It’s the wonder material of the twenty-first century, both lightweight and strong. Found at the pinnacle of industry, this composite of one of Earth’s most abundant elements lets mankind go farther, faster, on the ground, in the sky and even into outer space. But it’s hard to work with, expensive to produce, easy to get wrong—yet Roger Dubuis has managed to make an entire watch with it. Carbon, it’s everywhere. You and I, we’re close to twenty percent carbon. If you gather together all the ingredients to make a human, carbon would be the biggest pile of stuff. It’s the basis of all life, cycling through our planet to keep things moving. Without it, we wouldn’t exist.
There’s a lot that wouldn’t exist without carbon. Diamond is one, its crystalline structure of carbon atoms the hardest found in nature. But carbon’s usefulness goes beyond what’s found in nature; mix it with iron, even just a few percent, and you get steel, an alloy that’s stronger, harder and less brittle.
With modern technology, carbon can even be manipulated on the atomic scale, laid out into a hexagonal lattice to create a single layer of atoms known as graphene, a near-transparent formation a hundred times stronger than steel with incredible conductive properties.
The type of carbon you see here with the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Carbon is carbon fibre. It’s fairly self-explanatory, a weave of carbon fibres layered on top of each other, fused together with resin. Looks simple, but looks can be deceiving.
It was discovered quite by accident in the development of filaments for the first light bulbs in the late nineteenth century. By burning cotton threads, a delicate black fibre of carbon was left behind, the perfect filament for these early bulbs. But the material was a far cry from the carbon fibre of today, its brittle form useless in any other application.
It wasn’t until 1958 when physicist Roger Bacon was trying to uncover the triple point of carbon—the state at which it can be a solid, liquid and gas at the same time—that he too accidentally made a discovery. Once again something was being burnt, only this time it was with a bit more firepower—a direct-current carbon arc furnace. What Bacon noticed as he zapped his rayon sample was that fine carbon “whiskers”, as he called them, flowered from the main mass.
With an estimated price of some £20 million per kilo, this version of carbon fibre was no commercial hit, but it did encourage other scientists to experiment further. Dr. Akio Shindo increased the density of carbon in these strands from twenty-two to fifty-five percent, then Richard Millington to ninety-nine percent. By now, these carbon fibres were pure enough and strong enough to actually do something with.
Just ten years after Bacon first stumbled upon the inkling of an idea, aerospace manufacturer Rolls-Royce was using woven sheets of this new carbon material in the fan assemblies of its jet engines. From there, techniques improved, strength went up, weight came down, and now carbon fibre has become a staple of the aeronautical industry. If you’re making something that needs to be lightweight, chances are you’ll be doing it with carbon fibre.
What that all adds up to is the cube root of diddly squat. If you were to shut your eyes and hold out your hand, and someone put this in it, you would not open your eyes expecting to see a near-quarter million pound, 45mm watch on a bracelet sitting in your palm. It abuses physics in the same way it takes to get a rocket to leave Earth’s atmosphere.
That’s not even the craziest part. If you know about Swiss watchmaking, you’ll know it’s steeped in tradition, a code that follows centuries-old practices, that doesn’t look too kindly on the modern and innovative. Yet, somehow, Roger Dubuis has managed to persuade the Canton of Geneva, the heart of classical watchmaking, to certify the Excalibur Spider Carbon3 with the Geneva Seal, a rating of extreme quality and finesse awarded to barely 0.1 percent of all the watches made in Switzerland. Doing that makes the invention of carbon fibre look like child’s play.
The Roger Dubuis Excalibur Spider Carbon is not so much a watch as it is a technological demonstration. Just when you thought you had the measure of modern watchmaking, it’s watches like this that come out of nowhere and blow your mind. How extreme this is as an undertaking is nothing compared to the mind-melting experience of trying it on and feeling—or rather, not feeling—how lightweight it is. The fact that it was built out of the same material you and I are made of makes it all the more incredible.