Hail, Zirconia!

Making a case for a case

By Michael Friedberg

April 2006


The zirconium dioxide case of the new Ceramic Doppelchronograph is a technological feat. It is special because it is different. But it is more than different, because it also reflects art, craft and science. And it displays the innovative spirit and technical prowess of IWC.

Watch enthusiasts often emphasize “in-house” by considering whether a watch movement is proprietary.  A proprietary movement need not be better –after all, screws and springs and gears generally are interchangeable among manufacturers. Any such movement may not be even truly distinctive – the simple goal of every watch movement is to tell time. The basic design of the Swiss lever escapement has remained the same for decades and essential parts are often made by one supplier. Yet, there is something special, perhaps even a mystique, attributed to a proprietary movement.

There is nothing inappropriate about valuing a watch movement, but  one should not ignore, as can easily occur, the rest of the watch. A watch is much more than its movement. There are critical design elements and critical components, including not only the watch face but also the watch case. Many companies trumpet their design, but few extol the virtues of their cases.

Possibly that’s because few watch companies are involved in case production. It is an industrial art unto itself. Few companies have the technological understanding, the qualified personnel and the high tech machinery as IWC does.  Moreover,  a case is a case –it can’t be dissected like a movement and it’s not easy to discuss most cases beyond how well they are sealed.

In the modern age of watch manufacture, which perhaps started in the late 1970’s when quartz technology changed the entire watch industry, IWC pioneered case production. With its innovative Porsche Design models, IWC experimented with aluminum and then subsequently established the use of titanium as a case material. This was thinking outside the box: IWC marched to a different drummer by trying new materials and developing new manufacturing techniques.

Above all else, IWC ventured where no other companies did when it started using zirconium for watch cases. Originally, in the mid-1980s, it paired its flagship and innovative Da Vinci model with zirconium oxide (or dioxide) cases. Although several colors were used in prototypes, black or white zirconium cases were used in limited production.

Then, in the years 1994 through 1999, IWC produced its automatic Fliegerchronograph model (Ref. 3705) in a black zirconium case. At the time, the ceramic case alone added around a 50% premium to the cost of the watch, in comparison to one with a  normal all-steel case.

These were no ordinary cases, even if all they were designed to do was to hold the movement in place and resist penetration by dust and water. They involved a new generation of ceramics that had nothing to do pottery or bricks. Known as fine or engineering ceramics, these materials involve any hard, non-organic, non-metallic substance which is sintered at extremely high temperatures and fused with elements such as aluminum, zirconium, silicium, carbon, nitrogen and oxygen. These products have been used in the surgical, aerospace and computer fields, and even to produce jewelry.  

For IWC, a several step process is involved. First, there is the raw material –a powdery substance of extreme purity. The almost-white raw material is then mixed with chemicals to change its color.

A binder is then added to the colored raw material, which then is molded in the shape of pre-blank. The binder evaporates during subsequent firing.

Then a case blank is cut from the pre-blank, using special tools. The blank is then put into the kiln and the zirconium oxide is born at very high temperatures. The microfine powder grains are actually baked together into a compact substance of extraordinary hardness. There is a complex cooling process involved. During this heating and cooling process, the blank shrinks and this must be taken into account during fabrication –else the case will be too small for the movement.

Finally, the fired case blank is ready for drilling grinding, rounding, threading and polishing. More time than usual is required to deal with the ceramic case and special diamond tools –along with skill -- is required. Fitting the case back itself, as well as the crystal, requires special engineering design and then techniques to implement them.

Prior to 1983, zirconium oxide did not exist. It is a high-tech material of exceptional hardness. It is many times harder than steel and its polycrystalline structure is highly crack resistant. It is almost impossible to break and seldom scratches. Its attributes are near those of porcelain, in hardness, and in other respects it is like glass, and can only be ground, polished or drilled with diamond tools and diamond dust.

For those interested in technical detail about zirconium oxide (also known as zirconium dioxide):

In its cubic form, single crystals of zirconium oxide are often used as substitutes for diamonds. Like diamonds, cubic zirconia have a cubic crystal structure and a high index of refraction. Jewelers often can tell them apart primarily by a thermal conductivity test.

Zirconium oxide should have a place in the watch industry. It is close to scratch resistant, it is light, it can be attractive. It does command some premium and perhaps that is why it has not been universally adopted. But also many consumers and even watch companies do not not value the science and engineering underlying case production. Like a fine movement, a case also can be a work of art.

For that reason alone, we should applaud IWC’s reintroduction of  high-tech ceramic case technology in 2006. After a seven year absence, a zirconium case watch is again part of the IWC line-up. This is something unique for IWC among  manufacturers.

IWC's new Ref. 3786, the Ceramic Doppelchronograph, is special, and a beautiful and useful watch. Unlike its two ceramic IWC predecessors, this one also further innovates by using titanium, rather than steel, for the caseback and pushers.  Like the ref. 3705, in many ways this black watch is a stealth watch. But unlike PVD-black watches it shouldn’t chip or peel or most likely even scratch.

It’s quite a watch, and it might be the start of something big. But then again, a 44mm zirconium watch is something big. Yet, the largest attribute of this watch is its use of innovative case materials and a reminder to all of us how important the case is. The importance of a watch case should be, paradoxically, an open and shut case.  

Copyright 2006