Inside Watchmaking: A Case Coating Conundrum

Case making is an art, but it was not why people used to buy watches. The accuracy of timepieces in the early days was far less reliable than it is today, and, for that reason, a premium was placed on refined mechanisms. Watches were rarely used for sport and so case integrity was not so much an issue. But as time moved on, and the ability to guarantee excellent timekeeping became a common calling card, manufacturers started to get more creative with their case designs.

Schofield Watch

That’s why these days – much to the chagrin of the classicists – we’re used to seeing absolutely bonkers cases made from everything and coated in anything to set them apart from the competition. We’ve seen housings hewn from sapphire, forged carbon, polycarbonate, brand new materials like Morta, gold, silver, ceramic, tungsten, steel, titanium, platinum, aluminum… the list goes on and on. But what’s even more common than the case itself being made of something downright weird, is the ubiquity of surface coatings applied to a steel base.

Luminor Panerai Watch

DLC-coatings (Diamond-Like Carbon) give watches a black finish. And unlike PVD (Physical Vapour Deposition) DLC-coatings form a much tighter bond on the substrate, often resulting in a cleaner, more metallic result. The one aesthetic downside is that it’s only available in black, but that didn’t seem to bother the thousands upon thousands of consumers who rushed out to buy one of these stealthy timepieces.

MCT Frequential One F110

But was it good buy? How do these coatings wear and what is the potential for refinishing a damaged DLC-coated case? Will these items hold their value or will they fall out of favor as trends shift towards something new?

Beauty is More Than Skin Deep

The first problem is that PVD and DLC wear. Once the coating has been scratched away, reapplying the finish is incredibly difficult. It requires a total overhaul of the case. In most after sales departments I have seen, and in all of those in which I have worked, a damaged DLC-coated case goes nowhere but the trash can. Right now that’s not a huge problem for the consumer (although maybe their wallet). As long as brands stock the cases then that’s fine, but remember when buying a watch as an investment, brands are only bound to supply replacement parts for your timepiece for a specific amount of time (all brands vary on the number of years in question). If you’re looking for an heirloom, a coated watch may not be the way to go.

Moser Watch

That said, it is difficult to predict how the market will view this fad in the future. On the one hand, the relatively fragile nature of DLC might make perfectly preserved examples of this era extremely valuable. But I doubt these watches will never occupy the same level of desirability as a watch made of precious metal. They may capture a certain Zeitgeist, but they lack the inherent value, rarity, and sustainability of more classically composed pieces. That’s not to say rolling out one of these watches twenty years from now won’t garner a fond reception, it’s just unlikely to be reflected in inherent value retention.

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About the Author:

Rob Nudds is a WOSTEP qualified watchmaker, working as a consultant in the UK market. You can read more of his work on aBlogtoWatch.com.