Ceramic watches are outliers amongst metal watches with a lustre and perfect surface which seems untouched by the wear and tear which usually ages a timepiece. Today, I would like to recount a concise history of ceramic watches and wider ceramic watchmaking. I will not address every watch or milestone since the inception of these materials, but I will cover the most major events which have steered the watch industry from the niche to the mainstream.
Usually compounds of metals or metalloids & non-metals, modern ceramics often feature a mix of ionic and covalent bonds, thus allowing them to exhibit the properties of great hardness, high compressive strength and high thermal resistance which we have come to expect from them. Advanced ceramics are also notable for having a structure which gives limited tensile strength and elasticity. In short, ceramics are able to resist immense pressure without yielding until a force is applied which exceeds what their bonds can withstand. The result is that, when a metal would deform, the random orientation of the crystalline structure of a ceramic means that a crack will spread through the material and result in shattering. This should, however, be taken with a pinch of salt considering that modern ceramics can be engineered to an extent to mitigate or enhance these factors for different applications. They also usually require a much greater force to shatter than steel, for instance, would require to be deformed.
In watchmaking terms, this enables them to be extremely scratch and abrasion resistant, but unsuitable for impacts, thus making them an interesting alternative to metals for certain applications. One also has to consider the fact that shape and mass make a difference for the durability of ceramics in the sense that a relatively stout watch case avoids the risk of snapping which is inherent to the low tensile strength of ceramics. By contrast, small, spindly movement parts have been an unsuitable use until relatively recently. For these reasons, watch brands have courted the idea of ceramics since the 1960s in the pursuit of enhanced external durability for their watches.
The story of ceramics amongst watches begins with a relatively humble piece when one considers the wider market for vintage watches. This was the 1962 Rado DiaStar which came to exist due to the fact that, with steel and gold being the only major case materials available (titanium only appeared in the 1970s), this brand chose to explore ‘hard metals’. What they found instead was the carbide of ‘heavy stone’, which is to say tungsten. With this tungsten carbide case, Rado also innovated with shape. A wide tonneau shape was selected: a wise choice for this brittle material. Unfortunately, this quirky dress watch did not enjoy widespread success but, nonetheless, formed a unique starting point away from metal watch cases.
Wider use of Ceramics
The next brand to wade into the world of ceramic cases was Omega, no stranger to alternative case materials. Already, Omega had experimented with titanium to create its Seamaster 600 & 1000 ‘PloProf’ models in the late 1960s & early 1970s only to ultimately use corrosion resistant steel called ‘Uranus steel’. Today, this is better known as 904L and is seen across the Rolex range. The watch which relates to our story, however, could not be more different. Between 1973 and 1982, Omega developed a proprietary form of cermet, a generic term for a material combining ceramic and metal. Omega’s form was made with aluminium oxide & tungsten carbide which was formed into a case for the Seamaster Cermet, a flagship special-order piece. With ceramics still in their infancy, Omega could not form a fully articulated bracelet from this material, thus requiring tiles of cermet to be attached to a steel framework. This model is often referred to as the ‘Black Tulip’.
Perhaps I digress, but speaking of the Seamaster ‘PloProf’, I must briefly mark the use of ceramics on a very similar watch: the original Seiko ‘Tuna’ reference 6159-7010. This 600m dive watch, released in 1975 following development under Ikuo Tokunaga since 1968, offered a large, circular titanium case fitted with a protective shroud and housing a high-beat automatic movement. Here, Seiko used a ceramic coating over their titanium shroud to enhance the relatively soft surface of this metal and to make it resistant to abrasion without the brittleness of pure ceramic – a wise choice for a watch on the front line of exploration.
The True Beginnings of Ceramic Watches
Returning to the story, if ceramics were a passing interest for Omega, IWC was the brand to truly carry the torch. This reached fruition with the 1986 IWC Da Vinci ref. 3755. For the purposes of brevity, I wasn’t planning to discuss movements too thoroughly in this article. However, with this IWC, it would be a crime to ignore one of the most interesting movements of the 20th century. Following the use of manually wound Valjoux movements for complete calendar chronographs in the early 1980s such as in the ref. 3710, IWC approached the obstacle of quartz dominance with a new concept. They chose to release the Da Vinci ref. 3750, an automatic perpetual calendar chronograph wristwatch with beautiful articulated lugs in gold, in 1985. The truly remarkable aspect of this watch was the fact that IWC’s Kurt Klaus was able to create a perpetual calendar module comprising less than 90 parts which was operated by the crown rather than by pushers, an unheard-of achievement. This ornate dress watch at the top of the IWC range was released in 1986 with a ground-breaking zirconium oxide case, the predecessor to the cases used in most modern ceramic watches. This case was also available in white alongside the more conventional black, with a rumoured lime green model also said to have been made. Ultimately, this ultra-exclusive watch (ref. 3755), produced until 1995, strengthened IWC’s resolve for further exploration of ceramic cases whilst presenting ceramics to a luxury audience.
The Return of Rado
Meanwhile, Rado had by no means reduced its efforts with ceramic cases in the aim of creating more durable watches. After a string of models such as the Anatom & Integral in the 1980s, they released a watch which would define their brand in future years and be a spiritual successor to the DiaStar. They named it the Ceramica and gave it a slick integrated bracelet and square form made almost entirely from black ceramic. This seemingly continuous bracelet formed the first ceramic bracelet which did not feature tiles over a steel frame. Aesthetically, this watch also gave Rado the angular and experimental design for which they are today known.
