A watch is a fascinating device that’s have been around for centuries. Throughout this very long time, the materials used to make a watch have changed with the passage of time.
So what are the materials used to make a watch now? There are 10 common materials used in most watches now as listed below:
The first material that is very common in watchmaking is plastic. Well, it’s no surprises there as plastic is one of the most common material for almost everything in our lives spanning almost all industries.
The reason why plastic is ubiquitous is because it’s a synthetic material hence can be produced with at a cheap price. This is advantageous because it will not be wildly affected by the swings in natural resource prices such as wood, steel etc.
In addition, as it’s a man-made material from hydrocarbon, plastic can be formed and configured based on any specific needs simply by adding additives during its manufacturing process. Due to this, the quality of plastics can vary greatly from a weak and flimsy material to a great shock absorbing material.
The use of plastics in watchmaking is vast, though it will depend on the watch category itself. For a cheap low-end watch, plastic is used extensively from its casing, to its movement housing, to its internal components. The advantage of this is the watch will be lightweight and can be made in many colors.
Plastic is also used to make the watch crystal, specifically the acrylic crystal type. The advantage of this type of watch crystal is its lightweight and ability to resist shatter/impact unlike normal glass (mineral crystal).
For more expensive watches, plastic is not used as extensively as it’s usually associated with cheap products. Instead, the material of choice will be a metal with stainless steel the de-facto material, followed by more expensive ones such as titanium and gold (which I’ll touch shortly). This is important because plastic is not a long-lasting material and will lose its luster over the years.
2. Stainless Steel
The next material is stainless steel, which I’m pretty sure you must be aware of as it’s one of the popular material around our home. Thanks to its great corrosion resistance, it’s usually used for stuffs that will be normally exposed to water such as cutlery, cooking utensils, knives, door knobs, faucets and others.
For those that don’t know, stainless steel is not a naturally occurring material but is an alloy from combining iron (the element ferum) with carbon, chromium, nickel and other elements.
The result is a strong material but with the added ability to resist corrosion thanks to its chromium content. It’s also known as inox steel, from the French word inoxydable (inoxidizable).
If plastic is mainly used for cheaper watches, stainless steel is the most common material in middle to high range of watches. It’s used for watch case, bracelet, and internal parts in an automatic movement.
As it’s a steel, there is no question about its strength and durability to resist any knocking or impact throughout its lifetime.
Not to mention it will be able to last very long as it will not be corroded, as long as you keep it away from moisture and any acids. This characteristic makes it the best choice for a dive watch as sea water won’t be able to do anything to it.
In addition, its beautiful silver appearance also makes it a popular choice for watch materials to give it a great metallic aesthetic. But be warned, a watch made from steel is going to weigh quite a bit, though some guys do like this extra heft when wearing the watch as they interpret it as a sign of a well-constructed and tough watch (which it is, it’s steel after all!).
My personal advice in selecting a stainless steel watch is to try it out first and see if you’re okay with its weight or not. Its weight will depend on the watch design and dimension (a larger diameter and thicker watch will weigh more) so do try out different watch sizes to find out the best size for you.
Glass is one of the most used material in our daily lives that have been in used for centuries. It was made from melting sand, soda ash and limestone at high temperature, and then forming it into the shape that we intended. As it’s cooled down, the resulting solid becomes glass as we know it.
It’s very popular as household products, even though it’s more fragile and expensive than the synthetic plastic. The reason? It’s not full of chemical and hence, there is lower risk of chemicals seeping through the foods as opposed to plastic. In addition, it looks much better and is the number one choice for high class dining setup.
For watches, glass is mainly used as the watch crystal – or the transparent protective cover on top of the watch. In horology, these types of glasses are called mineral crystal. It’s not an ordinary glass for tableware though as it has been hardened specifically to ensure it can resist any impacts when its being used as a watch.
The next material used in watchmaking is titanium. It’s one of earth’s metallic elements and is prized due to its high strength to density ratio. Pound per pound, titanium is about 30% stronger than steel. In addition, it also has good corrosion resistant.
