WOOD’S an ubiquitous element in our lives. It’s lightweight, easy to work with, and certain veneers make for a laid back, bohemian aesthetic with a certain air of sophistry. So why aren’t we seeing it used more in high-end watchmaking?
Sure, there’s a healthy host of microbrands churning out some good stuff, but players in haute horlogerie only crank out the occasional special edition once every few years.
These collections tend to cap at 50 to 70 pieces, and that’s symptomatic of either a lack of demand or, perhaps, that the intricacies of working with wood make production hard to scale.
Just Face Value?
Famously, there is even an independent Ukrainian carpenter-turned-watchmaker who fashioned entire pocket watches – down to majority of the movement – out of hand-carved or machined wood. These damn objects of beauty made a huge blip on the watch lover’s radar when they debuted at Baselworld over half a decade ago, but faded into relative obscurity despite their uniqueness.
These things of beauty have resurfaced at his online shopfront, commanding some five-figure price tags that at least 24 customers so far have been okay with the costs. After all, Danevich takes up to half a year to finish one. The former carpenter was so fascinated with timepieces that he taught himself how to fashion one.
But Danevich is but one man, so it’s understandable his production capabilities are capped. To find out how decisions go at a large watch brand, we reached out to the Bruno Belamich, designer of the Bell & Ross BR-X1 Marine Instrument Collection.
AM: Breathtaking job on the Marine Instrument Collection – we’re taken with the theme and the wooden elements. Why was the trigger pulled on the idea?
Belamich: We wanted to create something that combines modernity and tradition. The Bell & Ross creative department is always in search for new inspirational fields. We try to open to new territories, to expand our horizons and to find and interpret new ideas according to the Bell & Ross identity.
So going back into the past and getting inspired by navigation instruments (from the marine field this time) was a real challenge but we still remain faithful to our origins: interpreting the instruments and adapt them to a wristwatch.
Basically we’ve drawn inspiration from those first marine chronographs, the reference in terms of reliability and mechanical precision developed by sailors to explore the seas and oceans. With these 3 timepieces we paid a tribute to the history of navigation and the exploit of the first pioneers of the seas.
We have borrowed the design codes and materials used for the marine chronograph and adapted them to a Bell & Ross wristwatch. The goal was to interpret the traditional details thanks to the modern day’s techniques.
Tell us how hard it was to nail the process of working with wood, particularly when compared with working with regular metals. Any ‘nightmare’ moments?
It was challenging integrating wood into our production process. Wood on its own is strong and stiff, but unlike metals and ceramics that has an isotropic inner structure, wood has different properties in different direction and it was difficult to achieve an uniform effect.
We had to be very meticulous and precise in our handling, crafting wood to such small precision is difficult to achieve. The wood was shaved into very fine sheets which were glued together at an angle of 90° C to avoid any crack in the material. It was then pressed, machined and varnished.
Not a nightmare, however a real struggle to ensure a good performance to resist to temperature and humidity changes!
As a property wood doesn’t see much use in high-end watchmaking. It’s almost always limited editions (BR-X1, 50 pieces only, etc). Are there many reasons why that is?
With the difficulties and constraints of working with unique qualities of wood, it is made in small numbers for specific collectors who want something different.
However, the usage of wood will not affect the reliability and the precision of the watches as the movements are protected by a titanium container. You find wood either on the belt of the BR01 Marine or on the top of the case for the two BR-X1 versions. The wood that we used for these timepieces is a special noble wood- the rosewood, known for its solidity and extreme resistance to humidity.
How good an idea is using wood in the links or strap? We’ve seen some interlaced designs that make it seem very viable, and very light.
Wooden straps may not be as viable as steel or titanium as its more prone to wear and tear. The constant movement of links in bracelets may deteriorate over time. It will not be reliable.
What would you personally find most appealing about wearing a wood-based timepiece?
We took the opportunity to experiment mixing wood with other materials like bronze, rose gold and titanium and were astonished by the results.
First of all, (they) looked aesthetically good together. Secondly, each piece of handcrafted wood is different from another. Its unique grains tell a story of its own and speaks character. Thirdly, the combination of wood and high tech materials in the BR-X1 fully highlights our thirst for creativity, innovation and watch making expertise.
Finally, what could be next for Bell & Ross in the realm of wood – anything on the cards?
We haven’t planned on launching another wooden timepiece at the moment but we will, for sure, introduce some very exciting new models this year!
PHOTOS: Respective brands.