Pieces of Eight: Bulgari

TenTen travels to Bulgari’s light-drenched watchmaking atelier in the village of Saignelégier to discover how the quintessentially Roman brand is making waves in Swiss horology

An hour’s drive up into the Jura hills from the lakeside city of Neuchâtel, the village of Saignelégier is as sleepy a Swiss locale as you’re likely to find. The main business appears to be horses, with a sign welcoming you to “the cradle of the Franches-Montagnes” – Switzerland’s most celebrated breed, examples of which loaf about in the surrounding pastures. Near the sign, a side road runs past a rusting barn and piles of old farm machinery to a small factory building. This is the unheralded outpost of one of the most august names in global luxury, from where Bulgari – opulent, grandiose, LVMH-owned and magisterially Roman – has wrought a quiet revolution in Swiss watchmaking.

Six years ago, when Bulgari was bought by LVMH, such a revolution didn’t seem on the cards. It was exactly those qualities of Italian immoderation and decadence that were seeing Bulgari turn out watches that, while good fun, were so overcooked in concept and design as to be headache inducing. There was no shortage of ingenuity, ensured by the brand’s early-noughties acquisition of two microbrands, Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth – along with the haute horlogerie manufacture and skilled workforce the companies shared in the watchmaking town of Le Sentier. But how to channel such elements – Italian flair, Swiss skills – into something coherent and contemporary was proving a head-scratcher.

There was no better illustration of this than the Octo, a multi-faceted megalith of a watch that expressed marvellously the geometric obsessions of Gérald Genta, the legendary watch designer whose business Bulgari now owned. And Bulgari had made it particularly hard for itself: The case of the Octo – a symphony of 45-degree angles, overlapping surfaces and faceted layers – had 110 different plains, each of which had to be cut, milled and polished from a single lump of metal.

 It’s not watch movements that are made at the Saignelégier factory, but cases, including that of the Octo in its various guises. The profound expertise herein has enabled Bulgari, since its acquisition, to transition the Octo from complex behemoth to suave, streamlined brand icon. The watch is now produced in volume as an automatic with the superb in-house workhorse movement, Calibre 191 Solotempo, designed specifically for the task, while in its Finissimo versions, the Octo has become a platform for a series of masterpieces in the genre to which its design would seem least suited: watches that are spectacularly slim. Over the past three years, Bulgari has notched up the world’s thinnest tourbillon watch, the thinnest minute repeater and this year the thinnest automatic, all in cases that reduced the once-unwieldy Octo to a mere 5mm or so.

“When they first proposed the Finissimo I thought we may as well just go home,” says Mario Cancellara, an unassuming Swiss-Italian who oversees the case-making operation. He points out that 18 operations go into the milling of the Octo’s bezel alone – the sole round bit of the watch. For the rest of it there are scores of processes enacted by bespoke, hugely expensive CNC milling machines.These turn raw blanks into mini sculptures that are then attacked by a platoon of skilled hand-polishers. With multitudes of facets and angles to approach separately the cases are coated in red lacquer, meaning any facet that’s still red has yet to be worked on. When you’re working with mere millimetres of surface and microns of tolerances, this is deeply artful stuff. 

Of course, the cases are mere housing for movements that, in the example of Bulgari’s Finissimo series, are modern horological wonders, and so flat you’d be forgiven for thinking someone had driven over them. In the Le Sentier movement factory, they’re created with the kind of dexterity and creativity that’s deeply rooted in a firm still producing (in the same building) the dizzyingly complex chiming watches and bespoke complications that go right back to the Roth-Genta days. And a few miles away, in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the exquisite dials that sit above the movements are also made in Bulgari’s own specialist factory.

It’s not normal, this. Among Swiss watchmakers, those who make their own dials and cases are vanishingly few – fewer even than those who make their own movements. Much fewer, in fact. Even Patek Philippe relies upon suppliers for most of its cases. But Bulgari, the Italian jeweller, does the lot. It’s a level of integration that has allowed it to be astonishingly nimble and to perform a perfect volte-face on the watch world. What was once a bloated and unfocussed collection, is now finely honed around a quartet of streamlined designs: the Serpenti and Lucea women’s lines, the old favourite Bulgari Bulgari (which includes its own Finissimo versions) and, leading the way, the unlikely and brilliant Octo.

The latest editions of the Octo Finissimo – the minute repeater and the automatic – are not even cased in precious metals or steel but in lightweight, beadblasted titanium, giving them a grey, matte texture that’s matched by a grey dial, for an ambience that’s breezy and effortless and wholly contemporary. It’s as unlikely a fit with the great maestros of Roman bling as it is with the skilled case polishers of Saignelégier, but it’s a perfect synthesis of both.

Photography Gabby Laurent

This is an extract from TenTen, the annual watch supplement of Port. To buy or subscribe the latest issue, click here.

Watch Your Weight

With the traditional wind-up wristwatch more popular than ever, we explore how the Swiss are staying at the cutting edge with high-tech, lightweight materials science 

With speculation whirling about who will play the next James Bond, you’d be forgiven for mistaking the portrait featured here for a particularly dramatic teaser – 007’s scheming, megalomaniacal nemesis standing menacingly by his weapon of global destruction. But Senad Hasanovic is very much fact, not fiction, and he couldn’t be more self-effacing if he tried. 

The 33-year-old has been installed at Hublot’s factory on Lake Geneva for almost four years now, as, in his words, “part of the technology transfer” from Lausanne’s École Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL). He’s no mere accessory to his elaborate equipment – Hasanovic worked for two years at EPFL on Hublot’s tough commission to the school: to develop an 18-carat gold that wouldn’t scratch. Hasanovic’s resulting Magic Gold was made by fusing 24-carat gold with a porous ceramic substrate under tremendous pressure and temperature, to give a scratch resistance of 1,000 Vickers. Normal 18-carat gold is 400 Vickers, by comparison. Thus, Hublot’s Metallurgy and Materials division was born, and Hasanovic was installed in-house at the watch factory, lock, stock and barrel.

