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Six brands spearheading the sapphire watch case trend

For an industry so steeped in tradition, watchmaking is certainly no stranger to fads. And like high frequency movements and silicon components before them, sapphire cases are the dernier cri for manufactures looking to showcase their advanced watchmaking capabilities.

Although synthetic sapphire has long been the material of choice for wristwatch crystals due to its extreme hardness and scratch resistance, brands were hesitant to attempt to use it for an entire case because its brittleness means that even a slight error during the manufacturing process can result in breakage, rendering the entire piece unusable.

But when everything falls perfectly into place, the effect created by a sapphire case is truly extraordinary (though the uninitiated may at first think it is made from plastic), revealing heretofore hidden dimensions of movement construction and finishing.

Here we present six of our favorite watch brands producing timepieces with sapphire cases.

Richard Mille

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Much of the credit for sparking the current sapphire case trend in watchmaking belongs to Richard Mille, which introduced its first entirely sapphire-encased watch, the RM 056, at SIHH in 2012. At the time, the watch was just as shocking for its $US1.7 million (about $A2.2 million) price tag as it was for its unconventional case material. And while the brand has released a number of subsequent all-sapphire watches, their prices have remained at a premium.

The most recent version for men, the RM 056 Tourbillon Chronograph Sapphire Felipe Massa (reportedly priced between $US1.7 and $2 million) was released to celebrate Richard Mille’s decade-long partnership with Brazilian Formula One driver Felipe Massa. Perfect for a day on the track, the watch is equipped with a split-seconds chronograph and a tachymeter on the bezel.

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Not to exclude women from the fun, the RM 07-02 “Pink Lady” Automatic Pink Sapphire ($US980,000) takes its nickname from the iconic Pink Lady cocktail popular in the 1930s. Design elements include hand-decorated gold bridges, a central dial set in onyx and diamonds, skeletonised plates set with gold and diamonds, and a white alligator-skin strap. (richardmille.com)

Greubel Forsey

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The Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30° Technique Sapphire is a variant of the watch that won the 2011 International Chronometry Competition in Le Locle, Switzerland, granted further exclusivity with a case crafted entirely from a single piece of polished synthetic-sapphire crystal, including the lugs. Banding the circumference is a gold sight ring engraved with the core values of the manufacture and finished in lacquer.

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Within the transparent timepiece, the three-dimensional architecture displays polished-gold hour and minute hands that trace over a sapphire ring, set with lacquered hour indices. A level below lies the small seconds subdial at 9 o’clock, counters for both the inner tourbillon (angled at 30 degrees and with a 60-second rate of rotation) and outer tourbillon (with 4-minute rotation) at 6 o’clock, and the 120-hour power reserve indicator positioned at 3 o’clock. A more revealing perspective of the movement is visible through the caseback. Only eight examples were made, each priced at approximately $US1.1 million (about $A1.4 million). (greubelforsey.com)

Hublot

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The Hublot Big Bang Unico Sapphire is not the first high-end mechanical watch to be encased in transparent, scratch-resistant sapphire, but at a price of $US57,900 (about $A75,700) and with a sizable production run of 500 pieces, it is the first accessible model. “I thought about creating a sapphire watch for more than 20 years, but it was always too expensive,” says Ricardo Guadalupe, CEO of Hublot. “We now have the power to invest heavily in a project, so we decided to industrialise sapphire.”

To that end, Hublot recently acquired the equipment for machining and polishing the tough but brittle material — a process eased by the new model’s sandwich construction. Complex structures inside the case, such as the hands and dial, are cast from transparent resin. According to Guadalupe, this limits the amount of sapphire machining and polishing required for each case, which accounts for most of the cost savings.

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Other brands make sapphire watches on almost an individual basis, an approach Hublot itself took when creating the $US575,000 MP-05 LaFerrari Sapphire watch it unveiled earlier this year. However, the company still managed to price that watch — despite its dramatic case curves — well below its sapphire competitors, and this, Guadalupe says, is just the beginning. “There are a lot of possibilities for creativity for future watches in sapphire.” (hublot.com)

H. Moser

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Though smaller than many of the brands on this list, H. Moser was quick to deliver its own take on the all-sapphire case, unveiling of the Venturer Tourbillon Dual Time Sapphire Skeleton on the first day of Baselworld 2015. In addition to its transparent case, which beautifully reveals the details of the tourbillon and the rest of the skeleton movement, the watch is paired with a 3D–printed strap that has a translucent quality of its own.

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The brand delivered a follow-up late last year in the form of the Venturer Tourbillon Dual Time Sapphire Blue Skeleton, which built upon the original watch by adding a blued finish to much of the movement’s componetry. Both editions were produced solely as one-off releases. (h-moser.com)

MB&F

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Known for its position at the avant garde of watchmaking, it is no surprise that boutique Swiss manufacture MB&F earns a spot on this list. A riff on the company’s art deco–inspired “Space Pirate” watch, the Horological Machine No. 6 SV offers an improved look at its unique movement design — mostly obscured on the original version — by sandwiching it between two sections of solid sapphire. To accommodate the watch’s flying tourbillon and four rotating spheres (two of which are used to tell the time), the case also features nine individual sapphire domes. These domes, along with the numerous curves found on the two main pieces, add greatly to the complexity of the machining process and therefore increase the risk of a minute error rendering the entire piece of sapphire useless.

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The Horological Machine No. 6 SV is available in either red gold ($US350,000, or about $A458,000) or platinum ($US380,000), with each version limited to just 10 pieces. (mbandf.com)

Bell & Ross

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Bell & Ross’s signature cockpit-instrument design is on grand display in the BR-X1 Tourbillon Sapphire ($US495,000, or about $A647,000). By far the most expensive watch the brand has ever produced, the timepiece has an all-sapphire case whose transparent sides provide a clear look at the monopusher chronograph tourbillon movement.

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Working with the Geneva-based complications specialist MHC, Bell & Ross gave the ultramodern watch an added sense of airiness by employing one of watchmaking’s oldest movement constructions: columns that slightly elevate the bridges from the main plate. Additional cutaways on the plates enhance the view from the sides, allowing the working components to be admired from many angles. (bellross.com)

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