When the Bulgari Octo was first launched in 2012, it was a design with polarised the market – a classic had been re-invented and the new dramatic “circular square” octagon in a marketplace of predominantly round watches was bound to evoke ire for a few traditionalists. By 2013, LVMH’s most expensive acquisition to date had a new CEO. Jean-Christophe Babin, after a stint of over a decade at TAG Heuer was tasked to oversee the luxury maison and invigorate its foray into fine watchmaking. At that point, there was still little concern as to whether thinness and other complications would be pursued by Bulgari Watch & Jewellery department, to the industry at large, Bulgari was just another luxury maison looking to milk the watch segment. Before Babin, the Octo was a small yet crucial foundational pillar. But then came, the Finissimo.
Unbearable Thinness of Watchmaking Part 2: Birth of the Octo Finissimo Ultra-Thin
With editions like the Solotempo, Velocissimo and Ultranero, Octo Finissimo added a new dimension to the Octo collection and as envisioned by the trio of Babin, Tereni and Buonamassa, Design Director, it was going to be home to Bulgari’s finest Italian expression of Swiss high horology. Babin had been at the helm of Bulgari for barely a year when the Italian luxury maison launched the Octo Finissimo Petite Seconde, the brand’s first foray into ultra-thin.
When you consider that the Finissimo Petite Seconde calibre BVL 128 is just 2.23mm, it really starts to hammer home the fact that thinness is by itself a complication when it dawns upon you that despite its diminutive form, it’s still packing 65 hours power reserve. But that wasn’t the highlight, the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon – the world’s reigning ultra-thin tourbillon. Under Terreni and Buonamassa’s guidance, ultra-thin was going to be the Finissimo’s signature and calling card.
Eschewing a traditional pivoting axle, the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon featured a flying tourbillon cage operating via ball bearing ring instead – with 268 components, and a total thinness of 1.95mm, it was not only record breaking, but more importantly, ground breaking. The skeletonised, black DLC timepiece was not only symbolic of haute horlogerie but it was also exuding quintessentially Italian swagger.
In the ensuing years, Bulgari owned the corner on thinness unlike any other watchmaker save Piaget. Just last year, they introduced another record-breaker in the form of the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater. It’s no mystery that creating of a chiming watch is really hard work, a chiming watch in an ultra-thin watch is almost unfathomable but Bulgari surmounts the challenge with such aplomb, one has to wonder if the Finissimo Minute Repeater’s 3.12mm thin BVL 362 was a feat of Devil-enhanced engineering or just plain old sorcery. The question was to be answered in 2017 with another world record – the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra-Thin automatic.
Unfathomable Thinness: Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra-Thin automatic
The rapid progress made by Bulgari watchmaking department can be traced back to late 2009 and early 2010 when Bulgari integrated the Genta-Roth facilities under the auspices of Bulgari Haute Horlogerie: dials in La Chaux-de-Fonds, cases and bracelets in Saignelégier and Le Sentier for movements manufacture in order to fully control the global production processes. This integration allowed the brand great latitude and prowess to eventually launch ground breaking developments such as the Finissimo range at break neck speeds.
But why thinness and ultra-thin when everyone else has been pursuing gargantuan wrist machines? The decades of the 2000s saw the arrival of many niche brands offering huge pieces on the wrist, often with odd combinations of several complications, sometimes to unsightly visuals. At Bulgari, Babin, Terreni and Buonamassa felt that this trend was at its tail end and thus decided to spearhead and lead the demand curve with sophisticated, simple yet super elegant products. In matching the powerful shape and design of the Octo range, it was decided that the Finissimo would go where others do not go usually: the ultra-thinness.
Thus, it is with these credentials that Bulgari, a relative newcomer to the serious watchmaking scene is making huge waves in an industry with established players who were initially dismissive of a “purveyor of luxury fashion” (quote from a source who shall go un-named). To be dismissive is to ignore to one’s peril, the immense complexities of ultra-thin watchmaking:
1. Solve the problem of the spring-winding mechanism in an automatic calibre
When it comes to automatic, that is to say “self-winding” movements, the standard solution adopted in watches like the Royal Oak Jumbo Ultra-Thin is usually a peripheral rotor. But in the case of the Finissimo Ultra-Thin, a peripheral rotor would have added increased width to the movement which then wouldn’t be able to fit the perfect proportions of the Finissimo range.
To solve this, Terreni and Buonamassa turned to the micro-rotor, itself a technical issue because the higher mass but smaller diameter led to winding issues given the force exerted with such irregular stops and starts – normal wrist movement wouldn’t give adequate rotation and too much, and there would be damage – thus the movement was in calculating the precise volume and the materials with the density that would make the size to inertia ratio possible – thus, Bulgari chose platinum – but the choice of micro-rotor would necessitate complete redesign of the movement because it occupied the same plane as the components within the plate as opposed to at the bottom when it comes to a normal rotor.
2. Robust thinness
Speak to ultra-thin pioneers like Jean-Lassalle and Piaget and the first thing they would tell you is that thinness is inherently fraile. When it came to working on the Finissimo Petite Seconde, the challenge was to make a beautiful yet functional watch, not one that stopped working when enough pressure was applied to cause a micro-curvature which would wreck hands or calibre. Terreni and Buonamassa set out to invent a movement which didn’t exist yet not to create a world record, it was something which happened by happenstance because the know-how made it possible. For the entire Finissimo line, Bulgari can claim the thinnest (anti-shock) Kif/Incabloc systems ever developed.
3. Where else could Bulgari shed the “fat”?
For the predecessors of the Octo Finissimo Ultra-Thin, they had already conceived of a spring barrel without the cover but now the ultra-thin automatic necessitated other revamps of the ultra-thin architecture they were familiar with. For that, they had to look for components of even thinner proportions – working in concert with confidential suppliers, Bulgari realised the thinnest index-assembly ever developed and for veterans of the industry, it was also a first for them to work on such thin components.
The balance wheel, typically 2.54mm on an ETA 2892 movement was cut down to 1.84mm on the Finissimo, a technical feat without sacrificing amplitude.
4. Decoration typically implies removing more material via polishing and engraving on something which already has very little material.
The production of the movement blanks were extremely delicate since the bridges are extremely thin (0.68mm) including the decoration and finishing like Côtes de Genève.
5. Give the movement a home: unique case construction
Developed for its Finissimo cousins, the new ultra-thin’s case consists of two parts instead of the traditional three- The baseplate and caseback are one and the same instead of two separate components as with a regular watch, the movement is then placed within the case of Finissimo ultra-thin from the top instead of the back and then secured with the bezel.
The development of an ultra-thin movement is extremely difficult, even more than offering a complication whose base movements are often made with layers of space. Bulgari’s Finissimo range – Small Seconds, Tourbillon, Minute Repeater and Automatic – are all rule breakers and holders of individual world records: exemplary of the highest tiers of swiss watchmaking combined with distinctive Italian design – where Bulgari’s distinction in the ultra-thin genre differs from others is the sophisticated elegance which only the Finissimo expresses.
The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic is priced S$17,700 with the leather strap and S$19,100 with the titanium bracelet.