The Dark History of Blacked-Out Watches

By Josh Sims

“You want to make a watch look more modern, a bit cooler? Just add black,” says Romain Marietta, head of products for Zenith. “Even if you have a new piece generally inspired by the watches of, say, the 1970s, it doesn’t matter – add black and it looks contemporary. Black is back.”

Indeed, not just a touch of black. Not just a black dial. We’re talking total black out – dial, case, strap, sometimes the indices and the luminescent material used too. It’s the 21st century choice in a market in which stainless steel now feels rather classical. Some might see it as sacrilegious to apply this treatment to certain iconic watches or interpret it as just a trend that brands jump on, rather than attempting to creating genuinely new designs. In any case, there’s no disputing the fact that blacked-out watches, love them or hate them, have become something of a phenomenon.

 

The shadow-like Royal Oak Double Balance Wheel Openwork, courtesy of Audemars PIguet.

 

“Times change, and four decades ago the watch industry probably would have embraced making a black watch, but it didn’t have the knowhow. We do now, and in many different ways too,” says Renato Bonina, Chief Sales Officer at Carl F. Bucherer, which has followed this path. “What else has changed? That today what the customer wants is much more important in driving what watchmakers offer. And the customer wants black.”

Certainly, watchmakers have tried all manner of means to give their watches a touch of the night. The idea might first be attributed to the German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, who throughout the 1970s appeared wearing an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak 5402 that, in an early example of watch customisation, he appeared to have simply painted over. “It would have been very Karl Lagerfeld to do that,” notes Michael Friedman, head of complications for the watch brand. “It was a cool thing to do.”

 

The designer Lagerfeld sporting is black painted Royal Oak.

 

But then, PVD became available. That’s physical vapor deposition, which allows a thin, hard layer of vaporised material to atomically bond to the material beneath, the first and still most commonplace method by which watches are given a professional black finish. Thanks to this new technology, Porsche Design, also a German company, produced what is recognised as the first properly blacked-out watch. This was the experimental Chronograph 1 of 1972. It was designed by Ferdinand Porsche himself, the man who gave us the 911.

 

The first to make black cool on watches, Porsche Design’s Chronograph 1.

 

After this, came the Heuer Monaco “Dark Lord” in 1975. Supposedly Jack Heuer was influenced by seeing a blacked-out Royal Oak on the wrist of King Juan Carlos I of Spain and decided to give his struggling Monaco a similar treatment, in order to help it stand out from the competition. Applying a PVD coating to the square case and adding red accents gave the design a bold contrast. With the early applications of PVD not quite being what they are today, this superficial layer was often prone to damage. As Eric Ku, one of the world’s foremost Rolex dealers and a prolific collector, put it about his own Dark Lord, “it scratches very easily. You could probably scratch this finish with your fingernail, so I’m really hesitant to wear it.”

 

The now legendary 'Dark Lord' Monaco.

 

Almost forty years on and one could choose from recent launches the likes of Omega’s Dark Side of the Moon Speedmaster, Tudor’s Black Bay Dark or Zenith’s Chronomaster Revival Shadow, among the many watches that by their names make a point of their colour. Or lack of. They follow Audemars Piguet’s exploration of blackness in 1999, with its End of Days Offshore, the first hand-finished PVD-coated watch, proving there was a demand for black at the high end of the market, even back then.

 

A cross section of the modern offering when it comes to black watches.

 

As mentioned, PVD is unfortunately not permanent, revealing knocks and scratches in a way much more visible than they are on, say, plain stainless steel. And so, as the intervening decades have passed, there’s been a race of technological advancement to give watches an ever more permanent darkness, each with their own advantages and pitfalls. There is DLC, or diamond-like coating, essentially a super-boosted PVD using the hardest substance on Earth. Alternatively black ceramic, black through and through, but not hugely shock-resistant; as well as treating various already dark case materials, the likes of ceramide aluminium – hard to work with and expensive to refurbish – or micro-blasted titanium, first trialled by Zenith in 2018, but with more watches of this kind to come.

“There are always advances in various techniques for getting blackness – there have been a lot of improvements in PVD, for example, in the way it doesn’t take fingerprint marks so much anymore, or in the way it can now take other colours,” notes Marietta. “But you have to be very careful in working with black. It has to be done well, because otherwise there’s always a tendency for the result to look plasticky.”

