Close-encounters: Piaget Altiplano Watch 38mm – the thinner the better!

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We had a close encounter with the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Automatic belonging to a good friend (Collector’s View spotlight on him tomorrow!). Here are our thoughts on this super thin self-winding watch – all 3.65mm of slim goodness.

Review: Piaget Altiplano

Reference g0a41011: retail price is SGD 38,200 inclusive of GST. And still in the current Piaget Collection.

The Altipnano Watch is by no means a new watch. It was introduced in 2014 as the thinnest wristwatch then, and today, it still remains in the hallowed levels of the super thin.

Of course, the Altiplano is bested by stable mate the Altiplano Ultimate Concept which we reviewed in detail here. But the Concept is of course and exercise to see what can be done when pushing the limits, and comes with an eyewatering price tag.

The case, dial and hands

The case, dial and movement is kind of one merged to the other. Piaget’s own literature says, “Not quite a movement, not quite a case, but rather both at once – the Altiplano 38 mm watch is a unique concept, and resolutely proud of its status as one of the thinnest and most elegant mechanical timepieces in the world.”

The case is in rose gold measuring 38mm in diameter with a thickness of a mere 3.65mm. The watch kind of bares it all. While not quite like a skeleton, it shows almost all of the movement on the dial side.

As a result, the time telling is relegated to a sub-dial status, with the hour and minutes engraved on a rose gold ring. The markings are elegant lines infilled with black for a good contrast. The hands are gold and simple straight affairs with a pointed tip. The base of the dial, which is the back plate of the movement, is anodized black, though it appears with a blue tinge in our photographs due to the anti-reflective coating on the sapphire glass. A subtle sunray burst finishing is applied to this back plate, with the epicenter at the pivots of the hour-minute hands. The screws holding the plate together is visible and is in a very dark blue, almost black heat treated finish.

The case’s claim to fame, and of course that of the 900P movement is how thin it is. Measuring only 3.65mm in thickness, it is very sleek. But the entire case feels very sturdy when handled, with no hint of any flimsiness or flex or lack of rigidity being detectable. The case is finished in a high gloss polish, as is the rather broad bezel, which makes it a difficult watch to photograph, as the bezel tends to reflect its surroundings, in our case here, as we had to photograph the watch in-situ in our collector friend’s office, shows the insides of our light tent.

The lugs carry over the slim nature of the case, and extends out and slightly tilted towards the curvature of the wrist as worn. Making it rather comfortable.

The case has a nominal water resistance of 20m, good for a dress watch.

The movement – Piaget 900P

The movement is Piaget’s celebrated ultra-thin movement – the 900P. Almost all of the movement is visible on the dial side, so the caseback features a circular satin-brushed disc of rose gold, held by 6 screws. This aids the structural integrity of the ultra thin case. It shows, as we mentioned the case feels solid and as rigid as any thicker case would.

The movement finish, as examined from the dial side is quite excellent. The movement features the standard haute horlogerie finishing like beautifully bevelled bridges, sunburst satin-brushed bridges, circular or sunburst-brushed wheels. All nicely done, with little to criticize.

The movement measures 38mm x 3.65mm (exactly the same as the case!), and had a beat rate of approx 48 hours at 21,600 bph.

Ultra thin as a “complication”

Though the ultra thin concept is not a complication per se, it is one which is a challenging one for watchmaking. As the watch becomes thinner, so does the movement. And the challenge is in making the thin bridges and cocks to provide as stable a platform to mount the wheels as in thicker ones. One of the ways is to make the movement as part of the case. This is what Piaget have done here and in earlier renditions like in the 9P.

This is not as simple as first meets the eye, as the entire movement needed to be constructed in reverse. To gain the vital millimeters, the mechanism and keyless works is constrained within the thickness of the balance. And an off-center hours and minute display is a consequence of this. The barrel is configured in a flying arrangement also as an effort to save thickness and is attached only to the back plate. This concept is taken to the limit with the Piaget Concept Ultimate.

And in former times (1986) by a very special Audemars Piguet caliber 2870, a beautiful ultra thin watch with a tourbillon and automatic winding. It was a technical marvel – featuring a very small, very light tourbillon carriage, 7.2 mm in diameter, and about 2.5mm high, in titanium – the first use ever recorded of such a material in tourbillon manufacturing.

The Audemars Piguet C. 2870.

Swiss manufacture, the now defunct Jean Lassalle also manufactured an ultra thin movement measuring only 1.2mm thick in the 1970s. Their method was to remove the top bridges making the entire wheel train in a flying configuration, and used ball bearings (14 were used, each 0.2mm). However, this movement proved unreliable and the movement was only made from 1976 to 1979. Lassalle was sold to Seiko, though the technical rights to the ultra thin was acquired by Lemania.

Pethaps a bit of historical sidetrack

The usual suspects are Audemars Piguet (perhaps not anymore with the current collection heavy in the Royal Oaks and the occasional Code 11.59) and Vacheron Constantin (C. 1003, C. 1120). The VC C.1003 and the AP C. 2003 were movements which were commissions to JLC in 1953 to design and construct the ebauche for ultra-thin manual movements. Although they assigned it an internal reference as “C. 803”, JLC was not allowed to use the movement, and both calibers were actually made in-house by VC and AP.

Of course, Jaeger-LeCoultre has extensive expertise with ultra thins, with their C.803 experience above and later calibers like the C. 849 used in the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Kingsman Knife. JLC also had their C.920 used by Patek Philippe as their C. 28-255 and still used by AP as the C. 2120 and VC as C.1120, but these are automatic movements, which never appeared in a JLC watch.

The other major manufacturer of ultra thin movements is F. Piguet, who is now part of Manufacture Blancpain. Blancpain also still manufactures Extra Plat watches, using this base movements. The Patek Philippe C.175 and C.177, ultra thin movement used in Calatrava 3520 (discontinued) are also based on the Piguet C.21 ebauche. As mentioned, the now defunct Jean Lassalle had their Caliber 1200 measuring only 1.2mm in height encased in a watch which is only 2.08mm high. The movement was later manufactured with modifications by Lemania as the C. 1210, which were also used by VC as their C. 1160. VC also ditched the C.1160 as the design proved to be impossible to service.

The competitive landscape

The ultra thin landscape is thin (pun intended). This is a genre which one can say is invented by Piaget. In 1957, Piaget introduced the calibre 9P, then the thinnest mechanical movement ever created, The movement is 2mm thick, and the case of the watch is barely 4mm. Quite a feat in those days without computer aid, and still impressive today. The 900P is a direct descendent of the 9P.

Possible candidates might include the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin measuring 4.25mm thickness. A variant, the JLC MUT Squelette, now discontinued, is slightly thinner at 3.6mm, and the Bulgari Octo Finnissimo Automatic is 5.15mm thick. All thicker than the Altiplano.

Concluding thoughts

The Piaget Altiplano Watch 38mm is a beauty, with a mechanical heart which it wears on the dial side for all to admire. The watch is superbly thin, but does not feel so when handled or on the wrist. And functions and runs as well as any other watch. The sleekness of the case due to the slim dimensions make for a very nice dress watch, which perhaps because the visible wheel train, is also equally adept in casual attire.

Photo Notes

All photographs were taken with the Fujifilm GFX 100S with the GF 120 f/4 and GF 50mm f/3.5 with and without the MCEX 45 and MCEX 18 extension tubes. Profoto strobe lighting.

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