In the past eight years, Bulgari Horlogerie has created strong styles that have broken the mould of traditional horology and created a true Italian Rinascimento in Swiss watchmaking. While the Octo is undeniably contemporary, it is also as enduring and universal as geometry and Roman architecture and, with it, we have created a new classic.” With these words, CEO Jean-Christophe Babin begins his explanation of why, for him, Bulgari is THE Renaissance brand. “Our capability to fuse the best of magnificent, edgy Italian design with the ultimate of Swiss engineering and craftsmanship — this is why I talk about Rinascimento from Bulgari. It is truly a revolution of design and technology.”
Rinascimento — or Renaissance — refers to the time from the 14th to the 17th century when Europe “came out of the darkness” of the Middle Ages and saw the re-emergence and realignment of education, science, art, literature and music — cultural elements that had been neglected since the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century. People were invited to rediscover the wisdom of the ancient Romans and Greeks, and mankind moved into a more enlightened modern era.
Although inspired by the ancient world, the Renaissance was one of the most progressive times in history, with an emphasis on not simply looking back but, rather, taking the codes of the past — a forgotten thirst for knowledge and beauty — and using them to advance society. Many of the ideas of the era form the foundations of our scientific and cultural understanding today, a point that resonates with Babin who says: “Each period of time has added new layers of knowledge and beauty to mankind. So, it is for Bulgari in the 21st century. Our watchmaking is consistent yet pioneering at the same time. Breaking the mould without eschewing what makes the art of Swiss watchmaking fascinating. Our aim is to pay tribute to our ancestors while providing our grandsons with an ultimate horological education.”
As Italian in outlook as Bulgari itself, the Renaissance began in Florence, gradually spreading to other city-states in Italy and beyond. Human knowledge grew exponentially. Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo and Ferdinand Magellan opened up the physical world. Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo went further and explored the heavens. And, in the visual arts, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian were all trailblazers. The era saw the emergence of some of history’s greatest names and led to the coining of the term “Renaissance Man” to describe those that exhibited exceptional talent in many areas. But perhaps the greatest of all these geniuses was Leonardo da Vinci — master painter, sculptor, scientist, inventor, architect, engineer and writer.
As well as enduring masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa, Last Supper and Vitruvian Man, which remain as recognisable as any icons of popular culture since, Leonardo’s work in the field of science is immeasurable. Divina Proportione (Divine Proportion), is a mathematical book dedicated to proportions and their applications to geometry, visual art and architecture. Written by Luca Pacioli in the 1490s, the book was illustrated by Leonardo with the goal of giving visual explanations of the golden ratio. And one included sketch, entitled Octocedron Abscisum Solidum forms the basis of the Bulgari Octo. The drawing — a skeletonic solid octagon — is immediately reminiscent of the ceiling of the 312 AD Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, the largest of the ancient buildings in the Roman Forum and one of the direct inspirations for 2012’s Octo l’Originale.
Change is dividing and, despite their overwhelming influence on society, the protagonists of the Renaissance did not always receive due appreciation in their lifetime. Similarly, on its debut in 2012, the Octo split opinion — some loved it, others hated it, but few were indifferent. However, if the Octo l’Originale was somewhat polarising among watch collectors, the resounding success of the ultra-slim Octo Finissimo on its launch in 2014, proved that something truly special had arrived.
As Bulgari’s Director of Watch Design Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani says: “Pure forms, rich details and the unconventional use of materials are the signatures of the Octo Finissimo collection. It has become the contemporary way to wear an ultra-thin watch, thanks to a unique blend of Swiss watchmaking know-how and refined Italian taste, which combines translates technicality into emotion in a very simple way.”
Three years in development, it was very much a watch of its time — the world was only just starting to emerge from the financial crisis started by the collapse of Lehman Brothers bank in 2008 and watch design was reflecting this. Gone was the demand for unwearable, 50mm-plus behemoths, and in place was a call for something new to define the emerging style. And Bulgari leapt on this challenge, choosing to take traditional watchmaking and reinvent it with thinness as the mainstay of its new interpretation of elegance.
“The Octo was always going to become the backbone of our men’s watch offering,” says the maison’s Managing Director of Watches, Guido Terreni. “But we knew that it had to be a game-changer and rewrite the rules. The watchmaking industry has always loved to play with the past, but it tends to have a re-editing approach, which can sometimes feel like looking in the mirror. This is not Bulgari’s way of thinking. We always want to inject something new and Octo Finissimo brings ultra-thin into the 21st century, while previous examples have felt quite retro. We are playing with materials, shape, weight and ergonomics. If you wear a Finissimo for a month, it is very hard to go back.”
The acclaim for the Octo Finissimo was immediate and universal. Having now broken five world records — the most recent being Revolution magazine’s cover watch, the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT — it is difficult to state the number of industry awards the family has received as the haul increases on an almost monthly basis. Since 2014, and at the time of going to press the total is an astonishing 40 — with a further two awarded to the Octo l’Originale.
