Meet the genius behind IWC’s most groundbreaking watch material
Gary Cotterell discusses Ceratanium, ceramic and other exciting innovations with Lorenz Brunner, IWC Schaffhausen’s head of research and innovation
Innovation is part of IWC Schaffhausen’s identity and the manufacturer is well known for its expertise in extremely robust and high-performance materials.
In 1980, IWC launched the first full titanium chronograph in the Porsche Design Collection and it was among the first manufacturers to put colour ceramic watches into regular production with its IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar (ref 3755) in 1986.
In 2007, ceramic became its own sub-collection of the brand’s line of Pilot’s Watches with the introduction of the modern Top Gun collection, which is named after the US Navy’s famed Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor programme.
Having gathered feedback from professional pilots over the years, IWC also brought together the best characteristics of ceramic and titanium in their proprietary Ceratanium. The genius behind this groundbreaking material is Lorenz Brunner, head of IWC’s research and innovation department.
I caught up with Brunner at the recent Watches & Wonders summit in Geneva, Switzerland — an event dubbed “the fashion week of the watchmaking industry”.
He took time out of his busy schedule to educate me about Ceratanium and tell me about his most enviable job.
From what I’ve read, you really do have the best job. What is the role of your department at IWC?
I head up a small group of specialists for innovation projects. Our projects do not relate to a specific watch that might be launched in the future. Rather, we search for new materials, new functions and new technologies. Because we have no link to a specific watch, we have more time and more freedom. It’s the best job. Honestly, it is.
What is your background?
My personal background is in material science and engineering. So in my group of innovators, I take care of the materials projects. Then I have one of my team members, for example, who is a trained watchmaker and micromechanics engineer. He takes care of new functions. If you want to develop, let's say, a moon phase or a new calendar system, then it's more his job. Material science is my side.
Were you involved in the development of the new Woodland Green and Lake Tahoe White ceramic colours of the chronographs recently added to the Top Gun collection?
Yes, absolutely. This process was a little different from normal for me because here the idea came from the design team. They had these colours defined by Pantone, and I had to lead the project to develop the ceramic colours with our suppliers, who are the best in the world. So yeah, it was a little bit different because most projects are originating from my side.
The Ceratanium was my initiative, then it went to the design team who created a watch around it.
Did your design team have a specific idea of the colours they wanted or were they guided by Pantone?
Our design team had a very clear idea. Lake Tahoe White was inspired by the white US Navy uniforms and the colour of Lake Tahoe itself in winter. The lake is located in the mountainous area straddling the border between California and Nevada near Naval Air Station Fallon, which is home to the Top Gun school.
The flight suits of the naval aviators and forests surrounding Lake Tahoei nspired Woodlands Green. The green was a little bit special because we made this watch monochromatic. To make the dial, hands, case, bracelet and the strap in the same colour, it helps to have the Pantone reference when you talk with different suppliers. It's not so easy to match colours when you have different materials and surface textures.
Which was the first watch to be made of Ceratanium?
It was actually the Aquatimer Digital Date-Month Edition. [This limited edition of 50 pieces was launched in 2017 to mark the 50th anniversary of IWC’s Aquatimer diver’s watches. The dial was black, as were some components of the IWC manufactured calibre 89802. The digital perpetual calendar displayed the date and month in large numerals in the style of a digital watch].
Then there was the Pilot’s Double Chronograph Top Gun Ceratanium, which we still have in the collection today.
As part of IWC’s commitment to social and environmental sustainability, your team is obviously looking for new materials that involve recycling or that are more ecologically friendly. Any exciting new developments in this area?
At our booth in the Watches & Wonders lab, you will see three new strap materials. You might have already heard of TimberTex, the low-impact paper-based material, 80% composed of natural plant fibres, 100% coloured with natural dyes and 100% handmade in Italy. There is a new one MiruTex made with Mirum, a 100% bio-sourced leather with a nice texture. And of course, we only use 100% recycled gold today. We also have a high recycling rate for steel and titanium, which is above 80% already.
In the future?
Our two pillars are titanium and ceramic. I won’t tell you too much, but we are focusing on these two.
From my limited understanding, titanium is quite difficult to work with?
Yes it is, but it’s a general rule that any material is difficult to work with at first. It was difficult when we first tried to use it, but today we machine titanium like we do with steel. I remember well, when I went to our workshop with the very first Ceratanium I had 10 years ago. They put it into the machines and told me they couldn’t work with it. Today we machine it like standard titanium, so it’s really a learning curve to have something new.
Ceramics have come a long way since the 80s?
Ceramics are a little different because you start from a powder and not from a bar. You form it and machine it and sinter it in an oven. The whole process is different. You need pure materials and the purity has increased in the past 10-20 years. Today, we have very pure raw materials and that helps of course to reduce the risk of a fracture.
Ceratanium is described as “the ultimate performance material”, which combines the scratch resistance of ceramics with the structural toughness of titanium. Explain the process?
It’s actually similar to baking bread. Start with the tough stuff and then you get the hot crust around it. That’s the Ceratanium. It starts with a titanium alloy, pure metal. And at the end, when you have machine components, you put these metal components in an oven. Oxygen is diffused into the material at high temperatures. During this process, a phase transition occurs, leaving the surface with ceramic-like properties such as extreme hardness and scratch resistance. But inside you still have the titanium alloy.
So it’s not homogeneous?
No. Ceramics are homogeneous. If you cut through Woodland Green ceramic, it will be olive green throughout. But the Ceratanium will have a black surface and in the centre it's a special silver titanium alloy.
Ceratanium was used in that sensational Big Pilot Shock Absorber XPL. How did that project come about?
Yes, that was an interesting project. My team and I started out with a plan to produce a watch with the highest shock resistance ever. We wanted to get the best shock-resistant, shock protection you can have for a watch movement but in a watch of a wearable size 44mm. We started with a blank white paper and we brought up all kinds of ideas on how to protect a movement from shock. We basically narrowed it down to the most appropriate idea, which was this eight-armed spring, this cantilever spring made of Bulk Metallic Glass (BMG). It’s an amorphous type of metal, that gives a high elasticity. And yeah, we finally arrived at a shock resistance of above 30,000 G, which is really amazing.
Is it still in production?
Yes, but we only make 10 pieces a year, so they are currently all sold out.
Will this technology ultimately make it into other pieces down the line?
This XPL project is for us a little bit like Formula One. So in F1, you have your high-tuned cars. And now and then technology used in F1 makes it into regular cars. It might happen, I cannot tell you too much, but it might. So that we find some technologies that we can use in regular watches as well.
The XPL was really exciting and truly felt like a taste of the future of watchmaking.
It was a surprising watch and very unexpected. Today, I don't want to comment too much, but if I look at the left-hand Rolex and it’s not like a huge surprise, I would say, but the Shock Absorber was really like “what the hell”. I mean, you can like it or not, but it's surprising, of course. For me, it's also a special piece because the shock-absorbing system was one of my projects, and it’s also made in my material Ceratanium. So a watch close to my heart as an engineer.
What watch are you wearing?
It’s the first titanium chronograph produced in 1980 in collaboration with Porsche Design.
To find your nearest IWC Schaffhausen stockist, visit the brand's website.
This article was paid for by IWC Schaffhausen.