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What’s that watch band made of? Oh, just cutting-edge lab-grown spider silk

The updated version of the Omega NATO watch strap is the first commercially available product made with Biosteel, a spider-silk-like material made in a lab from bacteria.

What’s that watch band made of? Oh, just cutting-edge lab-grown spider silk
[Photo: AMSIlk/Omega]

When you think of a luxury watch, you probably imagine a strap made of leather, metal, or nylon. The Swiss watchmaker Omega, for instance, uses nylon for its popular NATO line of striped watch bands. But now, customers can also buy a NATO strap made from something completely different: spider silk, grown in a lab.

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[Photo: AMSIlk/Omega]
For several years, the German materials company AMSilk has been fine-tuning Biosteel, and preparing to roll it out to the consumer market. The silk-like thread is spun in a lab from fermented natural materials, and is more sustainable than materials like leather or polyester (both of which rely on chemical processes to create) and incredibly durable.

[Photo: AMSIlk/Omega]
So far, Biosteel has featured in a pair of prototype Adidas shoes, and the aerospace corporation Airbus has tapped AMSilk to work on ways in which the synthetic material could be incorporated into airplanes (which sounds strange, but a strong, flexible fiber is something the airline industry is especially interested in). But it’s been a challenge, AMSilk CEO Jens Klein says, to bring it to the consumer market.

“Creating new materials is immensely challenging, requiring years of scientific R&D before you can even begin product testing or development,” Klein says. “It takes even more time to prove to global brands that biofabricated materials live up to industry standards in terms of manufacturing and performance.”

But slowly, biofabricated materials are working their way into the mainstream. The startup Bolt Threads debuted a tote bag made from a mushroom-based material that looks eerily like leather, and has also developed a spider-silk-like material that the designer Stella McCartney has used in her collections. New Jersey-based Modern Meadow is growing a leather-like substance in a lab through a fermentation process not unlike making beer; their materials are also poised to hit the consumer market.

“As these brands learn that biofabricated materials perform at the same level as–or even better than–than the synthetic or natural materials they currently use, you will begin to see biofabricated materials in more products across industries,” Klein says.

[Photo: AMSilk]

For Omega, Biosteel was particularly attractive as a new option for making watch bands. “From a product standpoint, a watch strap needs to be able to withstand daily use in all sorts of conditions,” Klein says. The watch strap showcases some of the best aspects of Biosteel: its flexibility, lightweight construction, and skin-friendliness. (In fact, the biofabricated spider silk has shown to be so compatible with the human body that AMSilk is now partnering with a silicone implant company that wants to use the material to coat its products, as it reduces the likelihood that the body will reject an implant.)

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The Biosteel NATO watch strap is expensive–around $270. But Klein is hopeful that costs of biofabricated products will come down, both for the Omega strap, and more generally. “With any fundamentally new material like Biosteel, the price point will initially be above common materials, both to reflect the impact of the innovation and to take account of the material’s value,” Klein says. “As the industry begins to scale up, and as you see companies begin to produce these biofabricated materials at commercial scale, we will begin seeing Biosteel and other advanced materials approach the broader market.”

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About the author

Eillie Anzilotti is an assistant editor for Fast Company's Ideas section, covering sustainability, social good, and alternative economies. Previously, she wrote for CityLab.

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