Very few jewellery artisans can boast of a 135-year-old history selling Roman opulence like Bulgari does, with pioneering boutiques in New York, Geneva, Paris and Monte Carlo. Not to mention serving a roster of supremely cultivated customers that have included Italian royalty, South American style icon Evita Peron, business magnates Nelson Rockefeller, Robert Lehman and Frank Jay Gould, and silver screen legends like Ingrid Bergman, Sofia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor.
But that illustrious history also presents an Achilles fault. Because while they’ve produced a smattering of watches throughout their existence, none have genuinely moved the needle. So how does a brand best known for intricate gem- encrusted finery get seasoned collectors, burgeoning buyers, and indeed the entire industry, to view them as serious manufacturers?
Bulgari decided to go a record-breaking binge, creating watches of such shocking intricacy they earned a new deference seemingly overnight. The bombardment began with 2014’s big reveal of the world’s skinniest tourbillon. As one of the most complex and coveted mechanisms in watchmaking, the tourbillon calibre BVL 288 weighs in at a wafer-thin 1.95mm. Then in 2016 they pulled back the curtains on the world’s flattest minute repeater. If a tourbillon assembly is envisioned as scaling the world’s highest mountain, then a minute repeater is completing the same feat in record time without oxygen. The world’s slimmest automatic watch and automatic chronograph came in 2017 and 2019 respectively.
But internal craftwork isn’t the whole story. Garnering attention because of its particular combination of shapes, this octagonal watch is one of the very few, truly original designs in horology. This soon to be cult-timepiece, was of course designed by Swiss watch designer extraordinaire, Gerald Genta. If there ever was an all-encompassing strategy for success in the high-end watch space, Bulgari’s story would make an excellent case study.
OCTO FINISSIMO CHRONOGRAPH GMT AUTOMATIC
Which finally delivers us to this watch. Packaged neatly in a 42mm titanium case at 6.9mm thick, the BVL 318 calibre features a peripheral mass winding, observable through the transparent case-back. An increasingly fashionable and canny solution, peripheral rotors allow the winding mass to be mounted and swinging around the movement. This means owners get an unimpeded view of the movement plus the advantage of an automatic winding. While its beauty may have been one outcome, peripheral rotors also allow watchmakers like Bulgari to design slimmer self-winding wristwatches, because there’s no need to fasten an oscillating weight over the movement itself.
Still there’s little need for excessive examination. Just the feeling of an Octo Finissimo wrapped around your wrist engenders an understanding that this is at once a work of haute design and exceptionally engineering – an ethos exemplified throughout Bulgari’s entire range.
Breaking the record for the thinnest automatic chronograph (with a GMT mechanism, no less), this category of complication is not short on qualified contenders. Piaget, Breguet, Audemars Piguet and Jaeger-LeCoultre have all got horses in the race, but few if any possess the architectural quality of the Octo Finissimo, with its angled cutaways and multiple edges offering a sense of depth that belies its slender profile. Owners and reviewers uniformly report this Bulgari as one of the best balanced and lightest feeling wristwatches in recent memory, as flawless an accolade as they come.
OCTO ROMA GRANDE SONNERIE PERPETUAL CALENDER
If the former is an impressive complication, this is a prestigious one. Exotically equipped with four hammers to sound the hours, quarter-hours and minutes on demand, this timepiece fuses the Grande Sonnerie (grand strike) with the Perpetual Calender’s full range of indications. Not to mention a moon-phase display, chime power-reserve indicator, and tourbillon. Intended as a tour de force of watchmaking savoir faire, this Octo Roma was created to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the first Grande Sonnerie by Gerald Genta in 1994.
Containing the automatic calibre BVL 5307, the wearer may also suppress its chimes so as not to disrupt public, or perhaps more intimate, proceedings. Otherwise, to fully enjoy its orchestral harmonies the inner case has been fabricated to act as a resonating chamber. Its Magsonic outer case – a material unique to Bulgari’s ringing watches – is designed with vertical apertures to disperse its bell-like tones more readily.
