Complicated watchmaking: the ultimate quest for extra-flat performance

Complicated Watchmaking: The Ultimate Quest For Extra-Flat Performance

Ultra-fine watchmaking was evident both within and outside the aisles of SIHH 2018, including where you would least expect it. Further proof that it continues to be a popular preoccupation for watchmakers.

By Joël A. Grandjean

Miniaturisation, aka the quest for ultra-flat perfection, more than justifiably belongs to the list of supreme watchmaking complications. The mechanism of a watchmaking movement obviously takes up some space (albeit a fairly small space since the advent of the wristwatch around a century ago). The fact nevertheless remains that watchmakers always like to add a few more brainteasers to the already complex complications in existence. Take, for example, miniaturisation. Watchmakers love to find ways of combining chronometric science and gems of creative genius in order to reduce the thickness of a watch movement even further, without undermining its performance.

Calibre 9P and the Piaget gene pool

DNA is justifiably a buzz word at Piaget. It must be remembered that "extra-fine" has been part of the gene vocabulary at this manufacture ever since the Maison developed its legendary 9P in 1957 in the company's birthplace in La Côte aux Fées. This watchmaking calibre with manual winding, just 2 mm in thickness, is considered the ultimate in terms of slimness. Then there was the 12P, a mechanical calibre with automatic winding, for a long time the world's flattest measuring 2.3 mm. Thus, as guardian of a heritage that includes the estimable Altiplano line, which continues to be an object of fascination for a growing number of enthusiasts, it's only right that the brand should capitalise on this exceptionalism. It builds constantly on a history that boasts some record-holding exploits together with a reputation for "talking pieces".

This year, two models virtually broke our screens. The first was the world's flattest automatic watch at a thickness of 4.30 mm, namely the Altiplano Ultimate Automatic, named after the famous plain in Central America, which unravels as far as the eye can see. It houses calibre 910P, whose 22 K gold peripheral oscillating weight mounted on ceramic ball bearings, contributes to a remarkable space-saving design. Conceptually, this watch dispenses with the idea of any distinction between movement and casing, as some parts of the calibre are directly machined out of the case. 

Based on the same construction principle, but taking it a notch further, we have the second model, proudly bearing the title Altiplano Ultimate Concept. Case and movement together measure just 2 mm, in other words a little under the thickness of a Swiss two-franc piece. As regards the historical 2 mm thick calibre 9P, we appear to have come full circle thanks to the use of a cobalt-based metal, since the softness of gold, Piaget's preferred metal, at such a degree of slimness would have led to warping on the watchcase surface.

Bulgari, ultra-fine elegance

Meanwhile, over at Bulgari, the Finissimo saga continues to work miracles. Here, too, ultra-slimness and a penchant for world records prompted the brand to scale new complication heights, such as the tourbillon in 2014, or the minute repeater in 2016. Then, at Baselworld 2017, the Octo Finissimo Automatique scooped a third world record with a thickness of 5.5 mm and platinum oscillating weight. Admittedly, the Octo form lends itself gracefully to this exceptional feat of watchmaking design, with its octagonal elegance and aesthetic new-icon status. The title is one that is unlikely to be usurped, such is the talent of Bulgari's watchmakers for invention and reinvention in their extreme quest for ultra-finesse, with no loss to accuracy and shock-resistance requirements.

Audemars Piguet, legitimately streets ahead

Flash-forward to SIHH where, suddenly, another great Maison, the independent watchmaker Audemars Piguet, still surprises. Topped in 2018 by the 25th anniversary celebration of its Royal Oak Off Shore, that icon of an era dedicated to XXL design, its current achievements might almost make one forget that when it comes to watches and extra-flat calibres, this brand can boast true legitimacy. Streets ahead? The History of this brand is steeped in revelations, as shown by a handful of historic models capturing the milestones in the development of its ultra-fine watchmaking prowess. 

As a point of reference, let me take you back in time to the Vallée de Joux. It's 1921 and for a long time calibre17SVF#5 was the world's finest at just 1.32 mm thick. Then, in 1978, there was the record held by Audemars Piguet for its Perpetual Calendar automatic calibre, the 3.95 mm thick 2120/2800. Another high point was in 1986, when Audemars Piguet's calibre 2870 automatic tourbillon acceded to the title of the flattest tourbillon in the world measuring 5.3 mm in thickness.

To mark the occasion in 2018, the Royal Oak RD#2 Concept Watch (where RD stands for Research and Development) houses the world's flattest Perpetual Calendar and Moon Phases calibre at a thickness of just 2.89 mm. It's all there, everything packed into 256 components encased within a Royal Oak case especially flattened for the occasion, day-night indicator, astronomic moon and beating at an atypical rate of 19,800 vibrations an hour, or 2.75 Hertz.

The watchmaker's eternal quest

During the week of SIHH 2018, I, too, fell under the spell of the record-breaker hype, records already or yet to be broken. But incidentally, it allows us to dwell on the increasingly innovative ingeniousness of the world's great watchmakers in face of new challenges. And to prove it is the long list of patents received or pending. Amid news of upcoming events, Baselworld undoubtedly has its share of surprises and competitive bidding in store. Nevertheless, it's worth resuming our focus on history: from time immemorial, miniaturisation, and thus the search for extremely fine watch movements, has featured as one of the authentic values that today's watchmakers have inherited from their forefathers, values they now seek to elaborate upon. What better proof than this anecdote: on the Friday of the SIHH, open day to the public, I met a lady of a certain age on the Vacheron Constantin stand. She was wearing an ultra-slim white gold watch having once belonged to her late husband. Purchased in 1978, just forty years ago, never serviced, but in perfect working order… this ultra-fine watch was produced as part of a series that went out of production not so long ago…

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