Back in the days when life for me revolved around Haribo and holidays and people in their mid-twenties seemed old beyond all belief, there was a short-lived American TV show called Square Pegs. It told the story of two teenage girls who sat on the edge of the normal high school cliques. Clever and quirky, they epitomised unconventional beauty, never quite managing to fit in to the traditional stereotypes.
Although the show ended before the characters blossomed, one of its quirky stars grew up to become the doyenne of contemporary, cutting-edge fashion, the woman every girl aspired to be: Sex in the City’s Carrie Bradshaw. You see, sometimes when things are a little different, a little more complex than the everyday, they take a little longer to find their place. But, when they do find it, oh boy! Look out world.
In the wristwatch universe, the latest “square peg”, blazing a trail like only a handful of others have done before is the Bulgari Octo. If we believe the statistic that 90 per cent of all watches sold today come in round cases, the Octo was always going to buck the trends of convention and, when it was launched in 2012, it was met with a mixed reaction. Some loved the reinvention of a classic, while others questioned the wisdom of such a dramatic shape being brought to the fore as a new signature model.
A year later, LVMH-owned Bulgari acquired a new CEO – Jean-Christophe Babin – a man who had previously spent 12 years heading up “people’s favourite” watch brand TAG Heuer and, all of a sudden, Octo’s future was secured. For LVMH, Bulgari was its most expensive acquisition – the reason Babin says he was transferred there to oversee the transitional period. “The priority was Bulgari as a brand over the individual categories,” he says. “Although watchmaking was certainly an element, it was less important to have a watch expert in the CEO position and more relevant that the person had an understanding of luxury and of precious, timeless, expensive jewels and watches with very different dynamics to fashion. There were many projects under way and, perhaps what I contributed was to focus on fewer priorities and to accelerate and amplify the main ones.”
This was 2013 and Serpenti and Octo were the signature, stand-out watch collections. “Serpenti had 70 years of history,” says Babin. “Octo was tiny, yet I could see the potential for it to become an icon. Back then, only two versions existed – steel and rose gold. This was a big limitation as, with just two watches in a boutique, there was very little visibility – one was in the window, the other in the counter – and, for this reason, the watch was hard to promote. One of my priorities was to accelerate the range, first in terms of movements and then by adding diversity in metal and straps. And then, we decided to speed things up again by creating the Finissimo, which for me is the most inventive dimension of Octo because at last it introduced the ultimate dimension to Bulgari: the ultra-thin watch.”
This acceleration has meant that in just five short years Octo has become Bulgari’s leading light in the world of men’s watches. Variations such as the Solotempo, the Velocissimo chronograph, the on-trend, black Ultranero and the Finissimo have created a family with a model for most needs and tastes.
This year also sees a brand-new interpretation of the Octo shape in the form of the Octo Roma. Taking on a more natural shape compared to the powerful, architectural form of the standard Octo, the Roma will appeal to a different clientele. “It is still an Octo, but a more dressy version,” says Fabrizio Buonamassa, Director of Bulgari’s Watches Design Centre. “It was important to keep all the elements that make the Octo unique, but it’s not easy to find alternative ways to present these perfect proportions.”
But the Octo Roma is every bit a part of the family – softer, curvier, rounder, more unisex, urbane and younger but still with sharp angles and flat surfaces. The indexes are tweaked – “it’s just a tiny change, a matter of fine tuning, but the dial did not work without this minute change,” says Buonamassa. “That’s the nature of the luxury industry – it is often tiny things that make the difference between perfection and imperfection.”
Walking A Thin Line
It was 2014 Bulgari first entered the world of ultra-thin – a moment that Babin describes as a major breakthrough for the brand, and one the company has been building on ever since – when it introduced the Octo Finissimo Petite Seconde, heralding the arrival of a new wave of Octo. At just 2.23mm thick, the hand-wound Calibre BVL 128, produced entirely in Bulgari’s manufacture in Le Sentier, has a frequency of 4Hz and a power reserve of 65 hours thanks to a large barrel, with a diameter of 15mm but still less than 1.4mm thick.
