Less commonly, ceramic is applied to an entire case and bracelet. At the 2017 S.I.H.H., as the fair is best known, Audemars Piguet introduced its all-black, all-ceramic Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar ($93,900).
Response was so enthusiastic that one client in Monaco reportedly paid 25,000 euros ($30,130 today) to secure a higher place on the watch’s wait list, said Chadi Nouri Gruber, the company’s product director. “Basically if you want one now,” she said, “the resale value has gone up 20 percent to 25 percent on the original retail price.”
At Geneva Days, the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton exhibition that runs concurrently with S.I.H.H., Zenith is introducing its first all-ceramic watch, the Defy 21 El Primero Ceramic ($15,100)). And in November, Girard-Perregaux unveiled its Laureato Skeleton Ceramic, also with a black ceramic case and bracelet, exclusively for the United States market ($36,600).
“Ceramic is a very important material for Girard-Perregaux,” said Antonio Calce, chief executive of Sowind Group, which includes Girard-Perregaux. “Its black surface is elegant and technical, harder than steel, and it keeps the same sophisticated look when the surface is polished or brushed.”
For William Massena, managing director of the online forum TimeZone, ceramic’s popularity among consumers is driven primarily by its scratch-resistant qualities, which mean a watch can still look good years after purchase. “When you buy a watch, you hate your first scratches,” he said.
It also reflects the appeal among certain connoisseurs, he said, for materials originally developed for aerospace and other high-tech industries that have been applied to watches by Richard Mille, Audemars Piguet and others. These materials “are now ‘recycled’ in high-end watch manufacturing with much success,” Mr. Massena said, with ceramic having the added advantage of being less expensive than materials like graphene and forged carbon.
In addition to its marketing allure and resistance to wear, ceramic offers welcome aesthetic opportunities. “It gives watchmakers a whole avenue of creativity,” Ms. Schnipper said.
It is an effective solution to the continued interest in all-black watches, for example. Unlike coatings on metal, the color in ceramic is a property of the material itself and thus resists fading and wear. Dr. Brunner said, “If you want a very dark or black watch that is durable, ceramic is the only option.”
It also opens the door to a range of other colors. At S.I.H.H., Audemars Piguet is marking the 25th anniversary of the Royal Oak Offshore model by expanding its ceramic palette, adding khaki, blue and gray to different components, including bezels and pushpieces.
The development of colored ceramics in watchmaking has been relatively slow, however. “Any time you add color, it can affect the solidity of the piece,” said Richard Mille, the avant-garde watchmaker who has created ceramic watches in a variety of colors.
For him, the watch fair is an opportunity to unveil his latest exercise in the material, the RM 07-01 Black Ceramic (price not yet available), which the brand said is the first ceramic watch to be set with diamonds.
That is no mean feat. “It’s been a long process to develop this watch,” Mr. Mille said, noting he had to find a way to make the holes needed to set the diamonds without compromising the case’s strength. “You have to be careful not to weaken the ceramic.”
The material’s Achilles’ heel?: It can be brittle. If dropped from a certain height, a ceramic piece can fracture on hitting the floor. But Mr. Massena is not troubled. “Ceramic is one of the oldest exotic materials, and unlike some, it has aged very well,” he said. “I don’t think its durability should be a concern.”
Also, production costs are expensive. As ceramic has different tolerances, the same technical drawings cannot be used for a ceramic watch as a metal one. “You have to redesign every single link, more or less,” Dr. Brunner said.
The all-ceramic Royal Oak, for example, required more than 600 hours of research and development — but the result is true to the brand. “Many watchmakers adapt their product to the ceramic materials, meaning simple construction, rounded angles, polished finishes without contrasts,” Ms. Gruber said. “We did exactly the opposite. We adapted the ceramic to our codes.”
IWC hopes to avoid ceramic’s shortcomings by combining it with titanium. Ceratanium, its new patented titanium alloy, is the answer, Dr. Brunner said. “It gives the low brittleness of titanium and the hardness of ceramic.”
The first application of Ceratanium was the Aquatimer Ceratanium ($46,800), issued in September to mark the 50th anniversary of its signature diver’s watch.
When exposed to high temperatures, the new alloy creates a diffusion layer of ceramic that becomes integrated with the layer below, making the material extremely resistant to chipping and wear. “The hard crust developed on a loaf of bread in the oven is very similar to the ceramic layer formed in the Ceratanium process,” Dr. Brunner said.
Ceratanium is more adaptable than ceramic. “You can take the technical drawings for a standard metal bracelet,” he said. “That is a very big advantage in terms of time and cost.”
As for ceramic, Mr. Massena warned against its being used as just a marketing gimmick for watches. “In my opinion it’s overused,” he said, with many brands jumping on the ceramic bandwagon following the success of Rado, IWC and Chanel’s J12.
Overall, he said, it is best applied to specific components, such as bezels, that benefit from its resistance to scratches and discoloration. Either way, ceramic should be approached with care, Dr. Brunner said.
“You need a team in the company who really understands ceramics and knows how to avoid its pitfalls.”