carbon fiber watch case
Carbon fiber case on a Rolex

When it comes to collecting watches, most people are interested in what the watch does.  A lot of attention is paid to the movements of watches, and that’s not surprising, really.  The movement is the part of the watch that tells time, after all, so it’s not at all unusual for collectors to spend a lot of time focusing on the movement.

Lately, however, collectors and makers have been focusing on the watch case.

That’s a bit strange, at least to the layman.  The case is just the part of the watch that holds the movement, right?  Why would anyone care about the case?

For years, few people did care about the case; and watch cases were usually made from stainless steel.  Stainless steel is durable, rust resistant and relatively inexpensive.  For more expensive watches, that stainless steel might get swapped out for gold or platinum, though both would have to be used in alloys, as both are too soft to use as a watch case on their own.

That was pretty much it; you had either steel or gold.  Both had their advantages and disadvantages.  The disadvantages of steel are that it’s somewhat heavy, and not very sexy.  Who wants to pay $10,000 (or $200,000) for a watch with a steel case?

That’s why makers have recently been turning to other materials to make their watches either lighter or more exotic, both of which offer additional appeal to potential buyers.

Lots of makers are working with carbon fiber now.  It’s both ultra-strong and ultra-lightweight, though carbon fiber tends to lend itself best to use in sports watches, rather than high end luxury models.  That’s just because, for all of its merits, carbon fiber isn’t particularly attractive.  Sure, it’s light and strong, but it’s not as pretty as gold or platinum.

Along similar lines, a few watchmakers are working with ceramic.  We’re not talking about the pottery that your grandmother used to make; these ceramics are high-tech, super-strong, space age materials.  Ceramics offer many of the benefits of carbon fiber and similar drawbacks.  They look nice, but they don’t look elegant.

Hublot has experimented with using a special mix of ceramic and gold to produce a durable, super-strong, highly attractive and scratch-resistant case, and that may be the magic solution that provides the best of all possible worlds…at a price, of course.

sapphire watch case
Sapphire watch case

Hublot has also (with a few other companies) made a few watches using sapphire.  This sounds great on paper; who doesn’t like sapphire?  It’s edgy, it’s expensive-sounding (and expensive for real) and it looks really good.  The downsides are significant, however.  The material is really expensive.  The material is really difficult to work with; you can drill it for hours, be nearly done, and then have the material shatter or crack on you, forcing you to throw it all away and start over.

Perhaps the worst part about ceramic is a problem for the marketing people – the finished product often resembles clear plastic, even though the watch is priced as though it were a house.

At least one maker is simply taking stainless steel and giving it a twist.  Damascus steel is an Old World steel technique that was used to make swords 1000 years ago.  It has an interesting swirled texture to it and looks great.  On the downside, it is still steel, and the deep, dark secret is that the actual recipe for making Damascus steel was lost 150 years ago and no one really remembers how to make it.  The result now is something that looks like Damascus steel but is likely priced more like gold.

All of these things are a lot more interesting than plain old steel or plain old gold, however.  We’ll expect to see far more experimentation coming down the road with watch cases.