A kind of mag­i­cal alchemy

A ruckus would be one way to de­scribe watch afi­ciona­dos when Rolex rolled out the new Oys­ter Per­pet­ual GMT-Master II. But more than that, what makes a Rolex ce­ramic watch so damn iconic?

Esquire Malaysia Watch Guide - - Contents - Words by Roger Val­berg

WATCH­MAK­ERS HAVE FOR­EVER BEEN IN LOVE WITH ALCHEMY. The pro­gen­i­tor of mod­ern-day chem­istry has been re­spon­si­ble for a great many dis­cov­er­ies. As men sought to change lead into gold through trans­mu­ta­tion, all sorts of new ma­te­ri­als were made, of which the more ex­otic usu­ally find­ing its way to watch­mak­ers and jewellers. But one form of trans­mu­ta­tion has been with hu­man­ity from al­most the very be­gin­ning of civil­i­sa­tion–ce­ram­ics. In many civil­i­sa­tions across the world, the abil­ity to make ba­sic ce­ram­ics like pots, jars, cups and dishes were tech­no­log­i­cal mark­ers.

As progress con­tin­ued, ce­ram­ics evolved to get more so­phis­ti­cated. And while many of us to­day con­sider ce­ram­ics to be mun­dane as we see it daily, the ma­te­rial con­tin­ues to as­tound. Re­searchers to­day toy with what they call ‘tech­ni­cal ce­ram­ics’. These are ce­ram­ics that are a com­bi­na­tion of raw ma­te­ri­als which could never be found nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring. One prod­uct of this re­search is the cladding for space­craft!

That mighty leap from the most in­ti­mate space of a home to the fron­tiers of hu­man ex­plo­ration has only been pos­si­ble by the re­lent­less R&D by many uni­ver­si­ties and com­pa­nies around the world. Be­ing an al­lur­ing ma­te­rial and now su­per strong, that old chem­i­cal ro­mance with watch­mak­ers was once again struck up. Over the last three decades, ce­ram­ics have been a big deal at sev­eral watch brands; some even to the ex­tent mak­ing it their main ma­te­rial for watch blocks.

At other places, sub­tlety is the key. One such place is per­haps the strong­est watch brand in the world–Rolex. Mas­ter­ing the use of ce­ramic has en­abled Rolex to equip its watches with cut­ting-edge ce­ramic bezel in­serts and monobloc bezels. This ex­per­tise, the re­sult of ap­plied in­ter­nal re­search and the cre­ation of a man­u­fac­tur­ing process unique to Rolex, her­alded the be­gin­ning of a new era for the brand. Thanks to the tech­ni­cal prop­er­ties of the ce­ramic it is pos­si­ble to cre­ate par­tic­u­larly durable com­po­nents that are vir­tu­ally scratch­proof and un­af­fected by the sun’s ul­tra­vi­o­let rays.

Whether on a Cos­mo­graph Day­tona, Sea-Dweller, Rolex Deepsea, Sub­mariner, Sub­mariner Date, GMT-Master II, Yacht-Master 37, Yacht-Master 40 or Yacht-Master II, these ce­ramic el­e­ments make a strong im­pact on the watches’ aes­thetic ap­peal and iden­ti­ties, all while im­prov­ing their longevity. In 2007, Rolex reg­is­tered the trade­mark ‘Cer­achrom’. As such, the brand’s ce­ramic com­po­nents are now known as the ‘Cer­achrom bezel’ and the ‘Cer­achrom in­sert’. It was all tech­ni­cal gob­blede­gook to a novice but recog­nised as a huge step for­ward for the brand in the watch in­dus­try.

In 2013, Rolex pre­sented its first two-colour ce­ramic in­sert in black and blue. And the fol­low­ing year, they rolled out red and blue ce­ramic in their GMT-Master. To be clear, the colours were vi­brant in this ver­sion of the two-colour split to mark the GMT hemi­spheres. In that one time­piece, Cer­achrom had come into its own. To get there, Rolex had to learn to do things not only from scratch but also to do it the Rolex way.

The ce­ramic used by Rolex is made of zir­co­nium diox­ide. Also known as zir­co­nia, this ox­ide is de­rived from zir­con, a hard, nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring min­eral.

