The tech world has spent today salivating over/ridiculing/otherwise kibitzing about Apple’s new watch, after CEO Tim Cook finally revealed how much the little bauble would cost at an event today. The answer: anywhere from $349 for the basic design up to between $10,000 and $17,000 for the 18-karat gold version, known as the Apple Watch Edition.
There’s not much point in debating whether the Edition is “worth” that luxe price tag. Ultimately, it is a nicely designed piece of Internet-enabled jewelry targeted at customers with enough money that they don’t have to fret over a five-figure style choice. If it becomes a status symbol, it’ll be because it’s expensive and rare, not because of any intrinsic value. However, there is something conceptually funny about the product that Apple has engineered. We are talking about an 18-karat gold watch that, to quote one of the company’s patents, uses “as little gold as possible.”
In other words, gold bugs, this is not the accessory for you.
Last week, Apple cultists took note after the Financial Times published a profile of the company’s design guru, Jony Ive, in which he explained that “the molecules in Apple gold are closer together, making it twice as hard as standard gold.”* This was tantalizing. What sort of high-performance precious metal had the geniuses of Cupertino cooked up? Soon, Twitter and the tech blogs unearthed an answer. As Dr. Drang of Leancrew.com wrote, Apple had filed a patent for a method of producing 18-karat gold that was both stronger than usual and used less actual gold by volume. While the company has not confirmed that it is formulating the gold in the Edition using these techniques, it seems reasonable to suspect that’s the case (I’ve emailed their communications team for comment).*
The key thing to remember is that 18-karat gold is not 100 percent gold. It’s an alloy, or mixture. Three-quarters of its mass must be made up of gold. The last quarter is typically made up of another metallic element. But, as Dr. Drang wrote, “Apple’s gold is a metal matrix composite, not a standard alloy. Instead of mixing the gold with silver, copper, or other metals to make it harder, Apple is mixing it with low-density ceramic particles.”
To put it another way, Apple is combining gold with durable materials that don’t have much mass, but take up lots of space. That gives it wonderful qualities like lightness and scratch-resistance (normal gold is somewhat soft and prone to damage). And by mass, the final product is still 75 percent gold. But when it’s poured into a mold to make an Apple Watch Edition’s shell, the other, not-so-precious ingredients take up most of the room. Apple gets to use less gold per cubic centimeter and still call it 18-karat. It gets to stretch its gold out further than, say, Rolex would, to make a watch this size and shape.
This table from the patent should give you a sense of the difference we’re talking. Again, in normal 18-karat gold, actual gold particles make up about three-quarters of the mass and three-quarters of the volume. With some matrix composites, gold could make up three-quarters of the mass, yet just 28 percent of the volume.
In sum, Apple has found a technically useful loophole in the way we typically grade the shiny yellow rock. “In addition to using as little gold as possible while maintaining a specific karatage,” the patent states, “a gold metal matrix composite can be formed that has selected aesthetic properties well-suited for providing a favorable user experience.” Again, I don’t think that particularly affects the value of the watch, insofar as such a thing can even be determined. (It’s not like jewelery is typically priced solely based on the amount of gold used to create it.) And Apple’s high-tech metal composite might even acquire a cachet of its own. It’s just not what we typically think of when we see the words “18-karat gold.”
*Update, March 9, 2015, 9:26 p.m.: This paragraph has been updated to clarify that Apple itself has not confirmed whether the patent describes how the 18-karat gold used in the Edition is formulated.
*Correction, March 10, 2015: This post originally misspelled Jony Ive’s last name.