View all articles

Feature: These Watches Are Made Of The Weirdest Stuff

The kinds of watches watchmakers make may be wildly varied, from tourbillons to minute repeaters and everything else in between, but what they make them out of usually leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the imagination. Steel, perhaps gold if you’re lucky—but not this selection. These luxury watches are made of some of the weirdest stuff you can think of—and it only gets weirder!

Rolex DateJust 16013

If you were to point at any one singular brand and say, “This lot make the most watches with the least imagination,” it would be directed at Rolex. It’s always been Rolex’s modus operandi to make watches that perform in their function rather than dazzle with their looks. Even today, with the shine of polished steel and scratch resistant ceramic, a Rolex watch is a form-factor that goes without frills.

But that’s not always been the case, because even the mighty Rolex sometimes breaks a sweat. In the treacherous transition from custodians of practical instruments to luxury commodities in the 1970s, the watch industry was throwing a hell of a lot at the wall to see what would stick—and prevent it from sinking. That included Rolex.

We saw the use of gold in a big way, particularly in the newly released, luxury Cellini line, but Rolex didn’t stop there. Exotic dials were tried and tested in their droves, from gleaming tiger’s eye to cosmic lapis lazuli, with not a single stone left unturned—quite literally. By the late 1970s, Rolex offered around 150 different dial designs for its Datejust alone.

But Rolex didn’t stop at sparkly stones to add some pizazz to their outdated apparatus. By far the strangest of these excursions into luxury materials designed to uplift the Datejust into the realms of jewellery was wood. Yes, wood, the stuff trees are made of. Sequoia, birch, mahogany, walnut, madrona—there wasn’t a tree in the world that was safe from Rolex.

Most of these wooden dials were made with burlwood, the part of the tree that’s most knotty, for its interesting and alluring patterns. Why did Rolex choose to make its watches out of wood? Presumably because of the premium status wood has within homes, furniture and even cars. It’s a nice idea in theory, although the execution certainly isn’t for everyone. Rolex really was trying absolutely everything to see what would stick. Wood, as it turns out, was perhaps a bit too brown and not quite sticky enough.

Aventi A-11 Pure Sapphire

It’s one thing to make a dial out of stone, but how about the entire watch? Gemstones like sapphire have been used in watchmaking since the dawn of time—but to decorate a timepiece rather than make it with. Since the 1930s, when Jaeger-LeCoultre is believed to have fitted the first sapphire crystal, the precious stone has found a far more practical use than just sitting there looking pretty.

Sapphire, or corundum, to be accurate, is formed of hexagonal-shaped prisms of aluminium oxide, which, when completely free of impurities, is totally transparent. Chuck in a dash of iron and titanium and you’ll stain it blue—what’s known as a sapphire—do the same but with chromium and what you’ll get instead is a ruby.

But it’s not natural sapphire we’re interested in here, it’s lab grown. Since 1837, the capability to make sapphire in a lab has existed, with a commercially viable process developed a while later in 1903, albeit in smaller sizes. This was great news for the watch industry, which now had access to a steady source of corundum with which to make ruby bearings.

The 1970s advent of the Czochralski melt process finally heralded the age of affordable corundum in larger scales, and it’s here we begin to see the transition from plastic watch crystals to sapphire. With hardness second only to diamond—at least in the natural world—it was the perfect material to protect a watch’s dial without obscuring it.

That, however, wasn’t the end of sapphire’s journey, because improved techniques in manufacturing and machining have given watchmakers capabilities no one ever before dreamed possible—such as making an entire case from the stuff. Here in this Aventi A-11 we see the crystalline structure of corundum reflected in the shape of the case—but really, it could have just as easily been made in any shape possible with steel. Just don’t drop it …

Rolex GMT-Master II 126719BLRO

Whilst it seems that Rolex’s 1970’s fancy for stone dials has since faded, that hasn’t stopped the watchmaker trying a little harder with its more expensive models. The GMT-Master II in steel may get a simple, black dial, but for a customer willing to pay a bit—a lot—extra for it in indistinguishable white gold, that wouldn’t really do. So, to save the disappointment of it looking the same but just being heavier to carry around, Rolex decided to offer something a bit fancy in the dial department.

It's all a matter of perspective, really. On paper, the dial is simply made of iron, with some nickel, and a smattering of cobalt and phosphorus thrown in for good measure. When you look at it like that, a metal dial is hardly imaginative. That is, after all, what they’re all made of.

But it’s not so much what the dial is made of, but where it was made. The chunk of metal it was carved from may have been sourced all the way from Namibia, but the journey to Rolex’s headquarters was still one of the shorter it had made. That’s because, when the dinosaurs were still about, that chunk fell from the sky, having travelled for 4 billion years to get here. If I recall, the dinosaurs weren’t particularly happy about it.

Nevertheless, the meteorite, known as Gibeon, deposited over twenty-five tonnes of material across Namibia, much of which has been exported. What remains is now banned from being touched, so although most things you’ll see made from meteorite were sourced from Gibeon, with its immediately recognisable lamellae bands and octahedrite structure, what’s still left to use is rapidly running out.

Apparently, Rolex still has a slice or two left of its piece of Gibeon, but it can’t be much. That’s why only the owners of its most expensive watches, like the white gold Daytona and white gold Day-Date 40, get to appreciate it. Well, I say appreciate it: what I mean is be reminded of the fragility of life and the immediacy with which it could all be wiped out. Enjoy!

These three luxury watches demonstrate only the tip of the partially buried meteorite when it comes to weird materials in watchmaking. What’s the weirdest material you’ve ever seen?

Looking for a pre-owned Rolex watch? Click here to shop now