As material technology advances, carbon—ranging from relatively common carbon fiber to sci-fi-sounding carbon nanotubes—has become a go-to medium for building sporty watches that are rugged, resilient and extremely light on the wrist.
Richard Mille’s latest foray into high-tech carbon-based materials is this year’s RM 011 NTPT with an unprecedented case made of North Thin Ply Technology (NTPT), a special carbon that was developed for America’s Cup racing yachts. NTPT has been used in sails, masts, planes (including the Solar Impulse), helicopters and Formula 1 racecars.
Mille has been using carbon nanotubes in cases since 2010’s RM 27-01 Rafael Nadal, which the champ wore when he won a career Golden Slam (all four majors plus an Olympic gold medal). Currently, Mille’s collection has five models housed in carbon nanotube cases, including 2013’s radical green RM 59-01 tourbillon designed with Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake and an updated version of the Nadal watch with a new shock-absorbing movement design. Carbon nanotubes are fullerene structures—all-carbon molecules in the form of hollow, regularly spaced shapes, such as hexagons or spheres. The material is said to be more than 60 times stronger than typical steel at a fraction of the weight.
Last year, the brand debuted an Americas edition RM 030 ($135,000), limited to 30 pieces, with carbon nanotube case and orange accents. Its RMAR1 automatic movement features a de-clutchable rotor that automatically disconnects from the winding barrel when the spring is fully wound. The mechanism allows the movement and oscillator to perform at the optimal constant torque/power ratio for heightened precision.
Graham is also using a carbon nanotube speckled composite for the case of the Chronofighter Oversize Superlight TT ($8,750,),which weighs in at less than 100 grams, despite its brawny 47-mm case. Limited to 200 pieces, the watch is made as a tribute to the Isle of Man TT Motorcycle Race with a special tachymeter scale based on the length of the TT circuit (37.73 miles) and a yellow marker at 17 on the minutes counter reflecting John McGuinness’s record lap time. When the chronograph is operating, speed is easily read on the scale when the red minute hand overlaps the yellow marker.
Zenith’s El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th broke the sound barrier in 2012 on the wrist of extreme skydiver Felix Baumgartner as he hit 843.6 mph plummeting to earth from 24 miles up. The new El Primero Lightweight ($22,000) updates the model with a slightly larger 45.5-mm carbon fiber case with a superhard, yet light, ceramized aluminum inner structure. Limited to 100 pieces, the Lightweight is powered by an airy version of the brand’s El Primero caliber built using titanium and silicon. The slick sport watch tips the scale at 40 grams.
With carbon shaving so much weight off cutting-edge timepieces, perhaps one day, we’ll see a jockey wear one in the Triple Crown.
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