On the quiet, Bulgari just put out one of the year’s most complicated watches
By Chris Hall
This is the Bulgari Octo Grande Sonnerie Perpetual Calendar. It was released without much fanfare by Bulgari over the summer – and now we’ve got the official pictures and information, we can tell you about it. One reason it was perhaps not given the full red-carpet treatment is that this is a one-off creation, doubtless destined never to see the light of day between Bulgari’s Le Sentier factory and the high security safe of a collector. But when a brand is making watches of this calibre, even individually, we will sit up and pay attention – especially when said brand is also forging ahead with some of the world’s most pared-back watchmaking at the same time.
The Octo Grande Sonnerie Perpetual Calendar does as the name suggests, and that alone would be highly impressive. But in a rare display of haute horlogerie modesty (or perhaps just gracious concern for those of us who have to type the name out again and again), the watch does in fact have a few more strings to its bow. As well as a perpetual calendar, it also features a tourbillon, moonphase and GMT function. And on the chiming side, it doesn’t stop at the grande sonnerie; the watch also houses petite sonnerie and minute repeater abilities.
(If you need a reminder, a Grande Sonnerie chimes every hour and every quarter-hour. A Petite Sonnerie just chimes the hours, and a minute repeater rings out the time in hours, quarters and minutes on demand. The tough part of sonnerie watch creation – aside from the design, construction, assembly, tuning and finishing… is making sure the watch always has enough power to chime every fifteen minutes, 24/7, should the wearer so desire. If you don’t want it to strike, you can use the pusher at 10 o’clock to silence the watch completely. The pusher at 8 o’clock switches between grande and petite sonneries).
All of this is contained in a 44mm rose gold case that, while it clearly began life as an Octo, has undergone a few changes to accommodate the several hundred extra components and to become an effective chiming watch. It’s a big, thick watch with a sizeable bezel, and the trademark faceted lugs of the Octo have been spaced out from the case, the better to allow the acoustics of the chime to ring clearly. On the back of the watch you can clearly see a number of apertures cut into the case to allow the sound to ring out, and there are a couple of glimpses of a honeycomb-style mesh that presumably helps protect the movement – or the acoustic chamber, at least – from dust and moisture
The pushers on the left hand side of the watch have a certain Egyptian monument feel to them; indeed the whole watch has something of the Pharaohs about it. The dial is a single piece of ‘smoked’ sapphire, unusual for the presence of two rose gold pins visible between 12 and 1, and 6 and 7 o’clock. One can only assume they are there to help fix the dial in place, but perhaps also to aid the resonance of the chimes? The openworked calendar wheels are the other most distinctive visual touch, using a tapered typeface that displays the day and month in segment-shaped windows.
The whole watch is remarkable for its pure horological abilities – that goes without saying. But it also piques our interest because of the way it harks back to some of the earliest and least-discussed watchmaking of the great Gerald Genta. Genta – whose intellectual property has belonged to Bulgari since the turn of the millennium – set up his own brand in 1969, and set about producing extremely complicated, limited-run watches on commission for the world’s richest collectors, among them Prince Jefri Bolkiah, brother to the Sultan of Brunei and a man who set new benchmarks in playboy behaviour and extreme extravagance.
You can find some of the kind of watches created in auction house archives around the world, as in more recent times the Prince was forced to part with a few of them. Lately, while Bulgari hasn’t exactly stopped making this kind of watch, it has been keener to focus on things marketed to merely ordinarily rich men and women. So the occasional emergence of watches like the Grand Sonnerie Perpetual Calendar is reassurance, of a sort, that Genta’s legacy lives on in more ways than one.