A couple of years ago, Patek Philippe auctioned a watch for charity at the biennial Only Watch event, raising €2.95 million in the process. One of the allures of this timepiece was that it was made in titanium. As the company noted, it typically only uses “traditional materials", such as steel, gold and platinum, which are solid, dependable and heavy. And yet, with this watch, it had stepped into the realm of the lightweight. Clearly, the watch was not perceived as being lesser for all that.
In recent years, other watch companies have been going increasingly light. Titanium and ceramic are now widely represented across models at the top end of the market. Ressence’s new Type 3 watch takes the use of titanium to the extreme with not only the case in grade 5 titanium, but parts of the movement, too. The result? A watch weighing just 79g. And the exploration of materials new to watchmaking continues. Aluminium has become the material du jour with Tissot, Hamilton and Hublot among the brands to launch timepieces with cases in the material. Even more unheard of are boron carbide in IWC Schaffhausen’s new Ingenieur Automatic Edition AMG GT, silicon in the Excalibur Quatuor by Roger Dubuis, which is half the weight of titanium, and Carbotech, a composite material based on carbon fibre used for the first time in a watch by Panerai in its Luminor Submersible 1950 Carbotech.
The question is, might lighter watches also have half the presence? After all, consumer psychology has long underlined an association between weight and substance.
“A watch can also communicate its substance through something other than its weight – through its concept, technical ingenuity, its design," argues Martin Frei, the co-founder and chief designer of Urwerk. “All materials are charged with meaning and ideas of value. A watch could be as light as possible and still be a great watch."
But would it be perceived as such? Studies have shown that in many categories of purchase, weight has a small but statistical influence on consumer estimations of value and quality. One such study in 2007 by Bangor University in the UK found that the assessment was largely subliminal but no less real: reduce an empty container’s weight by 15 per cent and consumers typically valued its (non-existent) contents at the same level as at the original weight; reduce it by 30 percent, however, and suddenly those consumers wanted to pay less for it.
Perhaps this is why Christian Knoop, creative director of IWC, argues that some kind of trade-off is required: the consumer will accept the perceived lesser value of a lightweight watch if they are compensated by some benefit brought by use of the lightweight material. “If you use a material that is lighter but also superior in some other way (to steel, for example) – so it’s stronger or more scratch-resistant – then people are much happier to buy into that," he says. “And of course it still has to look right. The watch industry has gone through a phase of seeking out the most new-fangled materials to use and these enjoy a clout of exclusivity to them still, in a way that gold as a material just doesn’t have anymore. But even the most advanced material is no good unless it also looks good."
Arguably the watch industry is leading a change in perception about lightness, repositioning the quality as a positive value in its own right. “After all, many people have never worn a watch before, and they come to watches without the desire to wear a great lump on their wrists," says Peter Harrison, CEO of the Europe, Middle East and Africa arms of Richard Mille, which, with its Nadal models and other pieces created in collaboration with Airbus Corporate Jets has made a showcase of lightness. “They’re part of a process in which that association between weight and value is changing. It’s a generational difference. To younger people, heavyweight is associated with inefficiency, perhaps even with being rather boring."
Ask an industrial designer and he might tell you that the new paradigm favours lightness over weightiness in many instances, including in sports equipment, pens, car and aircraft design. “There’s a new perception of lightness as being elegant and that fits into wider ideas of design and sustainability," argues Benoit Mintiens, the industrial designer for the likes of Air France, LG and Maxicosi, and the man behind Ressence. “Gradually, weight is coming to be associated with pollution. Lightweight materials may be expensive to find, create or use, but give more back in terms of energy. The same association will be made in watches. Lightweight will soon be seen to represent modernity – and that’s a value people want to express.