I bought a ceramic fashion watch so you don’t have toD.C. Hannay
In my depraved lust for knowledge and experience, I ask myself some pretty weird questions. For instance: which idea is worse, the self-driving car, or the flying car? How much worse would a self-flying car be? Should the stuffed-crust pizza be allowed to exist? Is self-flying pizza delivery the wave of the future? And most recently, am I turning into a fashionista?
Although I do wear a lot of black, trust me when I say no one would ever accuse me of being chic. Yet, here I am, mulling over the idea of owning a no-holds-barred, full ceramic watch, bracelet and all.
Now, I’ve gotten handsy with many ceramic-cased watches over the years, and I think a lot of them are pretty cool, but up until this point, I had never daily driven a ceramic watch/bracelet combo. I’ve long been fascinated with watches built from nontraditional materials, including titanium, carbon fibre, and even tungsten, but ceramic is another thing altogether. It has a completely unique feel, unlike anything else. It’s lightweight, heat-resistant, and nearly impervious to scratching.
It also has a somewhat terrifying Achilles heel: it could possibly shatter upon impact with a hard surface. Still, my dogged curiosity hadn’t waned, so I decided to conduct a low-stakes (very low stakes, as you’ll soon see) experiment. Could I actually live with a full ceramic watch? I was about to find out.
Ceramic timepieces have been around for a while, starting in the ’60s with the pioneering tungsten carbide models from Rado, and later with brands like IWC, but these were hardly mainstream products upon their introduction. Then in 1999, Chanel catapulted the ceramic timepiece straight into the public consciousness with the release of the now-iconic J12. Here was a unisex dive-style watch, rendered in glossy black or blinding white ceramic, and the fashion world lapped it up. These must-have accessories had major wrist presence, due in no small part to those bracelets with full ceramic links, click-clacking on well-turned wrists from Paris to Dubai. Of course, there were to be shipping containers of flattery in the form of knockoffs from that point forward.
Discounting the blatant counterfeit watches that accompany every hot trend, the idea of ceramic as a mainstream watchmaking material had finally arrived. Today, ceramic has permeated the highest echelons of the Swiss watch industry, with brands like Omega, Richard Mille, Blancpain, Tudor, Zodiac and more joining the fray. Then there are the full ceramic bracelet offerings from the likes of Audemars Piguet, Girard-Perregaux, IWC, Bulgari, Zenith, Panerai, and Hublot in addition to Chanel. These are some pricey options, so I had to set my sights lower. A good deal lower.
Enter the fashion brands: accessible ceramic quartz watches from names like Michael Kors, Fossil and a host of others that have capitalised on the trend, offering a range of models that feature coloured ceramic cases and bracelets, usually priced between US$300-$600. It was here that I found my point of entry, in the form of this slick-looking number from Emporio Armani. Hey, if Armani was good enough for Miami Vice, legendary L.A. Lakers coach Pat Riley, and countless Wall Street financiers, it’s certainly good enough for me! Time to fetch the white-collared cornflower blue shirt, saddle leather braces, and power tie from the back of my closet.
But me being me, I wouldn’t be spending the $400 this watch probably cost new. Hell no, my experiment began not in the luxurious confines of an Armani boutique, but in the back alleys of eBay. All it took was a bit of patience and $49 (in an auction where I was the only bidder), and I was soon the proud owner of a preowned glossy black ceramic Emporio Armani Ceramica AR-1421 chronograph. A newer equivalent of this baby can be found on the Emporio Armani website.
Now, onto the watch itself. The look is rather fetching, if a bit flashy for my tastes, but certainly doesn’t veer too hard into the garish as many fashion watches are wont to do. It’s a big (but not comically oversized) 43 mm in diameter, mitigated somewhat by the black finish and significant downturn of the lugs.
Speaking of the lugs, they look traditional from the front of the case, but turn the watch over, and you’ll see the lugs are sort of…nonexistent. The front is an illusion, with the bracelet’s integrated point of attachment only about 12 mm wide, so strap swapping is a non-starter. It’s a matter of the stress that spring bars (and their removal) would put on the lugs, which is why many brands reinforce the area with steel. The thick lug area on this watch is just a lower-tech solution.
No matter. My research was all about the experience of the ceramic case and bracelet combo, and the watch looked nearly new, apart from one minor flaw that was more amusing than annoying. The applied indice at 1 was no longer applied nor at 1, and would merrily flit about the dial at its own whim (seen here between 12 and 1, near the Armani eagle logo), coming to rest somewhere along the chapter ring like some low-stakes version of roulette. I’m choosing to view it as an unexpected bonus, providing hours of Vegas-style amusement without the Jacob & Co. price tag.
