Getting on one’s knees to beg competitors for a favour is not typically in the job description of a company head, but Bvlgari Watches MD Antoine Pin says that is what he nearly had to do during the development of the Octo Finissimo Ultra, the brand’s latest record-breaking blockbuster.
On a Zoom chat with The Peak, Pin gave an amusingly dramatic answer when asked about the biggest challenge that he and his team faced when creating the world’s thinnest mechanical watch with a barely- there thickness of 1.8mm. (That’s thinner than a 50-cent coin.)
“The most complicated challenge,” he says, “was dealing with the patent landscape.” The competitive world of high horology has many innovations that, quite understandably, are protected by patents.
The more complex a timepiece and the more innovations it houses, the more likely you are to inadvertently encroach on another’s intellectual property. That happened with the Octo Finissimo Ultra, which itself has eight patent applications pending.
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Pin recalls, “On Dec 22 last year, there were 10 of us in a room, and there was a final challenge concerning the oscillator. We had two options, and one of them was to go to a competitor, get on our knees and ask, ‘Please, can we use this technology that you have patented?’”
The other option was for the team to “redesign one specific component of the watch’s oscillator”. Luckily for Pin and his knees, this alternative worked. He laughs, “I’m glad. The first option would not have been easy.”
That said, one gets the impression that Bvlgari does not like to do things the easy way. This year, it marks the 10th anniversary of the Octo family, which debuted in 2012 with the Octo L’Originale.
With its round bezel and octagonal case, and an eight- sided structure inspired by the arches of Rome’s Pantheon, that model set the stage for the collection’s distinctive look.
In 2014, Bvlgari launched the ultra-thin Octo Finissimo sub-category with the introduction of the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Manual. Housed in a platinum case 40mm across and just 5mm thick, it made headlines as the world’s thinnest tourbillon watch.
That marked the brand’s aggressive entry into the ultra-thin segment of the mechanical watch market. Subsequent Octo Finissimo releases broke thinness records in different categories every year. These range from the time-only automatic to the minute repeater and the perpetual calendar.
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Marking the range’s eighth ultra-thin record in nine years, the Octo Finissimo Ultra is the world’s thinnest mechanical watch. In a press release, Bvlgari’s product creation executive director Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani shares, “We had to break the rules not only in terms of movement design but also in terms of the case, caseback, bracelet and folding clasp.”
To eliminate as much height as possible, the caseback also serves as the mainplate on which the 170 components of the manually wound BVL Calibre 180 as well as the subdials are integrated.
For strength, especially crucial in a timepiece this thin, the caseback/mainplate features an element made of tungsten carbide, which has a hardness of nine on the Mohs Hardness Scale—second only to diamonds.
Additionally, the movement is spread out within the 40mm-wide case, rather than stacked, which also explains why the Octo Finissimo Ultra has a regulator-style dial with separate hours and minutes subdials, and a seconds display imprinted directly onto a wheel in the gear train.
One of the watch’s unusual features was adopted as an alternative to the traditional winding crown: two “knobs”, which resemble gears. Set horizontally on the caseback, part of these wheels stick out on each side of the case, with the one at 8 o’clock for winding, and the one at 3 o’clock, complete with tiny protectors, for setting the time.
An ode to modernity
As if creating the world’s thinnest mechanical timepiece wasn’t forward-thinking enough, Bvlgari has included another unprecedented feature on the Octo Finissimo Ultra: The large ratchet wheel, which takes pride of place next to the hour subdial, is laser-engraved with a QR code.
Each of the 10 pieces of this limited edition will feature a unique QR code that takes the owner to an exclusive NFT artwork as well as an online space dedicated to the creation of the watch. According to the brand, this entire digital ecosystem will be unveiled when the first Octo Finissimo Ultra hits the market in a few months’ time.
Of the unusual, metaverse-driven slant to the timepiece, Pin says, “I love that we are bringing extraordinary modernity to watchmaking, a technology that began seven centuries ago. I love this paradox and I think it’s an important one.
For me, it’s essential to stick to what we do—making extraordinary mechanical watches that, with care, can be worn even a hundred years later—and use new technologies in a way that makes sense for us, our clients and our watchmakers.”
Indeed, the idea for the QR code engraving actually arose from reasons related to watchmaking. “I’m going to share a little secret with you,” says Pin, with a smile.
“The first design of the watch was different from the one you see now. When we made this watch, we had a few parameters. It had to be user-friendly and should not feel or be fragile. It also had to perform—to be precise, and have a good power reserve.”
The initial idea was to have two mainspring barrels—one next to the hour counter and the other next to the minutes counter—for the watch to have a healthy amount of energy. However, that plan changed because the lower space on the left was needed for the oscillator.
Eventually, to give this slender timepiece a solid power reserve of 50 hours, the brand used a larger barrel to accommodate a longer mainspring. This then led to the question of how to decorate the large blank space of the ratchet wheel sitting atop the barrel.
Enter the QR code idea, courtesy of Buonamassa Stigliani. The interesting thing, says Pin, is that the product creation head first came at it from a design perspective. Having a QR code on the ratchet wheel would mean having little squares in a circle—an interesting contrast with the Octo, which features a circle within the angular form of an octagon.
Pin says, “It was such a great idea for us, to use a mechanical watch to propose a strong and meaningful access to modernity. This guy is stunning.”
Star of the show
Buonamassa Stigliani’s name pops up often during our conversation with Pin. As Bvlgari Watches’ head designer, he is the key creative force distilling and updating the Roman brand’s heritage into covetable, modern timepieces.
With the various models in the collection having earned more than 60 international awards since its conception, the Octo Finissimo is his most successful work to date.
This explains why a pair of 10th-anniversary Octo Finissimo special editions, recently unveiled along with the Octo Finissimo Ultra, are distinguished by a very unusual design element: early pencil sketches made by Buonamassa Stigliani, which would give rise to the Octo Finissimo collection a few years later.
Housed in the range’s signature 40mm sandblasted titanium cases and featuring its distinctive all-grey aesthetic, the two anniversary models are new versions of the Octo Finissimo Automatic (launched in 2017) and the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT Automatic (2019).
When asked if the intent behind the anniversary designs was to put Bvlgari’s chief watch designer front and centre, Pin laughs: “Ahh, you are asking, is there an ego trip with this? Well, yes and no. The brief was to celebrate the anniversary, which also marks a birth. And what is the moment of the birth of a watch? It is the sketch.
“But did we want to highlight Fabrizio in a certain way? Definitely. Aside from the fact that those are his drawings, he is extremely talented and proves it all the time. So when we celebrate the birthday of these watches, we’re also celebrating their ‘mummy’.”
This article originally appeared in The Peak