Over the years, an untold number of interesting materials have found their ways into high-end watches, from the understated titanium to the more exotic ceramic and carbon fibre. There is one material, however, that really stands out, most notably for its anti-luxury character: rubber. How on earth did this innocuous material, first patented back in 1813 and regarded as one of the great industrial inventions of the 19th century, become a commonly used luxury material in watchmaking?
The answer, as so often is the case in the luxury watch industry, was a desire to stand out from the crowd and challenge the status quo. In 1980, a Swiss watch brand by the name of Hublot made its debut. Founded by Carlo Crocco, the descendant of an Italian watch retailing dynasty, the company unveiled a stunning watch that fused together two unlikely materials: gold and rubber.
Hublot watch 1980
As an avid sailor, Crocco wanted to build his brand around water, meaning a waterproof strap was a must. He found metal bracelets uncomfortable however, and leather straps do not take too kindly to getting wet. Plus, he wanted to create a watch that looked as good with a suit and tie as it did on the deck of a sailboat.
It was an unprecedented move and one that was initially met with shock and disbelief by the industry, not unlike the response to the launch of the stainless steel Audemars Piguet Royal Oak a decade earlier. Previously, rubber straps had only appeared on inexpensive sports watches, and were considered the antithesis of luxury.
The growing popularity of luxury sports watches, thanks largely to the Royal Oak and other pioneers of the previous decade, could not be ignored, however, and the rubber strap eventually proved to be an attractive concept. With its smooth texture and comfortable fit on the wrist, it provided a viable alternative to a leather strap or a metal bracelet, while the solid gold case ensured its status as a luxury timepiece. Hardy and robust while guaranteed to stand out in a crowd, it was well-suited to the more active lifestyle of the luxury sports watch enthusiast.
In time, other luxury watch brands began to accept and embrace the appeal of the rubber strap. It was a natural choice for sports watches, particularly those geared towards diving and other outdoor activities, plus it could be made in just about any colour you could think of. In the early 1990’s other brands developed ways to emboss rubber straps with patterns, making them an important part of the overall aesthetic of the watch, such as the tire-tread straps on Chopard’s Mille Miglia.
Chopard Mille Miglia GTS Power Control
In 1993, Audemars Piguet took the use of rubber (and rubber-like materials) a step further, with the launch of its Royal Oak Offshore collection. The manufacture’s first sports chronograph, it was conceived by 22-year old Emmanuel Gueit, who was working as a junior designer for Audermars Piguet at the time, and was created to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the Royal Oak.
Designed to appeal to a younger, more adventurous crowd, its pushers and crown were wrapped with Therban, a rubber-like elastomer resistant to corrosion and fireproof. Despite early criticism, the model went on to become a huge success for Audemars Piguet. Later, the brand would release models that featured gold cases paired with not only rubber-clad pushers and crowns, but also even rubber-clad bezels. Not surprisingly they were all worn on rubber straps with gold AP folding clasps.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore
In more recent years, it could be argued that there is one brand that has really elevated the use of rubber and rubber-like materials in the luxury watch industry: Richard Mille. Renowned for pioneering the use of cutting edge materials from outside industries, the brand continually partners with other exciting companies to develop innovative new products.
For the rubber strap of the RM 50-03 McLaren F1, Richard Mille worked with its strap supplier, BIWI S.A., to develop a way to inject Graphene into the strap to increase its elasticity and wear. The RM 25, meanwhile, features a strap made of a perfluoroelastomer called Kalrez®. This material was developed for tough environments such as scientific, research, aerospace and aeronautics environments requiring a superior degree of purity. It provides almost total chemical resistance, maintaining its properties at temperatures up to 327°C, whilst simultaneously offering optimal watertight protection. Developed in conjunction with DuPont Performance Elastomers, and Biwi SA, this exclusive material can be considered the ultimate version of the traditional rubber strap.
Richard Mille RM 25
Hublot will always be recognised for introducing rubber to the luxury watch industry, however, and the company continues to champion the trend it began back in the 1980’s. Today, the company offers its signature rubber strap in myriad colors and textures, each matched harmoniously to a watch. Hublot has also combined rubber with other materials by covering the rubber strap with an upper inlay in calf or alligator leather, flameproof NOMEX, and even denim.
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Frank Geelen – The Netherlands
Frank Geelen is an expert on Haute Horlogerie and beautiful hand-finished mechanical movements make his horological heart beats faster. He loves to explain all technical details of complications like tourbillons, minute repeaters, constant force escapements and column-wheel chronographs and he has been doing that for nine years.