Hublot’s Mastery at Materials InnovationBy Kevin Cureau
Known around the world for its loud marketing and its presence at sporting events, Hublot has been a trailblazer since its inception and is today quietly making waves with its R&D innovations which have even attracted the European Space Agency.
Why do watch enthusiasts or collectors love to hate on Hublot? Many would say that the brand is too loud or too heavily marketed for their taste, while others will say that Hublot watches copy the look of the icons that are the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. But behind the layer of visible boisterous marketing techniques, Hublot has many times cemented its position as an innovative high-end luxury watchmaker, and one of the most important brands in the watchmaking industry. If you take the time to dig into the brand, handle its timepieces and learn all about the company’s innovations, a brilliant shift will take place where instead of spitting out unwarranted amounts of vitriol at the first sight of a Hublot watch, you will get past your first impressions, look closely at the pieces, and understand that all the parts make sense together and represent the perfect image of the brand.
The Art of Fusion
To understand Hublot in its entirety, it is important to remember that right from the start, the brand didn’t skimp on time and resources to create the best possible product, and sought to break out from the mould of the luxury watch business. Having left his family business in the late 1970s, a young confident Italian man named Carlo Crocco set out to launch his own watch brand in Switzerland. The first watch he presented, called the Hublot after the French word for “porthole”, was the first luxury watch that had the audacity to mix a precious metal like gold with a rubber strap. The strap took three years of research to produce and revealed the amazing properties of natural rubber that instantly adapted to the wrist of the wearer and provided long-term comfort. Although the timepiece received no interest when it was presented during the 1980 Basel Fair, the original mixture of high and low soon grew in popularity due to the new luxury sports watch market of the time, and many clients, retailers, celebrities, and even members of royal families, found themselves attracted by the Hublot watch.
Hublot’s motto today is the “Art of Fusion” and this single principle is what drove the watch brand from its creation with the pairing of gold and rubber, and what brought the company enormous success. It’s not until 2004 though that the brand took a new turn and rose to another level when the one and only Mr Jean-Claude Biver became CEO of Hublot. A genius of the watch industry and a watch brand saviour, Mr Biver sought to immediately create a new collection and flagship model, the Big Bang Chronograph. The rest is history and the brand would not be where it is today without him. Ask Mr Biver what is the one watch he will keep for the rest of his life, he will immediately reply that it would be the Hublot Bigger Bang Tourbillon prototype watch he often wears. It was the starting point of his success at the maison and the watch that would guide Hublot and give birth to the whole collection of Hublot watches. According to him, it is the timepiece that has brought him the most luck in the industry and one he would never part with.
It is under his direction that the concept of the “Art of Fusion” would personify Hublot’s future and become the intersecting point of many different materials such as gold, titanium, carbon, ceramic, rubber, etc…
Hublot’s innovations in terms of high-tech materials really started in 2010 when the maison acquired BNB Concept and its founder, Mathias Buttet, who was then named Director of Research and Development of Hublot and given colossal resources to start experimenting with materials. Called “Confrérie Horlogère Hublot”, Hublot’s R&D office is more of a laboratory than a department inside of a watch manufacture; and is labelled as the F1 team of watchmaking, how Hublot is that? The team is formed of 30 watchmakers, design engineers, micro-dynamics and micro-chemistry technicians, who are led by Mathias Buttet under the coordination of Ricardo Guadalupe, CEO of Hublot.
For their first outing, Buttet and his team presented the “Magic Gold” in 2012, an unscratchable “fused” 18K gold alloy, a world’s first, created by injecting gold into porous ceramic. Said like this, it might sound easy but as Buttet himself puts it: “It’s not a technology you can just deliver to a production, tell people to press a button and it works. It’s a small window of coincidences which allow us to pass through a tiny door lock.”
Not someone to rest on his laurels, Buttet and his team immediately got to work on what would eventually become Hublot’s “Red Magic”, a consistent bright red ceramic material that is the result of fusing iron oxides into ceramic by heating the two together up to 800 degrees Celsius and then adding a pressure of 600 tonnes per square centimetres for three hours, which would then create again a tiny window of coincidences where the fusion of elements could happen perfectly. “With the Magic Gold, it was like Hublot acquired a black belt in a martial art, and with this, we got the first dan. We managed to master these two techniques,” Buttet explains.
