Not all roads lead to Rome – an ironic fact, given Bulgari’s history and its affinity towards the Eternal City. But Bulgari’s success, in large part, is attributed to the business savvy Bulgari brothers, Gianni, Paolo and Nicola Bulgari, who turned their great- grandfather’s jewelry shop into today’s commercial behemoth, encompassing not only jewelry and watches, but leather goods, perfumes and hotels as well.

Bulgari shopfront on Via Condotti in the 1920s
Bulgari shopfront on Via Condotti in the 1920s

Successful as its jewelry department is, by no means should Bulgari’s watchmaking abilities be overlooked. No brand would dare underestimate the importance of authenticity and credibility in this industry today, and Bulgari has worked hard to position itself at the apex of fine watchmaking. Its 100 percent acquisitions of Gerald Genta SA and Daniel Roth SA, Swiss legends in their own right, in the early 2000s was just the beginning. Today, its movements and all the major components of its timepieces are created at its vertically-integrated manufactures in the Swiss Jura mountains. Grande complications, the ultra-thin Octo Finissimo and the Solotempo automatic base caliber movements are produced and assembled in Le Sentier, gold and steel cases and bracelets are manufactured at Saignelégier, while all the high-end dials are produced in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

On the Right Path with Bulgari

Any remnants of doubt over Bulgari’s sincerity in watchmaking is appeased with the recent barrage of world records it has quickly amassed in what we must say, is a pretty short amount of time. When Bulgari unveiled the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon in 2014, at the time the thinnest tourbillon in the world, the timepiece stunned everyone; no one saw it coming. In 2016, Bulgari struck again, this time with the world’s thinnest minute repeater, presented in a titanium Octo Finissimo case, another notable achievement in Bulgari’s books.

Bulgari was setting itself up for greatness – this year, we see the launch of the new Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic. This watch, at a thickness of just 3.95mm, is the world’s slimmest tourbillon watch, marking the fourth time the Octo Finissimo has reached a new high in watchmaking.

Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic (Image © Sidney Teo / Revolution)
Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic (Image © Sidney Teo / Revolution)

When I sit down to congratulate Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari, however, he quickly interjects to say that breaking records was never the goal. “Typically, when we go thin, it is for elegance. Elegance, like in jewelry, the creativity will dictate the technological evolutions,” he explains. “So, in the case of the Octo, envisioning the most elegant contemporary watch ever, we have been forced into new technologies that have us not only reduce the size of the components but also to rethink the whole dynamic of a movement. So that while delivering ultimate accuracy, we would simplify and enable the movement to express accuracy within a much more limited space. It’s not only, ‘I will make the watch two times smaller.’ This doesn’t work.”

Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari
Jean-Christophe Babin, CEO of Bulgari

Compared to some fine watchmaking brands, Bulgari doesn’t quite have the same heft, it might not be able to boast of decades and decades of watchmaking heritage, but one thing it has in abundance is its Roman culture.

Invited to Rome by Bulgari to join the launch of its Wild Pop high jewelry collection, the rest of our itinerary was jam-packed with cultural visits. Squished into a Fiat 500 mini car, we careened through the city’s winding alleys to check iconic landmarks off our list – the Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, where we glimpsed the octagonal adornments not unlike the ones found in the Basilica of Maxentius, the inspiration behind the Octo line; ancient Roman temples, whose cylindrical columns shaped the Bulgari-Bulgari collection; the Colosseum, the literal inspiration for the B.Zero 1 designs. We spend a long afternoon at the Baths of Caracalla, admiring the restored fan-shaped mosaic tiles that inspired the Divas’ Dream collection. Even the very stone pavement in front of Bulgari’s flagship on Via dei Condotti, with its interlocking travertine junctions, becomes part of the Parentesi jewelry collection.

Mosaic floor, Baths of Caracalla in Rome
Mosaic floor, Baths of Caracalla in Rome
Diva’s Dream Phoenix Tourbillon
Diva’s Dream Phoenix Tourbillon

Evidently, there is no lack of inspiration for Bulgari on the design front. Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, the Director of Watches at Bulgari, takes the heritage in cautiously. “For me, the heritage of this brand is just an opportunity,” he says. “We have a lot of brands that copy and paste from the archives, there are others who don’t care about the archives and prefer each time to reinvent the brands. For me, it’s just a reference. I know this brand has a very incredible archive, but my approach is to work with the archive in a different way to get just some elements and try to evolve it in ways that doesn’t exist. It’s very important the way you manage.”

Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani
Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani

Perhaps it is this line of thinking that gave us creations like the Lucea Tubogas and the Octo Finissimo Carbon Minute Repeater this year. The Tubogas, a supple band with rounded contours, is a bracelet produced without soldering, a laborious process that is only taken up by a small number of specialists. The shape is inspired by the shape of gas carrier pipes in use from the 1920s and utilized by Bulgari in the 1970s on its Serpenti Tubogas watches, simulating the snake’s scales in a more abstract, cutting-edge manner. I cannot express enough my weakness for the Serpenti Tubogas; all day long we wax lyrical over mechanical movements, intricate complications, métiers d’art, and then, with one look at the Serpenti Tubogas, I’m inexplicably head over heels in love with the timepiece and the way the metal gracefully curves around the wrist, quartz movement notwithstanding.

Serpenti advertisement from 1970
Serpenti advertisement from 1970

Babin proffers this explanation: “The fact that one century ago, already we design watches only for women, because that was the offspring of high jewelry; the fact that we approached the ladies for ladies and not as most pure watchmakers did in the ’60s and ’70s by evolving the men’s designs for women… I would say we are one of the few pure feminine watchmakers.”

In other words, Bulgari knows exactly what women want. And clearly, there is something about the springy Tubogas links that speak to my soul. There’s a new tricolor version called the Serpenti Tubogas Three-Gold this year that is absolutely stunning, a two-coil bracelet in yellow gold, steel and pink gold. The Tubogas bracelet has only ever been used on the Serpenti collection, until the beginning of this year when Bulgari presented the Lucea Tubogas, pairing Bulgari’s accessible Lucea round watches with the quintessentially Bulgari code.

A sketch of the Lucea Tubogas
A sketch of the Lucea Tubogas
Serpenti Tubogas Three-Gold
Serpenti Tubogas Three-Gold

“When I look at the Lucea, there is really a desire for more modern expressions of watches. A bit like jewelry, there’s the wearability. If you look at Lucea, it can be a jewelry watch if you’re very dressed up, but the construction itself is the very familiar, simple watch,” says Babin.

“Perhaps also there’s a trend for watches which are also very comfortable to wear. I think the Tubogas bracelet is bringing into watchmaking metal bracelets, this very appreciative jewelry dimension and pleasure ability. It’s caressing the skin. The good life is very central to today’s clients, and in the good life, pleasure is central. The offering is as important as the pleasure of having the watch itself. You like it because it’s light, it’s caressing, you even forget about it.” There you go, my love for the Tubogas, explained by Babin.

Tubogas Craftmanship
Tubogas Craftmanship

We’ve seen what Bulgari can do with elegance. On the other end of the spectrum, the audacity, the boldness takes over. The Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater Carbon is the newest addition in the striking watch category and follows on from 2016’s record-setting minute repeater. What’s really incredible here isn’t just the impressive acoustic properties of the watch or the ultra-thin case, but the material Bulgari chose to clad the watch in. The case, bezel and the caseback are made from an epoxy thermosetting resin called Carbon Thin Ply (CTP), with extremely thin carbon fibers that guarantee robustness despite its ultra-thin structure, and which also gives the watch a rugged, almost wabi-sabi look that makes you look twice.

“For Italian designers, functionality and beauty have exactly the same weight,” says Stigliani. “First of all, the watch has to have that very incredible look, you think, ‘Wow, outstanding.’ And when you pick up the watch you see, ‘Wow, it is different; wow, it’s very thin.’ And the third part of this journey is that the movement is fantastic.”

Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater Carbon (Image © Sidney Teo / Revolution)
Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater Carbon (Image © Sidney Teo / Revolution)

It may be that not all roads lead to Rome – Bulgari certainly reached its success today through very strategic moves, but its watchmaking department is shaping up to become a force to be reckoned with. The three core collections – Serpenti, Lucea and Octo – each bring something different to the table, but always complementary to each other through both its elegant and bold offerings.

“We will continue to develop the Octo, we will continue to develop the Lucea, the Lucea Tubogas, Octo Finissimo, Octo Roma, it’s a long journey,” reveals Stigliani. “What we are going to do in the future is to have a different way to see the products, and different ways to wear different materials.” If what we’ve seen so far is anything to go by, I can safely say Bulgari is on the right path.