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by Owen Lawton
It’s fair to say that the world of watch collecting is a confusing one. For starters, there’s so much jargon and technical language that means nothing to the average person you pass on the street. Throw into the mix the variety of materials on offer that are used in cases and movements and it becomes overwhelming for a new collector. That’s where this article should be useful. A guide for collectors and watch enthusiasts to refer back to when they’re curious about the materials that components are made from.

Stainless Steel
Stainless still is quite literally the bread and butter of modern watch cases. Typically, stainless steel watches come in one of two flavours, 316L and 904L. There are some other stainless steels used however they’re typically reserved for use in single watches or lines of watches. Initially used for sportier and more “professional” models stainless steel is used everywhere and is an ideal material for watches as it stands up well to the tests if everyday life.

Gold can take many forms in and on watch cases. Generally, the most expensive and desirable gold watches are solid gold with the gold’s purity measured in carats. Gold filled and plated watches feature a coating of gold on the surface of a case made of another metal, often brass or nickel. Over time these coatings wear away causing the substrate metal to be exposed.
A traditional material in the sense that it’s been used for centuries and has a whole period of history named after it, bronze often has marine connotations as a material. It has been used infrequently across the history of watches, but has seen a recent surge in popularity as people look for a watch that will age with them. Don’t be fooled by the oxidised outer surface, bronze is more corrosion resistant that stainless steels.
Nickel/Chrome Plated
Less common now but they big cost saving measure from the early 20th century up until the 1970s, nickel and chrome plated cases were made to look like polished stainless steel but had far less durability. Tell tail signs of these plated watches are exposed substrate metal especially on the underside of the case and a caseback with the markings “Stainless Steel Caseback” which indicate the whole case is not stainless steel.

Titanium watches have been around since the 1970s and have gradually seen a rise in popularity. As a material titanium has a low-density making watches that feel surprisingly lightweight. Advantages of titanium over steel are its increased scratch resistance and durability. Many also prefer its darker more dulled grey appearance to that of steel.

Ceramic watch cases have a greater hardness than a traditional metal watch, meaning increased resistance to scratches. They are generally pretty lightweight however they are pretty difficult to work with, hence their recent introduction to watch bezels and cases. Another concern of owning a ceramic watch is its potential brittleness with the risk of shattering.
Contrary to what the name might have you believe, Ceratainium isn’t directly made from mixing titanium and a ceramic. These IWC cases are made in their usual way from a particular titanium alloy, then heat treated causing the surface of the case to turn into a ceramic giving it the advantage of greater hardness but without it being as brittle as a fully ceramic case.

PVC (Physical Vapour Deposition) and DLC (Diamond Like Carbon) are surface finishes applied to watch cases. These finishes are usually black and are modern watches finished in this way usually have an increased scratch and corrosion resistance. DLC tends to be the tougher of these two options but both are prone to wearing and fading over time.

Carbon now features in an ever increasing number of different watches in different forms. Different brands use carbon fibres in different ways resulting in variety within the types of carbon watches on offer. There are more traditional woven carbon fibre composite cases through to forged carbon cases where carbon fibres are distributed randomly before the resin in applied to make it a composite. Both of these have been offered by IWC with a woven composite Inginuer and more recently with a forged carbon Big Pilot.

The material often used to protect the dial of a watch, sapphire crystals offers increased scratch resistance over mineral or plexiglass crystals. That said the drawback of sapphire is that it is more prone to shattering compared to other crystal materials. Most people tend to think of sapphire as a coloured precious gem, however for watch crystals sapphire is artificially manufactured and machined to shape.
Sometimes when referring to a movement jewels might be mentioned. It has often thought by enthusiasts that more jewels make a better movement as they are put in movements to reduce friction. The number of jewels though varies with the amount of complication that a movement has, for example a chronograph movement will likely have more jewels than a time only one. The jewels in the movement have no physical value themselves as they are now manufactured synthetically, however prior to this invention jewels in movements were entirely natural.

Probably the most widely debated material used in watchmaking quartz is most often found in movements of battery powered watches. Quartz is used as an oscillator in most battery powered watches and provides far greater accuracy for less cost than a mechanical timepiece. It is debated among enthusiasts as some feel it is more clinical and there is less craftsmanship in quartz movements as opposed to mechanical.

Another relatively recent introduction to the watchmaking industry silicon is seen as a cutting-edge material within watches due to properties that lead to greater long-term timekeeping performance. The biggest advantage of silicon in a watch movement is for antimagnetic. In the modern world magnetism is everywhere from your laptop to your fridge and if not kept away from these sources a mechanical watch can become magnetised wreaking havoc on the movement inside.

Owen Lawton
Owen Lawton is a student at St Catherine’s College, Oxford, reading materials science. He became interested in watches and the use of materials in watchmaking in his late teens and enjoys applying his studies to the hobby.