Hublot has gone on to be the first brand to have a lineup of watches made with several colours of ceramic materials such as white, black, red, blue and green. The brand’s “Art of Fusion” mindset has also allowed the maison to experiment and mix numerous materials, which have in turn given birth to many patented alloys such as King Gold (gold and platinum), Hublonium (magnesium and aluminium) and Texalium (carbon fibre and aluminium) among others.
Hublot has also made significant investment in the industrialisation of sapphire, one of the hardest material to cut and manufacture, to launch full sapphire timepieces. This lead to the breakthroughs made by the brand in the domain of coloured sapphires (transparent, black, yellow, blue, red).
Obtaining coloured sapphire requires the same process Hublot mastered when researching ceramics, mainly mixing the raw material for sapphire, which is aluminium oxide, with various materials – iron and titanium for blue sapphire and chromium for red sapphire – before heating the whole mixture up. Their most recent achievement in the field of coloured sapphire was the creation of an emerald green sapphire which was done by using a material never used in a watch case called SAXEM for Sapphire Aluminium oXide and rare Earth Mineral.
It is worth noting as well that while Hublot has been known for their work in material sciences, the maison has been equally innovative in precious stone setting techniques. Case in point, their “invisible setting” which is almost identical to microsurgery. The concept is to carefully choose each stone, cut and polish it according to the specific position it will have on the case, and slide the stones one by one on a “channel” meaning the gems are set without any visible prongs. Another proof of their gem-setting prowess would be the techniques required to set previous stones in transparent sapphire cases which you bet aren’t a cakewalk given the difficulty to cut sapphire cases.
A True Scientific Laboratory
This mastered expertise in controlling and shaping molecules now allows him and his team to play around with crazy possibilities: “we haven’t released the product yet but we started doing luminous and phosphorescent ceramic, we are having fun,” and even started exploring concepts that seem like they could be transported directly into a sci-fi movie: “we are working on high entropy, which is the atomic chaos. We redesign atoms so they go where we want them to go and forbid nature to set itself normally.”
This work has obviously caught the eye of many parties outside of the watch industry, including the aerospace industry. Mathias and his team have been able to create a whole new material in their laboratory that is lighter than titanium but harder than tempered steel, which simply does not exist in a natural form. The interest from a mainstream industry into the work of a watch company provides a shift where instead of watch brands making use of materials from the automotive or aeronautical industry and incorporating them into their timepieces, it’s the other way around.
This led to Hublot becoming an official technical and scientific partner of the European Space Agency where the brand is taking part in the July 2020 ExoMars space mission devoted to exploring the surface of Mars. Hublot did calibration work on the high resolution camera that will be used on the Mars Rover. As a result of that collaboration, the Hublot name will be engraved on the Rover.
Some of you might not have lost sight of the huge marketing opportunity provided here by having the Hublot logo visible on a multi-million dollar space exploration device, but Buttet points out that the goal was not to create a marketing opportunity but simply to sign their hard work. Mathias has always been against the loud marketing techniques brands use consisting of stamping a brand name in as many places as possible, his mindset has always been the one of a scientist who simply loves to collaborate with different researchers to advance the world. Since Hublot possesses this cutting-edge technological know-how in their manufacture, why not share it with others, particularly if it benefits the world?
A Future In Exploration?
There is no denying that Hublot is a true innovative manufacture which is alone in producing the type of work that they do. Behind the vociferous presence of the brand worldwide, Hublot has real substance and true cutting-edge technological know-how that is unmatched by other brands. As a maison that barely scratches their 40th year in the business, Hublot is building its history on our modern times and modern technologies but guided by people who have an immense knowledge of the watchmaking industry.
So what could be the next adventure that Hublot takes part in, what could the future of the brand look like? According to Mr Biver, the maison’s mission is quite simple and it is “to create more masterpieces, to better master the craftsmanship and to be more creative.”
But Mathias let me in on a little secret; they have recently made a partnership with the University of Geneva and their archeology department to spear-head the research and development around the Antikythera sea bed, off the coast of Greece, where the Antikythera mechanism was found. Hublot built underwater drones internally capable of going down to 300 meters depth, pick up sediments and analyze the various oxides present in the water. The name of these exploration drones? Bubblots! A fusion of the words bubble and Hublot.
It goes without saying that Hublot’s future is bright and not just confined to the watch industry. With so many technical innovations associated with Hublot, and the interest of many industries converging to this manufacture located in Nyon right outside Geneva, rest assured that Hublot is not done surprising us and the world.