In recent years, carbon has established itself as an ultra-technical material which, for horological enthusiasts known for their attachment to perpetuating traditions, embodies modernism and watchmakers’ ability to adopt a forward-looking attitude.
Carbon is definitely an unexpected newcomer to a profession more accustomed to selecting materials with the longest possible lifespan. Nonetheless, the appeal of novelty is quite logical in that watchmakers have always pursued their profession in a manner taking account of this inherent duality. As meticulous artisans, their approach is shaped by their apprenticeship and they are each a link in a chain dedicated to cultivating and passing on ancestral knowledge. While they are thus traditionally the custodians of this expertise, some of them are fortunately naturally driven to wander off the beaten track and to make experiments. Within a trade strongly pervaded by a sense of permanence and immutability, this exploratory approach enables them to continue challenging established conventions and thus maintain creative momentum.
Synthetic materials are part of daily living and have invaded all spheres of activity. Some, such as carbon fibres, boast properties suited to specific applications and are used in sectors requiring technical sophistication and high performances. This fibre with its anthracite grey and black chequered pattern has come to embody these sterling virtues to such an extent that its very presence tends to confer these same qualities on products in which it is featured. Developers have thus leveraged this association of ideas by creating exceptionally modern timepieces, which convey through the material from which they are made a certain number of values cherished by men looking for an object that silently reveals their concern to maintain a pole position.
Within barely a decade, the light and extremely resistant material that is carbon fibre has made its way from dials – most of which are actually merely ‘carbon-patterned’ – to cases as well as to some movement parts. In 2007, AudemarsPiguet was one of the first manufacturers to use forged carbon (a carbon nanofibre and polymer composite strongly compressed and fired at high temperatures). Since then this technical product, sold at a premium because it is presented as requiring extremely complex machining technologies, is becoming more widely available just as we have seen with high-tech ceramics. Such is indeed the fate of all materials of which the rarity in fact depends on the volume put into production.
The year 2018 will be a year with a strong “carbon fibre footprint”, since several brands are offering watch products based on this material, such as mainstream producer Hugo Boss Orange watches, thereby confirming that the technology is now fully mastered… or perhaps not quite, because as Jean-Christophe Babin recently stated before his move to Bvlgari: “there are carbon fibres and carbon fibres”. He was in fact launching a timely debate on the biocompatibility of the resins used in polymerising carbon fibres. Some are allergy inducing and others are not. While the issue is now on the table, it seems obvious in light of the issues at stake that the watch brands using these new materials have taken all necessary precautions to ensure they use only composites duly recognized as harmless. Watch this space!