With eight world records in as many years, it’s hard to imagine that Bulgari’s watchmaking endeavours only began in earnest a little over 20 years ago. Then, seeking to establish itself as a respectable watchmaking house, the famed Italian jeweller acquired both the Genta and Daniel Roth brands in 2000, along with their manufacturing facilities in Le Sentier. Italian designer Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani joined in 2001 where one of his first briefs was to design a bracelet for the Octo.
Moving the brand’s watchmaking design team from Rome to Switzerland, he and his team got to work, reimagining the Octo as something bold and modern. By 2012, the Octo was born: a polished steel and satin octagonal case featuring an unprecedented 110 facets with round bezel, a black lacquer dial and a leather alligator strap. Two short years later, Bulgari changed the game (and cemented its legitimacy forever) with the launch of the Octo Finissimo.
In English, Finissimo can be translated to something approximating “superfine”. The design was unmistakably new and more importantly, its our generation’s “Royal Oak” moment, an equivalence that Antoine Pin, the Head of Bulgari watchmaking humbly disagrees. Nevertheless, no one is considering Bulgari as a jeweller first and watchmaker second. They’ve achieved legitimacy in 20 years in an industry which counts provenance in centuries.
It looks like there’s a world record for the Octo Finissimo every year now, for over eight consecutive years, how many more years can you continue this streak?
We made it clear that we can continue because with ultra thin watches, you can always add an extra function but the point is, the world record means more to us than the accolade itself. It was clearly an accelerator in our communications to position us as a serious watchmaker. In a way, looking at independent watchmakers, Moser has their signature dials and they master the dial by playing with techniques. Max Busser goes in a direction of fantastic contraptions and machines. It is this repetition of “signature” that is really key to making your mark on the market.
Internally, it was a way to build our culture as a watchmaker. What are we aiming for? What is our obsession? What do we stand for? In that respect, records have helped us gain confidence as a new integrated watchmaker. We are roughly 25 years old, that’s the same age as many independents, all born between 1995 and 2005. There’s a simpatico spirit because we are all young entrepreneurial watchmakers in mindset.
Today, this credibility is manifest not just externally but within the company. The whole Swiss industry looks at Bulgari differently and there’s no shame in applying to work here because there’s a real respect from suppliers to young apprentices. They want to be part of an adventure, they no longer feel like we’re not a “true watchmaker”. The world records say “these guys are real” and that we are not buying movements from somewhere, that’s not what we are.
So do you foresee another 10 years of world records?
[Laughs] we said this year was going to be the last one.
Was it up for debate or discussion?
It definitely created some frustration/ [laughs] I won’t name names but personally I don’t want us to be chasing world records because you end up chasing that rather than what is important for the brand. We don’t need it anymore. People know what we do know and there’s more to do in different directions. We may even do a smaller Piccolissimo and that will be even smaller than the JLC 101 volume wise, there will be plenty of things to do. In a way, any innovation is a world record in the industry, look at Breguet and his tourbillon – the most precise watch of its time. That’s the essence of high horology: doing things that nobody has done before, that’s the innovation mindset of an engineer. We will definitely be doing plenty of innovative things but we won’t call them “world records”. [laughs] it would be a pity people remember us for records rather than achievements.
Bulgari is very design led but watches can be thin to the point where the proportions don’t make sense anymore. How do you balance what Fabrizio might want versus what watchmakers might feel makes sense?
That’s the point. When we decided to go and challenge established pioneers like Piaget, the condition was that we would only do it if it was super ergonomic and super user friendly. It’s easy to wear and manipulate and not something you put in the box under museum glass; you could go very thin doing that but then what would be the point. At this stage, the ultra thin prototypes you have seen go up to 65 hours of power reserve while we are confident that their precision could turn them into chronometers. That’s where the real accomplishment is – proposing a true, qualitative watch. Similarly, the design has to be interesting and while it wont be universally appeal, it has to be attractive. Finissimo is not just known for being thin and slim but it’s also super comfortable and robust enough to be usable daily. We could go thinner but then we would lose a lot of its practicality. We won’t go thinner…. Unless Piaget goes there [laughs].
Still on the topic of design, was everyone in agreement for putting the QR code on the Finissimo Ultra?
