Apple’s special gold isn’t so special after all


The gold in Apple's 18-karat watch is a standard gold alloy, not a miraculous gold/ceramic mix. Credit: Apple

All week, it’s been reported that Apple is using a “new gold” in the gold Apple Watch Edition. According to Bloomberg, Slate, Gizmodo and many others, Apple has patented a new process to create a “metal matrix composite” by mixing gold with ceramic particles.

The composite supposedly allows Apple to save on the amount of gold it uses, while making the substance super-hard and adding other amazing properties.

But according to Atakan Peker, a materials scientist and one of the co-inventors of Liquidmetal, which Apple holds an exclusive license on, it’s extremely unlikely Apple is using any kind of “new gold” for its watches.

He knows this because Jony Ive says so.

In the video above, produced by Apple to highlight its gold process, Ive explains how the watch body is made. He describes quite clearly that the gold is an alloy of silver, copper and palladium, not a composite.

Ive then describes how the alloy is cast into ingots, rolled and formed into billets, and machined to form the Apple Watch Edition’s case, buckle and Digital Crown.

The process makes no mention of ceramics, composites or any non-standard techniques. “There is nothing particularly new here,” said Peker. “These are known methods of production for gold parts.”

Peker is familiar with creating new metallurgic processes. As a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology in 1993, Peker co-invented Liquidmetal alloys with engineering professor Bill Johnson. Liquidmetal alloys have an atomic structure that is more like glass than metal. They are super-strong, scratch-proof, corrosion-resistant, extremely flexible and very light. They have been used for golf clubs, tennis rackets, skis, watches and cellphones.

Apple holds an exclusive license to use Liquidmetal in consumer electronics, but the company’s plans for the substance remain unknown. So far, Apple used Liquidmetal to make the SIM card ejector tool that shipped with early iPhones, but doesn’t appear to have used it since.

If Apple was using any kind of new gold for the Apple Watch, Ive’s video would show a very different process. It would show the cases being made from a composite material, not an alloy.

An alloy is created by melting different metals together (as shown in Ive’s video). The composite in Apple’s patent is created by mixing powders of gold and ceramic together, sintering and then heating them. The materials are bonded but don’t mix. By definition, a composite is a material made of distinct parts.

In fact, Peker said it’s unlikely that Apple’s composite gold will ever be used to make a watch.

“It is a smart idea,” he said, “but it will not make into a jewelry-quality watch case. Combining very soft with very hard ceramic particles is a nightmare for cosmetics and finish. It is almost impossible to get jewelry-quality polish and finish.”

In addition, the patented composite would feel very light. It “will not be perceived as genuine gold,” he said. “One attribute of gold is the feeling of being heavy. When you make it very light, people will not take it as genuine gold.”

Sara Shaughnessy, a jewelry designer with RedStart Design in San Francisco, and a Stanford mechanical engineering postgrad, agreed that the ceramic/gold composite wouldn’t be good for a watch.

“For jewelry, it would be a very limiting material,” she said. “You definitely won’t be able to treat it like a normal 18-karat gold.”

Shaughnessy said the material couldn’t be melted, cast, soldered or formed. It would have to pressed into its given shape and then polished. “And even the polishing might be different then normal gold with its unusual hardness,” she said.

“It’s a material best used in very specific applications,” she added.

Watchmaking probably isn’t one of them.

  • devilsAdvocate

    @ 0:50 Ive Mentions use of various compositions of metals to produce yellow and rose gold. @1:00 mentions a new technique to harden the soft metal which is presumably where the ceramics are used. Please view the video with CC on if you can’t comprehend spoken language.

    • William D

      Agree. It’s certainly not clear cut. He even says it’s a “new process” which would kind of lend credence to the use of ceramics etc!

      • Dr Chris

        introducing ceramics would yield a two phase system, because the ceramics would NOT be soluble in the gold alloy… hardening processes in materials science are based on physical (rather than chemical) manipulation – resulting in changes in the microstructure (grain boundaries, atomic slippage planes, etc).

        hardening does not [necessarily] involve adding ceramics; in fact, ceramics would be detrimental in this application because they would form stress nuclei and fracture imperfections… The hardening has to do with the compression process he discusses in the video… but, since he is just reading off a script, he doesn’t understand the process anyway: he is a manager, not a scientist or engineer!

      • William D

        Thanks for enlightening me. I have to say I’m a little surprised he isn’t the sort of obsessive /fanatical person who would have been to the factory and watched how it’s done and taken a keen interest.

      • andrewi

        None of them are. Marketing hardly portrays reality.

    • bIg hIlL

      I believe you can rest assured it will only be a mechanical process like traditional hardening and tempering (look it up) or similar ‘weathering’ of the grain structure. The alloy has already been defined thus: “the gold is an alloy of silver, copper and palladium”, above.

