Recent times have seen a shower of meteorite-dialled watches emerge. But what has actually gone into that sliver of shooting star on your wrist? James Gurney investigates.
With astronomic themed complications and watches being something of a trend in watchmaking over the last year, it’s natural to expect a few meteorite dials and the industry has duly delivered, with watches from Bovet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Parmigiani, Omega, Romain Jerome and Zenith.
Meteorites exude such a potent mix of cosmic history and folk myth that it’s quite surprising to learn how recently their use in watches actually is. Rolex was one of the first to do so on a Day-Date from 1999, though there is the odd watch from the 1980s. But given the story and the obvious attraction of meteorite as a material (Pascal Raffy, the owner of Bovet, says that it’s a “celestial material [that] brings a philosophic dimension to space and time”), it’s a wonder it took the industry so long to cotton on.
Hundreds of objects hit the earth’s atmosphere every day, travelling at velocities high enough to ensure they’re vapourised, leaving nothing more than a short-lived stream of plasma. A small percentage of these are large enough to make it to the surface and the drama of their impact on earth matches that of their origin. While the majority are rocky silicates originating from the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, some are metallic, made mostly of iron and nickel and originating in “planetismals”: objects large and dense enough to have (or to have had, early in their life cycle) molten cores in which the metals coalesce, but too small to be classed as proper planets.
These nearly-planets, some of which were tens and hundreds of kilometres thick, formed in the early history of the solar system and were mostly either captured as moons by bigger planets or destroyed in violent, high-energy collisions, sending the remains into orbit. These multi-billion year old fragments, shrapnel from more than cataclysmic explosions, then cooled in the hard vacuum and, crucially, zero gravity of space, resulting in the fabulously complex crystalline structure (known as the “Widmanstätten Pattern”) you can see today.
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona with meteorite dial from Bonham’s June 2012 sale (sold for US$ 21,250).
That structure is why meteorite dials are so rare – each crystal is slightly different in composition and only weakly bonded to its neighbour – a nightmare to work with, in other words, with frequent failures guaranteed. Regular machines simply don’t do the job and specialist ultra-sound drills are needed, with some dials needing the security of a brass baseplate to function. No surprise then that there are so few people with the experience to produce meteorite dials.
Then there’s the rarity question. Although there are thousands of meteorites in circulation, the large amount of raw material needed to make a dial means that sources of the best are jealously guarded. Rolex is thought to use material from the Gibeon meteorite that landed in Namibia some time in pre-history, scattering fragments over 10,000 square miles and which is no longer allowed to be removed from the area, while Jaeger-LeCoultre, whose 2015 Master Calendar watch is their first with a meteorite dial, uses material from an undisclosed Swedish source. Side by side, there does appear to be a visible difference, the Rolex dial having longer ribbon-like crystals.
So far, so mechanical, but the next stage is a matter of alchemy: the different elements and the crystalline patterns only show properly once treated with an acid wash (and in Rolex’s case, rhodium-plating) – how much and how strongly being a matter of judgement and experience as each slice of meteorite is unique. The high level of iron means this step is also needed to “fix” the meteorite and prevent oxidation.
This means the meteorite dials can, and do, come in a myriad of colours as well as the more usual white/grey combination. Parmigiani has both a deep blue Tonda 1950, called the Abyss, and a finely striated, moodily dark Kalpa Tourbillon.
US specialist Frank Heydrich meanwhile offers several colours and even an iridescent finish to the dials he produces – he prefers to avoid plating and relies on his own heat-treatment and other secrets to prevent the dials tarnishing. Intriguingly, he’s working on a stony meteorite that has beads of olivine embedded in an iron matrix, the problem being how exceptionally fragile the material is.
There’s something appropriate in the fine detail of the patterns that makes meteorite work so well in watches (the wide dial of Zenith’s Type 20 Louis Bleriot shows it to great effect), but it’s the rarity and cosmic history that really sets these watches apart.