Men's Watches

The darkest hour

Timeless yet bang on trend, black watches are now employing cutting-edge materials for their dark good looks, says Nick Foulkes. Photographs by Will Thom.

April 05 2010
Nick Foulkes

Franck Muller is sitting in his HQ in Genthod, looking out over Lake Geneva. He is in a philosophical mood and, using his most recent collection of matte black timepieces as inspiration, he muses on the wristwatch as a barometer of the global mood – or at least the mood among those who can afford to invest more than £19,000 in one of his black-steel Conquistador Kings. “In this world we have many wars, plus the [economic] crisis, and this has an effect on people’s spirits and they naturally gravitate towards the black watch. I can see from past experience that when the economic situation is good, people choose yellow or rose gold; and when the economic situation is middle-good they go to the white gold,” says the sage of Genthod, concluding, “and now I think the ambience feels a little black.”

Nicolas Beau, Chanel’s director of watches, advances a different theory for favouring black. “It is not a colour,” he explains. “It is a non-colour colour.” As such, black is beyond trends, he feels. “For example, a black sweater can be truly timeless. It is not as if we had launched a purple watch that can go out of trend; black is something that is for ever.” Chanel has built a horological brand on the back of a black watch (the J12), and, while black might indeed have eternal qualities, right now it is also bang on trend.

Black watches as we know them today first made a serious impact back in the 1970s, when Porsche Design got together with IWC to create a range of timepieces designed by FA Porsche. They were startlingly fresh-looking, the signature piece being the black anodised-aluminium cased watch that flipped up to reveal a compass. A little later IWC released its popular Da Vinci model in a black ceramic case.

The trend returned in 1999, when Arnold Schwarzenegger wore a black Audemars Piguet with yellow numerals as he saved the world from Satan in the far-fetched film End of Days. Meanwhile, another Hollywood tough guy was also also telling the time on a macho black timepiece. “When we bought the brand, Officine Panerai did a small assortment of watches for Sylvester Stallone,” explains Angelo Bonati, the CEO of Panerai, “and a limited edition was also produced in a black PVD [physical vapour deposition] treatment; the aspect was very military and particular. Today, Stallone still wears newer watches in black PVD, which Panerai continues to produce while improving the quality of the material.”

And in this statement Bonati explains much about the appeal of black watches and the problems that pioneers in the field faced. PVD is a method of applying a protective layer to surfaces – in effect, bonding the coating to the host surface. But though early PVD watches had a tendency to chip, this didn’t diminish their manly appeal.

There is also a lively interest in customised black Rolexes, with two of the leaders being Bamford & Sons (from £8,500) and Pro-Hunter (Military GMT 2009, from £8,950). And the industry has come up with other more stable ways of creating black watches: PVD has improved and another surface coating, DLC (diamond-like carbon), has emerged.

Given all this testosterone, it is ironic that one of the first black watches to break out of the niche was Chanel’s J12, which celebrates its 10th birthday this year. Created from ceramic and originally conceived as a man’s watch, the J12 only really took off when it was adopted by women. Indeed, women have played a significant part in driving the boom in black timepieces. “I always associate the colour black with elegance. For me, it is the nicest colour to wear with jewellery,” says Caroline Scheufele, co-president of Chopard. On her Happy Sport Chrono Mark II All Black (£5,500), the only elements that are not black are the diamonds that move around the dial.

Another turning point in the rise of black came when Jean-Claude Biver took over at Hublot: Biver explored new possibilities in black, mixing matte and polished black ceramic of varying textures and properties. Watch wearers loved it. Biver went to extremes, producing the Big Bang All Black (£12,500), with a black ceramic case, black bezel, black dial and black hands. The latest incarnation is the King Power Foudroyante All Black (£16,500).

In the past few years watchmakers have been finding ever more interesting ways to achieve a black effect. And what might have begun as an aesthetic trend is now delivering material benefits as technology advances. New materials are often more robust, lighter and more stable than their more conventional counterparts. “We are turning away from PVD,” explains Octavio Garcia, Audemars Piguet’s creative and design director, “and mixing forged carbon with ceramic.” At this year’s SIHH, Garcia was showing a forged-carbon version of AP’s millenary watch, the Carbon One Tourbillon Chronograph (from £205,000). The wearer has the best of two worlds, he says, because of “the torsional and tensile strength of carbon with its multidirectional fibres, and the scratch-resistant ceramic on the bezel, where the majority of wear and damage can occur.” The forged carbon also makes for an astonishingly light timepiece.

However, Garcia concedes that striking aesthetics are the immediate attraction. “It has a stealthy appeal: a lot of high-performance vehicles use black, and some of the jet fighters from the US air force and non-detectable aircraft are in black.” And it is this “stealth” appeal that is at the core of the proposition offered by Snyper watches, a brand of big black watches (from SFr7,390, about £4,560) designed by Jean-François Ruchonnet. Ironically, these watches are anything but stealthy – aimed more at the Lamborghini-driving ladykiller than the elite, trained killer.

Today a black watch is an important component in the collections of most watch brands. At the fashion end of the spectrum, Dior has released its Chiffre Rouge (from £2,350) in black, while Dunhill has also issued a svelte Moonphases watch (£3,900) in black. Jewellers, too, are in a dark mood. In London, the king of carats, Graff, has come up with a DLC version of its punningly named ChronoGraff (from £12,000). Meanwhile, in Paris, Chaumet has dressed its Dandy Arty model (£5,500) in a covering of black sapphire crystal and fastened it to the wrist with a black patent leather strap.

Black, as we’ve seen, is big in the macho market, where ceramic cases have been used for handsome and rugged-looking watches such as IWC’s Top Gun split-second double chronograph (£7,550) and Panerai’s Black Seal (from £4,600), while Breitling has just launched a limited series of black-steel Avenger Seawolf chronographs (from £3,560). And black is also to be seen in haute horlogerie with Girard-Perregaux offering its WW.TC Shadow travel watch (£16,300) in a sleek black ceramic case.

In fact, watchmakers are enjoying themselves so much with black that the mood is far more fun than funereal. Urwerk’s UR-203 (£142,500) has clever touches, such as an oil gauge that informs the wearer when the watch requires lubrication, but it is the material that is most interesting. While it may have the feel of a DLC, the watch is actually executed in black platinum. A few years ago, the term “stealth wealth” gained a certain currency and, with black platinum, it looks to be making a comeback.