Other than that, the watch was in good nick, just needing a fresh battery. The dial sports an attractive “teak” horizontal striped pattern, and the bracelet utilises a hidden butterfly clasp. There’s no capacity for micro-adjustment, so I lucked out on the fit because no extra links were included. Once I topped off the quartz movement, we were in business.
A couple other characteristics of the watch gave me a chuckle: a dive bezel (on a chronograph) that doesn’t actually turn made me laugh out loud, as did the Daytona-esque screw-down pushers that don’t screw down by any definition. Oh well, at least the watch is an actual chronograph, albeit a Miyota or Seiko-based quartz one. Again, I wasn’t bothered, because the watch was clearly designed for looks rather than performance. It’s almost as if I had typed “design a big, sporty men’s black ceramic watch” into AI, and this is what it spat out.
So now that we’re finally ready to wear the bargain baller that is my near-new Armani chrono, what’s it actually like to live with? First off, the watch feels light, considering its somewhat oversized dimensions. An equivalent stainless model would certainly be a wrist tank, so that’s a win, although I could have easily lived with a case diameter about 3 mm smaller. The ceramic, in addition to its lighter weight, also feels warmer than metal. It’s cool when you first put it on, but eventually warms against the skin, and I find it quite comfortable.
The glossy polished finish is very similar to certain models from Rado, as well as the original Chanel J12, but like most polished finishes, it’s a magnet for fingerprints. It’s very glam, with a “black chrome” sort of countenance, but low-key enough that I didn’t feel like a tool while wearing it. But honestly, I prefer the look of the matte finish you find on the ceramic Rado Captain Cook, the brushed surfaces of Omega’s Dark Side of the Moon Speedmaster or AP’s ceramic Royal Oak.
I rather came to enjoy the clicky feel of the bracelet links, their sound reminding me of the gentle clack of a relaxed game of billiards. And the butterfly clasp certainly seems secure enough, offering two locking points, if not quite as secure as a fliplock arrangement. Am I worried about possibly obliterating this ceramic timepiece against an inopportune encounter with an unforgiving surface? If it were a big investment, I’d be more concerned, but not at these stakes. Besides, its ceramic zirconium makeup is a good sight more durable than the pottery we usually associate with the word “ceramic”. Manufacturers are continually working toward even more durable solutions, such as IWC’s Ceratanium, so my anxiety is down to the security of a given timepiece’s bracelet hardware.
Two big questions remain: firstly, would I recommend a ceramic fashion watch to someone else? To someone that’s not really into watches the way most of us collectors are, maybe. If they like the look and the quality is decent, I’d say go for it, but don’t spend a ton on whatever you buy. For the watch geeks among us, I’d say probably not. There are likely going to be too many compromises and bad design choices among watches in this price range. But if you spot a deal like I did, it might be worth it as a personal experiment.
Second of all, would I take the plunge on a high-end full ceramic watch? After living with the material for some time, I would definitely say yes, but I would be very selective if I were to plunk down my own ducats. There’s a huge gap between the fashion and high-end markets, price-wise, and I seriously doubt I’d be willing to spend upwards of five figures unless I designed the damn thing myself. Fortunately, there are options at far lower points. The Rado Captain Cook in ceramic is super-cool, but a touch too big for me at 43 mm to pull the trigger. Chanel also offers several choices at well under $10K, and they offer some sportier models with matte finishing, so they’re on the shortlist. Besides Chanel, I’m noticing more and more high fashion brands once again getting serious about their watchmaking, including Gucci and Dior. Could the House of Armani follow… suit? I’ll show myself out.
One more thing: I feel it’s only a matter of time before microbrands go full-bore into ceramic timepieces, given that the material can be found on watches covering the price spectrum. I’ve noticed CIGA Design offering a few ceramic models, and it’s a good bet that other micros will do the same. Will any of them offer a full ceramic bracelet? I certainly hope so, but we’ll have to wait and see.
But if I were going to spend my own money today, I would likely go for a preowned Chanel Superleggera automatic chronograph, preferably the discontinued silver-dialled variant with the bonkers two-toned ceramic and aluminium bracelet. I love the look of that thing more than any Chanel I’ve ever seen, and nice ones seem to be available for around US$3K. Will I hit the “buy it now” button? Stay tuned.