Contemporary Alchemy: of Carbonox and Ceratanium (Part 3)

Contemporary Alchemy: of Carbonox and Ceratanium (Part 3)

Panerai’s Luminox assortment demonstrates that composite supplies needn’t be past the attain of most of us. Photo: Panerai

This is the final of three components of our particular on composites in watchmaking. Part 1 noticed watch editor Ashok go into the nitty gritty of what composites are and the way they determine in watchmaking. Part 2 ran by means of in short the historical past of composite supplies all through human civilisation whereas Part 3 options up to date use of composites and up to date engineering feats in watchmaking.


It ought to be no shock that proprietary composites are discovered at varied ranges of watchmaking, particularly carbon composites. Nevertheless, Luminox stands out for its use of a proprietary carbon composite referred to as Carbonox, first deployed in 2016 for the case of the Luminox Master Carbon SEAL 3800 sequence. As common with such proprietary developments, little is understood concerning the course of to make it or what goes into it, besides what Luminox tells the world. To start with, Carbonox is a light-weight and sturdy materials designed to offer enhanced resistance to shocks, scratches and different types of put on. Carbonox can also be six instances lighter than metal, thrice lighter than titanium, hypoallergenic and antimagnetic.

Panerai's Luminox collection demonstrates that composite materials need not be beyond the reach of most of us. Photo: Panerai

Photo: Panerai

The easiest clarification for Carbonox is that it’s made up of carbon fibres blended with a high-strength polymer resin. Given the look of the fabric, it’s greater than possible that Carbonox is extra like cast carbon than carbon fibre. Another extra detailed description, once more from Luminox, states that it’s made up of lengthy bar carbon compounds, with carbon fibres making up 40% of stated compound. This mixture of supplies ends in a fabric that’s sturdy and light-weight, with glorious impression resistance and excessive sturdiness. Carbon fiber is understood for its excessive strength- to-weight ratio, and when mixed with the resin, it creates a fabric that’s more durable and extra impact-resistant than conventional plastics or metals.

Luminox makes use of Carbonox within the manufacturing of watch circumstances designed to offer glorious safety for the watch motion and dial. The materials can also be used for different elements, such because the bezel or case again.

Panerai's Luminox collection demonstrates that composite materials need not be beyond the reach of most of us. Photo: Panerai
Photo: Panerai

In addition to its energy and sturdiness, Carbonox has a singular look and texture that offers Luminox watches a particular look. The materials has a matte black end that’s immune to scratches and scuffs, making it best to be used in out of doors and journey watches.

Overall, Carbonox is a high-performance composite materials that gives glorious sturdiness and resistance to put on, making it a really perfect materials to be used within the manufacturing of high-quality watches which might be designed to face up to excessive circumstances. 

Lightweight Strength

If nothing else, the introduction (Part 1) and the temporary historical past lesson (Part 2) may have left you with the understanding that composites may differ in value significantly, whereas artificial jewels clearly provided nice value financial savings moreover permitting watchmakers entry to standardised supplies. While the advantages of composites and artificial crystals are associated to quite a lot of rising materials properties, the worth proposition is unclear (no pun supposed). Would you, pricey reader, take into account cast carbon on par with gold? Perhaps you may take into account unique supplies much more treasured than gold? That final bit is strictly how Richard Mille noticed issues, with the watchmaker experimenting with excessive lightness as a means of counterprogramming in opposition to conventional knowledge in Swiss watchmaking.

Photo: World of Watches
Photo: World of Watches

A carbon composite has a wonderful energy to weight ratio, with a given quantity of fabric being lower than a fourth the load of the identical quantity of metal. A watch case that weighs 50g in metal will weigh about 10g in a carbon composite — now that’s lightness you may really feel. Obviously, not even all carbon composites have the identical mass so lightness right here is finest understood as a relative proposition. Generally although, carbon composites are much less dense than any stable, even aluminium, titanium and plastic; whereas artificial resins are typically referred to as plastic, there are various sorts of plastic and most are solids, not composites. It is price noting that not all artificial resins are literally plastic, as in manufactured from hydrocarbon-derived materials.

