Swiss bathroom manufacturers Laufen first presented SaphirKeramik two years ago as a prototype. It is now presenting the first series of products – and details of the impressive performance of the new material, so is this really the shape of things to come?
I get slightly itchy teeth when I hear of a company ‘reinventing the wheel‘, because usually there is nothing wrong with the original wheel, and the new kid on the block is frequently a poor imitation of the original product at a slightly cheaper price point.
One could argue in the case of bathroom ceramics, the material we have been happy to use for years, is ideal for the job. But while there is undoubtedly life in this old dog for many years to come, SaphirKeramik does have a few new tricks up its sleeve – and you know what they say about old dogs, don’t you?
In its choice of name, Laufen is referring to the addition of the mineral corundum, which occurs in nature in different modifications as a component of sapphire, a material with a hardness only surpassed by that of diamonds. Consequently, the new ceramic is considerably harder and has a greater flexural strength, which is exhibited in entirely new washbasin designs.
SaphirKeramik turns the old material into completely new shapes: closely defined radii and edges are possible – and thin walls which have until now not been seen in sanitary ceramic.
Previously, when the aim was to create a bathroom design in ceramic, manufacturers with production expertise had the choice between classic ceramic, so-called vitreous china, and fine fireclay. Vitreous china excels through the waterproof qualities of the surface – water absorption virtually zero – and therefore meets the highest hygienic requirements for WCs and urinals.
Soft, round and flowing shapes can be very readily achieved with this material, however, the arbitrary shrinkage during the drying and firing of the body makes the manufacturing process difficult to control. This material reaches its limits with very large ceramic parts and this is when fine fireclay is used. The slurry is stabilised through the addition of clay already fired and this permits the production of large ceramic products such as double washbasins or floor-standing washbasin pedestals.
With SaphirKeramik from Laufen, the hardness of the material permits shapes which were previously not possible. A more delicate design language, more defined in shape and line, becomes possible – exactly matching the ideas behind contemporary architectural design.
Draft designs where ceramic was previously not considered owing to the necessary material coating, can now be achieved – and therefore exploit all the benefits which ceramic has in the bathroom. In addition to high levels of hygiene, the advantages include the insensitivity of the material to abrasive cleaners and mechanical abrasion.
Finally, ceramic is also an environmentally friendly and sustainable product. It largely consists of the natural and widespread raw materials kaolin, clay, feldspar and quartz sand, it can be produced economically in large numbers, and it can be safely used in the bathroom in contact with drinking water for many years and can be completely recycled at the end of a long product life.
Dr. Werner Fischer, Research Director at Laufen, developed the SaphirKeramik together with his team and various university research institutes. The greater hardness of SaphirKeramik permits thinner walls and simplified structure of the ceramic parts, which in turn results in less material, lower weights and benefits in terms of sustainability: fewer raw materials required and lower energy consumption in firing, production and transport.
The material’s high hardness opens up new design possibilities, especially as regards the radii of the products, 1‑2-mm radii for edges and 2‑mm radii for corners are technically feasible with the new SaphirKeramik. This compares with the state of the art for classic ceramics radii from 7 to 8 mm.
The precise recipe for SaphirKeramik took Dr Fischer and his team over 5 years to develop and is said to be a better kept secret than the Coca-Cola recipe. What we do know is that SaphirKeramik gets its strength from an exactly specified addition of the material corundum, which is colourless in its pure form. Mixing the clay with silicate-ceramic raw material affords this material, in addition to its porcelain-like white, the strength with which the elegant and delicate products become possible.
The shape of the bathrooms of tomorrow? Possibly. A revolution in the design language of ceramic? Certainly, and we probably have not even started to grasp the full potential of SaphirKeramik.
The best really is yet to come.