There is one thing I know for certain at this point: Sapphire crystal is a very compelling material as a wristwatch case. Today, I review a watch that features this concept — the Girard-Perregaux Laureato Absolute Light. It is a limited edition of 88 pieces and takes the sporty Girard-Perregaux Laureato Absolute case and renders it in mostly sapphire crystal with elements of titanium. It’s cool-looking, not entirely impractical, and priced for high-end audiences only. Let’s take a closer look.
Synthetic sapphire crystal made a serious debut in wristwatches in the 1980s as a material used for the crystal over watch dials. Synthetic sapphire is hard, clear, very scratch-resistant, and practical to machine for wristwatch crystal uses. While natural and synthetic sapphire are more or less chemically the same, synthetic sapphire is preferred because it can be grown in the right sizes, with the right colors and clarity. So when “sapphire” is used in most wrist watch applications, aside from specialized jewelry pieces, it is synthetic sapphire which is used. The challenge with sapphire crystal is that, given how hard it is, machining it is anything but a straightforward process. While sapphire crystal found its way into other uses on watch cases here and there, it wasn’t until about a decade ago that ultra-high-end watchmaker Richard Mille debuted a sapphire crystal-cased watch (priced at over a million dollars) that the material became more interesting as a primary case material. Available in multiple colors and now possible to be machined in a range of shapes, sapphire crystal is now resolutely one of the available materials luxury watchmakers can choose from when rendering new concepts.
I’ve tested more than a few sapphire crystal watches and, for the most part, I love the material. For example, you can see my aBlogtoWatch review of the Hublot Big Bang UNICO Magic Sapphire here. Yes, from afar, a novice might say, “Is your watch made out of plastic?” Alas, once you touch the material and see how it ages over time (or doesn’t age, actually), you start to see how sapphire crystal and plastic only share superficial similarities. The challenge with sapphire crystal is in the engineering of it, given that not all case parts can be made from the material at this time. More so, given its transparency, anything else in the case will be visible, so there must be a lot of aesthetic tact in the engineering and construction phase. In other words, the aesthetic trick with sapphire crystal-cased watches is making an attractive “exposed” composition.
For this particular watch, Girard-Perregaux leans heavily on the industrial side of its luxury aesthetic. The Laureato is an “engineer’s” watch given that the bezel is basically inspired by a 10-side nut that screws securely into place. The Laureato was originally born in the 1970s as a response to the popular Gerald Genta-desiged Royal Oak and Nautilus. The Lauerato debuted around the same time and, like the greats from Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, has played with the core timepiece theme for decades.
Price-wise, the entry-level Laureato is a much better deal than a lot of the competition, and you still get the same comfortable feel and high-quality construction. But Girard-Perregaux is hardly an entry-level company. Its products really run the gamut, and this particular limited-edition sapphire “Light” model is priced at the high-luxury spectrum of nearly $90,000 USD. A decent chunk of the value is in the movement, which is given a fair amount of hand-finishing and decoration. It is the in-house-made Girard-Perergaux calibre GP01800 automatic, and this is the second watch in the last year we’ve reviewed on aBlogtoWatch that features it. I previously experienced this lovely skeletonized automatic movement in the Girard-Perregaux Laureato Skeleton watch review on aBlogtoWatch here.
The movement operates at 4Hz with 54 hours of power reserve and features the time with a subsidiary seconds dial. Most people agree that this is not only a handsome skeletonized watch face design, but also one that is actually quite legible. This is not a quality that is automatically associated with most skeletonized watch faces. It makes the Laureato Absolute one of the very rare sport-style watches that gets away with a traditionally decorated skeletonized watch face, and a legible one, at that.
