Jean-Paul Suchel, the technical director of Bell & Ross, spends a lot of time studying people choosing a watch. And what strikes him every time is the way they often cup a selection in their palm. “They stand there in the shop and they weight the watch in their hand. They want to feel it there,” he says. “The fact is that watches are part of the jewellery world, and with jewellery there’s a direct correlation between weight and value, because of the historic use of precious metals. That’s only helped to solidify the association between heft and quality. A watch may be a small piece of material really, and yet prices are quite high, so unconsciously people feel if there’s no real weight to a watch, then there’s no value.”
That is a conundrum for the watch world, especially as lighter weight materials the likes of titanium, ceramic, and latterly the more experimental likes of silicon nitride and carbon composites are embraced by the watch industry, if often for qualities such as scratch-resistance and durability. Panerai has its Carbotech, IWC its use of boron carbide, also an extremely lightweight material, and a ceramic-titanium relationship on the side; Roger Dubuis and others have explored cases in silicon; you may recall that one sort of silicon is already in wide use as the balance spring, otherwise known as the hairspring. Silicon is half the weight of titanium.
Indeed, much as aluminium has entered the mainstream for chassis design in the car industry, thanks to the pioneering work of Jaguar and Audi, so titanium looks to be on the brink of entering the mainstream in watchmaking, not least because it is now only around 15% more expensive than steel. If you are coming to this story right after our titanium extravaganza, this will not surprise you.
STILL THERE’S STEEL
And yet there are still more steel watches on the market. The demand for weightiness - for a sense of presence on the wrist, if not actually for something that feels too heavy - is why steel is still the industry’s go-to material. That is what Zenith’s product development director Romain Marietta reckons, aside from the fact that steel is easy to work and has appealing light-reflecting qualities. Add in that milling out excess steel is feasible but expensive (no puns intended here - Ed), and it is no wonder many, maybe even most, watches are heavier than they strictly-speaking need to be.
“The fact is that what’s on your wrist is about feeling, a sensitivity to its weight, so weight is important,” he says. “But it’s another thing to say that you always want to aim for a lack of weight because if a watch is too light it can seem a bit cheap. That means you’ve got to re-educate the customer to get beyond that idea - and that isn’t easy.”
That has not stopped the industry from trying. Certainly, having binged on outsized pieces, it has recently strived to lose a few grammes, even if the motivation to do so may not be entirely a matter of ergonomics of course, as Marietta notes. “Sometimes it’s just a demonstration of innovation, of technical competence for the brand at large.”
That is why, for the likes of Richard Mille - makers of the world’s lightest watch to date, the RM 50-03, made using graphene and weighing, all in, 40g - or for the likes of Roger Dubuis, for instance, a lighter weight watch gives off the right message: that the brand is as much a technological one as a watchmaking one.
“A lighter weight works for us just as it wouldn’t work for a brand associated with gold watches, which of course people want to be heavier,” says Roger Dubuis’ product strategy director Gregory Bruttin. “But you have to use a technologically advanced material to achieve that lightness in the high-end watch world, because it’s those materials that are perceived as suitably high-grade. You could make a very lightweight mechanical watch using plastics, but that wouldn’t work, image-wise”.
A HEAVYWEIGHT CHALLENGE
The challenges of achieving less weight are not insignificant. With weight just one factor in the overall ergonomy of a watch, alongside its fit, size, functions and so on, there is always a balance to strike. Even with the strength of titanium, there remains a crucial interplay, for example, between the protective nature of sheer heaviness - a steel watch remains very successful at absorbing the shocks that can otherwise damage a movement - and the comfortable wear of its lightness. Heft, or the lack thereof, is more complicated than any one material, no matter how innovative or mundane said material might be.
Sometimes that balancing act is literal. Zenith’s research now is towards lighter weight parts for the movement - which have the added benefit of energy preservation - knowing that the rotor in an automatic has to have a certain heaviness to even function.
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