TITANIC POTENTIAL
World of Watches|Summer 2021
Once the new metal of watchmaking - the vanguard of the superleggera timepiece - titanium has become a staple. Its properties are still winning fans, but today its biocompatibility is emerging as an important feature. Not only will we never be allergic to titanium, it might also be self-cleaning…
ASHOK SOMAN

Though we spent plenty of pages last year looking at high-tech ceramics in watchmaking, the most timely story to pursue would have been titanium. As you no doubt know, dear reader, 2020 marked 50 years since Japanese watchmaker Citizen introduced the material in a wristwatch. Given what is (still) happening in the world, you may not have noticed - and nobody would blame you of course.

It is relatively easy to identify the material benefits of titanium versus stainless steel, and the opposite of course. It is not the case that one is simply better than the other, which is where a few definitions can help shed some light. Now, if you recall the David Guetta number called Titanium, you might have the wrong idea about this metal. Nevertheless, the metal has a mythical reputation, which watchmaking brands often lean into. Reality paints a different picture, which does not take anything away from titanium’s virtues. It is best to embrace this approach because if you buy a titanium model over a steel one because you are convinced of its superpowers, you will be in for some rude surprises, while simultaneously missing some very impressive facts.

This might seem needlessly nerdy, or perhaps pedantic, but think of it this way: if you love cars, you probably also know something about how they work. Also, titanium watches can be more expensive than the same in steel, just like ceramic. No doubt there is a limit to what you want to know, and we have tried to draw from and summarise from a number of sources here. For further reading, we will recommend some excellent materials (online as far as possible), but also if you want to skip the purely technical definitions and get on to the pure value of titanium as it relates to watchmaking, you are of course free to ignore whole sections, as you please. That said, there will be a very necessary nerd-out in this special section.

First, we must spare a few words about this special focus on materials, a recurring thematic chapter for WOW. It appears in every Summer issue, and represents an effort to build editorial bridges and structure across the years, and it happens to bear a passing resemblance to how watchmakers plan their releases. In planning this section, we ask ourselves why this material at this moment. As we clarified in issue #57, we start thinking about this section a couple of years in advance. As a further clarification, we can say that we actually have a shortlist of materials, and we cycle to the most relevant one.

Once more, this has nothing much to do with trends, and titanium is not trending - it is already an accepted part of the watchmaking landscape, from Switzerland to Japan. It is even a staple at all levels of watchmaking, fine and otherwise. You probably have a watch in titanium, or you know people who do. It is because of this that we, the watch collecting community, know there is no hidden danger in this material. There is no need for caveat emptor statements; a watch in titanium will not shatter or possibly stain your clothes. Titanium is as reliable in this regard as steel and gold, and perhaps goes a good bit further than either in some areas.

Our present moment showcases a particular strength of titanium. In these trying times, going with ceramic and titanium is very obvious because these are both hypoallergenic. This feature might even mean both materials will become ever more popular for all sorts of wearables. Gear Patrol even calls titanium the most comfortable material in watchmaking. While we will not go so far, it is telling that many watch brands opt for titanium casebacks in their bronze models, and that TAG Heuer, Montblanc and Tissot (above) all use the material for their connected watches.

Now, given that titanium is hardly new in watchmaking, a specific approach was needed here. The section is thus organised into a few parts, as follows:

• History, both general and specific to watchmaking

• Material Properties

• Pros and Cons: steel versus titanium

• Milestones in watchmaking

The aforementioned definitions are to be found towards the end of the section, before the next major part of our materials special. Speaking of which, because we are looking at lightness in watchmaking, there is a separate story looking at various approaches, including titanium, written by our regular contributor Josh Sims. The definitions used in this story will be relevant to that piece as well.

A big part of the appeal of any material in watchmaking is the story. Cynics and realists will call this the marketing aspect, but this plays a real and valuable role in what makes titanium appealing as a material in watchmaking. On that note, it is time for a history lesson, because that is where the story begins. Unlike most other materials though, we need only go back to the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

TITANIUM IN THE WORLD

If you know anything about titanium, then you may agree that one of the most overlooked aspects about this metal, compared with steel, is that it is a metal, not an alloy (see Material Properties). In watchmaking terms, it is best to think of titanium as one thinks of gold, because there are many versions in play, based on the other materials mixed in. This story will refer to grades of titanium, where relevant, and generally not distinguish between commercially pure titanium and other titanium alloys, except where noted.

Unlike the previous subjects of our special focus on materials, titanium has not been in use for very long. It was only discovered in the 18th century, by amateur geologist and clergyman William Gregor, in Cornwall, England. It was named, as you might think, for the titans of Greek mythology, although the material properties that we know today would have been a surprise to Martin Heinrich Klaproth, the Prussian chemist who named it thus in 1795. No one could find a use for the metal outside the laboratory until 1932, because producing it from the raw ores it was present in was impractical. Luxembourgish metallurgist William Justin Kroll solved that via the process that bears his name, which is still in use today to extract titanium from raw ore.

Despite the wondrous name, there were no applications for this metal from its discovery all the way to the mid-20th century. The Soviet Union first recognised the potential of titanium in military applications, and the US followed suit, bringing the material to the world of aviation by the 1960s. No less an authority than Wikipedia confirms that the US Department of Defense supported commercialisation of titanium, in a famous example of tax-payer funded spending creating completely novel commercial opportunities. The jets such as the F-100 Super Sabre introduced titanium to the public eye, and thus shaped its image. In other words, if steel defined the 19th and 20th centuries, titanium would take the world into the future.

Jets such as the A-12 by Lockheed Martin captured people’s imagination, when they belatedly became aware of it of course. The A-12, for example, was the precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird, which is probably one of the best-known aircraft in the world. Indeed, it still comes to mind when people think of the Cold War era’s defining military aircraft, alongside the U2 spy plane. One particularly interesting bit of news from this period that is still striking is how the US managed to acquire enough titanium for these advanced jet projects. The problem was that the Soviet Union had the largest stockpiles and produced the most titanium in the world (today it is China - Ed). The Big Red Threat was actually experimenting with making submarine hulls out of a titanium alloy, so it had developed the expertise and supply that no else had.

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