Op-Ed: Are “Rare Materials” Actually Worth It?

Whether we’re talking Richard Mille or F.P. Journe, Hublot or Omega, there has been plenty of conversation about exotic case materials outside the standard steel, titanium, or gold. The “what” will vary, but the purported reasoning is often the same with talk of hardness, scratch resistance, lightness, or overall durability inevitably becoming a part of the argument.

Let’s get real for a moment and acknowledge that this inexorable quest for “better” is at best humorous, and at worst risky. Gold and steel cases have been around for an eternity, and the evolution of shock resistance in modern movements means that most watches will easily survive daily wear. On the rare occasion a watch sustains a really significant impact, the shock absorption within the case and movement will either pass or fail. No case material will magically save the day except MAYBE the rare rubber-clad cases offered by both Audemars Piguet and IWC once upon a time.

For the sake of this dialogue I won’t be talking about gold or platinum. Not because they aren’t rare or interesting, but rather because their values in the market rest on their values as precious metals rather than for any special properties. That said, if we look at technical properties alone, gold and platinum are softer than steel, so if we’re discussing shock transfer alone, you might dent a gold watch but that dent will have a nominally lower chance of affecting the movement inside.

To keep matters simple, we’re going to look at a few key materials/alloys that have gained popularity in watchmaking, with a Cliffs Notes version of the material’s benefits and pitfalls.


No, ceramic isn’t new or necessarily rare as a watchmaking material, but it’s certainly become more prevalent in the upper echelons of watchmaking — Audemars Piguet I’m looking at you. Ceramic gets love for a number of reasons. Aside from its ability to be crafted in an assortment of colors, it’s lighter than steel and virtually scratch resistant. It’s also very comfortable on-wrist due to its heat transfer properties, and unlike other metals the instances of allergic reaction are infinitesimal. Here’s the thing, that scratch resistance comes at a cost. Being scratch resistant does not equate to toughness. It trade, ceramic cases can be brittle; just ask the poor sod who’s had the misfortune of dropping one at the right (read expensive) angle. This tale isn’t a new one either — there’s a reason some dive watch collectors still prefer an aluminum bezel insert!

Carbon Composites

This segment of materials is an interesting one, as there’s a lot of variance depending on the execution. For example, woven carbon fiber is vastly different from the NTPT Carbon (a flat-layered material) used by Richard Mille. It’s also different from Texalium, which is the woven carbon with aluminum fibers that Hublot has used to get shiny textures (all while improving malleability). Carbon is excellent for shedding weight, but it’s not above chipping either. Much like ceramic, there’s no such thing as polishing, buffing, or refinishing, so if you bought into the “built for a rugged life” pitch and bash a chunk out of your carbon watch, you’re either living with it, or chewing on the hefty bill of a new case from its maker.

“Special” Alloys

This category is a little different, in part because proprietary alloys (whether based on gold, titanium, or something else) all tend to solve some kind of problem with its standard counterpart. We see this a lot from Omega in particular, but several brands have made up their own special compositions of rose gold or other derivatives. They’re more lustrous, more durable, lighter, or generally just more “something” than their counterparts. They’re also always more expensive, which is the part that most often gets on my last nerve. You use less gold in your alloy, but it’s worth more? None were more irksome though than Omega’s “Gamma Titanium” from the Seamaster Aqua Terra 150M Ultra Light. It’s an aerospace composite that already exists that can be cut with the same tooling as standard titanium. Its practical use? Turbine blades, because it has a higher melting point than standard titanium or other alloys. For some reason though, that means a $48,600 retail price tag makes sense…

Lange’s Honeygold alloy of


Now this is a fun one, as Sapphire definitely beats out ceramic and carbon for actual strength and durability. That said, its difficulty to machine is frequently spun into grandiose claims of impossibility. Yes, it’s hard to work with. Yes it can crack while being machined. That said, the tech is trickling down extremely quickly, and the market is slow to catch up. Should you buy a sapphire cased watch if you have the means? Why not. Their place as a historical icon for the early adoption in watchmaking will hold strong, even if we end up seeing $2,000 sapphire cased watches within the next decade. After all, remember the arrival of the tourbillon?

The Giant Killer: Tantalum

Of all the materials out there, amidst the heaps of marketing jargon and false promises, lies Tantalum. It’s tougher than titanium with a Mohs scale hardness of 6.5 vs 6 for titanium (gold is around 2.5). It’s objectively a nightmare to work with, difficult to procure, and equally difficult to mine. It’s not a material that needs to be puffed up with marketing, because almost no makers dare use it, and if they do it pretty much sells itself. It doesn’t hit the precious metals scale at all, being about double the cost of silver, but its value comes in getting it into precise watch case and component shapes. For those who find value in heft, it’s also quite dense, weighing just a touch less than gold.

I’m certainly understanding of the fact that for some (if not many), a lot of these concerns regarding durability will be a moot point. Some collections live in safes, and even in the cases of those that don’t, many luxury watch buyers are very careful about where and how they wear their beloved timepieces. That said, watches are still meant to be worn and enjoyed, and it’s always best to be well informed (beyond what a brand’s marketing team tells you).

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