Digression apart, being featherweight is nice however meaningless with out energy. While it isn’t attainable to generalise, the identical mass of a carbon composite is roughly 5 instances stronger than the equal mass of metal. Of course, what’s mild doesn’t all the time sit properly with folks’s expectations, as Grand Seiko President Akio Naito instructed us some points again. Some folks want the heft of gold, for instance. That is why even manufacturers reminiscent of Hublot nonetheless have conventional supplies within the combine. Nevertheless, having heard concerning the nice properties of composites, you is perhaps questioning why extra watches will not be cased up on this engineered materials. The reply is sophisticated and comes right down to machining challenges but in addition pricing and notion. We do provide three very particular examples on this story from watchmaking, for context and actual speak about what composites imply for us all as folks with a ardour for watches and watchmaking.

Performance Matters

Before we get to these, we need to use this predominant part to cowl one thing referred to as metallic matrix composites or MMCs, as a result of this fancy-sounding stuff is the backbone behind a whole lot of the composites featured right here. MMCs are fairly totally different from carbon composites primarily as a result of ceramic takes the place of the standard artificial resin. Here is literal mash-up of a definition, gleaned from the Internet (Wikipedia, Britannica, and quite a lot of AIs: in supplies science parlance, MMCs are metals bolstered with fibres or particles to enhance or tailor properties reminiscent of stiffness, energy, thermal conductivity, thermal enlargement, friction and wear-resistance . There are two components right here: one is the metallic matrix and the opposite is the reinforcing materials, which is usually a ceramic and even one other metallic. The reinforcing materials is distributed evenly throughout your entire metallic matrix.

The piecing together of the Franck Muller Grand Central Tourbillon Flash
in motion. Photo: Franck Muller
The piecing collectively of the Franck Muller Grand Central Tourbillon Flash
in movement. Photo: Franck Muller

It will not be all rosy although, as this Princeton supplies science textbook notes: “MMCs even have some disadvantages in contrast with metals. Chief amongst these are the upper value of fabrication for high-performance MMCs, and decrease ductility and toughness. Presently, MMCs are likely to cluster round two excessive varieties. One consists of very high-performance composites bolstered with costly steady fibres and requiring costly processing strategies. The different consists of comparatively low-cost and low-performance composites bolstered with comparatively cheap particulate or fibres. The value of the primary kind is simply too excessive for any however navy or house functions, whereas the fee/ profit benefits of the second kind over unreinforced metallic alloys stay unsure.”

The first instance of an MMC case in watchmaking seems to be the aforementioned Richard Mille RM009, and it didn’t open the floodgates. Unlike carbon composites which grew to become a flavourful pattern for a time, MMCs stay fairly unique. This is probably going as a result of machining challenges and the prohibitively excessive value of the unique analysis and growth. While watch manufacturers don’t sometimes inform us a lot concerning the “steady fibres versus particulate fibres” challenge, they do prefer to cite navy and house industrial utilization, so our presumption is that the MMCs in watchmaking are costly and troublesome to provide. Note the value of titanium matrix composites within the Ceratanium phase. 


IWC isn’t any stranger to materials innovation in watchmaking, making vital contributions with each titanium and high-end ceramics. In 1980, IWC teamed up with Porsche Design to create what was one of many first wristwatches in titanium and in 1986, debuted the primary high-complication wristwatch case in black zirconium oxide ceramic. What if the Schaffhausen-based manufacture might mix the 2 as a totally new cermet? Well, that’s precisely what has come to go with Ceratanium, IWC’s proprietary materials that’s “as mild and sturdy as titanium however as arduous and scratch-resistant as ceramic.” To be clear, Ceratanium may not be an MMC regardless of seeming very very similar to one — many skilled sources characterise the fabric as a particular alloy. We embody Ceratanium on this part regardless due to how the fabric is made and since it’d qualify as a ceramic-metal hybrid even when it isn’t an MMC. It is not less than as a lot a composite as Achilles’ defend!

IWC Big Pilot's Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun in Ceratanium. Photo: IWC
IWC Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun in Ceratanium. Photo: IWC

Now, IWC is clearly not the primary to consider combining titanium and a few type of ceramic, like Al2O3, and we ourselves consulted educational papers on this topic from 1996. Even presently, the virtues of titanium matrix composites (TMCs) have been already well-known, making TMCs sought-after within the aviation business and the navy industrial complicated. One of the important thing points with TMCs is that they’re prohibitively costly (US$1,000 per kg), so it’s maybe unsurprising that IWC solely debuted what it calls Ceratanium in 2017 (with the Aquatimer Perpetual Calendar). The manufacture stated it took 5 years of analysis and growth to give you Ceratanium, and we current under a paraphrased model of the official description of the machining course of.