And contrary to popular convention in the making of ultra-high-end wristwatches, Bulgari has reserved it guillochage, Côtes de Genève, or Perlage finishings for its more unassuming models. Instead the Octo Roma Grande Sonnerie Perpetual Calender is courageously experimental in highlighting contrasting color tones and shapes, allowing its movement sing for itself.
OCTO FINISSIMO AUTOMATIC CERAMIC
Created for those who find beauty in simplicity, this ceramic Octo Finissimo is as transparent as Swiss-made watches come. Aiming only to tell the time, albeit omitting central seconds for a subdial instead, this is exactly the sort of understated form that benefits from a delicate Perlage finish, with chamfered edges all around its micro-rotor movement. Its 40mm extra- thin ceramic case gets the customary see-thorough case-back with a ceramic dial and crown.
To allay concerns that a micro-rotor, sunken into a small corner of the BVL 138 movement might not contain enough heft to perform adequately, horophiles should know the oscillating weight is made entirely of platinum. Together with its broad integrated bracelet, you’ll never find this ceramic Octo impeding a shirt cuff. Which also means wrists familiar to the bulk of regular watches will feel almost, well, naked. Given enough time though, there’s no doubt you’ll fall in love with this sandblasted black ceramic watch. Not only does it push the evolution of automatic watches as far as current technologies allow, but as a watch that stays quietly in the background until summoned, this is an elegant choice.
OCTO FINISSIMO SKELETON CERAMIC
This second ceramic model shows off Bulgari’s aesthetic finesse to balance an ultra-technical display that enhances – instead of jars – with what is increasingly seen as classical Finissimo styling. Readability is kept very respectable because the Octo’s hands and indices are covered in a metal- injected paint that reflect light, for an almost mirror finish. Inside you’ll find the finely detailed, manual wound calibre BVL 128SK.
Dramatically framing this open-worked movement, is the deep, dark, matte black case and bracelet. Interestingly, and in so far as we know, Bulgari is the only maker to produce a purely ceramic buckle as well. Unheard of because deployant clasps require a measure of elasticity to lock, Bulgari’s ingenious solution is to introduce a ball-bearing system with four beads that allow enough give to secure the structurally rigid ceramic buckle.
OCTO ROMA TOURBILLON SAPPHIRE
In its ongoing quest for 360-degree innovation, Bulgari introduces the Octo Roma Tourbillon Sapphire. Featuring extraordinary transparency, an aerial flying tourbillon, a blue manufacture calibre decorated with 18k rose gold indexes on the bridges and uncommon elegance, all of which are visible from the front, side and back, this limited edition of 50 pieces captures Bulgari’s engineering expertise in exploring unconventional reinterpretations of fine watchmaking. The design allows light to flood in to showcase its mechanism through a beautifully modern and innovative design crafted in sapphire and 44mm rose gold, complete with an alligator strap in matching blue. Perfect for those who appreciate clarity, balance and beauty. It’s important to note, a flying tourbillon is different from a regular (if ever the mechanism could be describe up as such) tourbillon in that the tourbillon cage is not supported by an upper bridge but rather from the bottom, thus allowing for the cage to rotate every 60 seconds as the fourth wheel underneath it is engaged in motion.
Sharp eyes will also catch a glimpse of the crown with a black cabochon integrated pusher. When activated, this button puts the crown into either winding or time-setting modes as indicated by a red or black dot on the crown pinion. A Bulgari signature, this means the crown doesn’t require any plebeian tugging to be used.
Bulgari CEO J.C. Babin remarked, “Finissimo was born out of a vision of creating the quintessence of masculine elegance in watches.” This philosophy is more than evident across the brand’s offerings at Baselworld 2019. Record breaking complications set within unmistakable yet functional cases, Bulgari’s unyielding drive to mark their territory is what avant-garde watchmaking is all about. As they defy boundaries and carve their own traditions, Bulgari has also given the rest of us a lot to be excited about.
This feature first appeared in the print edition of MVMT 2019.