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There’s a certain kind of magic in a transparent watch. And not just any transparency, but the glass-like clearness of sapphire crystal. For a long time watchmakers have dreamt of creating a watchcase that’s transparent as well as hard.
Sapphire is a synthetic material grown in a lab that is used in various applications for its almost scratchproof hardness and excellent optical qualities, but most watch-lovers know it simply as the watch’s crystal. Because of its extreme hardness, sapphire requires diamond-tipped milling machines to cut and sculpt and even then, its highly brittle nature makes this transparent material prone to shattering when being worked on.
While there have been significant strides in the past few years to better master the machining of sapphire in irregular, three-dimensional forms, the process remains costly, complex and incredibly time-consuming, thus few watchmakers venture to take on this challenge.
Here are a few examples of watches featuring sapphire cases or using sapphire as more than just a watch’s crystal.
It would be unthinkable to mention sapphire case watches without giving an honorable mention to Richard Mille, who has been the main proponent of complex sapphire cases in the last few years. While certainly not the first to experiment with sapphire as a case material – at least for the key elements, that distinction goes to independent watchmaker Alain Silberstein – the RM 056 was a real breakthrough piece that showcased the possibilities that modern sapphire cutting and machining techniques could offer. The sheer complexity of the case made it an unprecedented achievement in modern watchmaking.
The sheer complexity of the case of the Richard Mille 056 made it an unprecedented achievement in modern watchmaking.
Hublot LaFerrari and Big Bang Unico
In January during Hublot’s annual exhibition in Geneva, the “fusion” brand presented two sapphire case watches in two opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of complexity (and price). The first is the MP-05 LaFerrari, with a streamlined, smooth case profile that requires a staggering amount of hand finishing, an exceptionally difficult feat with a material like sapphire.
The Hublot MP-05 LaFerrari has a streamlined, smooth case profile that requires a staggering amount of hand finishing.
The second sapphire Hublot is the Big Bang Unico Sapphire, which has a multi-component case construction that requires smaller sapphire parts; many of which are sloped or angled. The real challenge with this one was incorporating features such as the quick strap-change mechanism within the sapphire, while retaining the iconic Hublot Big Bang silhouette.
The Hublot Big Bang Unico Sapphire has a multi-component case construction that requires smaller sapphire parts.
Zenith’s approach to the sapphire watchcase is a more conventional one, whereby the interior central case is made of metal with a sapphire ring attached to it. While perhaps not as laborious to make as a full sapphire case, it does offer a greater extent of flexibility in design and incorporating other elements such as hand-engraved metal and guilloche enamel on the case.
The interior central case of the Zenith Pilot Type 20 Skeleton is made of metal with a sapphire ring attached to it.
It’s all in the name really. The latest iteration of MB&F’s HM6 is the “SV” version, which stands for Sapphire Vision. This isn’t a sapphire case per se, but rather a metal (red gold or platinum) central band sandwiched by two sapphire crystals on the top and bottom, allowing an unadulterated view onto the complex, three-dimensional flying tourbillon movement within.