But the Petite Seconde was not the biggest surprise that year, with the simultaneous launch of the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon powered by the 268-component Calibre BVL 268, the world’s thinnest tourbillon movement. With a total thickness of 1.95mm, the calibre featured a flying tourbillon with cage sustained by a ball bearing ring rather than the standard pivoting axle. And, pushing the boundaries even further, 2017 has already seen the introduction of the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Skeleton, a watch Babin is currently wearing because: “I like engineering and the skeleton is very simple, very contemporary, yet the black DLC makes it a strong watch – it is very technical but it weighs very little. It is an Italian paradox.”
Proving that Bulgari really meant business in the ultra-thin game, Baselworld 2016 saw the introduction of its second record-breaker – the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater. The creation of a chiming watch calls upon levels of skill that few brands possess, so for Bulgari to not only perfect the art of sound but to do it in the smallest possible space proved that in terms of watchmaking prowess it was now running with the big boys. Calibre BVL 362 measures just 3.12mm thick with an overall case thickness of an astonishing 6.85mm.
On the decision to go thin, Babin points out that the Octo is the perfect vehicle for this complex feat of engineering. “The look expresses the future of Octo. We want to be the first brand that springs to mind when people think of ultra-thin. It is hard to have a thin round watch that is full of character, but with Finissimo, we have created a ‘Wow!’ both inside and out.
“In the luxury world, as well as quality you need to have great design – this cannot be ignored as it is what you see every day. If you look at buying a Ferrari, it is good to know that you have a V12 engine with 700hp underneath the bonnet, but you have to love it at first sight. If it is ugly or boring to look at, then the salesperson can talk forever about the amazing engine, the buyer is unlikely to care. However, if people like the design and trust the brand then you are halfway there. When I tell clients that like the look of the Finissimo that it is the world’s thinnest watch, they are delighted, but it would be much harder the other way around. Ideally you have to combine both mechanical and aesthetic perfection, but mechanics will never appeal to the heart as much as design.”
And now, for 2017, the Finissimo has been launched in a self-winding version – the world’s thinnest automatic ever weighing just 68g, a record-breaking achievement that brought with it its own set of difficulties. “A standard rotor can add up to a third to the total thickness of a movement, which we could not allow,” says Babin. “A peripheral rotor would have added to the diameter and we could not accommodate this within the existing Finissimo case – it would have increased the size by 3mm or so taking it to 45 or 46mm. If the watch was thinner and wider it wouldn’t work – we needed to keep the subtle balance of the manual-wind Finissimo case because we knew those proportions were perfect.”
Babin and his team decided to use a micro-rotor, which is thicker than a normal rotor but with a smaller diameter so it can work within a thin platform. This meant that the volumetric mass has to be much higher than that of a normal rotor otherwise wrist movement alone would not give adequate rotation, so the real challenge was in calculating the weight and discovering which materials would work well – the eventual decision being platinum. The choice of a micro rotor led to the redesign of the entire movement because, although the rotor diameter is small, it still occupied the space of 40 existing components of the manual-winding movement.
“It was indeed a challenge,” confirms Buonamassa. “We started to think about the watch three years ago. Our starting point was the movement of the Petite Seconde, which meant that our first step was to create an oscillating mass and keep the calibre slim. Once we settled on the micro-rotor, we developed it in platinum so that it was very heavy. Only after it had been tested on the wrist and by machine did we move on to the other details. The pressure was to make a beautiful watch that functioned well, not to break a record. Yes, we have made the world’s thinnest automatic but that is simply because we can, not because we need it for an advertising campaign or to get noticed.”
Guido Terreni, Managing Director of Bulgari Watches, agrees. “We wanted to make a thin, self-winding watch and to do this we had to break the record. No suitable movement existed so we had to make one. It was the same with the 2014 Tourbillon – at 1.95mm, the movement is almost 1mm thinner than any before it. What we wanted did not exist so we had to create it. We have now broken three world records in four years through necessity and by doing that we have also shown the world that we are at the frontier of watchmaking. And the Finissimo Automatic is particularly special, as we have taken everything we have learned through our complications and put it into an affordable watch with the same technical constraints.”