“To receive this amount of recognition from within our industry — an industry that is extremely knowledgeable – shows an understanding of our aims,” Terreni says with natural pride. “Very few watches that I know of have achieved this in such a small space of time. We have seen maybe one every 10 to 20 years since the 1970s. It is truly a breakthrough moment in the industry.”
But, despite the accolades and awards, both Babin and Terreni insist that the purpose of the Finissimo is not to break world-records and that these are merely a by-product of Bulgari’s attempt to reinterpret a 21st-century man’s wristwatch. And this is the message that the brand would like to communicate beyond the world of the connoisseur and into the consciousness of people who may only buy two or three watches in a lifetime.
“We have created a modern classic,” says Terreni, “but it is still new and needs time to be understood by the wider public. It cannot be softened because a watch like this has to be without comprise — we can’t change the architecture because it is perfect but there are so many ways that we can play with materials, movements and functions.”
Babin concurs, adding: “Records are exciting as they stimulate internal creativity and out-of-the-box thinking,” says Babin. “And obviously they trigger news and create buzz and interest. So, yes, they are good, but they are not essential. What counts is challenging conventional wisdom. We are daring and pioneering in the true spirit of our founder Sotirio Bulgari. What does count with a record is its relevance to our brand identity and vision. That said, our Octo records are very meaningful and definitely anchor Bulgari as one of the most important brands in current Swiss watchmaking.”
The Perfect Score
Since 2009 Bulgari has been absorbing the know-how of its acquired brands, Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, into the maison, and the watches we see today come from a combination of this heritage and Bulgari’s own ability to develop an in-house calibre. The result is a transformation of the capabilities from niche production to true manufacture. The Octo Finissimo would not have been possible without vertical integration at the highest level and the facility in Le Sentier today has the capacity to make every component except the escapement, barrel and rubies, giving Bulgari the freedom to develop quickly, making the brand the master of its own destiny.
When asked about his pride in the success of Octo, Babin immediately points out that the model was born the year before he joined Bulgari in 2013, saying: “I can only be proud of my team for its capability to have interpreted Roman magnificence and the daring spirit of Bulgari into a unique and compelling watchmaking architecture. Since joining the company I have simply, as a conductor, tried to provide my orchestra of watchmaking talents with a faster pace and unexpected tempo. It has all worked nicely so far.”
And the reason it has worked so nicely? “The luck factor always helps, but I believe the driving factor has been the vision of creating the most daring, elegant, timeless and contemporary man’s watch ever. This has led in turn to venture into ultra-thin mechanical movement technologies, as well as new high-tech materials. And obviously we have been consistent in executing that vision and patient in harvesting the fruits of our labor, making sure the seed was planted deep and grew strong. After 18 years in watchmaking, I know only too well how long it takes to build an icon and how rarely it happens in a watch brand’s lifetime. So, Octo has certainly delighted me — but not only Octo, Bulgari itself has exceeded my expectations.”
Based on the original praise it would have been easy for Bulgari’s watchmakers to rest on their laurels where the Octo Finissimo is concerned, yet one of the greatest surprises within the family is the constant reinvention of the model through materials and complications. “We always think about what is next,” says Terreni, explaining why he and his team keep pushing the limits of watchmaking. “It sums up our attitude and drive towards the future,” he says. “And, importantly, whatever we create must complement the story we are telling, one of pioneering and of customers that are unconventional and atypical watch buyers. They don’t flow in the expected direction or follow typical style, and to satisfy them we have to stimulate innovation and build on our story every year.”
The Finissimo Story
In delivering this new vision, Bulgari watchmakers have become masters of making the complicated look simple. The case is in two parts not three, so the watch is cased from the top. The sapphire crystal is 0.7mm and, says Terreni, is unlikely to go any thinner as it needs to be wearable every day. And, with the movement separate from the case it is much more accessible. “We are driven by aesthetics,” says Terreni. “While most manufacturers are dressing their movements with their cases, we are doing something different and looking at the watch as a whole.”
While some other brands when making ultra-thins have chosen to use the caseback as a baseplate to save on space, Bulgari has refused to do this due, in no small part due to a desire to display the movement. “I always think that to only see a watch from the dial-side is a bit sad,” says Terreni. “Breaking a record is never the goal at Bulgari, so we will not sacrifice our principles for this. Our automatic could have been thinner if we had placed the hand into the seconds sub-dial – in fact, it would have resulted in a saving of 3/10mm — but we were not prepared to compromise on the aesthetic.”
