Bulgari has been breaking records for ultra-thin watchmaking for three years now. As it launched the simplest – and thinnest – of them all, the Octo Finissimo Automatic, we look at where this penchant for razor-sharp, wafer-thin watchmaking came from.
By Felix Scholz
Photos by Gary Smith
In the lead up to Baselworld, one of the most enjoyable pastimes of watch industry stalwarts is to speculate on that perennial favourite, “What will be the hit watch this year?” Without doubt, most would name Rolex or Patek Philippe – these days maybe Tudor too. Traditional answers all, and particularly safe in this uncertain economic climate. It would have been a lonely soul indeed to suggest that Bulgari would provide a watch that was not just one of the year’s most technically impressive, but also one of the most visually stunning – the Octo Finissimo Automatic.
But really, we shouldn’t be so surprised. With all the quiet and calm that an extravagant Italian jewellery house can muster, Bulgari has been busy carving itself a slice of serious horological credibility. A very, very thin slice.
In 2014 they released the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, with a movement sliding in at a mere 1.95mm. Not only did Bulgari earn the mantle of makers of the world’s thinnest flying tourbillon, they did it with style, housing the tourbillon in the instantly recognisable angles and facets of a 5mm thin platinum Octo case.
Two years later Bulgari upped the ante with the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater: a classically styled, traditional, yet impossibly slender 3.12mm movement in a decidedly non-conformist case. The minute repeater’s 6.85mm case gives rise to perplexing problems around gongs and resonance, which Bulgari’s engineers and designers mitigated with the titanium case and open-cut indices, allowing for more airflow and better amplification. But Bulgari’s minute repeater doesn’t just challenge because of its slightness. No, this watch is a novelty in the genuine sense of the word simply because it doesn’t look how we expect a minute repeater to look. Sandblasted titanium and a matt grey dial: it’s a utilitarian appearance in a genre defined by precious metals and finely lacquered dials. Regardless of where you stand on the unique style, you can’t deny Bulgari’s approach stands out.
The Octo Finissimo is the natural next step in this record-breaking journey. It’s the thinnest automatic watch on the market, with a 2.23mm thin movement ensconced in a 5.15mm case and offered on a matching titanium bracelet that’s smoothly articulated perfection. The pictures and specifications are impressive, but they pale in comparison to the reality of actually wearing the Finissimo. The barely-there weight, combined with titanium’s thermal conductivity, makes it incredibly comfortable to wear. But for all its unobtrusive attributes, the distinctive grey Octo – an object lesson in shape and line – makes for a strong statement on the wrist.
And Bulgari is hoping that the impact of this particular watch will extend a good deal further than that. To find out where this watch came from, and why it’s so important, we asked the man responsible, Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, Bulgari’s Watches Creative Director. On the significance of the Finissimo, Buonamassa was refreshingly direct: “It’s the most quintessential evolution of the Octo.”
Of course there’s more to it than that, as Buonamassa explains. “Bulgari is a different brand in terms of watchmaking. We are Italian, we are not Swiss. We are not obsessed by performance. It’s important for Finissimo to break records – we are able to, so why not – but even more important to us is that our watches are unique in terms of look, finish and materials.” Buonamassa went on to say that Bulgari’s history is shaped by watches like the Bulgari Bulgari, Scuba and Serpenti. “It’s very difficult for me to talk about Italian design and the concept of form following function. It’s absolutely true of course. When you see our watches you cannot see the qualitative elements, you can just see the shape of the technology, for example Tubogas [the distinctive bracelets used in Bulgari’s watches and jewellery].”
“We tried to use the same approach with the Finissimo. When you see it, you say ‘wow, this is a very thin watch.’ Yes, with the platinum microrotor and titanium Octo case it’s unique, but it’s unique even in terms of design and use. Because our idea at the beginning of this Finissimo execution is to have a wearable complication.” It’s relatively easy, Buonamassa explains, to make a complicated watch that’s very thick – a piece that’s only good for “impressing your friends at nice dinners.” The Finissimo tackles complication in a different, more meaningful way, offering a watch that goes beyond pretty sketches and actually improves some of the features. “The idea was to have something that you can wear, just for you – maybe you hide it under your shirt. No one has to know you’re wearing one of the thinnest watches in the world. That’s why we went ahead with it; there’s something very Italian about using a watch in this way.”
Of course one can’t help but wonder if the popularity of this piece of haute horlogerie – splendidly unassuming in its severe titanium case – has more to do with a sudden interest in avoiding the appearance of conspicuous consumption than with a new appreciation for Italian design philosophy. In an age of austerity there’s a definite appeal to a minute repeater that slides under the radar as easily as it does the cuff.
Buonamassa concedes that design follows economic trends, and that a well-designed watch is one that suits the needs of its wearers. But he’s also quick to point out that in an increasingly fragmented watch market, the time of singular, seasonal styles is past: “Globalisation means that we now have many trends, but you can’t follow all of them. You have to find one that works with your brand, and maybe, if you’re strong enough, make your own.”
It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Octo, specifically the Finissimo, is the trendsetting vehicle of Bulgari’s men’s watchmaking. Buonamassa proclaims it as their ‘no logo watch’ – an instantly identifiable design that transcends the need for branding. “It’s a success; very strong and very recognisable. In 2009, when Bulgari was integrating their watchmaking facilities, they decided the time was right to imagine a new evolution of the Octo.
Eight years, many variations and several records later, we have arrived at the quintessential evolution – a watch that pulls off an incredibly challenging balancing act. The Finissimo is an icon that manages to be innovative, consumer-friendly and legitimately cool and contemporary, all at the same time. Not an easy feat, and one that takes confidence and clarity to pull off successfully.
This latest Octo is also a watch that lets Buonamassa’s design sensibility shine. It seems impossible to take a bad photo of the Octo Finissimo – almost as though it was designed with Instagram in mind. Buonamassa attributes these good looks to the harmony of finishing and shapes. “This is my obsession. Products that are done well are done well in terms of shapes, finishing and proportions.” Buonamassa then went on to paraphrase Le Corbusier, saying; “design is the play of shapes and sunlight. It’s the light that describes the products.” The monochrome modernity of the Finissimo is a legitimate marker of strong design, just as it’s virtually impossible to take a bad photo of New York’s Oculus or practically anything attributed to Mies van de Rohe. And it’s hard to deny that the Bulgari’s photogenic qualities have been crucial in attracting the favour of notoriously tribal watch lovers.
Bulgari likes to say it ‘breaks the rules’. While this has the feel of a trite marketing tagline, and ‘conventions’ may be nearer the mark, there’s a kernel of truth in there. Swiss watchmaking represents stability, heritage and tradition – the things that industry insiders are banking on when they converge annually in Basel. In interesting times stability is the sure bet, but it’s rarely exciting. Perhaps it’s not the Octo’s thinness that is winning hearts and minds, but the fact that while most brands are busy leaning on their heritage, Bulgari is using it to propel us into the future.