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Feature: Zelos Mirage Sapphire, Tantalum and ZrTi

For some people, watchmaking is about intricate mechanisms, unique complications and, well, anything that ticks, and for others it’s bold design, visual depth and exotic materials. And for a whole bunch of others it’s about bang for the buck. With the new Zelos Mirage, why not just have it all?

Sapphire

Wait a minute … who or what is Zelos? Based in Singapore, Zelos is a microbrand looking to take on the high-end horology you see from the likes of Hublot and Richard Mille, but minus a few of the superfluous zeros in the price tag. Now, I know much of this won’t appeal to many people—I’m sure a whole bunch will have started turning off at Singapore and been gone by Richard Mille—but regardless of whether these watches are to your taste, the ethos behind them is something we should all mutually respect. If you’ve ever found yourself making up a sentence with the words, “Overpriced” and “Richard Mille”, you should stick around.

Speaking of Richard Mille, do you remember the RM056, the 2012 watch with a case made entirely from synthetic sapphire? Perhaps the details are a little hazy, so I’ll hit you with the most eye-watering stat of all: that watch cost a whopping $2 million. Most of what that money got you was the familiar Richard Mille tonneau case in never-before-seen corundum, the base, colourless material that is the foundation for rubies and sapphires, and the same material used in scratch resistant watch crystals.

Prices have come down since to a more—ahem—reasonable $90,000 for the Hublot Big Bang Unico Sapphire, but we’re hardly talking pocket change here. Why the big price tag? It’s at least partly explained by sapphire being one of the hardest materials in the world, and creating a complex shape like a case with is incredibly time-consuming with a high failure rate—and therefore costly.

But we don’t want costly, and neither does Zelos, so for the Mirage Sapphire, you’ll pay just $8,900 for 42 by 13mm of the stuff, about a tenth the price of the Hublot. That’s not a cheap watch by any means, but if you’re set on a full sapphire watch, you’re going to be a whole load better off than you could be. And what better way to view the eight-day movement—which has been skeletonised and bevelled, then PVD-coated in black to complete the effect—than through pure sapphire.

Tantalum

Some exotic materials aren’t quite as bold as others, but that doesn’t make them any less unusual. For this particular Zelos Mirage, you might be forgiven for thinking it was made of the impressive-performing but fairly commonplace titanium—that is until you hold it. This thing is heavy. That’s definitely not titanium.

The other factor that gives this watch’s unique construction away is a slight bluey-purple hue, one so subtle it could easily be overlooked in a passing glance. What you’re looking at here is tantalum, favoured by F. P. Journe in the impossible-to-get Chronometre Bleu and more recently by Omega in the $15,000 Seamaster.

From a practical perspective, tantalum has a high melting point—the fourth highest of all metals—is strong with good ductility so it’s easy to work with, yet work-hardens to provide good durability. It’s as corrosion resistant as glass and twice as dense as steel—hence the weight—and it’s also incredibly rare, one of the rarest metals on Earth. So, given its incredible properties, why don’t we hear of it more often?

Well, really, it’s a metal of industry rather than jewellery—at least until very recently, where, with rising prices of gold, its satisfying weight and subtle hue have started catching eyes. You’ll be more likely to find it in semi-conductors, gas turbines and replacement knees. And this watch is a whole lot cheaper than knee surgery at $4,900.

So where does this value come from? You don’t get something for nothing. So, a tantalum watch with a high-end eight-day calibre for $4,900 is a ways off nothing, but it’s also surprisingly good value, too. It’s pretty clever actually, because the Zelos Mirage is one of those have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too kinds of watches. You don’t pay Swiss labour rates to have it assembled, but because the movement is an off-the-shelf model from La Joux Perret—customised to Zelos’ specifications—you do get a Swiss movement. And in case you’re wondering, yes, that’s La Joux Perret as in the movement arm of the incredibly innovative watchmaker Arnold & Son.

ZircTi

Alright, so maybe tantalum’s a bit too subtle for you. Ever heard of Damascus steel? It’s that really cool effect you often see in forged blades that ripples between light and dark layers. You take two different types of steel, smash them together to make them stronger, and as a by-product you get a pattern that looks awesome too.

This practice has been in use in the Middle East since the year 750. To this day the process remains costly, highly desirable, and often mimicked through the use of laser engraving. You’ve probably seen examples of it in those high-end kitchen knives that cost as much on their own as a good set. But I bet you’ve not seen it like this.

Instead of steel, we have titanium and zirconium. Titanium is strong, lightweight and has a light grey colour. Zirconium is incredibly malleable and found in the zirconium oxide used to make ceramic watch cases. It is also grey, darker than titanium. So, what gives with the blue stripes in this grey zirconium-titanium Damascus? The titanium has been heat-blued by firing it until it turns a rich royal blue, and quenched before it has time to cool, freezing its chemical structure. These two metals make up the layers that are then forged together to create the wholly unique pattern you see here.

Like the tantalum version, you’re looking at $4,900 here. As per the other watches, you can see that La Joux Perret calibre through the sapphire front and back, with the eight-day power reserve meter taking centre stage at the top of the dial. The calibre LJP7500 this starts out life as actually has a date at six as well, which Zelos has chosen to forego to keep the dial looking clean, almost like a pilot’s watch. And that’s not the only thing Zelos has chucked out, because the movement has been pared down from its original form—closer to what you’d see in the Bremont Supersonic—to reveal its innards, and even the mainsprings inside the barrels.

Most Zelos watches actually cost in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands, with the Mirage a halo model demonstrating the extremes of what is possible when you take a different, less traditional approach. And given that most of the watches Zelos offers have been sold out, it seems like it’s an approach the buying public are more than happy to accept. I mean, when it saves you tens of thousands of dollars, that’s hardly a surprise. Looking like a millionaire for a few thousand bucks could almost be called a bargain.