 

Up close with the Zenith Chronomaster Revival Shadow.

 

Certainly, finessing a blacked-out watch takes considerable effort. The way we perceive an object in black, given the way black absorbs light, means we tend to perceive it in the whole rather than as the sum of its details. That can leave it looking flat. Martin Frei, designer for Urwerk and a sculptor by training, talks of how with a black object “you don’t see details, but you see volume. You see the whole object first and only then the surfaces, with black objects also coming across as warmer in good light than shiny ones. And for those reasons I think using black opens up possibilities for the watch designer. Watches are, after all, small sculptures.”

It’s why he has experimented with as diverse a range of treatments, such as roasting metals with a high iron content to darken them, or with the likes of black-coated platinum, “because while coating may be less durable there’s something interesting about taking an expensive metal and then using black to take away what in some sense gives the metal its value”. It’s why he’s not averse to PVD wearing off. He sees it as a form of patina, one ripe for exploration in the form of, say, black PVD-coated bronze. At the same time, he’s also fascinated by the possibilities afforded by the 3D printing of materials with new chemical properties, which might one day provide the best of all attributes in a black watch.

 

Texture can go a long way on a black watch, courtesy of Hodinkee.

 

This tendency towards expressing volume is also why the most impressive black watches tend to require labour-intensive finishing – by the use, say, of diamond-tipped tools specially developed by Audemars Piguet to give a satin finish to black ceramic – that recovers some of that intriguing play of light we get from a watch in more reflective materials. “It’s through such finishing techniques that you give a black watch interest again,” argues Friedman. “Without it, you risk losing the integrity of the original form language as intended by the designer.”

With it, though, you have a watch that seems inherently rebellious, especially in a culture of glamour that still, magpie-like, privileges shiny things. “I think part of the appeal of a blacked-out watch is that it runs so counter to the tradition of high-end watchmaking, with its emphasis on precious metals, and then on steel, which gives a very clean look,” says Friedman. “Now black is the next chapter, the latest addition to the watch design portfolio. And I think black transcends the codes of watch categories – it’s as much for a dress watch, as it is a minimalist, military one. There’s always an intrigue to it. Just look at the parallels of the use of black in cars or fashion.”

 

A modern design from Urwerk paired with the modern shade of black, courtesy of Hodinkee.

 

Certainly, it’s impossible to disassociate the cool of a black watch from the impact achieved by using black in so many other areas of art and design. What makes it cool? Perhaps that intoxicating association with darkness, and so with seductiveness and stealth, recognised now for millennia. For while many colours may have different meanings, depending on where and when you are, black offers the strongest universal associations of all colours. And black most often speaks ill. The Romans, for example, who rather coveted black ceramics, had two words for the colour – niger and ater – and both of them also meant “sad”, “ominous”, “dreadful” or “malicious”.

 

A blacked-out Rolex Migauss, courtesy of Black Venom Watches.

 

The use of black in watches seems to be an inescapable inevitability these days and while the use of this shade has been around for decades, we have certainly seen a shift in recent times towards the darker end of the spectrum. As Merietta put it at the top of this article, it has become an easy choice for designers wanting to give a modern feel to their watches. Some have argued that it can be a little unnecessary at times, due to the obvious impracticalities. It begs the question as to why this trend has taken hold, whether it be to highlight that fact that mechanical watches have fully transitioned from tools to accessories or perhaps it is a larger fashion movement that has timepieces caught up in its wake.

Perhaps this also explains the watch customisation market: businesses that will take your new or unworn timepiece and give it a black coating, and which, arguably, kick-started this latest embracing of the dark side. Individuals at the core of contemporary popular culture have embraced this blacked-out customation, such as Virgil Abloh, the founder of streetwear phenomenon Off White and the current artistic director of Louis Vuitton's menswear collection. He can be seen sporting an all black modern Nautilus, which he also complements with a vintage 3700 in yellow gold, the original Nautilus reference.

 

The black watch in the spotlight on Abloh’s wrist, courtesy of GQ.

 

Whether blacked-out watches are just the most recent of trends or whether they’re here to stay, there’s no way to know for sure. What’s certain is that the colour - which has long been a fixture of the fashion, automotive and artistic worlds - was excluded from the field watches until fairly recently. Largely due to technical constraints, the options for blacking out watches are now multiple. The question is, will the interest remain or will it slowly fade into darkness?


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