Sapphire watch case from HublotAside from appearance, most people don’t give a lot of thought to watch cases. If you asked the average watch buyer what the case is about, they’d likely tell you that it’s to hold the movement.
In a practical sense, that’s pretty much all a case does, but that doesn’t mean that manufacturers aren’t spending a lot of time deciding what kind of materials to use in their cases.
For most watches, the material used for the case is stainless steel. It’s relatively easy to work with, it’s a common material, it isn’t going to rust, and it doesn’t cost a lot of money.
You can coat it to give it a bit of color, but most of the coating processes will wear off with time and use. If you want to keep the color and you don’t want a watch that just looks like it’s made from steel, then you’re going to need to find another material.
For high end watches, gold has long been the go-to material for offering a bit of luxury and a different look. Gold (and platinum, as well) has a few drawbacks. It’s expensive, of course, though that’s part of the appeal to luxury watch buyers.
Gold is also quite soft, and that can be a problem, as it scratches easily. Gold has to be combined with other materials to make it more durable, but it’s still going to be quite a bit softer than steel.
With improvements in technology, a few manufacturers have taken to using other high-tech materials to make their watch cases, with varying degrees of success.
Here are a few materials that we’ve seen in recent high end luxury wristwatch cases:
Ceramic – This isn’t the stuff you work with to make pottery, but is instead a lightweight, durable material that can also hold color for life. That makes it an ideal material for someone who wants a strong watch that can be offered in a wide variety of colors.
Carbon fiber – Carbon can be quite strong, (diamonds are made from it) and astonishingly lightweight, which makes for a great combination of properties to put in a wristwatch case. On the downside, there’s nothing particularly luxurious about carbon, though it can appeal to people who are interested in rugged sports models and chronographs.
Damascus steel is a material we’ve seen offered from a couple of makers recently, and that’s rather interesting, as the process for making Damascus steel was reportedly lost sometime in the 19th century. Damascus steel was used long ago in swords, and the process of repeatedly folding the material to get the impurities out leaves unusual striations in the material that make it quite unique and attractive.
Of course, calling it Damascus steel doesn’t make it so, but it’s a better name than “steel with lines in it.”
Bronze is a material we’ve seen in a few watches, and that’s kind of surprising, as bronze has a few qualities about it that make it not all that desirable to have in a watch case. It’s rather soft and it’s also rather heavy and neither of those are endearing qualities. On the other hand, bronze takes on a patina as it ages, and that patina can give the watch a unique look. One can’t help but wonder if we’ll soon see copper watch cases for the same reason.
Sapphire – Yes, sapphire. It’s expensive. It’s difficult to work with. It’s a material that can often look like plastic, which rather takes away from the fact that it’s a very, very expensive material. How expensive? Hublot makes a watch with a sapphire case, and it retails for roughly $60,000.
That’s a lot of money for a watch that looks like it might be made from plastic, but sapphire is attractive and does wear well.
All of these materials are interesting and if you have the money, they’re likely a good investment, too. For most of us, we’ll just have to stick with stainless steel, and that’s fine. Steel works well, and is cost effective.