To discuss Bulgari grand complications and their dedication to high end watchmaking is to return back to the very start of its founding in Rome, 1884. That is not to imply that Bulgari and their history of watchmaking extends to such a distant past but rather the planting of a seed of insight into the innovation and creativity which has permeated the Italian jeweller from its founding and to its present day incarnation as a multi-hyphenate artisan which encompasses high horology as well.
It’s easy to wax lyrical about high standards and slavish adherence to strict watchmaking traditions and classic codes but Bulgari was never about those things. High standards are a norm not because it’s a rule but when things are done from a place of passion and love, the quality and care going into Bulgari grand complications is going to be beyond reproach. And then there’s their philosophy towards watchmaking and watchmaking codes in general, it’s that Bulgari, through her Chief Executive Jean-Christophe, has often publicly stated, “We are jewellers first and watchmakers second.” This frees the Bulgari manufacture in Le Sentier to be deeply creative while worrying about the technicalities later.
“With our extra-thin collection, there’s commercial vindication as well, all our Octo Finissimo Minute Repeaters launched last year have been sold out.” – Pascal Brandt, Bulgari Watches Communications Director
A Primer on Bulgari Grand Complications…
As winter coats are stored and we don the eponymous white lab coats, I offer a question to our host, “Was there ever a short list on the various complications and methods to demonstrate watchmaking prowess? Why make extra-thin your challenge? Why not choose something highly technical like a lubricant free concept watch?”
“It’s a segment that belonged to a few brands with strong watchmaking history. But Bulgari is about beauty first and foremost, we were already perceived as a jeweller and a maker of women’s watches; and from a strategic point of view, rather than start from the technical standpoint, we wanted to focus on the beauty and aesthetics first,” she answered.
Pascal Brandt, Bulgari Watches Communications Director adds, “Prevailing trends for the past decade has shown a progression away from the “espresso machine” on the wrist type of super flamboyant watches and a return to classicism. The market and client expectations have changed and in the complication field, we see very few products that can be worn on a daily basis. Bulgari aims to have an extra-thin minute repeater you can wear on a daily basis rather than be put in a safe and worn twice a year for special events. With our extra-thin collection, there’s commercial vindication as well, all our Octo Finissimo Minute Repeaters launched last year have been sold out.”
Indeed, when it comes to your classical minute repeater, there’s a certain maturity required to appreciate it but a minute repeater in Octo Finissimo form made the Bulgari grand complication just a little less daunting. In an avant garde Octo case with 110 facets, it was simply the kind of thing you could tuck under your sleeve at work or wear it out with denims without calling too much attention to yourself.
It’s common knowledge that 2016 was a tough year for the watch industry, what’s less commonly known is that for Bulgari watch division, it was challenging yet rewarding with 5% growth with gains on market share as well. In context of prevailing headwinds, it’s testament to not just the allure of Bulgari grand complications but also, the relative affordability when compared with competing complications from the various brands out there.
Inside Bulgari’s Grand Complication Home in Le Sentier
While a fully integrated manufacture, Bulgari watchmaking is actually divided among four sites in Switzerland’s Jura region. From movements and casings to bracelets and high-end dials, all watch components are produced in-house. The Saignelégier facility produces the gold and steel cases and bracelets. La Chaux-de-Fonds focuses on high end dials. Business and Administration takes place at Neuchâtel, Bulgari’s official Swiss HQ. While today, we pay a visit to Bulgari Grand Complication home in Le Sentier.
Producing and assembling grand complications and extra-thin watches ranging from the Finissimo to the Solotempo, the tremendous work being done here with advanced technologies assisting with the creation of flawless miniature components manipulated to the limits of mortal dexterity is awe-inspiring when you consider that they’ve come a long way since Bulgari Time opened in Switzerland in 1982. With the acquisition of Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie Genta & Roth in 2000, it’s taken Bulgari a better part of a decade to be finally taken seriously as a watchmaker.
