If there’s a brand that can be relied on to pull out all the stops and execute the craziest ideas, it is Hublot. The brand’s releases in the past few years would be proof aplenty. Consider the MP-05 LaFerrari, for instance. How many watch companies could believably market and sell a watch featuring a stack of 11 barrels in series to achieve a record-breaking 50-day power reserve? Said astonishing timepiece also features a vertical movement architecture complete with a tourbillon, housed in a case reminiscent of a low-slung supercar. As if that’s not enough, the LaFerrari even has its own power tool to wind the mainspring, which further emphasised just how atypical the watch and its engine is.
Audacity Meets Complexity
Hublot has been involved with exotic complications like the MP-05 LaFerrari since 2010, when the brand acquired BNB Concept, an external complications specialist, and subsumed 30 of its watchmakers to form its new complications department. The department is devoted to assembling just high complications such as tourbillons and minute repeaters which, given the complexity of the work involved, limits its output to roughly 500 watches a year. Watchmaking aside, this department also collaborates with the R&D team to develop new movements.
Although Hublot does offer traditional (at least by Hublot’s standards) high complications such as tourbillons and chiming watches, the complications department’s works are still best represented by the MP (Masterpiece) collection, which explores – and executes – highly unusual concepts. Apart from the MP-05 LaFerrari described above, the brand has also dabbled in time control with the MP-02 “Key of Time”, which had a movement that could slow down or speed up the advancement of its hands depending on its owner’s mood, yet switch back to display the “correct” time immediately thanks to a mechanical memory system.
The latest addition to the collection is the MP-07 42 Days Power Reserve, which adds even greater variety to the MP range. As the younger sibling to the LaFerrari, it also uses the concept of stacking multiple barrels – nine series-coupled ones this time – to achieve a greatly extended power reserve. The MP-07’s movement layout has, however, been completely redesigned, and the barrels now run horizontally across the watch’s upper edge. The case is now entirely different too, and emphasises angles and facets instead of curves. What’s also missing is the LaFerrari branding, which downplays the association with the Italian marque without diluting the mechanical marvel within the timepiece.
Hublot hasn’t ignored its core market of mid-level watches and movements though. This category is anchored by the brand’s signature integrated chronograph movement, the Unico, which represents a step up from the commonly used Valjoux 7750, thanks to features such as column wheel actuation, flyback functionality, and a longish three-day power reserve.
According to CEO Ricardo Guadalupe, the plan for Hublot isn’t to raise the absolute number of watches produced, but to increase the proportion of in-house movements used in its timepieces, and the Unico is the driving force behind this shift. To that end, the calibre was designed for serial production, with modularity baked into its design to accommodate this. The silicon escapement, for instance, can be quickly dropped in or swapped out to speed up production and servicing work. Modularity also extends to the macro level, with the base Unico movement designed to integrate easily with external modules such as perpetual calendars, both to simplify assembly and to increase the shared number of parts.
In contrast to the atelier-style complications department, the assembly chain for the Unico movement is an exercise in large-scale serial production, and will deliver over 20,000 pieces of the movement by the end of this year. Guadalupe has stressed that the Unico will continue to be Hublot’s core movement family for the foreseeable future, and hinted that a “baby Unico” is already in the works.
Hublot hasn’t just limited its work in this movement segment to the Unico. Earlier this year, the brand released the Big Bang MECA-10, which was fitted with the new HUB1201 calibre. This manually wound three-hand movement comes skeletonised and sports a 10-day power reserve which, feature-wise, makes it a radical departure from the Unico. Aesthetically, the HUB1201 is also rather different, with a design that resembles the Meccano line of toys it’s inspired by. Like the Unico, however, it is also an in-house development, and looks set to spawn further iterations to balance out the sporty chronograph movements that are already in place.
Case By Case
While growing its stable of in-house movements, Hublot was also pursuing a parallel development track in case making. Currently, carbon fibre cases are made completely within the manufacture, from the initial layering, moulding, and sintering process that produces the composite, to the actual machining that creates the final product. A few other selected cases are also produced in-house, including the titanium reference of the MP-05 LaFerrari, which takes a CNC machine an entire day for just one piece to be made, due to its size and complex contours. Although carbon fibre and titanium are more difficult to work with in comparison to steel and gold, Hublot’s expertise in case making is still topped out by its unique ability to produce Magic Gold cases.
