You probably remember the first deep scratch on your new wristwatch and how it got there. Getting the first dent in your new car by someone with a shopping cart (likely) or door from another car (most likely) is more or less the same feeling. At first there is this little shock, you touch the dent or scratch to make sure it is really there, followed by the feeling of a little sting in your belly.
Although it might seem that the (mainly) Swiss watch industry takes it easy when it comes to innovations and relies on the craftsmanship and ‘technology’ of – some times – centuries ago, the search for better materials is on-going.
Especially when it comes to sports watches, watch manufacturers have been trying to use various solutions to create a watchcase that can’t be scratched. An interesting example is the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. Due to the matt-brushed finish on the flat surfaces of the case and bracelet as well as the polished finish on the angles, this watch not only plays beautifully with light, it is unfortunately also a scratch magnet. Every single scratch or dent is a thorn in the eye of the owner in most cases. Therefore Audemars Piguet decided to use their Offshore collection to play with scratch resistant materials like ceramics and carbon. Other big brands like IWC and Hublot also offer carbon, ceramics, and composite solutions for their sports watches.
The appliance of these modern materials often not only changes the characteristics of the case (hardness for example), it also turns the watch into a tougher looking sibling of the stainless steel (or titanium) version. The IWC Pilot Top Gun and Ingenieur Carbon and AMG Black Series are a good example of turning classic stainless steel pieces into something tougher looking. Or what about Omega with the introduction of their Dark Side of the Moon (as well as the Grey Side and White Side)? Turning an icon into a more modern wristwatch that will remain the same forever due to its material characteristics.
Then of course, there are many variations of materials. Ceramic and gold composites have been trending for a while as well as more common combinations like DLC-treated (Diamond Like Carbon) titanium. They all have their specifics, both in characteristics and aesthetics. Hublot and Panerai are very keen on working with composites for their watches, whereas DLC treatments can be found on watches from Cartier and Linde Werdelin. It has also been applied on watches from many other brands by third parties (Rolex, AP, Patek Philippe, etc.).
Sticking to carbon and ceramics, the most common modern materials used, there are a few pros and cons for either of them:
Pros: Super lightweight, very strong due to the fibers
Cons: Relatively low surface hardness (scratches)
Watch brands using carbon: Hublot, IWC, Audemars Piguet, Panerai, Linde Werdelin
Pros: Very hard and therefore scratch resistant (especially interesting for bezels and cases)
Cons: Due to the structure, in extreme cases a case can break or split
Watch brands using ceramics: RADO, IWC, Omega, Chanel, Rolex, Audemars Piguet, Longines, Bell & Ross, Hublot, Jaeger-LeCoultre, etc.
As carbon and DLC are still not resistant to scratches, ceramic is a very interesting material for people whose main concern is to keep their watches like new. Your watch will continue to look as when it left the factory. Keep in mind, of course, that if you would like to have your watch age as nicely as yourself, ceramics won’t join you. Your timekeeping companion will be young forever. It is a matter of taste and preferences.