One of the biggest surprises for me coming out of Baselworld 2016 came from Rado. I’ve always admired the brand’s devotion to minimalism and interesting ceramic constructions, but the more horologically-focused part of my brain is usually less excited by Rado’s offerings. However, the HyperChrome Ultra Light had me from the moment I first picked it up. The watch has all of Rado’s restrained styling, rendered in a new matte ceramic and titanium, resulting in a ticker that’s just 56 grams. Yeah, Rado isn’t kidding with that name.
Because of the new materials used, and the complicated production process, the Ultra Light didn’t actually make its way out into the world until late in 2016, but I was luckily able to get my hands on one, and was able to spend a week wearing the watch I’d continued to think about months after that initial encounter at Baselworld. This really is one of those pieces that needs to be felt and examined up-close, but I’ll do my best to give you some insight into the most interesting watch Rado has produced in years.
Rado And Ceramics
Ceramics and watches have a relatively short history together, going back only to the mid 1980s. It was in 1986 that IWC released a Da Vinci perpetual calendar with colored ceramic case options, and Seiko showed off a dive watch with a ceramic sheath over the metal case itself. The same year, Rado introduced the Integral, a watch with a ceramic bracelet, but a metal case. IWC would go on to have a pretty successful future with ceramics â most notably the ref. 3705 pilot’s chronograph â but it would be Rado that would step in and take ceramic watches mainstream.
Just a few years later, in 1990, Rado released the fittingly-named Ceramica, the company’s first watch to feature a ceramic case with an integrated ceramic bracelet. It’s the first watch to embody the Rado archetype that you’re probably familiar with. It was black, shiny, geometric, and must have looked straight out of the future, even in 1990. This year, Rado actually re-released the Ceramica, but with some substantial updates from industrial designer Konstantine Grcic.
Like I said though, Rado would run with the concept of ceramic watches farther than any other watchmaker. The Ceramica was just the starting point. In 1991 came the white ceramic Coupole; in 1998 the first plasma ceramic Ceramica (which takes on a metallic shine through a high-temperature treatment); in 2011 the D-Star in Ceramos (a proprietary combination of titanium carbide and injectable ceramic) and over the last few years, a number of colored ceramic watches, in shades of blue, green, and brown.
The Ultra Light is a vehicle for Rado to show off two new material innovations. The first is a silicon nitride ceramic that is almost half the weight of steel and five times as hard (silicon nitride has been used in recent years for watch cases, but very rarely, as for instance in the Richard Mille RM-011). For this watch, it’s used for the matte monobloc case, in place of Rado’s more common “high-tech ceramic,” which is a zirconium oxide ceramic. This new material is half the weight and even harder. The second is a hardened titanium, used for the case’s side inserts, screws, and crown of the Ultra Light, adding some structural support without adding extra weight.
You can check out my story about the new ceramic Apple Watch Edition for a little more background on ceramic watches in general, but it’s time to dig into the Ultra Light itself.
The Ultra Light
Despite being just 56 grams, the Ultra Light is not a small watch. The case is 43mm across and 11.2mm thick, meaning it wears like a modern sports watch. I definitely didn’t think it was 43mm when I first picked it up, thinking it was closer to 41mm, but as soon as I put it on my wrist the number made a lot more sense. Do I wish the watch was 40mm or 41mm? Sure. Is it unwearable at 43mm x 11.2mm? Not at all. The sparse styling actually helps here, I think, since the watch has a very streamlined appearance and doesn’t appear quite so busy or crowded on the wrist.
The case construction itself is rather unusual. Instead of being essentially one large piece of ceramic, like many of Rado’s other watches, this case has quite a few components made from different materials. The main case body and back are made of the new-for-Rado silicon nitride ceramic, while the side inserts are sandblasted grade five titanium. The crown and screws for the caseback are also sandblasted titanium, giving the watch a pleasant two-tone look. The ceramic is a warm, almost dark green shade of grey, while the titanium is much cooler and contrasts nicely against the ceramic. It’s physically cool to the touch and the entire thing has a really soft, satiny hand. Overall, despite the lightness it feels very well made and high quality.