Oh yes. There’s a big ratchet wheel of the barrel taking up 20% of the surface of the watch. We would never leave one fifth of a watch empty in Fabrizio’s hands. We considered many elements, put Bulgari, put the name of the calibre but there was no interest in the other solutions. We couldn’t compete with the other counters and subdials either, I don’t know what entered Fabrizio’s mind but I believe that we had so many meetings together and those sessions included using data matrix (which is a form of QR code) for traceability and with the metaverse, Fabrizio had a lightbulb moment. The QR code is a round shape made of squares, while the Octo is a square made of round shapes and wheels. This become an amazing connection from a pure, rational, design perspective. I really loved it and told Jean Christophe immediately.
With the Ultra, we lose one dimension. From the front of the calibre, there’s a depth but in profile, we lose this depth. But then, with the QR code, it gave us an opportunity to include a digital dimension: videos, VR, access to certificates of ownership, product information etc. You can scan your watch and enter into the story of your watch. We keep talking about developing the user experience and here they have a direct access to it. From a design perspective, we could have kept it small because of the laser treatment but it turned out ugly because your eye would pinpoint focus on that point.
It was not at all gimmicky for us, it is a product of our times. It’s not just one video on a microsite, we did artistic NFTs, it’s a blockchain where physical watch and digital representation are connected and we patented this by the way because this is the first time two codes in different metaverses are intertwined and cannot be sold separately. You sell the watch, you sell the NFT.
Rather than making a watch in the metaverse which wouldn’t do justice to our watchmakers, artists would create a pretty interesting, non functional, fictional watch but this way, we give justice to out own identity, which is not purely digital but physical. Sure, critics will say it’s not the way a traditional watch is made but nothing in this watch is traditional.
Here’s the thing, there’s only going to be ten. Lots of research and development has gone into it, are you gong to retire this movement? Or will it survive somehow in another iteration?
For sure, you can expect another 20 next year and 20 the year after that. It’s not a concept watch but a new collection, a new expression of the Octo Finissimo. Those will be a different product.
The Piccolissimo is obviously a very small calibre, just how much of 10 years of know-how went into that?
A lot and that’s why it wasn’t complicated for us to make it. There are two sides in the development of a calibre: the design of the calibre, a computer assisted definition of the movement, creation of the plans etc, that’s a theoretical approach. It is in the transition into the reality of construction and prototyping and later, industrialisation. So really, there’s three phases. The prototyping and industrialisation is related to the know-how we’ve accumulated. Our mastery of producing and assembling assists in the construction part of the equation related to small calibres, that is to say, we know how to make a practical, functional, working calibre. We learned to face many issues with the Finissimo at the beginning because we were using old gauges for regular movements on new calibres and there were risks of misalignment of some of the components and so we had to be more precise in assembling and manipulation.
The Finissimo is never referred as a luxury integrated bracelet sports watch, what do you consider it?
Can I say “I don’t care”? [laughs] For me, there’s an elegance. It’s a very premium daily watch with a great engine. It defies categories. For me, it’s about seducing the customers and making them happy. They wouldn’t care if it’s a premium sports watch or integrated bracelet watch. In reality, it’s a high complication. Today, ultra thin feels normal because it has been popularised but few brands are making it. As long as people recognise it and appreciate it, then we have achieved the balance between design and expertise.
That’s a great response, the reason I asked that question is because the success of the Finissimo has led watch lovers to go back into Bulgari’s older models like the Diagono Scuba, the brand’s first integrated luxury sports watch and now resale values are going up because there is renewed interest. So my next question would be: are you guys looking into re-launching the Diagono?
You’re asking a great question. What is sure is that with the Bulgari aluminium, it is different and we clearly want to develop its own identity. But now we know where we like to go and what we want to do as watchmakers and clearly there’s a constant appetite for improving things. What we admire in our competitors is capacity to level up their own products and this is something we do with the Finissimo all the time even if we don’t communicate it. Clearly, the connection of the Aluminium to the Diagono is very close because of the bezel and we don’t want to bring in a new collection so we are happy with what we have but it doesn’t prevent us from capitalising on the Diagono experience in the future.