For the man who came up with the credo, Bulgari Group’s CEO since 2013 Jean-Christophe Babin, the phrase ‘Discreet Luxury’ is a crucial means of differentiating the Italian house’s men’s watches from the rest of a remarkable output that these days includes wares as diverse as fragrances, accessories and leather goods as well as its core offering, jewellery.
“Bulgari is primarily a contemporary Roman high jeweller offering unrivalled ladies’ pieces characterised by strong pedigree and contrasts, architectural shapes and unexpected combinations of cuts and colours,” says French-born Babin, a former president and CEO of TAG Heuer and a man who has played a vast role in Bulgari’s ongoing global expansion.
“For men, elegance has the same benefits as it does for women, but it has to be more understated. It has to capitalise on the contemporary dimension but express it through slimness. This is why our Octo Finissimo, although utterly complex, has a minute repeater rather than a Tourbillon or a Chronograph. It is utterly minimalist and simple: whilst being geometrically inspired by Rome, and often resembling jewellery, it is deliberately more discreet as sophisticated men are generally more understated than women.”
That said, Babin is quick to point out that, luxury being a holistic endeavour, the house’s modus operandi as a jewellery maker — one so illustrious that Richard Burton once quipped “I introduced Liz to beer, she introduced me to Bulgari” — is inextricably linked to its watchmaking endeavours. “The two activities, even if apparently different, are very close in terms of know-how,” he says.
“We’ve been working transversally at Bulgari combining both areas of expertise in specific cases around our iconic designs when it is meaningful. This cross-category approach allows us to exploit fully the power of our designs and icons in a consistent way without it affecting our horological ethos.”
The Octo, both in its more robust form as well as its slim-fit cousin, has resonated well across the industry, with collectors as well as with watch critics and watchmakers. Its success rides upon its audacity in design and case construction, which is one of the most complicated across the entire industry, and that spirit of audacity is one that has been demonstrated in its technological innovation. It was in this spirit that the brand first began to develop record-breakers, and one that continues to infuse its work today.
Babin explains that “world records are important for any luxury watch brand since they are testament to our capacity for innovation. With Bulgari, it is even more important since we are first and foremost an Italian jeweller crafting and producing its watches in Switzerland, and not a watchmaker with a well-defined history and heritage. Our world records have allowed us to show that an Italian jeweller can do as well as and go even further than the majority of Swiss brands.”
In a sense, one would liken the development of these world records to the chronometric competitions of the past, where watch brands would submit their finest creations to an independent panel for testing and performance comparison. However, when it comes to competing in ultra-thin watches, there are only a handful of comparable brands that continue to develop and innovate in this arena.
To some extent, that’s because for the last three decades or so, past the Quartz Crisis, brands have been focused on developing their reputation for voluminous complications, which resulted in an explosion of incredibly complex movements along with massive timepieces to accommodate these intricate watch designs. But in the last decade, that has rapidly changed.
As life and style has evolved with the times, a subtler movement in design, avowing authenticity to materials and craft, has emerged. And as traditional attitudes to luxury, ranging from the use of materials to design and sophistication, have been shed by consumers, a new approach to luxury is needed.
Babin likens these developments in watchmaking to the development of supercars. “Thanks to the Octo’s movement, dimensions, high-tech materials and aesthetics, it’s like a supercar,” he explains. “We aligned six world records with the Octo Finissimo from 2014 till this year, where we are presenting yet another record. They are all “supercars” considering the technical prowess and remarkable amount of innovation embedded in these watches. They combine ultimate thinness in mechanical timekeeping complications with high-tech materials. Like supercars, they are designed to break the rules and cross the existing borders in watchmaking to reach extreme performances.”
Pieces of Eight
The chapter of Bulgari’s horological narrative that leads us up to the present really begins in 2012, with the introduction of the Octo line: the first of two recent watershed developments for the ‘Discreet Luxury’ ethos. Building on the work of a maestro who had died the previous year, Gérald Genta — the visionary behind Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak and the Patek Phillippe Nautilus — the Octo’s arresting interplay between square, round and octagonal shapes is another Bulgari line inspired by Roman antiquity, in this case the geometrical nuances of Caput Mundi’s art and architecture. (Incidentally, the ‘V’ in place of a ‘U’ in the company branding is a nod to classical Latin alphabet, as well as the founder’s surname.)
The challenge when it comes to making the ultra-slim watches which so neatly embody the ‘Discreet Luxury’ motif cannot be over-estimated: makers have to mastermind new, ultra-fine components such as micro rotors, manufacture them and make them fit around each other precisely while maintaining stress tolerances and structural integrity of the movement, with some components as fine as a hair’s breadth.
Last year, the brand set a new record for the slimmest automatic chronograph with an added GMT function on a sub-dial, featuring a horizontally-coupled, column wheel chronograph housed in titanium, a model that’s returned this year in titanium with an all-black dial display, minus the GMT function and in sandblasted titanium.
One had to marvel at the design of the watch; given the amount of energy that the chronograph seconds reset delivers and the challenge of making sure the chronograph gears mesh precisely with the gear train to avoid the dreaded chronograph “bounce” known to horizontally coupled designs. A challenge that the brand met with casual aplomb, and has renewed this year.
