Making a case for a case
By Michael Friedberg
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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):
as commonly written: ZrO2
Density: 5680 kg m-3
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.
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
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.
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
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.