“In the Tourbillon RM009 [€300,000], I used Alusic – a complex material formed from aluminium and silicon carbide once employed in Formula One. I don’t think it is being used any more, because it is so expensive.” Richard Mille is almost as much of a car buff as he is a watch boss. The leitmotif of his eponymous marque is that it is a racing machine for the wrist, and there are few lengths to which he will not go in search of new high-performance materials. However, even he drew the line at one particular alloy. It was not so much the cost that bothered him – it is just that it was... well... a little too lethal. “I wanted to use another material I had come across in F1 called AlBeMet, but it contains beryllium, a really dangerous metal; it can cause a sickness called berylliosis, which was an added danger if engines were exploding. If you inhale a single molecule of this substance, it can cause a kind of lung cancer. AlBeMet has fantastic properties and has been used in space exploration,” but Mille declined to apply it to watches. “Any material I use has to pass an allergy test; I want to make sure it is totally safe and cannot affect people’s health. I do ageing tests to see how it will behave in 10 or 20 years’ time. I don’t want to use anything for gimmicky reasons; it has to have an objective that is very specific.”
Automotive and horological engineering share a place in the pantheon of status-conferring goods and, over the years, watch companies have done ever more to exploit the commercial synergies, such as a shared pool of customers: the sort of people who own expensive cars are likely to go for pricey clockwork, too. Co-president of Chopard, Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, for example, has a collection of vintage cars, and his family firm has been associated for more than 20 years with the revived Mille Miglia rally.
And it was another car-collecting watch boss, the late Gino Macaluso, who was responsible for the first of the modern-era watch and car co-branding deals that came about almost 20 years ago, when Macaluso and his old friend Luca di Montezemolo created the Girard-Perregaux pour Ferrari line of watches. The deal ran for a decade and established a template that has been followed across the industry. Breitling for Bentley was another well-executed early auto-horo tie-up (the Supersports, £7,760), and since then there have been almost too many co-branding deals to count, resulting in some pretty exotic watches. Take the Jaeger LeCoultre AMVOX DBS Transpondeur for Aston Martin (£26,900) that also acts as a remote-control car key fob.
The horological expression of these affiliations, at their most basic, is fairly cosmetic: the use of carbon-fibre dials, logo details, marque-specific fonts for the numerals, sporty punched leather straps, that sort of thing.
It was Jack Heuer who established the pattern of watchmaker involvement in motor racing: the Heuer logo on driver overalls, the driver wearing a gold Heuer watch with his blood group on it, and Heuer timing equipment in the pit lane. The brand remains faithful to this heritage, with evocative model names such as Carrera, Silverstone and Monaco, introduced in the 1960s and 70s, still in use.
The difference between now and 40 years ago is that the presence of a watch brand in F1 is normal, and the message many brands put out is the same: timing, split-second accuracy and endorsement by a motor-racing champion. However, with brands from Casio (Red Bull’s horological partner) upwards lining up on the grid, TAG Heuer has had to innovate to make its McLaren partnership stand out. This has meant borrowing motorsport materials such as Ti5, a type of titanium. TAG’s CEO, Jean-Christophe Babin, admits that titanium has been used by the watch industry for some time, but claims he was the first to use this variety, which is unscratchable and, when polished, reflects light like steel and white gold.
He also uses carbon fibre for the MP4-12C (£8,950) chronograph dials, but again a specific kind supplied by McLaren. “We call it Carbon F1; each team has a secret way of putting the carbon together, and what we get from McLaren is a semi-rigid foil. They don’t want to provide us with the formula because it is used on strategic components of the car.”
Technology has come a long way since the turn of the century. “Many things have changed over the last 10 years, and there have been many improvements. In the car industry, efficiency has risen by 30 per cent,” says George Kern, CEO of IWC.
About 10 years ago, IWC went into partnership with AMG, but then IWC went carbon-neutral and, with ecological initiatives to the fore, the link with a high-performance car brand slipped into the background.
However, Kern now believes that with the increased efficiency – demonstrated, in the case of AMG, by the launch of an E-Cell car that Kern describes as “probably the most efficient sports car on the market today” – it is time for IWC to refocus on its links to the automotive world. Yet putting his brand name in front of the TV cameras was the last thing on Kern’s mind when he went into partnership with the Mercedes AMG Petronas team. “We’re not interested in that or who the driver is. We don’t want our logo on the overalls.” As far as IWC is concerned, it’s “the engineers, the research, the materials and the efficiency” that constitute the real prize, “so we can have a great collaboration with a product called Ingenieur [£9,350]. And what we are interested in from this partnership is access to the materials.”
The Ingenieur is one of IWC’s totem timepieces, first launched in the 1950s and aimed, as the name suggests, at the scientific community: it featured a special inner case that helped prevent the movement being affected by strong magnetic fields. The watch was redesigned in the mid-1970s and relaunched again in 2005. At the time of writing Kern was just about to sign the “engineering partnership” with AMG Petronas, so details are as yet sketchy, but the thinking is to have a new line of Ingenieur featuring sophisticated movements and new materials. Among the substances that will be making their way from the pit lane to the watchmaker’s bench is titanium aluminide, which matches lightness with extreme scratch-resistance.
Meanwhile, Hublot announced last year that it had signed a remarkably comprehensive deal with Ferrari that, in many ways, is the opposite of the deal IWC is doing, but which will achieve more or less the same sort of result. For the next five years, wherever in the world Ferrari does anything, Hublot will be alongside, whether it is opening a new dealership in China or celebrating the anniversary of key models from the marque’s past. “We are married to Ferrari and not just with the name, not just the brand, but with the whole Ferrari world,” says Hublot chairman Jean-Claude Biver of a deal that, in its scope, scale and inclusivity, takes the horological-automotive partnership to a new level. “We are studying the material Ferrari is using in the cylinders in its F1 engines to see if we could use it in a watch. Our goal is to produce a watch made entirely from the same materials as the Ferrari engine.”
In the meantime, Biver is doing pretty well with some advanced materials of his own. Having been a keen proselytiser of new materials, Hublot continues to pioneer and innovate, working, for instance, on “aluminium ceramic”, which, as its name suggests, is “an alloy of aluminium and ceramic, but 20 per cent lighter than metal with the enormous advantage of incredible hardness and resistance”. Then there is the material he calls Magic Gold (Magic Gold watch, £27,000), a specially developed alloy of such hardness that it can only be scratched by a diamond. It made its debut in the Hublot Ferrari watch and, by the end of the year, Biver hopes to have launched Magic Aluminium, too. Indeed, so innovative is Hublot’s research programme that the partnership with Ferrari may well see some transfer of materials and know-how from watchmaking to F1. “The people from Ferrari’s materials department showed some interest in our Magic Aluminium and wanted to know more about it,” comments Biver.
Could it be that the car industry is finally waking up to what the mechanical-watch industry has known for years? Richard Mille puts it rather well when he says: “If you make your car run 24 hours a day, then after a few weeks it will be out of order, whereas a watch has to be worn for 20 years, 50 years.” While the watch industry has much to learn from the car world, smart car-makers could also pick up thing or two from hanging around the watch industry.