Over the eight years since its introduction, thanks to astonishingly innovative tweaks to Genta’s original vision, the Octo, in its various forms, has accumulated a wealth of slenderness-based world records, including the thinnest ever automatic movement (2.23mm), thinnest tourbillon movement (1.95mm), thinnest minute repeater (3.12mm) and thinnest chronograph (6.90mm). Strap together all the iterations of the Octo that exist — what with all the versions (extra-thins, tourbillons, skeletonised), materials (platinum, titanium, carbon, ceramic, rose gold), bracelets, straps and colours that have been produced — and the resulting chain might stretch from Bulgari’s spiritual home of Rome to its manufacturing home in Neuchâtel.
But whatever iteration you opt for, the core message, for Babin, is the same. “The Octo is the perfect expression of discreet contemporary luxury,” he says. “The model is very different to any other watch you find on the market thanks to its unique shape and design. You can’t miss it! It fits a cool and smart mindset even whilst being a serious, high-end watch. It reflects exactly the Bulgari spirit: joyful, unapologetic and aesthetically-centred. Our creations are deeply rooted in our own Roman history — they are meaningful and tell you a story made up of architecture and Italian art, which resonates with contemporary men. Octo breaks the conventions with a unique elegance, and rejuvenates the classic watch landscape, which is why it is considered by many collectors and connoisseurs as the new 21st century contemporary cult watch and icon.”
And yet, for all this, the Octo’s already dense plot has just thickened — twice. At LVMH Watch Week in Dubai earlier this year, the Serpenti Seduttori Tourbillon — a 150-component marvel in terms of miniaturisation and component reliability, and the smallest ever example of the gravity-defying marvel devised by Abraham-Louis Breguet in the late 18th Century — was not the only new Bulgari piece that wowed attendees. The latest additions to the Octo — a line which Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, director of Bulgari’s Watch Design Centre, refers to as “the fusion of edgy Italian design and Swiss engineering” — were unveiled: Octo Finissimo Automatics in satin-polished steel and satin-polished rose gold, both featuring a polished black lacquer dial.
Tongues will be wagging as the Octo pick up its sixth world record (for the world’s thinnest sports-luxe watch), but also because of its greater functionality, the addition of a screw-down crown bolstering water resistance from 30 metres 100 metres. For Babin, the releases very much demonstrates that we’ve hit Octo Phase II — one in which discreet luxury can be versatile too.
“With stage two, we’re taking these record-setting timepieces from being a supercar to a grand turismo – an extraordinary car that you drive every day. Compared to the extreme sportscar it’s more like an all-wheel drive, as it’s 100 metres waterproof — you have the screw crown, you can dive, swim, take a shower; it’s great for dressing up or dressing down so you can wear it from the tennis court to the board room.”
It also, it’s worth those who place a big emphasis on wrist feel should note, brings a new dimension to the dynamic tension between thinness and muscularity with which Octo models are traditionally so replete: amongst the most wearable of brethren, the sand-blasted steel version and the new satin-polished steel piece in particular have ‘untakeoffability’ in spades.
And now today, what is surely the Crown Prince of the Octo line has entered, stage left, so to speak: the Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Automatic. Featuring an openworked skeleton movement and a peripheral winding mass — the former meaning the whole theatre of the piece’s interior can be admired, the latter helping reduce its dimensions to the minimum — it also has a horizontal coupling and column-wheel control. Packing all the complications previously accommodated in Octo models into one single, bewilderingly intricate unit, the Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Automatic Skeleton is the uber-Octo. It’s thickness? A mere 7.4mm. The movement? A mindboggling, 3.5mm and a new world record.
The Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Automatic Skeleton, like the Chronograph GMT Automatic, hides its functions well and in unexpected ways. While it may appear to be a regular two-pusher chronograph, the chronograph’s operations are all executed on the top pusher, with start, stop and reset all controlled in subsequent presses.
That makes it a monopusher chronograph, which requires a reconfiguration of the movement’s design that can be seen on the back of the watch. Instead of a typical chronograph engagement, the horizontally-coupled chronograph engages with the tourbillon cage via control from a sliding lever under a bridge on the back of the movement. This adds shock resistance to the movement and also means the sliding lever can maintain wafer-thin proportions while executing operation perfectly.
What, you ask, is the second pusher for, in that case? Well, it’s a security design in lieu of a screw-down crown and does two things. One press releases the crown locking system so that you can adjust the time, to prevent accidental dislodging of the crown in daily use — a thoughtful application. It also has a secondary function: to propel the minute hand forward in five-minute increments, for a semi-quick time adjustment when hopping time zones.
It’s likely a steel version is in the offing: after all, the material that unexpectedly muscled into the luxury watch scene in the mid-70s, promises Babin, will play a pivotal role in the men’s watch division’s future. “The new Octo Finissimo Automatic steel shows precisely the way we are going,” he says. “It’s time for us to take further steps into the sports realm, having established Octo’s status within that sought-after luxury segment.
Bulgari design director Fabrizio Buonamassa agrees. “The Octo Finissimo model in steel is for us is a brand-new watch because we’ve completely changed the way you wear it,” he says. “The aim behind the watch was to change the rules in this kind of segment. Once we’d made a statement in terms of aesthetics, we were ready to make this watch in steel with the black dial with an amazing finish and rediscover this watch in a completely different way.”
Mechanical manufacture ultra-thin skeleton movement with automatic winding, chronograph single-push and tourbillon; BVL 388 calibre, 52-hour power reserve, 21’600 VpH (3Hz)
42mm sandblasted titanium case with transparent case back; 7.40mm thick; sandblasted titanium crown and push buttons; skeletonized grey matte dial with plain counters; water-resistant to 30m
Sandblasted titanium bracelet with folding buckle
Limited edition of 50 pieces