Due to this characteristic, titanium is a great material for instances where lightweight is important such as outer space industry and racing cars. In these industries, titanium is preferred over steel as it provided the required strength but with a lighter weight.
Don’t be surprised that titanium is also used for many sporting goods such as rackets, golf clubs, hockey, and bicycle components due to this great characteristics (at a higher price than normal steel parts, of course).
In watchmaking, titanium is mainly used to replace steel to capitalize on its lightweight property. By using titanium, a bulky dive watch will still look great and cool but at a more manageable weight. (such as the case with this Seiko Shogun). But as titanium is more expensive, the watch’s price will also be higher as a result.
Another advantage of titanium is it can be used by those with steel allergies (yes, there are some unfortunate people that have allergies to steel!). With titanium watch, these people will be able to wear a watch like others.
Sapphire is something that I’m pretty sure you’ve heard about. It’s one of the gemstones and a rarity, but in watchmaking, sapphire is not exactly what you would think it is.
Sapphire is a hard material, having a score of 9 in mohr hardness scale (with diamond at 10) so it’s very scratch resistance.
Now, although sapphire is a gemstone, mankind have been able to synthesize it, although the process is slow and expensive (but at least we will have an abundant source of the material).
It is these synthetic sapphire that was used in watchmaking. Most of the sapphire is used to make watch crystal to capitalize on its scratch resistance properties. This ensures the watch crystal is scratch free even if it’s been used for years. In comparison, the other watch crystals (glass based mineral crystal and plastic based acrylic crystal) scratches fairly easily even in normal everyday use.
Another advantage of using sapphire for watch crystal is how it’s able to keep its appearance in the long run. It will not fade or become dull over the years, not unlike the other types of watch crystals. Because of this, sapphire is currently the default watch crystal material for Swiss watches, especially the more expensive ones that use automatic movement.
For Japanese watches, sapphire is only used for mid-high range of watches as the cheaper watches usually used the cheaper mineral crystal. In addition to watch crystal, sapphire is also used as jewels in automatic watches.
The next material used in watches is quartz. Quartz is something that is inscribed on many watches but do you know what it actually is?
Basically, quartz is silicon dioxide and the second most abundant mineral on earth. It’s naturally found among sands and rocks, so much so it’s name was derived from the German word “Quarz”, which means “hard”. Now what does sand have to do with watches?
Quartz, or rather a minuscule grain of it, is used in watches as an oscillator for timekeeping. This is due to its piezoelectric properties – it will vibrate when an electric current pass through it. The vibration from quartz is used to keep time i.e it will be a signal so that the watch will know what is 1 second.
This is the basic premise of the “quartz movement“. Right now, most of the watches on the planet uses this type of movement inside it, though only some of them will display the word “Quartz” on it. This is because quartz movement is the cheapest and very accurate type of movement. Generally, if a watch uses a battery, it will be using a quartz movement.
(If you want to know more about how quartz movement works, read my previous post here where I explain in detail about this topic)
Next we have gold, the symbol of riches. Traditionally, gold have been used for expensive watches for centuries – a watch was always a form of jewelry to the upper class back then so its not surprising that gold is used right now in watches.
Gold, or aurum in Latin, is highly prized due to its rarity and shimmer beauty. Its beautiful “golden” shine can captivate people so much so it’s one of the sought after jewelry material.
Scientifically, gold is also special because it can exist in free elemental form as nuggets or grains. It’s also the most nonreactive metal in the world and will remain uncorroded for years.
In addition to being a jewelry item, gold is also used in electronic circuit boards due to its conductivity and high corrosion resistance.
Now, for a watch, gold is often used as the casing, replacing stainless steel. It’s also being used in the internal parts (automatic movement only) whereby a clear case back will be employed so that its golden interior can be seen. Yellow and white gold colors are also often used for watches too (the gold in this case is alloyed with another element such as copper or steel to get the colors).