IWC begins its description by noting that Ceratanium will not be merely a mix of titanium and ceramic. Nothing so pedestrian, if technically complicated, would do for a high-end watchmaker. The manufacture begins with some type of particular titanium alloy, of which there are various in business use, however this one was developed to IWC’s specs. Interestingly, all method of case elements may be executed in Ceratanium, from the casing ring to the crown and pushers. CNC machines flip and mill these elements, however each is sand-blasted by hand. This will not be a ending method, however relatively a way to create an uneven floor. The subsequent half is a bit mysterious, however definitely has one thing in frequent with ceramics: the sand-blasted elements are baked in a kiln in very particular circumstances that permit for a “part transformation” of the floor of the fabric. The essential ingredient right here is oxygen which diffuses into the floor, a course of we presume has been ready for through the aforementioned sandblasting.

Anyone with a bit of data about chemistry and physics will likely be squinting fairly arduous at this level, however IWC is retaining mum past the above info. The impact of the Ceratanium appears confined to being black, thus proving superior to any type of coating utilized to a base metallic. For IWC, which means it could actually produce all-black watches the place magnificence is greater than skin-deep. Furthermore, the watchmaker is ready to produce even small items reminiscent of pushers in Ceratanium, permitting for an unmatched diploma of uniformity.

Advancing Accessibility

Nevertheless, the cheaper various shouldn’t be forgotten, and is definitely the explanation Audemars Piguet retreated from the world of composite supplies some years in the past. Explaining why it stopped utilizing cast carbon for its circumstances, Audemars Piguet famous that many different manufacturers had begun utilizing comparable composites or the very same composite however at rather more accessible costs. This spoiled the party for the Le Brassus model, and it’d but have been worse if the accessibly priced manufacturers have been utilizing a fabric inferior however indistinguishable to what Audemars Piguet was utilizing. Again, stable gold is stable gold it doesn’t matter what and has the good thing about needing no clarification in anyway. We dare say that it by no means will, except it’s referred to as one thing like “Magic Gold” maybe.

Franck Muller Vanguard Krypton.
Franck Muller Vanguard Krypton. Photo: Franck Muller

Before we get to these particular person close-ups, we’ll end off with carbon composites, which have come far in watchmaking since Audemars Piguet’s pioneering experiments with carbon fibre and cast carbon. Quite numerous manufacturers are energetic on this space, with Panerai, Bell & Ross, Richard Mille, Roger Dubuis, Franck Muller, Zenith, TAG Heuer, Ulysse Nardin and Gorilla retaining the pedal to the metallic. TAG Heuer particularly continues to be retaining us on tenterhooks about its carbon hairspring, though it does use it in its tourbillon fashions. Even stunning names reminiscent of H. Moser & Cie give you its Vanta black dial being manufactured from carbon nanotubes.

These comparatively latest developments cowl each the aesthetics and technical efficiency of conventional watchmaking, serving as an instance that carbon composites are enjoying an element in all kinds of locations. Even Patek Philippe wouldn’t eschew using carbon composites so long as such supplies are confined to inner components, in response to Philippe Barat, Head of Watch Development at Patek Philippe. It already makes use of silicon and ceramic in its actions in any case, so this could come as no shock. Carbon composites additionally play an element within the making of sustainable watches as demonstrated by Ulysse Nardin’s Carbonium. This final one is the proprietary creation of French outfit Lavoisier Composites and is made up of leftover materials from the aerospace sector – the stuff that made up the fuselage and wings of plane. Since Carbonium is repurposed carbon fibres (certain along with an epoxy additionally from the aerospace business), it maintains its structural integrity (recycled supplies nonetheless typically do not need the identical high quality because the originals, unsurprisingly). Lavoisier Composites additionally makes one thing referred to as Carbonium Gold, a carbon fibre and gold composite, and we’re retaining a watch out for watch manufacturers utilizing one thing like this.

Ulysse Nardin Freak X in Carbonium. Photo: Ulysse Nardin

Finally, to wrap up our dialogue on composites usually, a closing word: it’s impractical to make sweeping statements about any explicit sort of composite. As such, while you look into shopping for a watch that features such supplies, you’ll have to ask questions and be ready for non-answers from sellers and even model representatives. While this is probably not an enormous deal in the case of accessible timepieces from the likes of Zelos, Doxa or Luminox, it’s going to loom bigger in your thoughts because the air will get thinner at heftier value factors.