  • Ravar

    It’s going to be a long journey of criticism and lot of tests, like bending, hammering, boiling and letting fall from the space to finally the Apple product become a successful product.

  • Matt Hardwick

    Link to wikipedia is wrong.

  • digitaldumdum

    “Apple’s special gold isn’t so special after all”

    Gold… is always special.

    • Qwertywitter

      Special when compared to the normal way of processing gold. Holy shit you are dense.

      • digitaldumdum

        Wow, guess you missed my point about gold being special no matter how it’s processed. Holy s#it are •you• dense.

      • Qwertywitter

        How are you so dumb that you are unable to comprehend that when they said “special” they were talking about the process, not about gold itself. Can’t believe how much of an imbecile you are.

      • It’s special. I’ll agree with the guest. Regardless of ‘process’ the amount of ‘gold’ in the watch is still ‘Gold’
        ….which as the guest says, ‘is ALWAYS special’. Not sure how that makes him or her an imbecile.

      • Qwertywitter

        Makes him an imbecile for not understanding that the use of “special” in this case deals with how the gold is processed, not with the gold itself. To say “gold is still special” in this case is stupid because this has nothing to do with the gold, and everything to do with how it is processed.

  • bIg hIlL

    “the gold is an alloy of silver, copper and palladium” – and you pay 10k for that??? Silver is a fraction of the price of gold and copper, well, regular electrical cable is made from it, it is so cheap and plentiful.

    • winc06

      $27,000 for a cheap gold Rolex.

    • FYI all karat gold below 24K is an alloy of such metals and always has been. Karat gold developed for a variety of reasons – not only cost, but because 24K gold is too soft and ductile to hold up in some applications (like watch cases) without bending or stretching, i.e., an ounce of gold – using only mechanical process can be pulled into a fine wire thousands of feet long.

      The added metals effect the properties in different ways, tho’ from the buyer’s POV color is the most obvious – e.g., yellow, rose, white, and much less commonly, a greenish hue. Nickel is often in the mix in white gold.

      Divide the karat by 24 to determine the percentage. 18K (18/24) is 75% gold, 14K is 58.3%, 12K is 50%, 10K is 41.7%. Nickel can be added as well as palladium. In most countries 9K (still popular in Ireland) is the minimum that can be sold as “gold” jewelery.

      If you look at the stampings on jewelery a lot of gold, especially imported, uses the proportion of gold rather than the karat as the stamped identifier: i.e., instead of 18K, “.750” – with 14K stamped “.585” and 10K “.417”

      Legally in the US, there are also tolerances dating back to a past era, e.g., any gold alloy between 13.5K and 14.5K is 14K. So with modern control methods, even among those toeing the line (and there’s lots low karat counterfeiting), you can be sure that cost-sensitive companies will be ranging close to 13.5K. And any solder used in the piece will be of a lower Karat than the piece (or it wouldn’t melt before what’s it’s being soldered to).

      Different countries and regions usually have a preponderance of a certain karat jewelery – 18K in most of Europe, 14K if the US, 22K in India, 24K in Thailand.

  • Dr Chris

    a gold alloy is a one phase ATOMIC solution of gold, silver, palladium, etc. Ive apparently does not know that a gold alloy is an atomic solution, and thus referring to a “molecular level” is nonsense…

    bonding in molecules is covalent where electrons are localized between two atoms, while in metallic bonding they are free to move around with respect to individual atoms.

    furthermore, a mixture of two different alloys (atomic solutions) of gold will ideally yield a different one phase [atomic not molecular] solution of gold

  • endoftheQ

    Hublot have a patent on “ceramic” gold, which is harder than steel and cannot be scratched except by a diamond, and which they use in their watches.

  • RedNinjaX

    Apple’s special gold isn’t so special after all

  • CelestialTerrestrial

    The patents states the use of ceramics. Maybe their process is different than other similar processes, but maybe Apple’s is slightly different to obtain a patent.

  • david

    they do mention in that report that it’s not clear if the patent is really being used in the gold apple watch edition.

  • winc06

    I distinctly heard Tim Cook say in his presentation that they had invented a new kind of gold that was harder and more scratch resistant. If gold was amenable to traditional metal treating processes it would have been done a couple of thousand years ago about the time they were tempering the first iron swords. I actually think it is something new, like the man said.

    • Ive says “new kind” in the video as well. But perhaps it all “depends on the meaning of kind”….?? :-D

  • josephz2va

    Until an idiot like TechRax or a Microwave guy buys one of them and does what some idiots do like beat it with a hammer or cook it. Then discover it’s not even gold.