Some years ago there was a trend in “buying” and naming a star. Never mind that the people who arranged this had no right to name anything, Johnny Depp was soon gifted with one, Nicole Kidman’s was named “Forever Tom” and Princess Diana had two bought for her after her death. Such was the allure that thousands of people had their name attached to objects light years across the galaxy, even if those names existed only on some company’s database.
Today, owning an – admittedly much smaller – piece of the universe has become a lot more tangible thanks to innovations by watchmakers. Dials made of thin slabs of meteorite have seen an explosion in popularity in the last few years. They fall into the broader category of semi-precious mineral dial timepieces that highlight the beauty of the materials themselves.
The last time semi-precious stone dials were en vogue was in the late 1960s to the early 1980s, when brands like Piaget and Rolex showcased all the colours of the rainbow, with unique creations using stones such as tiger’s eye and malachite for dials. This time round, the fashion has been fuelled by a genuinely out-of-this-world source material.
Alexandre Ghotbi, head of watches for Continental Europe and the Middle East Director for specialist horology auction house Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo has watched this spike in demand for (and price of) meteorite. “For the past few years we have seen a growing interest in semi-precious stone dials in vintage and modern watches with a certain modern flair. The one brand that gets the most interest is Rolex – with semi-precious stone dials including meteorite-crafted DayDate, Datejust and Daytona models.”
Rolex’s interest in this unusual mineral continues. The Cellini Moonphase uses the dramatic mineral in an elegant and not too ostentatious way – inset in the starry blue disc that displays the phase of the moon, is an appliqué moon made from a delicate sliver of meteorite. Last year it made the surprising move of releasing a white gold GMT-Master II with a meteorite dial, the first time that model has ever featured such an unusual dial material.
Rolex isn’t alone in understanding the appeal of meteorites. Cartier’s complex Rotonde de Cartier Earth and Moon plays with the interplanetary nature of meteorite dials, using inset discs of the material for the complicated masterwork’s main dial as well as for the moon in the “on-demand” moon phase indicator.
Many watch brands use fragments of large meteors sourced from sites in Namibia and Sweden. These contain iron-nickel alloys that have formed a striking, cross-hatched crystalline structure known as the Widmanstätten pattern, which can only be formed over millennia in outer space. Watchmakers painstakingly slice ultra-thin pieces of this brittle material and lightly treat it with acid to highlight the shimmering, abstract patterns. Piaget – master of semi-precious stone dials – understand the inherent drama of the mineral, and show it off to full effect in its Altiplano Automatic 40mm, where there is nothing to distract from the exotic dial.
Another prestigious house to realise the promise of meteorite is Hermès, in the form of the Arceau L’Heure de la Lune. Here the phase of the moon is displayed in the inverse – slowly rotating dials for the time and date obscure the photorealistic mother-of-pearl moons, constantly waxing or waning.
On three recent versions of this watch it’s the meteorite backdrop that steals the show, each one drawn from a different object: one called Black Sahara (for the colour and where the meteorite fell to earth), another features Lunar Meteorite (a rock formed originally on the Moon), and the rarest of them all – Martian Meteorite (formed on Mars). These three watches are noteworthy not only for their beauty and the rare provenance of the dials (only two watches with Martian dials will be made), but also for showcasing the subtlety and diversity of the material. These watches do not feature the distinctive Widmanstätten pattern, but rather a more subtle stony finish, with colourful flecks adding depth and character.
The singular appeal of meteorite-dial watches is their mystery, the serendipity involved in their acquisition. It’s a mind-bendingly long process: a dense chunk of metal and minerals, formed millions or even billions of years ago and set on a path that ultimately brought it into collision with Earth. Entering our atmosphere, they spark a fiery tail. Smaller hunks of interstellar rock burn up entirely in their fall – becoming meteors, mostly remembered only in the scientific record. Instead, meteorites survive their trial by fire and land among us, a little piece of the cosmos, a shooting star you can hold in your hand.
Given the complex and exceedingly rare nature of these dials, it comes as no surprise that crafting them is a painstaking process. Mr Christian Lattmann, CEO of Jaquet Droz, a brand that excels in fine dial-work explains: “Each dial made with hard stone or mineral is unique. Mineral dials are never made in great numbers, but solely released as a solitary piece or limited series”.
Lattmann explains the process begins by selecting the rare mineral. They are brought to Switzerland to start the painstaking cutting process where only the most breathtaking sections of the rocks are chosen. They are carefully polished by hand and sliced into discs that are about the size of the final piece. Done with traditional saws and grinders, this simple cut alone takes an hour to obtain an initial dial form.
While each of the meteorites has very different physical properties, what unites them, and makes them desirable is the cosmic journey they’ve made – often billions of miles over millions of years – to finally land on your wrist.