Luxury watch brands are known for encasing timepieces in rare, beautiful materials, including diamonds, gold, and titanium. But a new product by Swiss watchmaker H. Moser & Cie features a far newer material, one that was introduced less than a decade ago by NASA scientists. It’s a coating that absorbs 99.96% of light, making it the darkest material found on planet Earth. It’s a strange and otherworldly material that has fascinated artists and designers from the time it came on the market, since humans cannot technically even see the color, but simply observe the absence of light.
For $75,000, you can now buy a H. Moser & Cie timepiece whose face is covered in this black coating known as “Vantablack.” Each watch dial was shipped to the British company Surrey Nanosystems, which coated the dial with the black coloring, then sent it back to Moser to be manufactured. Vantablack makes the watch face look like a bottomless dark hole with only the tourbillon (a small dial) and the two hands suspended in it. The watch is called the Endeavor Tourbillon Concept Vantablack, and only 50 were made. There are two other editions featuring Vantablack as well: A simpler version, which is not limited edition, costs $27,600, and one containing 313 diamonds costs $54,000.
The watch, which presents Vantablack as a rare, mysterious, and expensive material, is a sign of the many possible applications of this material in the future. So far, designers have experimented with using it in a one-off BMW car and in a pavilion for the Olympics sponsored by the car company Hyundai. Artist Stuart Stemple has created an acrylic paint that mimics Vantablack and can be painted on virtually anything.
So why is this shade of black so fascinating? For starters, it was developed for space travel. Researchers at NASA, the U.K.’s National Physical Laboratory, and Surrey Nanosystems had been all working on developing the material for decades for aerospace research. When satellites or spacecraft go into outer space, they reflect light from the sun and the stars that sometimes interfere with optical sensors and visibility. They developed Vantablack by creating a material made up of minuscule tubes of carbon, known as nanotubes, that are 3,500 times smaller than the diameter of human hair. When light hits the Vantablack coating, it becomes trapped between the tubes.
People have since become fascinated by how strange the color is, creating the optical illusion of flattening features and rendering objects two-dimensional. My colleague Mark Wilson saw a sample of Vantablack and found it deeply unsettling. “It has no reflection, no contours,” he writes. “It’s like part of the world has been Photoshopped away.”
When Surrey Nanosystems announced that the material would be commercially available, artists were chomping at the bit to use it in their projects. In 2016, British artist Anish Kapoor asked for—and was granted—exclusive rights to use the material for use in art, making it impossible for other artists to experiment with it, too. He explained how transcendent he found it. “It’s a physical thing that you cannot see,” he told Art Forum. “Imagine walking into a room where you literally have no sense of the walls—where the walls are or that there are any walls at all. It’s not an empty dark room, but a space full of darkness.”
Kapoor faced criticism from other artists who felt like he was monopolizing a color. But outside the art industry, many businesses are actively exploring how to use Vantablack in their products. In an interview with the New York Times, Surrey’s chief technical officer Ben Jensen says that his company is continuing to explore different applications for Vantablack. For instance, a California company is testing its use in cinemas. “You’re not distracted by any reflected light,” he said. “It’s a completely immersive experience.”