Wall Street JournalWatchmakers Craft Timepieces From Exotic Materials
Designers Use Moon Dust, Metal From Sports Cars, Even Material From Statue of Liberty
By John Revill
April 1, 2014 5:12 a.m. ET
BASEL, Switzerland—A new breed of watchmaker is breaking the industry's mold of elegant-if-conservative designs by crafting timepieces out of unusual and exotic materials, including pieces of classic sports cars and parts of the Statue of Liberty.
Take RJ Watches SA's Moon Orbiter, a watch inspired by the Apollo missions that took the first men to the moon. Each timepiece contains metal from the Apollo 11 spacecraft used by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to get to the Sea of Tranquility in 1969.
The Geneva-based watchmaker, commonly know as Romain Jerome, also secured moon dust at an auction, incorporating the extraterrestrial particles in the timepiece's dial.
"We are offering our customers the opportunity to wear a piece of history," Chief Executive Manuel Emch, said at the BaselWorld watch show, which is running this week. The company has also produced watches using metal from the ill-fated passenger liner Titanic and copper removed from the Statue of Liberty when the New York statue was renovated for its 100th anniversary.
Romain Jerome's creations might be out of this world but the company's strategy isn't. Watchmakers are increasingly turning to unusual materials, including wood and gold-and-ceramic blends, to differentiate their products in an industry crowded with Swatch Group AG's Omega and Longines lines and Compagnie Financière Richemont SA's Cartier and IWC lines, as well as Rolex SA's eponymous brand.
Among the more wild efforts are a Richard Mille SA watch made entirely of sapphire, that sells for a cool $1.8 million, and the $55 million Hallucination wristwatch created by British jeweler Graff that contains more than 100 carats of diamonds.
Scalfaro Watch & Jewellery's GmbH Co. & KG timepieces appeal to both watch and automobile enthusiasts by incorporating parts of some of motoring's most storied cars. The company, based in Neuhausen, Germany, has melted down parts of a Mercedes-Benz 300 SL Gullwing and a Porsche 917 to make its limited-edition watches. The parts are often donated by owners—material from a Ferrari 250 GTO owned by Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason was turned into luxury watches.
The company, whose watches cost from between €4,000 and €10,000 ($5,500-$13,800), works with the engineers who designed the cars. "For our customers it is a way of expressing their passion for the car," said company co-founder Alexander Kuhnle, "Our watches tell a story. They contain the DNA of the cars and their engineers."
Some watchmakers take a more natural approach. Italy's Lowell srl uses mahogany, pine and a host of other woods to make what it calls environmentally friendly watches that cost between €300 and €400. The company uses plastic from recycled bottles for the straps, it builds the cases out of wood from a furniture factory.
"Stainless steel watches are everywhere," said Andrea Rovatti, the marketing director. "Not many people make wooden watches."
Hublot, owned by France's Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton SA, is creating new materials to distinguish its wristwatches from the pack.
Its Big Bang Ferrari Magic Gold, which costs nearly 32,000 Swiss francs ($36,000), uses a blend of ceramic and 24-carat gold, an amalgam that carries gold's luster but is resistant to scratches. The company also launched a 150,000-franc watch earlier this year with a dial made from osmium, an extremely shiny metal from the same family as platinum.
"We don't want to repeat the past," said Chief Executive Ricardo Guadalupe. "We want to make the watches of today with technology that didn't exist before."
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