If you cast your mind back to the ancient storied days of, I don’t know, seven or eight years ago, when the world was young, and we greeted each sunrise joyous of heart and light of spirit, you wouldn’t have thought that there was much of a percentage in going hard on ultra-thin watches. The whole genre has been, for much of the entire history of watchmaking, something of a niche endeavor. First, making any sort of true ultra-thin watch at all is so technically demanding that it is often considered a complication in its own right, and second, it becomes exponentially more difficult to coax good performance and reliability out of a watch as it gets thinner. For this reason, wristwatches designed primarily to be durable, accurate, and reliable daily companions have generally eschewed the pursuit of thinness as a separate and specific goal, and the category has generally remained a small one, with world records set before the new millennium often standing unchallenged for years, and then decades.
And we all know what happened next – Bulgari happened next. The Octo Finissimo line of ultra-thin watches launched just six years ago, but that short period of time has been marked by an efflorescence of technical innovation in watchmaking which it would have been unusual to see from a single brand in six decades. We have had the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater, the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT, the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic, and of course, the Octo Finissimo Automatic. In addition, we’ve had world records outside the Octo family as well, including, most recently, the Serpenti Seddutori Tourbillon, which houses the world’s smallest tourbillon in current production.
This week, as part of Geneva Watch Days, Bulgari has introduced yet another world record watch: the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Skeleton Automatic, in a case measuring 42mm x 7.40mm, and housing an openworked, monopusher chronograph tourbillon movement (yes, there are two pushers, but we’ll get into that in a minute) – caliber BVL 388, with a 50-hour power reserve, measuring just 3.50mm thick.
According to Bulgari, this is the flattest tourbillon chronograph wristwatch ever made.
Now, ultra-thin watches may be a niche category, but so are tourbillon chronographs. We have seen, since I joined HODINKEE back in 2015, less than a dozen, and they have largely been hand-wound, or have traveled along with other complications, such as minute repeaters (the Audemars Piguet Tradition Tourbillon, for instance, is also a minute repeater). And ultra-thin versions of the complication are virtually unknown – you can find lots of things to say about the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Chronograph, but not even its own mother (father? genderless and mysterious progenitor?) would call it ultra-thin, or even winningly svelte. I don’t think, however, that this particularly diminishes Bulgari’s accomplishment – the creation of a tourbillon chronograph movement with a self-winding system that is only 3.50mm thick is a remarkable achievement any way you (thinly) slice it.
To get a better sense of what that number represents, we can take a look at some other record-setting calibers (rather boringly, mostly from Bulgari as well, although it reflects perhaps more on the rest of the industry than on Bulgari that they seem to have little competition in the field). The Octo Finissimo Tourbillon’s hand-wound caliber BVL 268 is 1.95mm thick; however, it is a hand-wound movement. The Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater’s caliber BVL 362 comes in at 3.12mm thick. The caliber BVL 138 in the Octo Finissimo Automatic is at 2.30mm, the world’s thinnest self-winding movement (although the AP 2120 is still the world’s thinnest full-rotor automatic).
Maybe the most flat-out gasp-inducing movement, however, is the BVL 288 in the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic, which is as thin as the hand-wound Octo Finissimo Tourbillon – 1.95mm thick – but with an automatic winding system somehow maneuvered into it as well. That the BVL 288 could be so thin is partly due to the fact that it is a flying tourbillon (omitting the upper tourbillon bridge is an advantage where fractions of a millimeter count) and partly due to the fact that it uses a peripheral rotor, which (like a microrotor) can lie in the same plane as the movement plate.
Normally you put a tourbillon, and a chronograph, and a self-winding mechanism into a watch by sort of sandwiching them together. The automatic rotor and reverser and driving wheels, the chronograph mechanism, and the tourbillon (which generally lies on the same plane as the base plate; I’m unaware of any modular tourbillon, although anything’s possible) all sit on different layers, and if you add everything up from the various movements above, you would expect something maybe four millimeters or so thick – a chronograph plate added onto the BVL 288 would be one way to go. However, Bulgari seems to have found a way to put all of these mechanisms on more or less the same plane, as we’ll see.
