Although popularity of the black-out watch has grown significantly in the last 10 years or so, to the point where pretty much every major brand will have one blackened model, this alternative case design has actually been around since the mid-20th century.
These black-out watches look like the Batmobile or Mick Thompson’s signature black Jackson on the wrist and offer an individuality, mystique and effortless versatility that many watch collectors love as that more unique piece in the collection. But I hear you ask: How is this blacked-out case achieved, how did it start and where is it headed? Do not fear. I am bored and slightly drunk on a Tuesday night so I shall satisfy all these queries for you as you read this article in bed or over you first home-working coffee…
How Is A Black-Out Watch Made?
Although the Bamford Watch Company’s success with aftermarket blackening began in the 2000s, back in the 1970s TAG Heuer and Porsche Design paved the way for Black-Out watches. However, these were powdered coating – essentially black powdered materials coated over the steel case. As a result, although achieving the desired look these were notoriously very easy to scratch off and a very delicate gimmick opposed to a truly useful and innovative design. A great example is the TAG Heuer Monaco Dark Lord. A true collectors piece for the reasons that it was one of the pioneers of Black-Out watches and because it is exceptionally rare to find a model with fully intact coating still.
Then in the late 80s, Physical Vapour Deposition (PVD) was introduced. PVD is the process by which a number of different metals are chemically bound to the surface of another metal to provide a coating. This combination of metals produces this matte black colour that is much more resistant and durable than the older powder coatings.
However, the PVD coating is limited in durability to the durability of the underlying metal. Therefore, in the case of a Steelcase with PVD casing, the PVD coating will scratch as easily as steel would. This being said PVD is extremely popular with most brands from TAG, to Hublot, to Panerai, to Omega to AP.
Another alternative is making the watch case out of ceramic. This has been popularised by the Omega Dark Side of the Moon Speedmaster, who’s shiny and relentlessly black exterior is out of this world…
The downside with ceramic, however, is two-fold. Although extremely scratch-resistant there is a small issue that Ceramic does shatter. As a result, there are horror stories of people’s £8,000 Dark Side of the Moon Speedmaster’s hitting the deck and shattering coincidently like their happiness and investment. Secondly, Ceramic case watches are usually significantly more expensive than their steel or PVD counterparts. This is apparently due to the increased amount of time it takes to construct the case. For example, AP has stated that it takes them an extra 12 hours more of labour to produce the case for their ceramic AP than it does for the standard steel models.
The History Of The Black-Out Watch
So now that we know the different ways of constructing a Black-out watch and the pitfalls and advantages of each, when did the craze really take off? Well as explained above, the very first Black-Out watches came about in the 1970s. However, these were extremely limited run watches that didn’t achieve much commercial interest in a time where putting colour on a previously monotone dial was daring.
In fact, nerds such as those at Time + Tide, site that Tempus “Temple of Time” 2007, an exhibition in Singapore organised by the Hourglass that showcased limited edition Black-Out watches was when the craze really kicked off as limited edition black watches from brands such as Tag, Hublot, AP, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Richard Mille and Sinn all flew off the shelves. One could argue that since 2007, blackened watches peaked in popularity at around 2015 before plateauing to the level it is now where pretty consistently every year a brand’s catalogue will include a blackened watch.
What Does The Future Hold?
Finally, where is it headed? Well as with any manufacturing-based industry, the goal is to achieve easier deliverability, affordability and quality design. Therefore, each brand will likely continue to innovate new ways to make blackened watches, blacker, more resistant and cheaper to produce.
A forerunner is the German brand Sinn who have developed a way to better increase the durability of PVD whilst keeping the price down by avoiding to use expensive materials such as ceramic. They have developed a process where they ice-harden steel to the point that it is almost twice and strong as normal steel without having to create an expensive alloy. Then once treated with the standard PVD process, the resulting material is exceptionally hard and exceptionally matte black.
To conclude, Black-Out watches are a very cool alternative design that demonstrate the watch industries consistent progress in developing innovative and exciting new ways of designing and building watches. As time goes by, provided a global pandemic, ensuing racial and social unrest or volcanic eruption don’t wipe out the watch industry or human race for that matter, the design and execution of Black-Out watches shall improve as the general popularity with consumers remains fairly constant.