“Magic Gold offered me a great opportunity,” enthuses Hasanovic, who originally joined EPFL after completing a master’s degree, majoring in carbon fibre. “Hublot is the watchmaker for materials – we’re now doing some crazy things with red ceramics, aluminium and carbon fibre…”

“Why do we go to these lengths?” he adds. “It’s because, as a young brand, we can’t talk about heritage, so materials are the thing that differentiates us. And now we have the foundry in-house, the cool thing is that we can continue to experiment.”

A finely made timepiece is a baffling anachronism. For starters, no one really needs a watch these days, finely made or not. Second, a finely made watch is still driven by a delicate concoction of wheels, springs and levers – 200-year-old technology that keeps worse time than the placky digital that fell out of your cereal packet this morning. So what’s tying Switzerland’s lab-coated boffins to their workbenches, tweezers in hand, when they could easily be enticed down from Watch Valley by any of Geneva’s micro-tech firms?

The plasma oven at Rado’s Comadur case-making facility

What’s keeping the Swiss watch positively Alpine fresh isn’t so much the clockwork ticking inside, as its packaging. The anachronism that is the mechanical watch is increasingly being spiked with lightweight yet super-durable materials, some of which are more at home in the suspension wishbone of an F1 car. 

From ceramic cases on the outside, to self-lubricating silicon micro-mechanics ticking away inside, watches are fresher and more cutting-edge than ever. Not through the efforts of classically trained watchmakers, however, but because of canny watch CEOs with a hotline to Switzerland’s finest minds, scattered throughout neighbouring micro-tech facilities. And while you might think it’s evolution for evolution’s sake, scratch beneath the surface and you’ll soon discover otherwise.

Scratching won’t get you very far in the seminal case, however, as Rado’s breakthrough in the ’60s explicitly set out to resist such abuse. Its egg-shaped DiaStar Original looked like something Captain Kirk would wear, and for good reason – the case was formed not of steel, but a newfangled hard metal called tungsten carbide. It defined Rado’s ultra-futurist manifesto and by the ’80s, Rado had mastered and pioneered the use of ultra-light and ultra-tough ceramic. It’s a material that’s now found in watches from (but not necessarily made by – third-party tech facilities are notoriously secretive) IWC, Bell & Ross and Panerai, plus fashion darlings Ralph Lauren and Chanel, whose monochrome ceramic bracelets just happen to echo Mademoiselle Coco’s iconic quilted handbag (and really are made by Chanel’s own ceramic facility in La Chaux-de-Fonds). 

Rado’s sister company, Comadur, makes all of its ceramic components and has recently innovated so-called ‘high-tech plasma’ ceramic. Gases activated at 20,000°C raise the temperature of finished white ceramic to a sizzling 900°C, transforming it into an otherworldly material with a mysterious metallic glow, without using any metal at all.

“Beyond the sheer novelty of using ceramic for our cases,” says Rado CEO Matthias Breschan, “more and more newcomers to the brand are realising that ceramic is nice to wear. It’s super comfortable, and thermally balanced with your skin.”

At the highest end of the luxury market, however, you have a much harder job convincing dyed-in-the-wool collectors that anything not encased in gold or platinum is a genuinely luxurious product. But a certain Frenchman called Richard Mille has proved most convincing in this argument. 

The sintering oven at Rado’s casemaker, Comadur, in which ceramic components are baked for 24 hours

Mille has been experimenting with the concept of weight reduction in haute horlogerie since the conception of his brand in 2000 – a revolutionary exercise in no-compromise technicality. He treated his cases like racing car chassis, the ‘engine’ suspended from it, with nothing as superfluous as a dial to obscure its inner workings. 

“When I first produced tourbillons with titanium and ALUSIC cases and carbon base plates, I was fighting against perceived value,” Mille recalls. “A titanium watch could not be a luxurious timepiece as it did not weigh enough. However, mentalities rapidly changed and gradually amateurs soon appreciated my watches for their extreme lightness associated with the best technology.”

It wasn’t just amateurs, but leading sportsmen too. Handling Rafael Nadal’s Richard Mille RM 27 watch for the first time provoked laughter. Not just because its delicate mechanics kept good time despite Rafa’s punishing swing, but mainly because it’s so surreally light – less than 20 grams, strap included – that it actually floats in water, thanks to the use of lithium-alloy, usually used in satellites and F1 cars. The case of Rafa’s latest version, the RM 27-02, is a cocktail of carbon and quartz, weighs just 19 grams, and costs a princely $800,000 (give or take a few grand).

Increasingly, the smart money is on new, proprietary composites. The latest and greatest is Breitlight, which, as the punning name suggests, is exclusive to Breitling. It packages a 50mm beast of a 24-hour chronograph, the Avenger Hurricane (£6,450), which wouldn’t look out of place on Batman’s utility belt. Like a Swatch, it’s plastic, but plastic as you’ve never known it. It’s a polymer composite spiked with carbon fibre, similar to that used for Glock’s signature pistol. The upshot of which is that it’s 3.3 times lighter than steel, yet almost impossible to dent, scratch or corrode.

Smartwatches may be (temporarily) snatching all the attention from ‘proper’ watches, but, for now at least, traditional watches are proving that the use of high-tech materials can keep them relevant in the 21st century, as well as smart in their own right.

This article is taken from Port issue 19.