The caliber BVL 388 in the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Automatic incorporates a number of interesting technical features as well.
Right off the bat, there is the fact that this is not a flying tourbillon, which in an ultra-flat tourbillon, you would certainly expect (the upper bridge is visible both in the movement image, and of course, through the dial of the watch). The mainspring barrel is prominently visible at 12:00, with the keyless works for winding and setting to the right. The tourbillon cage is driven at its periphery, rather than via a lower pinion (which I think saves space as well), and there is no regulator, which, again, helps keep height down (you can see the timing weights on the rim of the balance; the weights have been set into recesses in the balance’s upper surface). Now, one very interesting note: If you look quite closely, you will see what looks like a tiny column wheel, at about the 4:00 position. At first, I thought this might have something to do with the chronograph, but if you recall, this is a monopusher movement – start, stop, and reset are via the pusher at 2:00. As it turns out, this lower column wheel and its associated pusher (at 4) are for setting the function of the crown. In one position, the crown hand-winds; push the 2:00 pusher, and the function is changed to hand-setting.
The movement side allows you to see the chronograph and automatic winding mechanisms. According to Bulgari, while some of the basic features of the caliber BVL 318, in the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT, are present in the caliber BVL 388 as well, the BVL 388 is largely a new movement. About the only thing the two movements have in common is that they are both lateral clutch designs (the lateral clutch, all other things being equal, offers a flatter construction than a vertical clutch). We can see, on the top level of the movement, the hatchet-shaped chronograph bridge, and below that, the laterally sliding, integrated reset-to-zero hammer – the heart-piece cams for reset-to-zero, which are set on the axes of the center seconds recorder and, to the left, the minutes recorder, are just visible beneath the bridge. At 10:00, you can see the reverser and transmission wheels for the peripheral rotor (white gold in this case, though Bulgari used platinum for the Chronograph GMT), and the mainspring barrel is at 12:00.
One quite cool feature is the clutch lever for the chronograph. You can see the nose of the clutch lever sitting on one of the column wheel teeth, and if you look closely, you will see that Bulgari solved the problem of fitting it into the movement by having it actually wrap around the lower tourbillon bridge – I don’t remember seeing this particular mechanical solution in any other tourbillon chronograph caliber. Normally, fitting the chronograph works into a tourbillon is handled simply by having the works on a higher level than the movement plate, above the tourbillon itself, but this solution allowed Bulgari to suppress the chronograph works into the movement plate.
Now, the problem with making a name for yourself as a maker and breaker of records is that you turn yourself, just a bit, into a sports star, and sports stars don’t last forever. Sooner or later, they retire, and their records tend to be broken by the next generation of athletes, who benefit from an earlier start, more scientific training regimens, and so on. Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo line is, to me, an unprecedented accomplishment in modern watchmaking. The line has few rivals in terms of creating an aesthetic unity across an enormous range of prices and complications, all tied together by a common design language and a common commitment to ultra-thin watchmaking. (It is a never-ending source of amusement to me that the Berner Professional Dictionary Of Horology, tasked with defining an extra-flat watch, says, “A watch that is extremely flat,” which is one of the biggest cop-outs in the history of horological nomenclature).
It’s impossible to tell how the future is going to treat this collection and these designs – I mean, in 1972, the Royal Oak looked a little desperate – but the fact that every time I look at the launch date for the Octo Finissimo collection, I can’t believe it’s only six years, is indicative of something, I think. I like to believe the collection has staying power, and that, long after who broke what record when is forgotten, the Octo Finissimo collection will be remembered, not just with nostalgia, but with enduring respect for the combination of genuinely insightful watchmaking, and strong design, that it has come to represent in 21st-century horology.
The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Chronograph Automatic: Case, 42mm x 7.40mm, grade 5 titanium; sandblasted titanium crown and pushers; skeletonized grey matte dial. Movement, Bulgari caliber BVL 388, 3.50mm thick, 52-hour power reserve, monopusher chronograph with tourbillon and function setting pusher for the crown, running in 52 jewels at 21,600 vph. Bracelet, sandblasted titanium, with folding clasp. Limited Edition of 50 pieces worldwide; price, €150,000. More at Bulgari.com.