Gold blends in luxury watchmaking: 5 Gold blends in timepieces from Omega, Hublot and Chanel
These proprietary gold blends may all have 18-carat purity but their wildly varying properties illustrate metallurgy’s importance to contemporary watchmaking
There isn’t any status symbol that’s quite as ubiquitous as gold, and its universal appeal is easy to understand. The metal’s rarity is reason for its value, while its physical properties explain its allure — gold’s density gives it heft, which implies weight and importance, while its inert nature is often associated with ideals of being constant and unchanging. That final property also means humans won’t be allergic to it, unlike silver, for example.
Still, gold isn’t without its limitations, chief among which is its softness that precludes pure gold from use in both jewellery and timepieces. By mixing gold with other metals to create alloys, however, hardness and other desirable properties can be attained. Yet this isn’t without cost — literally. Alloys have lower gold content and thus less value, making them less precious — unless the other metals in the mix are even more precious, like platinum. The question, then, is the purity of gold to be used in the context of watchmaking.
The watchmaking industry has settled on 18-karat (where gold accounts for 75 per cent of an alloy’s mass) as the de facto fineness for gold alloys used in timepieces. This standard is a good balance between maintaining the value of the alloy (due to its gold content), and the hardness and colours that can be achieved. Three main shades of gold are used in watches. Yellow gold is the most traditional, and retains the colour of pure gold. White gold contains nickel, palladium, or another white metal, and is usually rhodium plated for a brilliant shine. Rose gold, on the other hand, skews towards red thanks to the inclusion of copper.
Several manufactures have, in the past decade, introduced proprietary blends of gold in order to attain properties that aren’t present in the three typical alloys described above, and/or to differentiate their products. Clearly, there is still much room for development — advancements are still being made as recently as 2016, when a titanium-gold alloy with four times the hardness of titanium was developed.
A manufacture that produces timepieces on the scale that Rolex does has the freedom — and capability — of deviating from the norm, to put it mildly. Rolex does exactly that when it comes to metallurgy. For a start, it uses 904L steel that has higher nickel and chromium content, which makes it more corrosion resistant and capable of attaining a brighter polish, albeit at the cost of greater difficulty in machining. This drawback is hardly cause for concern though, since Rolex produces its own cases anyway, and has acquired the necessary expertise and equipment to work 904L steel. A parallel exists in the development and production of gold alloys. Rolex’s in-house R&D department and gold foundry has allowed it to create its own blend of pink gold: Everose gold.
According to Rolex, the drawback for regular formulations of pink/rose/red gold is reportedly a certain tendency to fade. To be fair, this is possible, but not necessarily probable — a myriad of factors are at play here, from the age of the watch to the conditions it was subjected to. Peruse an auction catalogue featuring old timepieces, however, and it is apparent that some rose gold watches can and do lose their reddish touch to end up looking more like yellow gold. Rolex developed Everose gold to prevent such an eventuality. The alloy is produced in Rolex’s own foundry from pure 24K gold, based on the manufacture’s specific recipe. Everose gold’s exact composition is a closely guarded trade secret, but it is known to contain trace amounts of platinum, ostensibly to lock in its colour.
Rolex introduced Everose gold in 2005, and uses it exclusively in lieu of regular pink gold. In the Oyster Perpetual Sky-Dweller, for instance, this extends from the timepiece’s case to its crown, bezel, and even bracelet. Bimetallic references of Rolex watches that contain pink gold also use Everose gold, in a blend of gold and steel the manufacture dubs Rolesor.
There are actually two gold blends that are unique to Hublot. King Gold has a higher-than-normal percentage of copper to make it even redder than conventional red gold and, like Rolex’s Everose Gold, contains platinum that helps it to retain its hue. What’s arguably far more impressive is Magic Gold, which has an astonishing hardness of 1,000 Vickers that Hublot claims makes it the world’s first scratchproof gold alloy.
Calling Magic Gold an “alloy” is a slight misnomer. Although it stands at 18-carat purity like all the other gold alloys discussed here, Magic Gold isn’t actually a mixture of metals (and non-metals) that are melted and blended together in a foundry. Instead, the process of creating Magic Gold begins with boron carbide, a ceramic that is the third hardest substance currently known. Boron carbide powder is first compacted into a desired shape, before being sintered to form a porous solid. Pure molten gold is then forced into these pores under 200 bars of pressure, like saturating a sponge with water, before the combined chunk of material is cooled down. Voila! The resultant mass is Magic Gold: an incredibly hard ceramic matrix that’s literally filled with gold.
Magic Gold was only introduced in 2012, and despite being successfully commercialised, remains a very challenging material for Hublot to work with. To machine Magic Gold, CNC machines equipped with ultrasonic cutters and diamond tipped tools had to be specially ordered from Germany. Milling and shaping Magic Gold components remains difficult even with such equipment — just 28 bezels in this material requires around three weeks to machine. As such, production of Magic Gold parts remains limited for now, with an estimated 30 to 40 complete cases produced every month. As Hublot continues to refine its industrial processes and production efficiency with this material, however, its output is expected to scale up accordingly.