The next few years were rich in innovation at Rado with 1993 giving their range the Sintra. Where the Ceramica was as geometrical as could be, the Sintra retained an integrated bracelet and square case but introduced curves which, today, do appear somewhat dated. The material was, however, of importance as titanium carbide was chosen for its much reduced weight when compared to tungsten carbide whilst offering a similar glossy grey colour. A comparable appearance was achieved on the 1998 Ceramica with plasma high-tech ceramic which, through exposing white ceramic to 20,000°C gases, yielded a metallic look. This process remains very much within the Rado repertoire today as a significant proportion of their watches utilise this technique.
The Ceramic Tool Watch
The 1990s also gave the watch world the first truly technical applications for ceramic cases in the form of IWC’s pilot’s chronograph or ‘Fliegerchronograph’. This is perhaps the most adored and, to my eye, best looking ceramic watch ever made. At 39mm in diameter with a clean and legible dial adorned with tritium markings and the quintessential arrangement of a Valjoux 7750, ref. 3705 was a pure tool in gorgeous matte ceramic. This pilot’s watch is thought to only have been produced between 1994 & 1998 in under 2,000 examples at a significantly higher price than its steel sibling, the 3706. Perhaps what is most uncanny about this watch is its total resistance to ageing bar the delightful custard colour of its now 25-year-old markers. This comes courtesy of its spectacularly scratch resistant case which would seem perfectly suited to the cockpit environment when, all too often, one sees heavily scratched IWC pilot’s watches from the same period.
Whilst the 2000s brought many advances to ceramic watches and their components, it was a brand not commonly associated with the pinnacle of watchmaking which led the way. The Chanel J12, was released in the year 2000 by the fashion house; and it featured an all-black ceramic case as a pseudo-sports watch with a rotating bezel in steel. It was later joined by a white version and both remain in the range in some form to the present day. These served as a milestone as the first mainstream ceramic watches and a highly effective alternative to coloured coatings.
The All-Ceramic Watch
It was Omega’s return to all-ceramic cases which formed the next stage in this story. In 2013, Omega released the Speedmaster “Dark Side of the Moon”; thus providing an entirely black version of their co-axial Speedmaster in zirconium oxide. It carried over the automatic co-axial chronometer 9300 movement, 44mm case and 100m water resistance but with a matching zirconia dial. What was truly novel about this execution of the humble Speedmaster (along with its “Grey Side of the Moon” & “White Side of the Moon” counterparts) was the inclusion of a matching ceramic crown, set of pushers and deployant, a first for ceramic watches due to the small size of these components.
Omega also enjoys the status of being the first creator of a serious dive watch entirely from ceramic in the form of the 2016 Seamaster Planet Ocean Deep Black. This 600m dive watch is, like the aforementioned Speedmaster, entirely black zirconium oxide ceramic (although later offered in blue ceramic also). What is perhaps most remarkable is that this watch can survive the knocks of use underwater whilst also not cracking under the considerable pressure of 60 atmospheres. This watch also uses Omega’s ‘Liquidmetal’ bezel which is created by forcing a particular alloy into precisely laser engraved slots in the ceramic bezel insert for absolute durability. This was first made available in 2009 but is now used not only by Omega but in other Swatch group products such as the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe.
This bezel brings us to a particularly important offshoot of ceramic watches: ceramic bezels. Prior to ceramic bezels, aluminium or acrylic/Bakelite were the most common materials used but were usually much more susceptible to damage than the rest of a watch case. For this reason, one can often see vintage watches with heavily scratched or faded aluminium or cracked Bakelite bezel inserts . The first ceramic bezel to be available on the market was offered by Rolex in 2005 on their gold version of the updated GMT-Master II (ref. 116718) which was followed by the stainless steel version (ref. 116710) in 2007. These watches featured a ‘Cerachrom’ bezel insert which, whilst being virtually impervious to scratches, also featured engraved markers filled with either gold or platinum to give a crisp colour and lustre. The use of ceramics for bezel inserts highlights Rolex’s pragmatic approach to innovation.
As more brands started to use ceramic bezels for their watches, Rolex advanced the game again in 2013 by releasing the GMT-Master II ref. 116710BLRN ‘Batman’. This model featured a dual colour blue and black ceramic bezel made from a single piece of ceramic which was made half-black chemically during production. Rolex impressed the following year by creating a brighter pairing for the white gold ref. 116719BLRO with the quintessential Pan-Am ‘Pepsi’ colouration. As of 2018, Rolex has started to offer the ‘Pepsi’ bezel on a steel GMT-Master II (ref. 126710BLRO) whilst a black and brown ‘Rootbeer’ bezel is offered on two-tone & Everose gold models (126711CHNR & 126715CHNR). These bright colours have proven to be a significant feat of engineering and remain unexplored by most brands despite ceramic bezels becoming far more mainstream.
Ceramics within Movements
Mechanically, ceramics have never enjoyed a large amount of popularity considering their tendency for breaking when used for small components. However, they have proven invaluable for components subject to regular friction. Since 2002, Jaeger-LeCoultre has utilised ceramic ball bearings for their automatic winding rotors – a traditional area of wear due to perpetual motion. Until then, brands had used Eterna’s solution consisting of steel ball bearings (as depicted on their logo). A similar use can be seen on the deployant clasps of Tudor which use ceramic inserts to reduce wear over time whilst, in 2012, IWC succeeded in creating ceramic winding pawls for their famous Pellaton automatic winding system. For IWC, this was a significant event as an automatic winding solution which had defined their brand was modernised.
It seems rather clear that the applications for ceramics in watchmaking are very much something of the present, although it is perhaps surprising that they have now been in development for over fifty years. Naturally, methods of production as well as the attributes of the material itself have been refined, yet the promise of a scratch-resistant case remains intact. In truth, it is only in looking back at the origins of this material that we can see its value, especially when presented with a Rado in essentially original condition after half a century of wear.