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Innovative watchmakers turn to rare and precious materials to produce memorable timepieces

Joanne Lam

 

In the bustling world of elegant and highly complicated timepieces, record-breaking thinness, or flying tourbillons, may warrant a second glance, but what else is there for watch enthusiasts who already have it all?

The answer lies in rare and exotic materials, which some luxury watch brands have increasingly turned to as a means of crafting something truly memorable and distinctive.

RJ-Romain Jerome is arguably at the forefront of this movement. The quirky and imaginative independent Swiss brand has made a name for itself by scouring outer space and the ocean depths for special materials, including moon dust, remains of the Titanic, and ashes and lava stones from Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull.

“It’s not always easy to see an original idea come to life,” admits CEO Manuel Emch. “Finding the materials isn’t always the most difficult aspect; the real challenge is finding a reliable partner … that is willing to help us acquire these materials.”

There are, of course, multiple ways to acquire these exotic materials.

One option, albeit an expensive and fairly temperamental process, is through auctions. It’s one which Romain Jerome has taken part in the past to obtain moon dust – for their popular space-inspired timepieces – which also features parts of the original Apollo 11.

For the now iconic Volcano watch, however, which includes material from Eyjafjallajökull, Emch found matters considerably more difficult.

“We had a problem,” he recalls. “We didn’t have any material from the volcano nor did we know how to get it.”

“Luckily, we were contacted by [the geology department at] the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, [which offered] to help us by sending us lava stone and ash from the erupting volcano,” he says. Thanks to this partnership, not only has the original piece sold out, but the brand launched the collection’s second timepiece this year.

This sort of collaboration is not uncommon. Other brands have also reached out to third-party organisations, which may at times donate unusual materials to watch companies to produce these distinctive timepieces – particularly if it means an increase in awareness of the organisation or its cause.

British watchmaker Bremont, for example, worked with The National Museum of the Royal Navy on its HMS Victory watch, named after the only remaining 18th century ship in the world and the oldest serving warship still to be in commission. The museum had released some of the original oak from the ship for this project, and Bremont in turn made sure that part of the proceeds would go towards the continued preservation of the ship.

This year, the brand has partnered up with Boeing on a research and development project to develop watches with “a new type of steel which has never been used in watches before”, says Nick English, one of Bremont’s co-founders. The Bremont Boeing Model 1 features Custom 465® stainless steel, “a harder, more scratch- and corrosion-resistant steel usually used for undercarriages of jumbo jets”, he explains.

Aside from independent watchmakers, some of the industry powerhouses have also embraced unconventional materials. LVMH’s Hublot, for example, launched the new 45mm Classic Fusion Tourbillon Firmament this year, featuring a dial crafted from osmium, “the rarest metal on our planet”.

The brand’s researchers and scientists concocted a “highly sophisticated” and confidential process to enable osmium to reach the 3,003 degrees Celsius melting point required to transform it into a crystallised form, before the compound was placed on the dial. The use of the compound created a buzz at BaselWorld 2014, as the crystallised dial is said to be inalterable in air, thus never losing its unique greyblue sparkle.

It’s not the first time Hublot has created new material to revolutionise timepieces – in 2011, Hublot helped fund research which led to the creation of unscratchable 18ct gold, a feat Jean-Claude Biver, chairman of Hublot and president of LVMH watches, counts as one of the highlights of his tenure at the company – and nor will it be the last. “We will keep coming up with more new materials in the next 10 years,” Biver says. “It will be like a new material revolution.”

Innovation and creativity aside, the process of incorporating these unconventional materials is no simple task. Even if the research process is bypassed, and material is donated by organisations, perfecting a watch made from rare materials is an arduous, time-consuming process.

“There is a lot of head scratching by myself and Nick,” Bremont’s other co-founder Giles English admits.

For the English brothers, whose watches mostly lie on the elegantbut- conservative end, the biggest obstacle is designing a watch which doesn’t look “corny” and incorporates all the technical know-how deserved in a luxury timepiece.

Nevertheless, some watchmakers are willing to go through this painstaking design process, as the ends justify the means. For Emch, the appeal is simple. The rare nature of the materials themselves boosts the watches into the true realms of luxury. According to Emch, not only does the scarcity of materials force timepieces to be limited editions, but it also fosters exclusivity and keeps watchmakers on their innovative and creative toes.

Giles English agrees, adding: “For us, it is more than just the material.

It is also the organisation [or] charity behind it.”

Perhaps, more importantly, from a watch enthusiast perspective, the rare materials infuse a life and story to the watches, elevating them from luxe but run-of-the-mill accessories to something truly extraordinary. As Emch says: “[It allows] customer to own a part of history.”

 

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