The world of high horology is guided by two aspects — technology and innovation. While the former is visible in a plethora of groundbreaking complications like flying tourbillons, perpetual calendars, minute repeaters et al; the latter is imperative for brands to strengthen their repertoire.
Not content with merely rolling out mechanical timepieces, watchmakers are wooing customers with wristwatches crafted in innovative materials like titanium, carbon, ceramic, and alloys, created at their respective R&D departments. Rado is one brand that has carved a niche with its path-breaking work using ceramic. The Swiss player charmed consumers with the Integral in 1986 — the first watch to use high-tech ceramic for the bracelet. This paved the way for the impressive Ceramica in 1990 — the first watch made entirely in ceramic. And it has continued on this quest, rightfully earning the title ‘Master of Materials’, by continuously pushing the boundaries. Here, we give you a glimpse into what goes on while producing a Rado ceramic timepiece.
High-tech ceramic is 10 times harder than 18-karat gold while being 2.5 times lighter. This ultra-lightness, great dimensional stability, and resistance to wear-and-tear have enabled Rado to develop the unique monobloc construction, where primary movement components are fastened directly into the case. Even steel is no match for the impressive properties of high-tech ceramic, which is five times harder but only three-fourths its weight. And not only is it durable and impervious to almost everything, ceramic has an exquisite silky texture that provides ample comfort against the skin.
According to Rado, high-tech ceramic timepieces are birthed from ultrafine zirconium oxide powder, which is also used in other high-tech applications such as medical and space technology. The entire process consists broadly of nine stages where first a mould is created. Then pigments are added to the pure zirconium oxide powder to set its colour. These are then mixed together with a polymer binder, which acts as a moulding aid. The melted feedstock is injected under high pressure (1,000 bar) into precision moulds, to ensure the right shape and size for each watch case after sintering.
Next, the polymer binder is removed using a chemical process before beginning the sintering process. Here, the cases are placed inside a special oven at 1,450°C, where they shrink by 23 per cent and become dense, and reach their final hardness of 1,250 vickers.
Once this is achieved, the critical dimensions are reworked with a diamond wheel. The pieces can then be polished with a high-gloss finish or sandblasted for a matte effect. After this, comes engraving, where a laser etches various numbers and markings over the bezel, with absolutely perfect outlines and depths. This is followed by lacquering, which is used to seal the minute voids created during engraving. Each piece then undergoes mandatory quality control checks before being sent for assembly. Additionally, there’s also a patented process of creating plasma ceramic — applied to fully finished white ceramic pieces, which only begins once the steps described earlier are completed.
Watch components are placed in a special plasma oven where gases activated at 20,000°C trigger a chemical reaction that changes the composition of the ceramic surface. This results in a change of colour from white to plasma — a unique metallic grey that does not contain any metal at all.