How Watches Work: What Is Tantalum?
As a fan of alternative case materials, I love seeing watches made of uncommon metals. We’re all familiar with stainless steel and probably gold and platinum too. But over the last few years, I’ve noticed a marked increase in brands using tantalum for all or part of their watches. What is tantalum? And does it make for a good watch?
Tantalum is a metal. That much, I am pretty sure you knew already. Also known as the element “Ta” on the periodic table, this transition metal was discovered in 1802 in Sweden. It got its name from Tantalus, the son of Zeus. It is rarer than gold and has an unusually high melting point, making it notoriously expensive to mine and even more costly to machine. Milling tools can rarely be used again, making it incredibly expensive for watch manufacturers to dabble with. Do you know how titanium notoriously “chews up” machine tooling? Tantalum is the same, but even worse.
Tantalum is a difficult beast
So why do brands persist with using such a troublesome metal? Because, in the end, the effort is more than worth it. Tantalum possesses a unique blue hue beneath its lustrous gray/silver overtones. Think “Winter is coming”, as The Ice King himself would wear a watch made of tantalum. This deep, icy-gray hue is entirely unique among metals in watchmaking; nothing comes close, not even titanium. What’s more, tantalum has incredible corrosion resistance and hypoallergenic properties, making it suitable for those with skin sensitivities.
Outside of watchmaking, tantalum is more common, despite its aforementioned rarity. Tantalum is used in various alloys to add high strength and ductility, as well as to increase the alloy’s melting point. Tantalum has also been used in making surgical appliances because it’s unaffected by bodily fluids. Finally, glass manufacturers use tantalum oxide to make special glass with a high index of refraction. This type of glass is used for items such as camera lenses.
My first experience with tantalum
I remember a conversation I had with Martin Frei at Geneva Watch Days last year regarding the URWERK UR-105 TTH. That watch, of course, is named after its beautiful tantalum carapace, protecting the sapphire crystal from the rigors of everyday life. He told me that whenever he proposed using tantalum to his manufacturing team, they tried their best to persuade him to rethink it. Personally, I think the UR-105 TTH is a stunning timepiece, so I’m glad he persevered and got his way!
I hope you like heavy
On the topic of the UR-105 TTH, that was the first time I’d seen and felt this metal in hand. And that’s when I really felt one of tantalum’s other unique properties — the weight! It is a very dense and heavy metal. It may not be as heavy as gold or platinum, but a tantalum watch has some serious wrist presence for the wearer. You won’t forget that it’s on your wrist. If you’re used to wearing gold or platinum watches, you’ll know what I mean. I found the experience of wearing it rather pleasant, but it certainly won’t be for everyone, especially if your go-to is titanium!
So, there we have tantalum in a nutshell. Do you have any tantalum watches? Have you tried any on? What do you think of its unique visual appearance? Let me know in the comments!