There was a time, not so very long ago, when horological one-upmanship consisted in fitting the maximum number of functions inside a minimum amount of cubic millimetres, and while manufacturers continue to test their mettle this way, the chill wind blowing through markets these past twenty months has somewhat cooled their ardour. In a more realistic context, where price is no longer a secondary consideration, brands are coming down on the side of simplicity. In watch parlance, this translates into an elegance made for the quiet appreciation of the true enthusiast. Beyond words, for what they are worth, this shift in values has prompted a new approach to the measuring of time which, uncomplicated as it may be, implies just as much dexterity and no less a command of movement production. Because simplicity is not enough. A watch must also be thin and here too, brands are engaged in the battle of the bulge.
A hat trick for Bulgari
Once again, the tone was set in January at Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), with the second movement performed at Baselworld. Tellingly, only the most seasoned Manufactures have so far joined the fray. At SIHH, this meant Piaget, a name synonymous with extra-thin timepieces which this year celebrates 60 years of the Altiplano with an anniversary collection. The 40 mm model is fitted with an automatic movement, the 1203P, that measures 3.00 mm high. Another contender in the extra-thin race, Audemars Piguet presented its Royal Oak Extra-Thin. It carries a distinctly vintage vibe with its yellow gold case, Petite Tapisserie dial and calibre 2121 movement (3.05 mm) that made its debut some fifty years ago. How time flies. Not forgetting Cartier, which is now changing tack and steering production towards less tumultuous waters. The Panthère collection is symptomatic of this new direction, as is the Drive which this year welcomed an extra-thin version fitted with the manual-wind calibre 430 MC (2.15 mm).
These three examples are a reminder of exactly which league the major players are in (although it’s worth noting here that the profession has not yet reached a consensus as to what distinguishes the “extra-thin” from the merely slim). As the curtain came up at Baselworld, Bulgari was once again the centre of attention with its Octo Finissimo Automatic. The 2.23 mm of its BVL 138 movement fit inside a case that totals 5.15 mm in height: record assoluto and a third exploit for the brand whose Octo collection also includes the world’s thinnest tourbillon, introduced in 2014 and followed two years later by the slimmest ever minute repeater. “The elegance of extreme thinness relies on mastery of volumes and shapes,” writes Bulgari. “Such extreme thinness is a bold move conveying a philosophy, a highly complex means of paring down to essentials, with a powerful design that vividly enhances this demonstration of minimalism.”
Similarly, 2017 is proving to be an excellent vintage for Patek Philippe. It is, after all, the 40th anniversary year of calibre 240 which made its debut in the Ellipse d’Or Ref. 3738, a remarkably slim watch despite its automatic winding mechanism. As the Manufacture reminds us, 1976 was a difficult year for the Swiss watch industry. Already, certain companies were switching to quartz and scrapping part of their machinery. The Genevan firm had very different ideas: to develop a supremely elegant, automatic movement that would rival quartz not in terms of precision, nor in the lower price segment, but for criteria as undeniable as beauty, reliability and durability. Over its 40 years, the 240 has also proven to be an excellent starting point for various additional functions such as a perpetual calendar (calibre 240 Q/3.75 mm) or world time. Now it’s back in the spotlight at 3.30 mm high and with the benefit of Patek’s most recent innovations, including the Oscillomax regulator. Look for it in the Calatrava Skeleton Ref. 5180/1, the ladies’ Ref. 4899/900 high jewellery watch, and the Calatrava Ref. 6006 which, at 39 mm, measures 2 millimetres in diameter more than the previous incarnation from 2005. The off-centre small seconds between 4 and 5 o’clock, a detail from 1991, adds an original touch which, together with the date by hand, accentuates the classic vintage style.
When it comes to movement height, Patek Philippe is not the only one to play with the boundaries of possibility. Blancpain is another serious contender with its Villeret Day Date, driven by the automatic calibre 1160 DD (4.60 mm). Chopard goes a step further with the L.U.C XP whose LUC 96.53-L automatic calibre measures a wasp-waisted 3.30 mm. Hermès staked its claim to extra-thin two years ago with the introduction of Slim d’Hermès, equipped with calibre H1950. Another automatic, it stands 2.60 mm high. The Slim returns this year as the Grrrrr! whose dial has been miniature-painted in exquisite detail with a gruff-looking grizzly from a design by Alice Shirley. Wafer-thin they may be, in a profession that has stripped away the superfluous, these watches clearly carry weight.