Although the movement is at the heart of the new watch, as this is Bulgari, the design was equally important, the team ignoring the traditional codes of the watch industry and opting for contemporary elegance that eschews fashion for a timeless look. The 41mm case is in sandblasted titanium – no easy job – and is a total 5.25mm thick, water-resistant to 30m. The 2mm-thick titanium dial features black 3D-stamped indexes plus a black small-seconds between 7 and 8 o’clock. The facets – 58 in the Octo Finissimo Automatic, compared to the original Octo’s 110 – and overall finishing add to the pure look of the watch.
Buonamassa explains: “We knew it had to be titanium because we wanted this specific colour and stealthy finishing – not bright, not shiny, it had to make sense for the era we live in. This watch is a strange Italian mix, representing both the lightness of our case and the weight of our know-how and technology. Cutting-edge technology, but at the same time super light, the thinnest movement and the most rigid material, an astonishing movement in a case without any reflecting surfaces. It’s like hot and cold water and you have to mix them to find the perfect temperature.”
As with the other Finissimos before it, the new watch has a spookily thin movement – just 2.23mm, beating at 3Hz to ensure 50-plus hours of power reserve. As is now standard with Bulgari’s ultra-thins, the case consists of two components rather than three, the baseplate and caseback being one, the watch is cased from the top with the bezel screwed from the back to secure it.
And although the watch is an impressive record-breaker, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that – in accordance with Babin’s view that initial impressions come from aesthetics – the first things clients will notice are the case, dial and magnificent bracelet of the watch.
The decision to use titanium came out of lessons learned on the 2016 minute repeater, which emphasised the benefits of a super-light, super-strong material for an ultra-thin case. Next came the new face for the new movement and, for the first time, a full titanium bracelet.
“The bracelet is the same design as the regular Octo bracelet but it is incredibly different at the same time,” says Buonamassa.
“The Finissimo required a bracelet to fit the proportions of the case, resulting in links that are just 2.5mm thick, 1mm slimmer than the thinnest of traditional metal bracelets. Because it is so incredibly thin, we had to change the way it closes, which was a huge challenge for our Saignelégier facility. When you change materials, you have to change the tools and the systems you use. With the first prototype we could see that the buckle was thicker than the bracelet and this was just not right visually so we had to start over. The solution was to put the clasp inside the bracelet so that now when you put it on, you see just the line of the titanium links.
“It was hugely challenging but the product had to make sense as a piece of design, so we had to reinvent the buckle. Sometimes it is important to keep the same language for the way you use an object. So, if I make an amazing Finissimo with an incredible new automatic movement and a stunning bracelet with a totally new concept for the clasp, but the first person that sees it needs me to explain how it works then it does not make sense – not for our idea of design. We want people to say, ‘Wow! This is a new buckle but it looks like a regular one’.”
The key to creating the Octo family that exists today – the complications, the cases and bracelets and the three record-breaking watches – lies within the complete vertical integration of the company, a process that began over a decade ago. As Terreni puts it: “Until the 1990s, a watch company could get by on good design, but today it is essential to master manufacturing. When you use external suppliers, you can only access the technology that is available to everyone else. But when you make everything yourself, you can be discreet and secretive and you can shock the world.”
This is a sentiment that Buonamassa agrees with, adding that, while it may be possible to create amazing watches with external suppliers, it is extremely costly and is always done to the suppliers’ schedule. “We could put a lot of money into external development and in the end not have any watches for next year,” he explains. “When we talk about a new development for 2022, this could be the platform for four or five different products. If it is all in-house we can say: ‘OK we don’t have the watch we wanted, but we can use our know-how to develop something less complex or different to the original idea.’ Without vertical integration we would have to buy something that we could not manage without the suppliers.”
Sharing ideas and know-how is at the very heart of Bulgari – the idea for the Tubogas (that metamorphosed into the Serpenti), for example, originally came from a sales rep based in Russia in the 1940s – and this interaction between movement creators and case, strap and dial makers is something unique to the Italian brand. “We are not a common watch producer,” says Buonamassa, laughing. “We try to share all of our know-how from jewellery and watches to create the best product. Other companies are more structured but at Bulgari things are more fluid – all departments mix and communicate.”
“We have monthly meetings where we discuss ideas – some we kill, some we keep,” explains Babin. “Our products are the result of teamwork and we have ongoing interaction between me, the designers, the sales team and the watchmakers, and together we make the decision and map what we will see and when. I am the sparring partner for all divisions, but we do not rely on one creative genius. I have always said that as a CEO you have to spend time in both the workshop and the boutique. Then you become a genius without needing to have ideas – you just relay the ideas of others.”
