Watchmaking is no stranger to outer space. During the first decade of this century, there was a vogue for watches that appeared to have wandered off the set of Star Trek. So strange did they look that one might have been forgiven for thinking that the design departments of watch companies had been infiltrated by aliens intent on imposing their bizarre creations on the wrists of human beings. Now watchmaking is once more engaging with extraterrestrial visitors, only this time they are not in the design department – they are on the dial.
Had you been in what is now northern Sweden around 800,000BC, you would have heard a loud explosion as a shower of metallic rocks from across the universe hurtled through earth’s skies and buried themselves in the ice. Hundreds of millennia passed, ice ages moved back and forth over this remote patch of our planet and then, in 1906, 10-year-old Viktor Mattila was tending cattle when he came across a strange-looking rock. It made its way through various hands to the Geological Institute of Uppsala, where it was identified as a meteorite, and given the name Muonionalusta. Over the years, similar rocks were found across the region, allowing scientists to adduce that they fell over 800,000 years ago during a period of glaciation. They have been waiting ever since for the human race to evolve to a sufficient level of sophistication to find a use for them, which for Christian Lattmann, CEO of Jaquet Droz, means slicing them into very thin slivers and making them into watch dials.
“My supplier buys them from Sweden. He has a man who goes out looking for meteorites every summer – when the snow melts they sometimes reveal themselves. Our dials usually have a figure-of-eight pattern allowing us to use different materials, but meteorite is so mesmerising that last year we brought out a full dial made of it.” For Lattmann, it is the almost incomprehensible age of meteorites, older than life on earth, that is at the heart of their appeal. “They are over four billion years old, and I find this relation to time particularly amazing: meteorites emphasise that the time we have been on earth is very, very short and invite us to ponder the inexpressible dimensions of space in a philosophical way.”
But before the infinities of time and space can be contemplated on a watch face, a meteorite needs to be spruced up: careering around the cosmos for a few billion years and then falling to earth in some of the most remote parts of our planet does not leave them looking their best. A meteorite may fall from the sky resembling a lump of rock, but by the time its journey ends on the dial of a watch such as Jaquet Droz’s Grande Heure Minute Quantième Météorite (£19,300) or Grande Seconde Quantième Météorite (£19,300), it displays an abstract but geometric pattern that brings to mind the vorticist paintings of Wyndham Lewis and David Bomberg. Known as Widmanstätten patterns, they are formed by stripes of interleaved nickel-iron crystals called lamellae.
Liberating this startling look from inside these extraterrestrial stones is an involved process, as Davide Traxler CEO of Parmigiani Fleurier – which makes the Tonda 1950 Météorite (€20,200) – explains: “The dials are crafted by our sister company Quadranc. Basically, meteorites are either stony or metallic. You need the ones that have more metal in them and cutting them is very difficult. They’re much harder than anything else we cut, apart from diamonds. Once cut, the discs are galvano-polished and chemically treated in an acid bath that brings out the texture. Each sliver is different – only on the last treatment does the pattern appear and you don’t know how it will look.”
Finding the right kind of meteorite with a high iron content; the difficulty in cutting and shaping; the presence of sufficiently complex, lambent, visually absorbing Widmanstätten patterns; and the fact that, like a human fingerprint, no dial is quite like another – all combine to make the meteorite dial irresistible to watchmakers keen to offer their clients something different, rare and irreplaceably individual… something new that also happens to be up to 4.5 billion years old.
Moreover, it is a material that suits current trends in watchmaking. The patterns traced by the lamellae are what makes the meteorite dial so hyponotically attractive and they are best appreciated uninterrupted by multiple subdials, windows, apertures and scales. A decade ago, when the hamburger style of watchmaking was at its literal and figurative height, the subtlety of these enigmatic marks would have been lost in a forest of complications, functions and micromechanical distractions. But on a time-only watch of the sort that is back in fashion, a meteorite’s beauty can be fully appreciated.
This beauty has not been lost on Piaget. During its most aesthetically daring years of the 1960s and ’70s, Piaget established itself as a leader in the use of exotic dial materials on ultra-slim watches and, under the present leadership of CEO Chabi Nouri, it is revisiting this inspiring period. “There is more space for creativity on the dials today and this gives us the chance to equal the many colourful dials in the 1960s and ’70s,” says Nouri, who has made the brand’s elegant Altiplano (£25,200) a showcase for meteorite dials this year, albeit a showcase just 3mm high. To achieve this low profile, the dial is worked to a thickness of 0.5mm – a technical high-wire act in itself. “Because of the structure of a meteorite, a very hard section can be next to a very soft part and this causes tensions that could bend the dial, unless you master the cutting process.”
Nor is it solely makers of ultra-slim dress watches who have fallen for meteorites. Rolex, which made its first meteorite dials in the late 1980s, chose to spotlight the return to favour of this dial by installing it into a particularly sophisticated example of one of its most emblematic timepieces: the GMT-Master, relaunched last year. This year, the white-gold GMT-Master II (£29,550) was offered with a meteorite dial featuring a crystalline pattern of lamellae that recalls a frost-obscured window on a icy winter morning. The use of such an exotic dial is all the more impactful because of the relatively large 40mm diameter of the GMT. In this instance, the creative department chose the dial because of a conceptual link to the timepiece itself: the GMT- Master is a watch for travellers and, having journeyed hundreds of millions of miles across space, there can be few things more well-travelled than a meteorite.
So far, the furthest man has travelled is to the moon, a journey that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and to commemorate this, Omega, maker of the Nasa-approved Speedmaster, has used a very appropriate meteorite in its Apollo 11 50th Anniversary limited edition (£26,840). It is a gorgeous watch inspired by the first ever gold Speedmaster, which was made to celebrate the success of the moon landings. But unlike Omega’s Grey Side of the Moon (SFr32,000, about £25,090), the meteorite doesn’t appear on the dial; instead, a small disc of meteorite is visible through the transparent caseback.
Of course, moonphase watches depicting celestial bodies are particularly appropriate for meteorite dials, of which Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Calendar moonphase (£11,500) is a classic example. More unusual is this year’s highly innovative double moonphase from Hermès (£20,500) in which floating dials showing date and time rotate over northern- and southern-hemisphere moons set in a meteorite dial. It is an enchanting piece that speaks eloquently of artistic director Pierre-Alexis Dumas’s campaign to restore the reputation of intelligent ornament. He feels that excessive emphasis on functionality is often at the expense of beauty.
“I love this watch and the idea that the time and day are satellites of the moon. What better than an object that has come from outer space to use as the backdrop for this little bit of theatre?” ponders Dumas, waxing poetical. “It is a window to the imagination. It may not add to the functions, but it adds to the meaning.”