Tiny Watch Movements Are Big at Bulgari
In June, Bulgari presented its vision of the Garden of Eden, called Giardino Dell’Eden Piccolissimo. It was an extravagant jewelry watch covered in diamonds, rubies, pink tourmalines, mandarin garnet, pink and yellow sapphires and rock crystal, all set around the dial on the wings of a butterfly, the scales of a slithering snake and throughout a bed of flowers in bloom.
The opulent piece concealed one remarkable detail: At its heart was the caliber BVl100, also known as the Piccolissimo (“very small” in Italian), a mechanical micromovement designed in-house by Bulgari to power its high-end jewelry watches.
“This is the product of our miniaturization know-how from Switzerland and our art of jewelry making from Italy,” Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, creative director of Bulgari Watches, said in an interview in Paris in June.
During most of the 20th century, Bulgari used small mechanical movements in its jewelry watches, but the Roman jeweler switched to quartz- or battery-powered movements in the late 1970s when the popularity of Japanese-made quartz watches put many Swiss mechanical movement manufacturers out of business.
The Piccolissimo, which debuted in January in four Serpenti “secret watches” (timepieces disguised as bracelets), is a return to that early practice — but with a difference. The caliber has 102 components that weigh a total of 1.3 grams (.045 ounces), it is 12.3 millimeters in diameter and 2.5 millimeters thick, and, the brand said, it will keep a watch ticking for 30 hours.
“We put in a lot of effort to ensure its reliability,” Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. “If you don’t master miniaturization, you can end up with a very small power reserve.”
Precision and reliability in ultrathin watches have been the executive’s daily focus since 2001, when he joined Bulgari (with the exception of a two-year absence when he worked elsewhere as a consultant). An industrial designer who came to watches after working in the automotive industry, he has been what the brand’s chief executive, Jean-Christophe Babin, called at the 2021 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève awards “Bulgari’s own Leonardo da Vinci, both an artist and an engineer.” (Mr. Babin was accepting the Aiguille d’Or, the top prize at the Grand Prix, for the Octo Finissimo Perpetual Calendar with a retrograde date display, which featured a power reserve of 60 hours.)
In the last decade, Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani has been the force behind Bulgari’s transformation from a jewelry brand into a respected player in the men’s luxury sport-watch category.
And since 2014, his design team has achieved eight world records for ultraslim movements, including the world’s thinnest watch, the 1.8 millimeter Octo Finissimo Ultra — that is until July 6, when Richard Mille introduced the 1.75-millimeter RM UP-01 Ferrari.
“In the past 12 years, we have been focused on the Finissimo series,” Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. “This shift to the ladies’ side is part of the same ‘ultraslim’ conversation. Without Finissimo, we couldn’t have imagined the Piccolissimo.”
The Piccolissimo, small as it is, must be wound by hand; in a space-saving move, the crown has been set on the caseback. The stem can be turned both clockwise, for timesetting, and counterclockwise, for winding.
Jean-Marc Wiederrecht, a retired watchmaker and founder of the movement maker Agenhor, wrote in an email: “The 30-hour power reserve with a 2.5-millimeter thinness, despite the restricted overall volume of the caliber, plus the crown on the case back which itself is a complex challenge, are great achievements that show how well Bulgari has mastered this miniaturization.”
The Piccolissimo has its own container, separate from the bracelet’s structure. “This means you can turn the movement and read the time correctly whether you wear the watch on the left or right wrist,” Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. “It also means the movement can be serviced without having to touch its jewelry bracelet.”
In the Past
Bulgari is not the only luxury brand to work with miniature watch movements. The Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 101, introduced in 1929, remains a standard among small movements destined for jewelry watches at less than 1 gram in weight and measuring 14 millimeters long, 4.8 millimeters wide and 3.4 millimeters thick.
“Jewelry was going through a renaissance then,” Lionel Favre, product design director for Jaeger-LeCoultre, said in a video interview from the brand’s factory in Switzerland’s Vallée de Joux. “And Jaeger had the specific know-how with different métiers vertically integrated in its manufacture.”
Mr. Wiederrecht wrote: “Mini calibers were common until the arrival of quartz movements in the 1970s,” and he noted, “Jaeger’s Calibre 101 holds the record for slimness among baguette-shaped calibers.”
While the popularity of inexpensive watches with Japanese-made quartz technology ate away at Swiss watch sales — and dampened brands’ interest in investing in micromechanical movements for the less lucrative women’s market — Jaeger-LeCoultre continued to tweak its caliber.
“The Calibre 101 is now in its fifth generation,” Mr. Favre said. “It has gone from 78 to 98 components as we have re-evaluated it for precision and reliability.”
In the past, Jaeger sold the Calibre 101 to houses such as Cartier or Van Cleef & Arpels for their luxury watches, but limited production has ended the practice. “We only make 10 to 20 units per year, because every movement is adjusted by hand,” Mr. Favre said. “The process is entirely artisanal, therefore expensive.”
A Family Heirloom
Until the mid-1970s, Bulgari’s Tubogas watches were powered by small mechanical movements purchased from suppliers, including Vacheron Constantin. But client demand, at least in part, persuaded Bulgari to invest in engineering its own microcaliber.
“We had requests from Asian clients who love our jewelry watches but prefer to have a quality mechanical movement,” Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said. “Also, if we are talking sustainability, a mechanical jewelry watch lasts forever and is more eco-friendly. You can pass it on, it becomes a family heirloom.”
For both Bulgari and Jaeger-LeCoultre, the issue has been quality. “Utility can always be questioned, but we aim to create an exceptional object to the highest quality standards,” Mr. Favre said. “It is like having a jacket with a silk lining versus a cotton lining. Some people may not be sensitive to the difference, but at higher price levels, some want the better quality.”
Bulgari has said it intends to use the Piccolissimo to develop a range of fully mechanical women’s models. While each piece has to be assembled by hand, Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani said, “we will increase our in-house production capacity and will aim for 40 Piccolissimo movements this year.”
The one-of-a-kind Giardino Dell’Eden watch, he noted, was sold the first day it was shown to clients.
But, he said, “we will make others, with different flowers, and this model will serve as a platform. The development of this microcaliber has opened a new chapter.”