As much as the materials are the main story here, the styling of the Ultra Light is also distinctive. The dial is a color somewhere between tan and grey (Rado calls it the latter) and it has no numerals or markers on it to speak of. There’s the Rado logo and signature at 12 o’clock, “Swiss Made” at six o’clock, and the word “Automatic” running down the bottom length of the dial. Look closer though and underneath the slim metal hands you’ll see some texture. The dial is styled to look like the sand of a Zen rock garden, with a circular raking pattern in it, that starts and ends around six o’clock with a hard line where the pattern meets itself again. Personally, I really like the wabi sabi look, but I know quite a few watch lovers who find the asymmetry frustrating. There’s also a tonal date window at three o’clock, which this dial needs to avoid feeling even more sparse than it already it. The soft contrast with the dial mimics that of the ceramic and titanium, which was a nice touch.
The concept of lightness doesn’t stop with the case and strap though. The movement inside the Ultra Light is a first, the ETA A31.L01 built with anodized aluminum bridges. Aluminum is a tough material for watchmakers to work with, hence F.P. Journe moving from aluminum to titanium for the Octa Sport collection back in 2014. Putting the aluminum inside the watch doesn’t make things any easier. Aluminum is extremely light, but it’s prone to denting, bending, and wearing poorly. To create this movement in aluminum, Rado worked with ETA to make sure that the particular alloy would be strong enough to work long term and ETA had to develop entirely new tooling to shape the aluminum without compromising its strength. It is based on the ETA 2892 and has a 65-hour power reserve.
You can see the blacked-out movement through the Ultra Light’s sapphire caseback too. It runs in 21 jewels and is automatically wound by the large black rotor that mimics the shape of Rado’s logo. There’s not a lot of finishing or decoration to speak of, save the black anodization, but that’s totally fine here. It actually fits the personality of the watch quite nicely. Around the edge of the caseback is all the usual branding, along with “LIMITED EDITION One out of 500” just under the crown. The lack of actual watch numbers is a little annoying â just give me an actual number or don’t number the watches at all â but tons of brands insist on doing this nowadays and I can’t fault Rado specifically.Â
On The Wrist
Strapping on the Ultra Light is a disorienting feeling. I’m one who tends to like heavy watch (not big watches, but heavy watches), favoring platinum when it comes to precious metals, but this is the exact opposite feeling. It’s so light. The last watch I can remember eliciting a feeling like this was the Richard Mille RM027 Rafael Nadal, which is so light that I actually laughed out loud the first time I held one. It’s a different sort of feeling and one that surely takes some getting use to. We typically associate heft and solidity with quality, but while there’s nothing cheap or chintzy about the Ultra Light at all, it does play with your expectations a bit.
Immediately, I had one big problem though: the strap. Included is a nylon NATO-style strap with leather around the holes, at the tail, and for the keepers. However, it’s misguided from start to finish. It’s too thick, not long enough (or short enough â either direction would help), and the leather end prevents you from looping it back. I was left with an annoying tail, which you can see in the wristshot above. I knew I had to swap out the strap or this wouldn’t be a truly fair review.Â
Unlike most NATO-style straps, removing this one required taking out the spring bars to get over the stitched leather accents. I opted for a plain grey nylon NATO, which I wore for the duration of my time with the watch. Yes, the photos you see here all show the original strap, since I wanted to show the watch as it comes, but I really can’t imagine wearing it on this strap. I didn’t try the watch with a traditional two-piece strap, though I could see a thin cordovan or fine calfskin strap working rather well here too. Strap fixed, I threw the watch back on and got back to work.
The Ultra Light wears much like you’d expect a watch called the Ultra Light to wear. Despite the large case size, it’s very comfortable because of the lack of weight and I’d even say it looks a tiny bit smaller on the wrist than it does on the spec sheet (maybe closer to 41.5mm or 42mm than the true 43mm). The hands might be slim, but in most lighting conditions they contrast nicely with the dial, making the watch easy to read. Dark rooms can be a challenge though â there’s no lume here to speak of, and getting the hands to catch a bit of light from a candle or a distant light can be a challenge. After dark you might be relegated to the good ole’ iPhone check.