Transparent Materials

This part was initially printed in 2020 as part of a ceramics materials particular beneath an alliterative tongue-teaser title: “Corundum Conundrum”. Corundum is the particular title for sapphire and defines all such supplies, together with rubies. Apart from trying to be catchy, that unique title highlights the problematic function of sapphire crystal in addition to artificial rubies utilized in actions. The drawback is that corundum is definitely aluminium oxide, or Al2O3, which is commonly referred to as alumina. Yes, the very stuff Rolex opted for in its Cerachrom bezel, as a result of the model discovered a strategy to color this model of ceramic that may not work with zirconia.

Chanel J12 X-Ray. Photo: Chanel
Chanel J12 X-Ray. Photo: Chanel

If you may have been maintaining with this whole story, which means sapphire crystal and artificial rubies is perhaps erroneously handed off as one other type of superior ceramic. While we initially identified that Al2O3 could possibly be thought of both a crystal or a ceramic, that’s solely acceptable when referring to the atoms that make up the supplies — if the dialogue was about substrate parts. For the supplies themselves, how these parts are certain to one another makes the distinction. This is one cause why making a crystalline object is sort of a special problem from making a ceramic object. Also, crystal corundum exists in nature however ceramic doesn’t.

The query then stays: is the method of creating the powdered type of aluminium oxide that’s moulded and sintered right into a remaining ceramic form the identical as that of creating and machining sapphire crystal? The simplified reply isn’t any, however it’s price noting that one could make blocks of sapphire from aluminium oxide in its powdered type. This works for clear sapphire crystal, however getting a color into the combo is a problem regardless of the Verneuil course of already being able to delivering purple sapphire crystal within the 19th century. 

Colourful Storytelling

MP-09 Tourbillon Bi-Axis Rainbow 3D Carbon's case
Photo: Hublot

This is a good story for firms reminiscent of Chanel and Girard-Perregaux, each identified for varied ceramic and sapphire watches which embody using such supplies of their mechanical actions. It is inaccurate nonetheless to counsel that Chanel or any model makes use of both a type of supplies as a result of they’re really interchangeable. It explains completely why an organization reminiscent of Swatch Group-owned Comadur could be adept at working with superior ceramics and sapphire crystal although each require separate manufacturing traces. For this cause, figuring out ceramics with sapphire would spoil the romance of some very spectacular haute horlogerie feats of derring-do. Hublot, for instance, has pioneered full circumstances in colored ceramic and in addition colored sapphire crystal, however it will be rightfully displeased to have these processes conflated. Then in fact there are collectors, together with you, pricey reader, who’ve their very own emotions about this. No doubt a lot of you’ll surprise if the latest flip in the direction of daring colors in watchmaking will imply extra experiments in case supplies, for which each ceramic and sapphire crystal are properly suited. The colors in both materials won’t ever fade and can’t be scraped off.

On that word, watches cased in sapphire crystal don’t possess the structural energy of composites — nobody is proposing crystalline constructions for the aerospace business, or not less than not but. And but, there may be additionally SAXEM (Sapphire Aluminium oXide and uncommon Earth Mineral), launched to watchmaking by none aside from — look ahead to it — Hublot. This new materials has fascinating properties (in watchmaking, its startlingly vibrant colors are unmatched) which have reportedly drawn the curiosity of the European Space Agency but in addition muddies the waters for our dialogue right here. The manufacture calls SAXEM an alloy, which appears to be a little bit of a misnomer — we beforehand referred to as this new materials a composite and have despatched Hublot a question on the official phrase. SAXEM is principally what occurs when one will get clear corundum, which is its state with out impurities, to go wildly vibrant with added metals.

Photo: Hublot

Ultimately, how one feels about this corundum conundrum is intently associated to how one feels about polymers, composites and different assorted up to date supplies. For instance, if one objects to composites and ceramics in watchmaking then does that stretch to the sapphire crystal? On the flipside, if one does settle for this and the roles of superior supplies in the remainder of any given watch, does that imply one has to just accept all variations? Yes, Magic Gold comes into it, together with all the opposite cermet supplies and maybe composites reminiscent of carbonised gold. In a means, this illustrates why commonplace supplies are a lot simpler to cope with in watchmaking. 

This article was first printed on Issue #69 of World of Watches.

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