Have you ever heard of a Ceratanium watch?
A case of unconventionality
It would seem being a pioneer is in IWC Schaffhausen's blood. As early as the '80s, the Swiss maison was already pushing out titanium and ceramic watches by the dozens when timepieces of the era were mostly made of stainless steel. And that technological edge hasn't dulled any as the brand launches a new material trademarked Ceratanium — the next-gen component that's got advantages in spades.
The perfect combination of titanium and ceramic (you'd had probably guessed it if you've got any inkling for amalgamated names), this unconventional crossover brings together the best of both worlds: As light and tough as titanium, and as hard and scratch-resistant as ceramic. Genius, right? Not only does it sound great on paper, the real thing is just as impressive, seen and felt in IWC's iconic Aquatimer diver watch with the all-black, special edition 50th anniversary novelty sporting the world's first Ceratanium case. So what's the nitty-gritty behind this newfangled material and why is it so groundbreaking? Lorenz Brunner, the head of materials development at IWC Schaffhausen, shares an insight into the manufacturing process:
What is Ceratanium?
Ceratanium is a groundbreaking new material, based on a titanium alloy, that combines all the advantages of titanium and ceramic. It is as light and tough as titanium but as hard and scratch-resistant as ceramic. Other compelling features are its skin-friendliness, high resistance to corrosion and striking matte black colour.
What inspired the unusual combination of titanium and ceramic?
The main reason was the fact that both materials have such excellent properties. Titanium is about a third lighter than steel, extremely rugged and also bio- compatible. Ceramic is non-wearing, extremely hard and scratch-resistant. On top of that, both titanium and ceramic are inseparably linked with the history of IWC. In 1980, we launched the IWC Porsche Design titanium chronograph — the first wristwatch with a case, crown and push buttons in titanium. The next new product followed soon after, in 1986, with the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar when IWC unveiled the first wristwatch with a case made of black zirconium ceramic. Later, we were the first watch manufacturer to make a case from black boron carbide ceramic and brown silicon nitride.
What was the main reason for the development of the new material?
Our brief at the start of the five-year development process was to create a black or very dark material suitable for making a completely black watch. The new material would not only have outstanding properties but also give us more freedom during manufacture than ceramic. In the past, we've made black cases with ceramic or rubber-coated stainless steel.
What particular challenges does ceramic pose?
Ceramic is a powdery raw material that is mixed to create a homogeneous mass, shaped and then sintered in an oven at extremely high temperatures. During the sintering process, the material shrinks by around a third. We need to factor the reduced dimensions into the design phase. The minuscule tolerances acceptable for mechanical watches make the job incredibly demanding. Apart from that, it isn't possible to machine ceramic using conventional processes. For example, you can't drill holes in it after sintering because it might split. For all these reasons, designing a ceramic watch is a different ball game from making a metal one.
And is that not the case with Ceratanium?
Ceratanium is based on a titanium alloy produced specially for IWC. We make all the case components from this metal, milling, turning, drilling and polishing them until they've reached their final shape. Only then do the parts go into the oven. The special composition of the titanium alloy initiates a diffusion process and the surface of the material is transformed into ceramic.
What does that mean exactly?
After sintering, the surface has the same properties as ceramic. It's extremely hard and scratch-resistant and takes on its distinct colour. But the thing is, it isn't a coating. During the sintering process, a 'phase transformation' takes place. As a result of this change in the structure, the ceramic surface bonds directly with the material. It's a bit like a loaf of bread: During baking, bread develops a crust that's difficult to remove afterwards.
Couldn't you make a black case using another method?
Most watch manufacturers use PVD coating for their black cases. In this process, metal is placed in a vacuum chamber and given an ultra-thin DLC (diamond-like carbon) coating. But this type of coating is a little like the shell of an egg: It can chip or flake off if the watch is hit or bumped. That doesn't meet our high quality standards. In the light of our extensive experience in case manufacture and hardening processes, IWC decided not to use this particular process.
How do you plan to use the new material now?
With the Aquatimer Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month Edition "50 Years Aquatimer", we've shown that we can make all the case components — the clasp, rotating bezel and case back ring —from the new material. Now we need to wait and see how watch lovers react to it. But I assume we'll be using Ceratanium in the future for other models. It's suitable for any application where we need lightness, ruggedness, corrosion-resistance, hardness and a striking black colour.