For a watch that’s all neutral colors, the Ultra Light got a surprising amount of attention from friends and strangers. The first night I had the watch I wore it to a bar to catch up with some friends and one of them immediately asked about it. When I handed it across the table, he was blown away by the weight and liked the dial pattern, but thought it looked a little strange on my wrist. I can’t say I disagree with him.
As a writer, I’m left in a sort of funny spot with this watch. My feelings about it are hard to put into words and leave me jotting down vague platitudes and clichÃ©s (both of which I try to avoid like the plague). The best I can pin it down, this watch just feels like it’s missing something to me. I don’t mean it needs numerals or different hands or something like that â it does not â but rather that there’s a certain warmth and emotional quality that I just couldn’t find, no matter how hard I tried. This is one I really expected to like wearing, but I found I enjoyed admiring the watch on my desk more than I enjoyed wearing it on my wrist.
Now, this is usually the point in A Week On The Wrist where I’d make some direct comparisons to similar watches or other watches in the price/style category we’re talking about to give you a sense of what else is out there and how the watch at hand stacks up. The problem here is that the Ultra Light, whatever else you want to say about it, is extremely unique. Again, this makes my job a little tough.
While there’s nothing out there in a combination of high-tech materials with a super minimalist look priced around $2,850, there are quite a few watches with a decidedly modern, pared-back sensibility in the $2,000 to $3,000 range. So that’s where we’re going to look.
Earlier this month I look an in-depth look at the Maurice de Mauriac L1, and this watch sprang to mind immediately when thinking of competition for the Ultra Light. At 2,300 CHF (approximately $2,250 at time of publishing), the stainless steel version of the L1 is less expensive than the Ultra Light, though this should be expected considering the use of a stock movement and the regular steel construction. While I find the Ultra Light a lot more intellectually compelling than the L1, I must admit I enjoyed wearing the L1 more. Sure, it’s a little darker and more industrial, but I do think it ticks a lot of the same boxes.
If you’re not already thinking about Nomos, I don’t know why the hell not. The German brand has made a name for itself on Bauhaus-inspired designs and a clean, light aesthetic. I actually have a Nomos Tangente on my wrist while I type this and I think the Metro is another suitable alternative. Both are much smaller and slimmer than the Ultra Light, so don’t get caught up comparing them like that. It’s the minimalist design and the emphasis on textures and shapes that I think make these watches appealing in the same way. Prices for the Tangente start at $1,900 (if we exclude the 33mm versions) and the Metro can be had from $3,480.
Finally, there’s always the option of going with another Rado. If you want something in ceramic with that sleek look, it’s tough to do better. Just a few days ago, Rado announced a second version of the HyperChrome Ultra Light watch we have here, with a much more industrial-looking dial. For the same $2,850 you get something with multiple textures and colors on the dial, plus luminous hands and markers. I still prefer the watch here, but this is another option you should be aware of.Â The new Ceramica designed by Konstantine GrcicÂ is also awesome, despite having a quartz movement inside. It’s at least worth taking a look at.
I actually found my time with the Rado HyperChrome Ultra Light to be an interesting experience. By now, after doing this for quite a few years, I think I have a pretty good read on my own taste and preferences. I usually know what I’m going to like and what I’m not going to like. But this watch threw me off. The first time I saw the Ultra Light, I thought I would love it. It was actually one of my favorite watches of all of Baselworld 2106. It has an interesting materials story, cool movement innovation, and minimalist styling. What wouldn’t I like?Â
But, after getting my hands on the Ultra Light, I was reminded of that X-factor that’s still so critical for watches. On paper, and on the table in front of me, the Ultra Light is amazing. The ceramic case is extremely lightweight and cool, the titanium inserts add some interest and structure, and the Zen rock garden dial is unlike any other. The watch’s simplicity is striking and keeps you guessing and looking closer. But, on the wrist, the Ultra Light seemed to be missing that little bit extra to make it really sing.
Ultimately, I still consider the HyperChrome Ultra Light a success for Rado in many ways. Just making a watch like this is a bold move and a serious R&D commitment for a brand and I think it’s a portent of even better things to come. I’ll be watching and my wrist will be ready.
The Rado HyperChrome Ultra Light is a limited edition of just 500 pieces, with a retail price of $2,850. For more, visit Rado online.