Magic Gold is a patented gold alloy that was first presented in 2012 after three years of R&D with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). The project culminated in the setting up of a laboratory within the manufacture – complete with its own foundry – where Hublot now produces the proprietary alloy independently.
The issue with gold is hardness, or the lack thereof. Pure gold is just too soft to be used in watchmaking, so it must be mixed with other metals to form harder alloys. It’s a zero sum game – an alloy can be made harder by lowering its gold content, but this reduces its value and makes it less precious. The industry standard, 18K gold, has gold comprising 75 per cent of its mass, and offers a good balance between hardness and purity. Still, 18K gold alloy’s hardness only goes up to 400 Vickers (depending on its exact formulation and how it was worked), which is significantly lower than stainless steel, which can reach 700 Vickers.
Hublot overcame the problem with Magic Gold, an alloy with conventional 18K purity, but an unusual hardness of nearly 1,000 Vickers that renders it extremely scratch resistant. Alloy is a misnomer here given the intricacies of Magic Gold’s structure and creation, but the term will suffice for now. The secret to its hardness is boron carbide, the third hardest substance known. Nicknamed “black diamond”, this ceramic has a wide range of applications, including tank armour and industrial cutting tools.
Producing Magic Gold is a multistep process. Boron carbide powder is first compacted into a solid mass that approximates the intended product’s shape – a hollow tube, for instance, can be cut into “slices” and machined into case middles and bezels – before being sintered to bond the powder into a single porous solid. Pure molten gold is then forced into these interconnected pores under 200 bars of pressure, before the entire chunk of material is cooled down. This entire process takes three to four days, and the result is Magic Gold, which has 18K purity as gold accounts for 75 per cent of the total weight.
Magic Gold’s scratch resistance makes it a difficult material to work with. To machine Magic Gold components, CNC machines equipped with diamond-tipped tools and ultrasonic cutting capabilities had to be specially ordered from Germany. Milling and shaping the components is still time consuming though – the hollow tube of Magic Gold described above yields enough material for 28 bezels, which currently takes Hublot up to three weeks to machine. Processing waste Magic Gold (generated during production) to recover its gold content is also tedious – the material must be heated to 1,100 degrees Celsius to melt the gold, which then drains out of the solid boron carbide mass, albeit without requiring extra pressure.
Although Magic Gold has been successfully commercialised, Hublot continues to fine-tune its production techniques. At the moment, it produces 30 to 40 complete cases each month. The industrialisation of the material is expected to become more efficient over time as the brand continues to gain experience with it. The laboratory’s work hasn’t ended here – it is currently exploring other metal-ceramic hybrids, including an aluminium-ceramic hybrid with projected properties of toughness and extreme lightness.
Beyond Magic Gold cases, Hublot has also used various other exotic materials in its watches as an extension of its “Art of Fusion” philosophy. The brand has a penchant for combining seemingly disparate elements to produce startling results. The Big Bang Ferrari Carbon watches, for instance, saw the brand mixing gold into the carbon matrix during the carbon composite’s production, which produced an unprecedented gold-carbon hybrid that’s visually similar to camouflage markings.
This line of attack is also seen in how Hublot infused denim with epoxy to protect and preserve it, using the result in its Big Bang Denim watches’ dials; this perishable fabric is now immutable. Texalium is yet another example. The material is a carbon composite coated with a layer of aluminium that doesn’t just allow different colours to be used, but also imparts a brilliance that cannot be traditionally achieved, while preserving the substrate’s weight advantages.
It isn’t difficult to see the direction that the brand is moving towards. Its expansion in the past five to seven years has focused on the ability to develop new movements, new materials, and to produce its own cases, making it well poised to eventually create almost any watch that it can conceive. Hublot is already offering glimpses into this future, from mechanical sculptures like the LaFerrari in titanium, to proprietary movements and materials in the Big Bang Unico Magic Gold. Marketing hype and brand partnerships aside, this effervescent manufacture is where you’ll find watchmaking sexy again.
This article was first published in WOW.