Omega has been making waves with its anti-magnetic movements and its involvement in developing the METAS certification, and rightly deserves attention for these efforts. The brand’s work in advancing material engineering, however, also warrants a closer look. It has, for instance, developed a process to inlay LiquidMetal, a zirconium-based amorphous alloy, into ceramic bezels using a combination of high pressure and heat. The result is the seamless melding of two contrasting materials that yield a perfectly smooth surface. Omega has also made inroads into its mastery over gold. Case in point: Ceragold, which was first introduced in 2012. Instead of LiquidMetal, 18-carat gold is combined with ceramic to form Ceragold, using a slightly different process to yield an equally high contrast bezel that is also smooth to the touch. To create Ceragold, the bare ceramic bezel is first engraved with markings, before being completely PVD-coated with a conductive metallic substrate. This interim product is then electroplated with 18-carat gold, before being polished to reveal the original ceramic surface and markings that remain filled in with gold.
A year after Ceragold’s release, Omega introduced Sedna gold. Named after the red-coloured minor planet, which is currently the furthest observed object in the solar system, this 18-carat alloy is a proprietary blend of gold, copper, and palladium. Like other rose gold alloys, Sedna gold owes its unique colour to its copper content. Palladium, on the other hand, functions here like platinum in other gold blends — it prevents the copper content in the alloy from oxidising, thus maintaining Sedna gold’s colour. This alloy has been used in various collections, including the De Ville Trésor, Constellation, and Seamaster, and appears to have superseded the orange gold blend that Omega previously used.
A. Lange & Söhne debuted honey gold in 2010 when it presented the “Homage to F.A. Lange” collection, which consisted of three limited edition timepieces cased in the precious material. The manufacture has been extremely selective with its usage of the alloy; it took a full five years for honey gold to make its return, this time at Watches & Wonders 2015 where the 1815 “200th Anniversary F. A. Lange” was presented as a 200-piece limited edition. Only two other watches were issued in the material subsequently, and in even smaller runs: the Lange 1 and Lange 1 Time Zone in honey gold totalled just 20 and 100 pieces respectively.
Aesthetically, honey gold’s hue falls between its pink and yellow siblings, with a noticeably lower saturation — it is paler, yet redder than yellow gold, and has a marked resemblance to honey. The alloy’s colour stems from its higher proportion of copper vis-à-vis regular yellow gold, and the addition of zinc, but it retains 18-carat purity. Honey gold wasn’t actually developed for A. Lange & Söhne with appearance as the primary objective though. Instead, the manufacture was concerned with creating a more scratch-resistant case. With a hardness of 320 Vickers, honey gold has around twice the hardness of regular 18-carat yellow gold, which measures between 150 to 160 Vickers. The result? A hardier watch case that’s less prone to dings and scratches.
Despite its greater hardness, honey gold isn’t necessarily more difficult to work. Any equipment that is primed to machine steel cases, which are even harder, is more than capable of handling honey gold. When used in movement components, however, the material does present challenges for the finisseurs at A. Lange & Söhne. The “Homage to F.A. Lange” collection’s timepieces, for instance, have movements with balance cocks rendered in honey gold instead of German silver. Hand-engraving them with the manufacture’s signature floral motif is thus more difficult and time consuming, while also requiring a special set of burins with harder blades.
When it comes to colours, Coco Chanel’s closest association will always be with black. After all, she was the person responsible for adding the little black dress to fashion’s lexicon. Beige was also a staple in her palette though, and like how her love for Coromandel screens continues to inform the designs of some Chanel products today, the couturière’s penchant for beige remains an inspiration for the house she built.
For Chanel, the logical extension to having fabrics and leathers in beige is a gold blend in that very hue. The alloy is a nod to Coco, who professed to “go[ing] back to beige because it’s natural”. Indeed, beige gold does conjure up images of sand, or lightly sun-kissed skin. Unique to the maison, it is an 18-carat blend that falls between yellow and pink gold in colour, while appearing significantly more muted than either. Subtlety is the name of the game here — the alloy harmonises with some skin tones instead of popping out in contrast against it, and matches with a wide range of colours and textures regardless of one’s sartorial choices.
Instead of introducing beige gold in its more established jewellery line, Chanel chose to feature it in its timepieces first. The material was unveiled at BaselWorld 2014 in the J12-365 collection, where it was placed front and centre in the form of beige gold bezels sitting atop polished ceramic cases. Other women’s collections followed the next year, with line extensions for the Première, Mademoiselle Privé, and Boy.Friend all sporting full beige gold cases.
Of course, the material was never meant to be exclusive to women’s watches. In 2016, beige gold crossed over to Chanel’s jewellery division in Coco Crush rings, and further proved its versatility by appearing in a men’s timepiece: the Monsieur de Chanel.