Around the periphery of the dial is an interesting polished ring with little hills and valleys in it that represents the hour markers. This is an interesting idea and not an aesthetic you’ll see everywhere. One thing that did bother me a bit was that the calibre GP01800 movement in this Laureato Absolute Light appears to be finished the very same way as in the rather less expensive Laureato Absolute Light. True, if something isn’t broken there is no need to fix it. At the same time, watch collectors admire originality and variety – to it would have been nice to see some aesthetic differences between the otherwise very compelling automatic skeletonized movements used in the limited edition Laureato Absolute Light watches. With that said, it isn’t really that big of a deal.
Parts like the crown and lugs, as well as the screws, are produced from titanium. Indeed, the dream is to render all the case parts from sapphire crystal. To make a long story short, that is easier said than done. The milling technology to machine blocks of synthetic sapphire crystal have to be very powerful in order to cut a material that is second only to materials like diamonds in hardness. Very small pieces, or ones with minute details, have a tendency to shatter during the machining process, even though the final pieces are usually stable. This means that parts like screws and crowns just can’t be practically made available in sapphire crystal anytime soon. That said, I would have liked to see this watch have a sapphire crystal (versus metal) lug structure. Again, this isn’t a bit deal, but I do think that if Girard-Perregaux is ever able to manage a sapphire lug structure for the Laureato Absolute, then it would make for an even cooler watch. The case doesn’t have much water resistance, however — only 30 meters. So, that doesn’t make for much of an actual sports watch, even if it wears like one.
The modern-style hands (which are lume-painted at the tips) are a good design choice, and I even like the three-sided subsidiary seconds hand. As a daily watch, this is a very decent choice, even thought it is hard not to want to baby a watch like the Laureato Absolute Light. Recall that scratches are not what you should fear with the case material (though I can’t say the same thing for the titanium), but rather any very hard impacts. Otherwise, sapphire crystal as a watch case material could be as practical as ceramic (another highly scratch-resistant material that has recently become mega-popular as a luxury watch case option).
Additional innovation will still be necessary for synthetic sapphire crystal to make it mainstream as a luxury watch case material. While sapphire crystals over watch dials are nearly ubiquitous, machining them in non-round shapes is where the complexity seems to come in. So, it is of course not true to suggest sapphire crystal is new to luxury watches, but rather the use of it for non-round (lens-like) parts of watch cases. Girard-Perregaux, by virtue of the limited-edition nature of this watch and the parts it could not produce in sapphire crystal, helps prove this point. For now, sapphire crystal cases are still exotic and still have a slightly magical quality about them given that the wearing experience isn’t like metal or ceramic — or carbon, for that matter.
The case wears at 44mm-wide, and as you can see, it is a long watch in terms of the lug-to-lug distance, though its flatter back and wrapping-fitted fabric and rubber strap help it wear comfortably on most wrist sizes. Still, I would most recommend the Laureato Absolute Light to those with larger wrists. The black strap is a comfortable option on its titanium folding deployant, but it isn’t the most exciting in terms of color or style. Yes, the darker hues of the anthracite gray dial match with the strap a bit, but I think the Laureato Absolute Light would have been a much more playful watch on a light gray or off-white strap. I’m sure Girard-Perregaux makes these same straps in other colors, so it might be interesting to see what other options might be available.
Girard-Perregaux does something interesting with this automatic skeleton movement in that it offers it in a range of case materials at different price points. If you recall above, I previously reviewed the calibre GP01800 in a steel watch (with matching steel bracelet) with a price of $35,300 USD. That is the entry-point for this movement, and it goes up from there. Next is the Laureato Skeleton Ceramic in black on a matching bracelet with a cost of $40,300 USD. Then, we get into gold territory with the Laureato Skeleton in 18k rose gold on the matching gold bracelet for $66,900 USD. Finally, this top-level frame for the GP01800 movement is a bit larger in size given the Laureato Absolute case shape, and must, unfortunately, do away with a bracelet offering. It is also a rather exclusive limited edition of 88 pieces and comes with a price of $88,900 USD. Learn more at the Girard-Perregaux website here.