Small watch movements are big at Bulgari

In June, Bulgari presented its vision of the Garden of Eden, baptized Giardino Dell’Eden Piccolissimo. It was an extravagant jewelry watch covered in diamonds, rubies, pink tourmalines, mandarin garnets, pink and yellow sapphires and rock crystal, all set around the dial on the wings of a butterfly, the scales of a butterfly. ‘a serpent creeping and all along a bed of flowers. in bloom.

The opulent piece hid a remarkable detail: at its heart was the BVl100 caliber, also known as the Piccolissimo (“very small” in Italian), a mechanical micro-movement designed in-house by Bulgari to power its high-end jewelry watches. .

“It’s the product of our miniaturization know-how in Switzerland and our art of jewelry making in Italy,” said Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, creative director of Bulgari Watches, in an interview in Paris in June.

For most of the 20th century, Bulgari used small mechanical movements in its jewelry watches, but the Roman jeweler switched to quartz or battery-operated movements in the late 1970s when the popularity of Japanese-made quartz watches put many Swiss manufacturers of mechanical movements out of service. work.

The Piccolissimo, which debuted in January in four Serpenti “secret watches” (watches disguised as bracelets), is a throwback to this early practice – but with a difference. The caliber has 102 components that weigh a total of 1.3 grams (0.045 ounces), it measures 12.3 millimeters in diameter and 2.5 millimeters thick and, according to the brand, it will run a watch for 30 hours.

“We have put a lot of effort into ensuring its reliability,” Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. “If you don’t master miniaturization, you can end up with a very small power reserve.”

The precision and reliability of ultra-thin watches have been the manager’s daily concern since 2001, when he joined Bulgari (except for a two-year absence when he worked elsewhere as a consultant). An industrial designer who came to watchmaking after working in the automotive industry, he was what the brand’s general manager, Jean-Christophe Babin, described at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève 2021 as “Leonardo da Vinci of Bulgari, both artist and engineer. (Mr. Babin received the Aiguille d’Or, the Grand Prix’s top prize, for the Octo Finissimo Perpetual Calendar with retrograde date display, which featured a 60-hour power reserve.)

Over the past decade, Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani has been the force behind Bulgari’s transformation from a jewelry brand to a respected player in the luxury sports watch category for men.

And since 2014, its design team has achieved eight world records for ultra-thin movements, including the world’s thinnest watch, the 1.8 millimeter Octo Finissimo Ultra — that’s up to 6 July, when Richard Mille presented the 1.75 millimeter Ferrari RM UP-01.

“For the past 12 years, we have focused on the Finissimo series,” Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. “This move to the women’s side is part of the same ‘ultra-thin’ conversation. Without Finissimo, we couldn’t have imagined the Piccolissimo.

The Piccolissimo, however small, must be wound by hand; To save space, the crown has been fixed to the bottom of the case. The stem can be turned both clockwise, for setting the time, and counterclockwise, for winding.

Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, retired watchmaker and founder of movement manufacturer Agenhor, writes in an email: on the case, which is in itself a complex challenge, are beautiful achievements that show how Bulgari has mastered this miniaturization.

The Piccolissimo has its own container, separate from the structure of the bracelet. “This means you can turn the movement and read the time correctly whether you wear the watch on your left or right wrist,” Mr Buonamassa Stigliani said. “It also means the movement can be serviced without having to touch its jewelry strap.”

Bulgari isn’t the only luxury brand working with miniature watch movements. Jaeger-LeCoultre Caliber 101, introduced in 1929, remains a standard among small movements for jewelry watches weighing less than 1 gram and measuring 14 millimeters long, 4.8 millimeters wide and 3.4 millimeters thick.

“Jewellery was experiencing a renaissance then,” said Lionel Favre, director of product design at Jaeger-LeCoultre, in a video interview from the brand’s factory in the Vallée de Joux in Switzerland. “And Jaeger had the specific know-how with different vertically integrated crafts in its manufacture.”

Mr. Wiederrecht wrote: “Mini calibers were common until the arrival of quartz movements in the 1970s”, and he noted: “Jaeger’s caliber 101 holds the record for thinness among shaped calibers of wand.

While the popularity of inexpensive watches with Japanese-made quartz technology ate away at Swiss watch sales and dampened brands’ interest in investing in micromechanical movements for the less lucrative women’s market, Jaeger-LeCoultre continued to refine its caliber.

“The Caliber 101 is now in its fifth generation,” Mr. Favre said. “It went from 78 to 98 components as we re-evaluated it for accuracy and reliability.”

In the past, Jaeger sold the Caliber 101 to houses such as Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels for their luxury watches, but limited production put an end to this practice. “We only make 10 to 20 units a year, because each movement is adjusted by hand,” Mr. Favre said. “The process is entirely artisanal, therefore expensive.”

Until the mid-1970s, Bulgari’s Tubogas watches were powered by small mechanical movements purchased from suppliers including Vacheron Constantin. But customer demand, at least in part, persuaded Bulgari to invest in engineering its own microcaliber.

“We have had requests from Asian customers who like our jewelry watches but prefer to have a quality mechanical movement,” Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. “Also, if we talk about durability, a mechanical jewelry watch lasts forever and is more environmentally friendly. You can pass it on, it becomes a family heirloom.

For Bulgari as for Jaeger-LeCoultre, the problem was quality. “Usefulness can always be questioned, but we aim to create an exceptional object of the highest quality standards,” Mr. Favre said. “It’s like having a jacket with a silk lining versus a cotton lining. Some people may not appreciate the difference, but at higher price points some want the best quality.

Bulgari announced its intention to use the Piccolissimo to develop a range of entirely mechanical women’s models. While each piece must be assembled by hand, Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said: “we will increase our internal production capacity and aim for 40 Piccolissimo movements this year”.

The one-of-a-kind Giardino Dell’Eden watch, he noted, sold out the first day it was shown to customers.

But, he says, “we will do more, with different flowers, and this model will serve as a platform. The development of this microcaliber has opened a new chapter.

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