Vantablack is the world’s blackest black. It’s so black that 3D objects coated in the material are visually reduced to mere silhouettes. A crumpled piece of tinfoil, for example, looks like a vast abyss. That’s because the material absorbs more than 99.965 percent of light. “It’s the blackest material in the universe after black holes,” the British sculptor Anish Kapoor once said. “It’s a physical thing that you cannot see.”
And now it's coming to your wrist: Swiss watchmaker Manufacture Contemporaine du Temps (MCT) will debut $95,000 Vantablack luxury watches in a limited edition this fall.
"We always try and explore new materials, new processes," said Pierre Jacques, chief executive officer of MCT. Vantablack caught his attention about a year ago. "It's profound, difficult to describe ... bottomless," he said. The 10 limited-edition MCT timepieces will have elements that "look as though they're floating amid nothingness," said Jacques—although looking at the renderings, we can't help but wish the face were less busy to showcase more of the Vantablack void.
The watch case measures 45 millimeters x 45 mm x 15.5 mm thick, and is crafted out of titanium with black DLC coating, as is the buckle with folding clasp. Markings are hand-painted, but with no lume; Vantablack is used on the dial and some parts of the movement, with everything assembled by hand. "This material is very sensitive, and we had to take care of many parameters before assembling the components, like friction and impermeability," said Jacques. A black alligator strap completes the look, with sapphire crystal caseback and face.
Inside, it's essentially the same hand-winding movement MCT offers in the Sequential One S110. Of its 471 components, 81 are rubies, and it comes with a 40-hour power reserve. On the dial, hours are indicated by four modules, each composed of five prisms that flip. As the minute hand rounds the :00 spot, a 270-degree sector rotates to reveal the next hour, with tick marks now lining up to denote the appropriate minute. If that sounds like a trip, the video just below should help.
Not a paint or a pigment, Vantablack is the creation of Surrey Nanosystems, a tiny company located on Britain’s southern coast, which initially developed it for the aerospace industry in collaboration with Britain’s National Physics Laboratory. The near-weightless, high-tech material is made from carbon nanotubes, each one-millionth of a millimeter thick, grown in a clean room using proprietary technology. The tubes in original Vantablack—there are now two versions—are 10,000 times as long as they are wide. “Picture a forest of trees, except each tree would be a few kilometers high,” said David Wong, the company’s chief executive. “With the right density, the forest just swallows light.”
The challenge is to grow the molecules at low enough temperatures to affix them to lightweight materials typically used in space, such as aluminum, which melts at around 660 degrees Centigrade. Until Vantablack was invented in 2013, carbon nanotubes could be manufactured only at temperatures of about 800C: Surrey NanoSystems figured out how to produce them at 400C. More recently, the company debuted a second type of spray-on Vantablack—called Vantablack S-VIS—that can be applied at temperatures as low as 60C, making it possible to coat even plastic.
MCT is just one of dozens of companies scrambling to make use of the material. In December, Germany’s Berlin Space Technologies launched a satellite into space carrying a star-tracking device made using Vantablack. Because the black is so effective, it eliminates the need for the long tubes generally needed to defuse stray light. “It allowed us to make the device much smaller and lighter,” said Tom Segert, one of the company’s co-founders. When Wong’s team launched Vantablack at the Farnborough Air Show in 2014, “people were just astonished—it was amazing to watch their faces,” he recalled. “That’s when we realized that this might have applications beyond space.” Cue up the architects, jewelers, and car companies.
Surrey Nanosystems won’t provide specifics on pricing but says Vantablack is comparable with other deep blacks previously used by the aerospace industry. The finicky material must be directly applied by Surrey Nanosystems and is extremely sensitive; even a slight touch can bend the nanotubes so they no will longer absorb light. That’s why it’s best to keep Vantablack behind the glass of a wristwatch or inside a telescope.
Not everyone understands the limitations. “Some requests are quite amusing,” said Wong. At least one major cosmetics company has inquired about making Vantablack mascara, which is technically impossible. Another typical request: "I want to be the ultimate Goth, can I put it on leather?'” said Wong. Then there was a man who hoped a Vantablack shirt would make it look as if people could put their hands through his stomach. “Well it might work,” Wong told him. “But you probably wouldn’t want them to try.”
As for Kapoor, the sculptor, Surrey Nanosystems has given him exclusive artistic rights to Vantablack, both because of the complexity of the material and a professional relationship they’ve developed over time.
“He was the first to make contact, the first to understand the impact Vantablack could have on the art world,” said Wong. Kapoor is already planning an enormous sculpture, inside of which viewers will experience a room of pure Vantablack. The experience, he said, will be like being inside ourselves.
“When we imagine our own interiors, we have a sense that each of us carries a dark, inner, and quiet—or not so quiet—place within ourselves,” he told Artforum. “To have that out there phenomenologically in the world is quite unnerving.”