Without a doubt, a gold watch is one of the pinnacle of exclusivity and sign of richness. For men who don’t really care about jewelry, a gold watch is the best way to display your wealth while loving real stylish at the same time. But one thing to be cautious about is that a gold watch can have a substantial weight as gold has almost double the density of steel. So while it’s really good-looking, its wear ability (at least for long term) might be in question.
The 8th material used for watches is leather, mostly used for the straps. Leather straps are the best type of strap for a watch if you’re looking for a sleek and elegant kind of look. Its very beautiful to look at and greatly complement your tux or jacket. In addition, the comfortable and soft surface of it makes wearing a leather strapped watch a real pleasure.
For those that don’t know, leather is the skin of an animal that was killed mainly for its meat. The skin was then tanned to create the final leather products (clothes, bags, shoes, etc.) as we know it. The practice of using animal skin for leather products was started in the stone ages by our ancestors as it’s one of the easiest ways to get a cloth.
Leather can be divided based on its source, with cow is the main one that you will see on the market. This is not surprising as it’s the cheapest option for a leather/hide. There are other sources such as goat, buffalo, sheep and pig.
There are also the more expensive leathers, so called exotic leathers from snake, alligator and crocodile. These leathers are sought after due to its unique pattern, as compared to the more bland surfaces of cowhide and other cheaper leather sources. Since these exotic leathers are also scarce, its prices are also more expensive.
Although exotic leathers look really great, there is a concern on the ethics of getting one as the snake/alligator/crocodile was killed just to get the leathers. In comparison, the common leather from cow/sheep was from the byproduct of the meat and dairy industry. In other words, getting an exotic leather mean we’re killing the animal just for its skin.
Luckily, there exist a way to get the nice exotic leather pattern on a normal cowhide using a technique called embossing. Embossed cow leather straps are stamped with a pattern almost like exotic leathers for that nice look. It’s a cheaper and not as ethically concerning way to get a great looking leather strap.
Although leather is a good strap material, it’s not a good choice for when you know you will get wet (the moisture will break down the leather faster). Because of this, this next material, elastomers, is a good choice for straps to be used outdoor.
Elastomers comprises all kind of polymer with viscous and elastic properties such as rubber, silicon and polyurethane. It’s very popular for sports watch bands and also for casings for watches designed to be used outdoor (think about Casio G-Shocks watches).
It is elastic and will provide great fit and comfortable wear on the wrist, though this will depend on the types of the elastomer used.
For instance, rubber is the most natural form of it and was processed from latex of topical plants such as rubber trees. It’s usually the most expensive and gives the best comfort. Silicone is the cheapest but also less durable. Polyurethane (or PU) is basically a step up from silicone with greater durability.
But although it’s a cheap and comfortable option for a watch strap, elastomers generally don’t last very long and will fail after some time. This is made worse if you’re using your watch for outdoor activities and the strap is exposed to all kind of environment.
Due to this, I will always treat an elastomer band as a consumable and can be replaced if it fails in the future. It’s quite cheap after all and you can even buy these in bulk off online stores too.
10. Carbon Fiber
Last but not least, carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is a lightweight man-made material but with a strength greater than steel and even titanium. In fact, pound for pound, it’s about 5 times stronger than steel!. It is made by interweaving minuscule strands of carbon graphite over another, creating a very strong material. You can think of its manufacturing process just like a cloth, but replace the cotton strands with carbon graphite.
Due to its high strength to weight ratio, carbon fiber is widely used wherever there is a need for lightweight, yet strong application. It has been used in industries such as aerospace, motor racing, sports and even musical equipment.
In watchmaking, carbon fiber is generally used for watch casing to replace stainless steel. This causes the watch to be very light and still looks distinct thanks to the carbon fiber pattern on it. The only downside is the hefty price for such a watch….
I hope this article will answer your questions about what materials are used in watches. If you think there are other materials that I’ve missed here, do let me know by commenting below.
Till next time. Cheers!