Ultra-slim watches packed with technical wizardry

A new generation of timepieces is ripping up the horological rulebook, says Nick Foulkes

Parmigiani Fleurier white gold and white jade Tonda 1950 Tourbillon on an alligator strap, £100,000
Parmigiani Fleurier white gold and white jade Tonda 1950 Tourbillon on an alligator strap, £100,000

Watchmakers love statistics, figures and measurements: the number of seconds a day to within which a watch is accurate; the number of hours of power reserve; the fractions of a second a chronograph can measure; the number of metres of water in which a watch can be submerged; the number of semi-oscillations per hour of the balance wheel; the number of components; the number of complications; and the width of the case. Over the past year or two I have noticed in communiqués from watch companies and in auction catalogues a couple of new vital statistics joining this tsunami of data: the height of the movement and the thickness of the case.

Case diameter is what used to be important – when monster watches were in fashion, there was a primitive machismo attached to the diameter: the bigger the watch, the more manly the wearer was the simple message, and a generation of shirtmakers has grown up having to cope with cuff-busting designs with the dimensions of ashtrays. Of course, all that extra volume had to be filled, and complications were piled on top of each other. The result was akin to the removal of planning controls on buildings, and, as case design and movement construction were let off the lead, they both swelled to bloated proportions.

From left: Bulgari titanium Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater, £123,000 (the watch weighs just 45g). Piaget white gold, diamond and enamel Altiplano 60th Anniversary Tourbillon, collection from £16,100. Both on an alligator strap
From left: Bulgari titanium Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater, £123,000 (the watch weighs just 45g). Piaget white gold, diamond and enamel Altiplano 60th Anniversary Tourbillon, collection from £16,100. Both on an alligator strap

It was a remarkable period of exuberant ingenuity, but, like all trends taken to extremes, a reaction set in and a couple of years into the chillier economic climate, watchmakers began to consider new ways of showcasing horological excellence. “The first idea came in 2011,” explains Guido Terreni, who runs Bulgari’s watch division. “We started to move away from the exaggeration of unwearable sizes and look at what could be the most exclusive elegance for man.”

In 2014, Bulgari’s quest for that “exclusive elegance” led to the launch of the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon (£97,000). It was a thin 5mm watch, a sliver of angular Italian style. The iteration that I liked most was the “small seconds”, as it seemed to be the most pure, with its sable lacquer dial. But the big, or should I say slim, news was the tourbillon with a movement of just 1.95mm, a remarkable feat that Bulgari proudly announced as a world first. For the brand it was not solely a question of making a record-breaking slim complication, as CEO Jean-Christophe Babin says: “The target was to produce a thin movement, but also to create a strong pedigree watch with a movement the diameter of which perfectly fits the case.” The theme of the slim complication was further developed last year with the launch of the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater (£123,000) in titanium, which, thanks to its material and dimensions, weighs just 45g and paradoxically owes its impact to the absence of weight and bulk.

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Faced with more demanding movements, constructors are having to be more rigorous in their design, and there is no room for features that contribute little to function or beauty. “This is not complexity for the sake of complexity, but an elegant watch that turns out to be complex,” explains Babin gnomically. “The next goal is to develop ways in which Finissimo can be a platform for more complications.” In January, for instance, a skeletonised Octo Finissimo Tourbillon (£114,000) was presented. “But the point is to create elegance, not to break records.” That said, at 6.85mm (with a movement of just 1.95mm), it meant Bulgari was able to claim a world record for the thinnest minute repeater.

Babin is right to remain sanguine about records, as these days they tumble with increasing frequency. In 2014, Vacheron Constantin claimed a world record for a minute-repeating watch (the Patrimony Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731, £343,000) just 8.09mm thick (3.9mm of which was accounted for by the movement), in turn snatching the title from FP Journe’s 8.6mm (4.04mm) Répétition Minutes Souveraine (£154,700).

Jaeger-LeCoultre white gold Master Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon Hybris Mechanica 11 on an alligator strap, price on request
Jaeger-LeCoultre white gold Master Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon Hybris Mechanica 11 on an alligator strap, price on request

And these are far from the only players in this game, as Stéphane Belmont, international marketing director of Jaeger-LeCoultre, makes clear. In 2013, the brand launched an ultra-slim perpetual calendar (2016 version, £27,700), but at 9.2mm thick it is actually plump when compared to Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Hybris Mechanica 11 (price on request), which signalled a shift towards slim complications. “The first 10 Hybris Mechanicas took advantage of the market for larger watches to create complications that wouldn’t have fitted in smaller watches. After that we thought the next steps for high-complication watches would be to create them in much smaller, much more elegant cases.” That is exactly what Jaeger-LeCoultre has done with the Hybris Mechanica 11. “We have designed a minute repeater with a tourbillon and a self-winding movement in a classic-looking watch just 7.9mm thick, half that of the regular watch,” Belmont says.

Once again, it was not a matter of “just” producing a skinny watch to demonstrate the skill of a watchmaker who can work inside half the normal space. The goal was to develop something that was aesthetically pleasing that also demonstrated improved performance. This meant a whole new minute-repeater mechanism, including a redesigned system for arming and launching it. “We wanted to have a push button that could be retractable rather than a sliding bolt on the side, so if you don’t use the minute repeater the watch remains elegant, with the button concealed within the case.”

