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The Journal

The Case for Innovation: Part II

Our in-house expert Michael Friedberg continues his detailed history of IWC’s in-house cases, including the innovative Ceratanium. 

— Ceratanium in the making
— Ceratanium in the making

IWC’s unparalleled development of new and better materials for watch cases has continued into the 1990s and this century. In Part I of this series, IWC’s pioneering use of hardened steel, followed by aluminum and then titanium as case materials, beginning in the 1970s, was discussed. Since then, IWC expanded the boundaries further, first using a high-tech ceramic, zirconium oxide (also called zirconium dioxide), followed recently by the particularly innovative new material, Ceratanium.

 

A New Generation

In the mid-1980s, IWC paired some of its flagship and innovative Da Vinci models with zirconium oxide cases. Although several colors were used in prototypes, black or white zirconium cases were used in limited production.

 

Then, in 1994 through 1999, IWC produced its automatic Fliegerchronograph model (Ref. 3706) in a black zirconium case. This new model, called Ref. 3705, was produced in 999 examples, and today is highly collectible.

 

These ceramic models had no ordinary cases, but instead used a new generation of ceramics that had nothing to do with either pottery or bricks. Known as fine or engineering ceramics, these materials include any hard, non-organic, non- metallic substance which is sintered at extremely high temperatures and fused with other elements.

 

To fabricate these cases, a complex process is required. First, a powdery substance of extreme purity is mixed with chemicals to change color. A binder is added to the colored raw material, which then is molded in the shape of a pre‑blank.

 

A case blank is then cut from the pre-blank, using special tools, which then is put into a kiln to produce zirconium oxide at very high temperatures. The microfine powder grains are actually baked together. 

 

IWC Aquatimer - Chronograph Edition Galapagos Islands (IW379502)
— IWC Aquatimer - Chronograph Edition Galapagos Islands (IW379502)

Creative Experimentation

After a complex cooling process, 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.

 

Zirconium oxide is nearly impossible to scratch, and in many ways is superior to traditional watch case materials. For any watch model with an all-black case, zirconium oxide outperforms what is used by most others, which involves a PVD surface coating. By being a solid color throughout the material unlike PVD, zirconium cases are not subject to chipping or flaking.

 

In the last decade, IWC has revived its use of zirconium oxide, and also experimented with other innovative case materials. These include the use of carbon fiber in one reference and also, for two Aquatimer models, a black rubber coating. 

 

Top Developments

IWC’s more recent ceramic models are usually produced as special editions, especially for TOP GUN Pilot’s Watches. Noteworthy ceramic models include a Big Pilot’s Watch (IW501901), a Big Pilot’s TOP GUN Miramar Ceramic (IW501902), and even a Big Pilot’s Perpetual Calendar (IW502902). One now in demand model is the Pilot’s Watch Chronograph TOP GUN “Mojave Desert”, with a special tan ceramic case (IW389103).

 

Ceratanium is a most interesting recent development. As the name implies, it combines both titanium and ceramic. This patented case material, developed by IWC, is as lightweight and unbreakable as titanium but also as scratch resistant as ceramic. 

 

Ceratanium may be the best of all worlds, with its base material being a special titanium alloy. The raw material must have an extremely high purity, and the blank is initially machined to give the case components their final shape. This is followed by a complex heating process in a furnace, with oxygen diffusing into the material. The surface then becomes ceramic, developing extreme hardness, scratch resistance and a special matte black color.

 

The first use of Ceratanium by IWC was in a new Aquatimer model, followed by a few Pilot’s watches. The Aquatimer was produced in a limited edition of 50, with a perpetual calendar and IWC’s special digital date and month (IW379403). That was followed in 2019 by Top Gun Pilot’s Double Chronograph (IW371815). One might suspect that additional Ceratanium models may be unveiled in the future.

 

There are a few watch companies which develop unique movements, but there is scarcely any watch company that concentrates on material development like IWC. It requires specialized equipment and particularly skilled engineering acumen. 

 

For both cases and movements, IWC will surely continue to push the cutting edge of research and development as an innovative watch manufacturer. The search for newer and better demands this.

 

Michael Friedberg has been collecting watches, especially IWCs, for more than three decades. From 2001 through 2015 he was moderator of the IWC Collectors’ Forum and has written extensively about IWC’s history and technical features.


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