing the scratches out of a metal case is something of a no-no in the watch collecting world, it feels like less of a problem than a ceramic case that’s been glued back together.
But mix ceramic with metal, creating a cermet (yes, like the name of the Omega watch; it’s all falling into place now) and you have a material that blends the toughness of metal with the hardness of ceramic. So what are they being used for? Er, dentistry and hip replacements, to name a couple. Because the ceramic is non-reactive, your dicky hip can be replaced with something made of the same basic stuff as heat shields and bullet-proof vests. Watch companies have played with it too – both Omega and Jaeger-LeCoultre actually name-checked ‘Cermet’ in the names of the watches that featured it, with JLC doubling down on the ceramics by DLC-coating the cermet. Honestly? We’d probably just live with the scratches...
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