Feature: Carbon Fibre Watches
Carbon is the sixth most abundant element in the universe. It makes up the thinnest material in the world, graphene (measured in a single sheet at 0.15 nanometres, 650,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper and sixteen times thinner than human DNA) and the hardest natural material in the world, lonsdaleite (which is 58% harder than another carbon structure, diamond). Bizarrely, carbon doesn't melt; it passes straight from a solid state to a gas, which it does at a sweltering 3,600 degrees. Carbon is an amazing element, and even makes up a sixth of our bodies—so why not make a watch out of it?
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph
Carbon, woven into layered sheets and glued with epoxy resin, is the most familiar form of carbon fibre. Audemars Piguet, however, decided to go in a slightly different direction for their Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph, and for that they turned to forging. That isn't to say it's fake carbon fibre; forging is the process of using heat and pressure to form a shape. Forging produces stronger results at the penalty of greater cost, with an interesting marbling effect in the finish as a by-product. Better yet, a forged carbon Royal Oak Offshore is a quarter the weight of the heaviest gold one.
Making a forged case seems simple, but is in fact the work of over thirty years' research. Fine strands of woven carbon string are cut from a spool, inserted into a mould and compressed. As the pressure increases, temperatures rise, reaching a peak of 400 degrees. The entire process takes less than half an hour, and from there the case blanks go on to be cut, drilled and finished.
Watch Spec | Case: Forged carbon fibre with ceramic bezel Dimensions: 44mm dia, 15mm thick Crystal: Anti-reflective coated synthetic sapphire Water Resistance: 100m Movement: Calibre 3126/3840, automatic Frequency: 21,600 vph Power reserve: 55 hours Functions: Time, date, chronograph | Shop Now
Did You Know? Physicist Roger Bacon discovered in 1958 that strands of carbon could be produced in a direct-current carbon arc furnace. The strands were tiny—five micrometres in diameter, to be precise—and had an estimated production cost of $10m per lb. The rate was prohibitive, but an idea was born.
Hublot Big Bang All Carbon
Hublot, on the other hand, have chosen to go with the traditional, weaved carbon fibre for their Big Bang All Carbon. Although the process is simpler, in a shape as small and complex as this, a whole world of complexity is opened up—not least by the necessity to keep the weave uniform over hard edges and changing surfaces. Nevertheless, Hublot have done an incredible job, and the result is impressive and particularly pleasing to someone who, like myself, likes things to be neat and tidy. Even the dial is made of the stuff.
Hublot's Big Bang has, since its launch, been a platform for experimentation with weird and wonderful materials including ceramics, tantalum and magnesium, but the All Carbon is easily the most dramatic and eye-catching. Add to that the finely grained, soapy feel present on all these carbon fibre watches, and it results in the All Carbon being an all-round treat for the senses (unless taste and smell rank highly in your priorities for a watch, of course).
Watch Spec | Case: Forged carbon fibre and composite resin Dimensions: 44mm dia, 14.5mm thick Crystal: Anti-reflective coated synthetic sapphire Water Resistance: 100m Movement: Calibre HUB 4104, based on Valjoux 7750, automatic Frequency: 28,800 vph Power reserve: 42 hours Functions: Time, date, chronograph | Shop Now
Did You Know? It wasn't until the 1960s that carbon fibres were revisited. A high strength weave of carbon strands, layered and bonded with resin, was developed by the UK Ministry of Defence and quickly adopted by aircraft engine manufacturer, Rolls Royce. It was ultimately too fragile, and nearly cost Rolls Royce an important deadline.
U-Boat Chimera 46 Carbon
One look at the marbled pattern of the U-Boat is enough to know that it is another adopter of the forged method of making carbon fibre, although the difference here is the cost; compared to the Audemars Piguet and the Hublot, the U-Boat sits at around a third of the price, putting it in a class of its own for affordable carbon fibre watches. It's a model we've seen before, the Chimera, and with additional lightweight titanium parts and a sensible 46mm diameter, it is as comfortable to wear as any other watch here.
The slight differences in technique compared to Audemars Piguet's method of forging carbon endow the Chimera with a more distinctive marbling effect, the contrast of the lighter and darker swirls making the material more recognisable as exotic at arm's length compared to the sober—in present company at least—Royal Oak Offshore. The strap on the U-Boat is also perhaps the softest thing this side of an especially fluffy cloud.
Watch Spec | Case: Forged carbon fibre and titanium Dimensions: 46mm dia, 17mm thick Crystal: Domed synthetic sapphire Water Resistance: 100m Movement: Modified Valjoux 7750, automatic Frequency: 28,800 vph Power reserve: 44 hours Functions: Time, date, chronograph, canteen crown | Shop Now
Did You Know? Carbon fibre manufacture went global through the sixties and seventies, moving to the rest of Europe, the USA and Japan. Greater strength and flexibility was achieved in the fibre, and with it came increased confidence in the product, moving its usability from secondary to primary parts in aircraft manufacture.
Linde Werdelin SpidoLite II Tech Gold
Linde Werdelin have chosen forged carbon fibre as well, but it's immediately obvious that any other option was off the cards thanks to the case shape, which is by far the most complex here. Modelled around the original SpidoLite II, it's an intricate cage of carbon fibre aimed at reducing weight as well as accepting the Linde Werdelin Reef and Rock modules. It has been hollowed out to leave nothing but a frame to accept the strap and support the movement, which is held in a cylinder fashioned out of what Linde Werdelin call, 'ALW', or, 'Alloy Linde Werdelin', which is said to be lighter than titanium, yet stronger than steel.
Carbon isn't only strong and light—it's beautiful. The swirls of forged carbon fibre and the weave of the more traditional kind are instantly recognisable, and aesthetically unmatched. In amongst high-tech materials used in watchmaking, like ceramics and titanium, carbon fibre is easily the most impressive, both technically and visually. Let's hope it doesn't go the way of its wonder-material grandfather, Bakelite.
Watch Spec | Case: Forged carbon fibre and ALW Dimensions: 44mm dia, 15mm thick Crystal: Anti-reflective coated synthetic sapphire Water Resistance: 100m Movement: Cal. L04 made by Concepto Frequency: 28,800 vph Power reserve: 42 hours Functions: Time, date, compatible with Linde Werdelin Reef and Rock modules
Did You Know? The current use of carbon fibre is limited by its cost and its difficulty to repair, holding back its adoption by the mass-market automotive industry. The aircraft, aerospace, high-end automotive, motorsport and wind energy industries are, however, all eager consumers of the product, pushing its estimated annual growth to 7%.