True to its con­stant quest for ex­cel­lence, Rolex car­ried out its own re­search on the ma­te­rial. Mak­ing ce­ramic as men­tioned is easy enough, but mak­ing tech­ni­cal ce­ramic to the ex­act­ing re­quire­ments of a watch­maker like Rolex de­mands pre­ci­sion. The ce­ramic used by Rolex is made of zir­co­nium diox­ide. Also known as zir­co­nia, this ox­ide is de­rived from zir­con, a hard, nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring min­eral. To ob­tain a coloured ce­ramic, zir­co­nia must be mixed with other chem­i­cal com­pounds, pri­mar­ily min­eral pig­ments. Rolex en­gi­neers and re­searchers learnt the art of these ba­sic ce­ramic prepa­ra­tions, which are al­ways in pow­der form, in or­der to pro­duce ce­ram­ics of deep colour.

How­ever, pro­duc­ing the colour red, as all other brands have found out, is not easy. This re­quired a dif­fer­ent ap­proach with re­gard to the ini­tial ce­ramic mix­ture. This is be­cause no sta­ble min­eral pig­ments ex­ist that can be used to colour zir­co­nia red in a way that is pure. Rolex there­fore un­der­took sig­nif­i­cant re­search to find an al­ter­na­tive to zir­co­nia. And they found it in alu­mina. This may be a fa­mil­iar ma­te­rial to some of you as it is pro­cessed to be­come syn­thetic ru­bies. These are es­sen­tially bush­ings for the mov­ing parts of a watch move­ment. If you see the case back of any watch in­di­cat­ing num­ber of jewels, these ru­bies are what they are talk­ing about.

But Rolex wanted case com­po­nents and not sim­ply small hol­low stones. So they added mag­ne­sium ox­ide to chromium ox­ide to ob­tain an opaque red ma­te­rial cor­re­spond­ing to the brand’s aes­thetic cri­te­ria. A rare earth ox­ide was also added to give the fi­nalised ce­ramic ex­cep­tional me­chan­i­cal prop­er­ties.

The ce­ramic used by Rolex is made of zir­co­nium diox­ide. Also known as zir­co­nia, this ox­ide is de­rived from zir­con, a hard, nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring min­eral.

That in a nut­shell is the sci­ence of the ma­te­rial. From this point on, it is pro­duc­tion. Rolex cre­ates a ‘blank’ by heat­ing the com­po­nents and in­ject­ing it into a mould. This gives them the let­ter­ing like num­bers, in­scrip­tions etc. You then take the blank out and fire it up to around 1,600°C. This makes the blank shrink and the whole process is called ‘sin­ter­ing’. As you can imag­ine, this is dif­fi­cult as Rolex has to con­trol the process to en­sure the blanks fit into place later. Once the pieces cool, it has colour and shape. The brand then puts it through pre­ci­sion ma­chin­ing.

Phys­i­cal Vapour De­po­si­tion (PVD) is used to colour the bezel’s moulded nu­mer­als, grad­u­a­tions and in­scrip­tions. Dur­ing the process, the ce­ramic is com­pletely coated in a one-mi cron-thick (0.001mm) layer of metal–ei­ther yel­low or pink gold or plat­inum de­pend­ing on the ma­te­rial of the watch. A fi­nal pol­ish gives the bezel its shine and re­moves metal from the sur­face. But pre­cious metal coat­ing on the nu­mer­als, grad­u­a­tions and in­scrip­tions are safe and make the bezel clearly leg­i­ble. All of this though, works to make a sin­gle colour bezel. So how does Rolex make those ‘Pepsi’ and other two-colour bezels?

We go back to the blank just be­fore it is fired up. At this point, it is highly ab­sorbent and there­fore, very open to sug-

In 2013, Rolex pre­sented its first two-colour ce­ramic in­sert in black and blue. And the fol­low­ing year, they rolled out red and blue ce­ramic in their GMT-Master.

ges­tion. Rolex adds liq­uid chem­i­cal com­pounds, rather than pow­der in form and voila! you have your­self a two-colour, sin­gle piece ce­ramic bezel. The process it­self is highly com­plex, and there­fore, pro­vides a con­sis­tent, uni­form re­sult. Any­body who has done water-colours knows that liq­uid colour­ing can leave much to be de­sired. Then again, this is Rolex and it is a form of mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion where they have the ex­per­tise to cre­ate, ma­nip­u­late and work a ma­te­rial which re­quires a di­a­mond-tip to scratch, turn­ing it into a two-tone mas­ter­piece. It re­ally is a kind of magic.

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