Top-flight watchmaking thrown… sideways

We frequently hear or see the use of the term “turned upside down” as in “they turned the world upside down,” which either means something fantastically unusual or a fresh approach to what was old-hat. Well, while Michel Parmigiani and his Bugatti Type 370 wristwatch may not have turned the watch world upside down, he has certainly turned it uh… sideways. By discarding the accepted construction norms – dial parallel to one’s wrist, the notion of wearable thickness and case shapes in general – Parmigiani has created a watch that is sculptural, architectural and engaging.
The genesis of the Bugatti watch stems from two independently unique possibilities presenting themselves within arm’s reach of each other in 2002. Bugatti, the luxury carmaker, approached Parmigiani to make a wristwatch to represent their 16-cylinder speeding rocket of a car, the Veyron, which may well be the most amazing production car ever manufactured. Soon after this proposal, independent watchmaker Vincent Bérard visited the Fleurier manufacture armed with a unique concept: a movement that is stacked high, layered and positioned on its side, allowing the dial to be placed perpendicularly to one’s wrist – a so-called “driver’s watch” for its visual ease while on the road. Finding Bérard’s contrivance technically interesting, Parmigiani knew that this prototype and Bugatti’s Veyron design cues were a match made in gearhead heaven.

In an industry steeped in tradition, the proposed “transversal” movement was certainly an absurdity. While it is true that the basic components are generally “traditional”, the architecture is something that has never been seen before in the watch world and thus provided a challenging development. “It was very difficult to industrialize such a movement. Especially one that was less than a working movement, but more of a concept piece,” Michel explains.
From Bérard’s piece, Parmigiani designed what would become the Type 370. Some of the changes Parmigiani made were the shape of the plates, adding a power reserve, using two stacked and “serial-coupled” mainspring barrels to increase the power reserve, as well as changing the winding and setting mechanism. This design, the “Bugatti”, was shown to the designers at Volkswagen (VW owns Bugatti). They didn’t like it. “Why did you make it like this?” they asked in disbelief, trying to comprehend this unusual watch. “Because,” Michel replied, “it’s a motor on your wrist.” This clear logic could not be disputed. A Bugatti wristwatch should be a motor on the wearer’s wrist. With this, the Parmigiani design went to their manufacture, Vaucher, to begin the technical construction, manufacture and assembly of the Bugatti Type 370.

Three years in the making, the result is a transversal movement of five plates, layered like a mechanic’s cake, alluding to the Veyron’s 1,001-horsepower W-16 engine. The plates are separated by cylindrical pillars and secured with micro bolts – a wink to its four-wheeled friend. Continuing the theme, some wheels resemble Ettore Bugatti’s classic double wheel rims invented in the 1930s – a nice visual detail. The Type 370 has a ten-day power reserve, which is indicated on a drum, with the days marked around its circumference. In conjunction with the power reserve indicator, you’ll find a differential that looks as though it was plucked straight from the Veyron.

Dispensing with the typical keyless winding and setting mechanism, Parmigiani has developed a most unique system in three parts. To create the necessary friction and clutching action for setting the hands, a coiled spring – like those found in the Bugatti’s suspension – is used instead of the usual crimped cannon pinion or friction fitted wheel used in offset center wheel constructions. Similarly, a coiled spring is used in the winding mechanism. Both systems use extended axles with bevel gearing. Bevel or conical gears are a pairing of two gears whose axes of rotation are not parallel, but intersecting at right angles. These gears are more challenging to make and yield a smoother, more efficient transition of power. The third part is the use of cardans or universal joints, which are positioned in two places on the bottom of the movement, with interfaces under the case to facilitate the winding and setting via the watch’s key. This key, the “choke”, is another horological first. The choke is a pen-like device in appearance, but it is actually an intricate mechanical gizmo, which took three years of research and development. “Its complex dynamometric system, which may be disconnected at any moment, makes it possible to deliver constant force to the cardan winding-stem. Time-setting is done by means of manual rotations performed with the other end of the choke.

As impressive as the details and manufacture of the Type 370 are, without assembly, they are nothing more than a box of interesting bits! Just as with the development and manufacture, Vaucher assembles the Bugatti movement.
There are about ten watchmakers who assemble the Type 370 movement, as well other complicated watches. It takes four days to assemble the movement, with two separate assemblies and specialized tools and holders to do the job correctly. The first assembly is for making all the adjustments and checks, referencing assembly procedures and technical data found in a two-inch ring binder. After everything is as it should be, the movement is cleaned before the final assembly and timing.

The timed movement is then sent down the road to Parmigiani, where the casing and after-sales service of the Bugatti take place. The casing of the movement can take up to two hours and, we’re told, the two years of prototype-testing have proven to be well worth the time, as none of the Bugattis that have been received for after-sales servicing are due to mechanical or watchmaker errors, but rather unfortunate happenings to the owner.

A movement as unusual as the Type 370 requires a case as unique and inspired as the movement it would house. Michel Parmigiani realized this immediately and, foreseeing the challenges, he gave casemaker, classmate and friend, Bruno Affolter (responsible for 40 percent of Parmigiani cases) the task of creating the body for his engine.
A “classic” case takes around three months to design and develop. The Bugatti case was a two-year undertaking. As the movement cannot be secured to the case in the standard fashion due to its shape, and special winding and hand setting features, special accommodations were needed. The movement uses the case back as a chassis, secured by four “silent blocks”, which absorb vibrations and protect the bevel gears (for time-setting and winding) from external stresses and strains. These shock absorbers are a world first.

With all of the Veyron design cues within and the openness of the transversal movement, the case could not hide its interior – it must have ample windows to be fully enjoyed. This was accomplished by employing six sapphire crystals placed around the movement, which required three separate suppliers to provide their special shapes and six specially made jigs for pressing them into the case.

Normally, a case made using modern methods is either milled or stamped from a single billet of metal. With a shape that offers many inner and outer curves to mimic the Veyron’s body, it was not possible to make the case in these ways. The five basic parts (there are eight in total) – the main cylindrical body, two banana fender-shaped sides, and two “scoop” type pieces in the front and the back – are stamped or machined individually. These parts are soldered together and must be perfectly aligned, so great care is taken to ensure they don’t move during the soldering. This results in four to five hours of work. Once completed, the Bugatti’s case is water-resistant to three atmospheres.

With a price tag over $200,000, one may think it’s expensive, but with the Veyron zooming in at over $1.2 million, the Bugatti Type 370 is comparatively more affordable. When one considers that the Bugatti is made almost entirely within the Parmigiani family, its value is only enhanced. And, one wonders, with an engine that offers so many possibilities, will Parmigiani develop the Type 370 further? Vroom, vroom! H

Icons of time

The mainsprings of this watch are so powerful that, together, they can lift a 100-gram bar of chocolate a full ten feet in the air A. Lange & Söhne’s CEO, Fabien Krone

Thousands of skiers are on their way from Maloya to S-Chanf in southeastern Switzerland as they participate in the annual Engadin ski marathon on Sunday, 12 March 2006

“Why did you make it like this?” they asked in disbelief, trying to comprehend this unusual watch. “Because,” Michel replied, “it’s a motor on your wrist.”

Case back with porthole to view movement. Note interface points for cardans and choke (left -winding, right – hand setting)

The Bugatti Type 370 Workshop at Vaucher manufacture

The “boot” of the movement. Note in-house balance and hairspring, escapement, and winding cardan and coiled spring

Requiring four to five hours to assemble, the complicated Bugatti case requires the utmost care

Michel Parmigiani explaining his “motor on the wrist”

The Type 370 as mechanical sculpture

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