“Up until the late 90s, the Genta-Roth manufacture was owned by Henry Tay where he produced and sold chiming watches specially for the Sultan of Brunei. Bulgari entered into talks with Tay to acquire the manufacture.” – Pascal Brandt
Here, we will discover Bulgari Grand Complications through the eyes of the two key departments within the brand’s Le Sentier facility: the technical office, serving as the brains for research and development of movement related projects; production office, super complicated watches are produced serially but obvious nowhere near numbers for your standard automatic. It also encompasses prototyping for chiming watches to check for functionality of the movement.
As discussed in a previous essay on whether you can work your way into legitimacy, I believe that more than 15 years on, the Bulgari manufacture in Le Sentier has managed to work their way into into the hearts (and wrists) of a key circle of global watch collectors where the essence of traditional watchmaking (hand finished by one watchmaker) expressed in either extra-thin tourbillon or extra-thin minute repeater forms with artistic, quintessentially Italian swagger has earned Bulgari a very hard fought reputation as a true watchmaker.
That said, Brandt is quick to highlight that technology and the various machines it brings is essential for nanometre precision and it’s something Bulgari is quite transparent about. Nevertheless, similar to Patek Philippe over in Plan Les Ouates, the human is still very vital to the company. How vital? A computer aided machine might be able to use wire electro-erosion techniques to cut minute components but rare is the Manufacture who can count on watchmakers able to shape and finish by hand the components in relation to the entire movement. Computers and prototyping only takes you so far, but it’s the artist who carries the project to completion. To wit, only the best musician can bring the music of a Stradivarius to life. Here at Bulgari’s Le Sentier manufacture, the analogy is more literal – it is the home to grand complications like minute repeaters, grande sonneries and the highest of the high – the Westminster carillon.
It is remarkable that the historical character of Vallée de Joux is so thoroughly encapsulated in Bulgari’s Le Sentier Manufacture yet given a distinctive Italian artistic twist. Brandt highlights that while the finest high complications are produced here, the directives and over-arching concepts are still sent from the brand’s HQ in Neuchatel.
To be completely frank, Bulgari’s Le Sentier Manufacture while equipped with fairly modern machinery and sophisticated assembly and production lines, the size of the building (and it’s new extension) still makes it a fairly small manufactory relative to the other modern manufactures which dot the Vallée de Joux landscape. But then again, when you’re making the rarest of complications from central tourbillons to Grande Sonnerie Perpetual Calendars, you don’t need a big space. It’s something Brandt emphasises, “You don’t need to be the size of ETA to have a production range of watches numbering several tens of thousands a year. Here, high complications aren’t a volume business. Anything we make is pre-sold.” As if underscoring the rarity of Brandt’s statement, the wafts of a little heard yet distinct melody begin to whisper – it’s from a Carillon de Westminster chiming watch no less.
Earlier I mentioned the requirements of requisite skill before one can truly play a Stradivarius, here within the department demarcated Atelier Montres de Sonnerie, we witness the assembly and birth of the most exquisite and lauded chiming watches in the world. As if in poetic symmetry, we find a finished Bulgari Grande Sonnerie Carillon Westminster watch (which we aren’t allowed to fondle because it belongs to a customer already) but placed in a Risoux wood base, the rare wood is itself used by serious violin-making boutiques across the world.
While it is easy to be overwhelmed by the seriousness of it all from the academic study of acoustics or material science, the men and women who work at Bulgari’s Le Sentier facility possess a distinct sense of purpose and given their long service, loyalty. They say some humans wear their hearts on their sleeves and it’s a definite way to discern their true intentions but at the birthplace of Bulgari grand complications, their hearts are worn on wrists – the many Bulgari Genta-Roth wristwatches. It’s heartening to meet a majority of long serving Genta-Roth watchmakers who transitioned to Bulgari after its acquisition, a sure sign that the Italian Jeweller-Watchmaker has not just maintained the legacy, history and culture of one of the industry’s most beloved manufactures but also enhanced it.
Stay tuned to part 2, where we speak to the industry’s youngest watchmaker to work on minute repeaters.