Il Bel Paese
Although Bulgari has been making serious watches for over 40 years, it is still competing with manufacturers that have been producing for centuries, so the way it stands out from the crowd is to make watches that are different rather than making the same watch over again to be safe.
There is no denying that a Bulgari watch is edgier than the norm, so to buy and wear an Octo you have to make a choice to be different – as the company says, “Italian in design, Swiss in know-how”. “We don’t follow the pack because our customers look for something different,” says Terreni. “Octo is a sculpture, it’s strong and powerful, but elegant. It is extremely complex, but it is very Italian. You constantly find something new in the details – the indexes, the facets, the polishing of the case. These details make up its richness.”
When it comes to what makes the Octo Finissimo so special, Buonamassa says that it is because the design is so unexpected. “It is so Italian to play with the hardest alloy and the thinnest movement. When you see the concrete architecture of Pier Luigi Nervi in Rome, you marvel at his feats of engineering, and this is also our idea – to work with unique shapes that are difficult to produce. We hate compromise – the root of the Octo shape is in the 45-degree sharp angles and the very flat surfaces. It is an Italian trait to make opportunity out of necessity, and this is the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic.
“The design has a very strong link to the economical and social situation of today. In this environment people sometimes want to hide their wealth, hence there is a trend for stealth watches. But we are Italian, so beauty is all consuming for us. In German design, for example, form follows function, but for Italians beauty follows function. We love to play with constraints, so combining titanium with the shape of the Octo Finissimo was a perfect challenge. Octo works best in multi-layers with a 3D execution so if the Finissimo was not created well it would cancel the double layers of the bezel and lugs. But this is what we love – the weight of technology and the lightness of Italian execution. This is the point.”
The appeal of the Italian factor is something not lost in other markets, according to Vincent Reynes, Managing Director at Bulgari UK. “The whole Italian feel makes watch-buying sexy,” he says. “From the moment people walk into our Peter Marino-designed London store they fall in love with Bulgari. The brand talks to everyone and creates an emotional connection with elements and touches of the 1960s. Coolness is in our DNA – we represent the Dolce Vita crowd, the Roman way of living and enjoying life. Our style is bold and creative, we are unconventional in taste and a Bulgari watch takes personality and daring to wear.”
The Eternal Inspiration
Buonamassa is clear that the Octo case is firmly rooted in the architecture of Rome. “When you look at the Pantheon, you can see different shapes – triangular elements, a dome, a square. And then you go to downtown Rome to the Palazzo dei Congressi that Mussolini built for the Universal Exposition and you see the same elements presented in a more contemporary way – a column, a square with a dome. It is simply a modern execution of the Pantheon. This architecture is so Roman, playing with shape so when you see it from the air you see four domes put together on a square base and from the front you have the same perception that you have at the Pantheon. But as you walk around it, the shape changes – this is Italian rationalism, where the architect plays only with shape without using any decorative elements.
“This is our inspiration. When you see an Octo, you see a round shape with another shape within – exactly the same as the Palazzo dei Congressi. It is a sort of square but it’s not a square, it’s a sort of octagon but not. You have a round shape with an octagonal element.
Everything is clean and pure in terms of shape. When you see the watch from the side, you see the steps of the case which are so recognisable, so Octo – and that is why this is a truly Roman design.”
As anyone who has been to Rome will tell you, there is no other city quite like it – stylish, exciting, daring and heart-breakingly beautiful: where better to take inspiration? A watch that changes with each incarnation, the Finissimo Automatic on titanium bracelet could be the finest example of the Octo yet. Taking its lead from the brand’s mother city, this miniature architectural masterpiece may still be seen as a square peg by some traditionalists, but perhaps this is a good thing because, as Bulgari’s motto reminds us: “Life is not round.”
Photographer’s AssistantS: Laurent Amiel, Lorenzo Profilio, Alex Orjecovschi
Digital Operator: Pablo Azevedo
Fashion Assistants: Veronica Perez, Luiza Wolanin
Grooming: Tyler Johnston @ One Represents using Schwarzkopf Professional
Model: Jon Kortajarena/View Management