From left: Patek Philippe rose gold Perpetual Calendar, £63,380. Vacheron Constantin white gold, gold and opaline Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication, price on request. Both on an alligator strap
From left: Patek Philippe rose gold Perpetual Calendar, £63,380. Vacheron Constantin white gold, gold and opaline Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication, price on request. Both on an alligator strap

Then Jaeger-LeCoultre added a tourbillon. “But what’s new,” Belmont says, pride mingling with excitement in his voice, “is that we invented the flying balance wheel. This floats on top of the tourbillon, and there’s nothing holding the balance from the top.” That again was to save space in the height, as a bridge would have increased the size of the watch.

But still they were not finished. “One other element that was important was to make it automatic, but without having the traditional rotor on the back, so we created our own winding system whereby the weight turns around the movement without being fixed in the centre.” This final touch enabled Jaeger-LeCoultre to claim world-record status at the time as the maker of the thinnest self-wound watch combining minute repeater with a tourbillon.

Montblanc rose gold ExoTourbillon Slim on an alligator strap, price on request
Montblanc rose gold ExoTourbillon Slim on an alligator strap, price on request | Image: Watch Anish

If you are finding it difficult to keep up with the different world records being set and broken in the pursuit of wristwatch thinness, then you can blame Vacheron Constantin. In 1955 the company celebrated its bicentenary by unveiling its legendary ultra-slim. The Calibre 1003 was just 1.64mm high and was bruited about as the thinnest watch in the world. In other words, Vacheron Constantin knows a thing or two when it comes to putting watches on a diet. For instance, its one-time record-holding minute repeater started out at 8.35mm thick, but after the curve of the glass, the shape of the dial and the form of the hands were changed, a little over 1/4mm had been shaved off the height.

“I think that there will be an increasing demand for such designs,” says Vacheron Constantin’s artistic director Christian Selmoni, “because after many years of large and sometimes very thick watches, we are coming back to ones that are more discreet.” Describing the grand complication that launched in January (price on request), Selmoni talks of a “very thin package; we cannot claim that this is an ultra-thin watch, because the movement is 8.7mm”. However, as the watch has more than 500 components and more than 20 complications, he is justified in describing it as “a really enormous deal of complexity in a very small package”.

Breguet platinum and silvered gold Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat on an alligator strap, £117,100 (the movement is 3mm thick)
Breguet platinum and silvered gold Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat on an alligator strap, £117,100 (the movement is 3mm thick)

This Vacheron Constantin piece is at the extreme end of a general shift away from overt display, as an increasing number of a watchmakers come to believe that the best expression of horological culture is achieved through working within the constraints imposed by slim complications. According to Jérôme Lambert, CEO of Montblanc, such a watch suits the style of his more refined customers, saying of his ExoTourbillon Slim (price on request) that it “is a way to express appreciation of watchmaking that fits very well with a business lifestyle”.

“A watch of elegance and something classic” are the words chosen by Michel Parmigiani to describe his Tonda 1950 Tourbillon (£100,000), which, when it launched in the summer of 2015, was hailed as the world’s thinnest automatic flying tourbillon. Paucity of space in a movement just 3.4mm high means that components must be impeccably finished and assembled to minimise friction that otherwise squanders precious power reserves. The titanium tourbillon cage of 0.255g is also the world’s lightest. While this may not be the most hotly contested horological prize, it is worth noting that a titanium tourbillon carriage was likewise a key feature of Breguet’s Tourbillon Extra-Plat 3mm-high self-winding movement (platinum version, £117,100), a full 0.4mm thinner than Parmigiani’s (albeit with a normal rather than flying tourbillon).

From left: Bulgari platinum Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, £114,000. Jaeger-LeCoultre white gold Master Ultra-Thin Perpetual, £27,700. Both on an alligator strap
From left: Bulgari platinum Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, £114,000. Jaeger-LeCoultre white gold Master Ultra-Thin Perpetual, £27,700. Both on an alligator strap

As well as seeing the increasing popularity of new slim calibres, this year happens to be the notable anniversary of some landmark slim movements. At Patek Philippe the Calibre 240, a 2.53mm self-winding calibre still very much in production and used as the base for many complicated pieces (Perpetual Calendar, £63,380), celebrates its 40th birthday. Meanwhile, Piaget kicked off celebrations of the 60th anniversary of its first ultra-slim movement, the Calibre 9P, with a modern take on the ultra-slim tourbillon (the 2.1mm-3mm Altiplano 60th Anniversary collection, from £16,100).

The introduction of new technology has enabled the use of impressive levels of high-precision engineering for the manufacture of pinions and wheels, and in recent years Piaget has set a few records of its own – the time-only Altiplano 900P (£23,300) came in at a world-record-setting 3.65mm. It further claimed to have broken two world thinness records for movement and watch (4.65mm and 8.24mm respectively) in one timepiece – its hand-wound ultra-slim flyback Altiplano 883P Chronograph (£26,000).

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This year Piaget is also working on a concept watch that will, says CEO Philippe Léopold-Metzger, “explore seven or eight different avenues to see how thin a watch can be and what more could be achieved in this direction.” Stand by for more world records. 

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