Naturally with such a slim case, each new development in the Finissimo range has presented its own technical problems but, according to Terreni, it was the automatic that presented the biggest challenges. With a desire to keep within the set case dimensions, it was necessary to incorporate a platinum micro-rotor, however, it soon became evident that this would not be capable of producing the desired 60-hour-plus power reserve as at 12 hours, the resistance on the spring became too great. Initially working on the alloy of the spring, the eventual solution was found in reducing the frequency from 4 Hz to 3 Hz — simple words that took six years to achieve.
With a necessary delay to perfect the automatic Finissimo, 2014 saw the launch of a manual-winding version. The watch was classic, beautiful and featured a traditional pin and buckle strap. The same year saw the introduction of the record-breaking Octo Finissimo Manual Tourbillon, which found love the world over. The Finissimo Minute Repeater in 2016 gave a new stylistic direction and provided a second world record, scooping 10 major international watch awards. Specific materials were required for the sound amplification and the solution was found in sandblasted titanium, a material repeated in the third record-beating watch a year later when the Finissimo Automatic was eventually brought to market, featuring, for the first time on an Octo Finissimo, a bracelet with integrated clasp.
The fourth record was broken last year with the thinnest automatic tourbillon. But, at the same time as developing this high complication, there was the challenge of retaining simplicity in the monochromatic design, a challenge which rears its head with every iteration. The answer was found in two new case materials: firstly, a stunning sandblasted rose gold and secondly, a white-steel case, developed to negate criticism of the darkness of titanium. The final finish involved subsequent two-micron coatings of gold, palladium and rhodium.
Including the retrograde movements from 2010, which are now used in the Maserati models, the Octo family now has a total of 13 in-house calibres, the latest of which powers the 2019 Automatic Chronograph GMT combining two of the most useful modern-day functions and, unsurprisingly, the piece that Babin will be wearing in the months to come. “I love chronographs,” he explains. “But not the show-off, oversized ‘look at me’ pieces that we see from certain other brands. I prefer something discreet to treasure for my own selfish pleasure — masterpieces of craftsmanship which fit with a cool, low-key lifestyle.
“The chronograph really is the logical evolution of our expertise in elegant and contemporary watches, with a new mechanical revolution making it thinner than most time-only watches. I believe that it is the first really new chronograph in a long time — except perhaps the 1/100th and 1/1,000th of a second pieces from my former brand [TAG Heuer].”
The extra-thin — just 3.3mm — automatic BVL 318 calibre with a power reserve of 55 hours was developed entirely at the Bulgari manufacture. The 42mm titanium case, with display caseback, is just 6.9mm thick and hosts a titanium crown set with ceramic and a sandblasted titanium dial with faceted and skeletonised polished black PVD-plated hands, a second timezone sub-dial at 3 o’clock and chronograph registers at 6 and 9 o’clock, as well as a central running seconds chronograph hand. The watch, which is water-resistant to 30m, is presented on Bulgari’s now familiar, but no less astonishing, sandblasted titanium bracelet with folding clasp. A lot of watch for CHF 16,500.
The objective was to give a contemporary look to the chronograph, which, with few exceptions, has changed very little since the 1950s. “We are always thinking about our customers,” says Terreni. “They are sporty and big travellers, so combining these two complications is a unique way for us to present our first Octo Finissimo chrono.” With a desire to keep as much air on the dial as possible, it was important for the sub-dials to be well-spaced – something not always possible on a 40mm-plus dial due to the pivots on the industry standard ETA calibre being close to the centre. As slimness was also a requirement, a peripheral rotor was chosen leading to the overall 42mm diameter.
For Buonamassa Stigliani the main concern was aesthetic integrity. “With the case the challenge was to integrate the chronograph and GMT push button into the Octo Finissimo shape,” he says. “The answer was found in the simple geometry of the case: a 45-degree angle and flat surfaces.
“We use exactly the same approach for the dial. Here we have three counters, but the dial has the same construction – one layer of titanium with sandblasted finishing and very pure graphics.”
Second only to chiming watches in complexity, the chronograph is particularly difficult to perfect in an ultra-thin watch and an automatic guise. “We are always looking for challenges in our team,” laughs Terreni. “We were ready to tackle this thanks to the skills we had already learned from other projects. Of course, the Chronograph was very complicated but it was certainly less difficult in terms of execution. Thankfully, the development went very smoothly. We were constantly testing all of the components at every stage of assembly.” All in all, it was two-and-a-half years in development with Terreni modestly saying that when dimensions are wider, there is more flexibility despite the reduced case height.
If we lay to one side the complexities of a skeletonised tourbillon movement in a full carbon case with carbon bracelet, this year’s main material challenge involves a model where black ceramic is used for the case, bracelet and buckle – a component that has to have a degree of elasticity, a property not normally associated with ceramic. But, as Babin points out, it is not challenge for challenge’s sake: “What counts at Bulgari is not the use of ceramic or titanium or silicium. What counts is the relevance of the material and its true added value – aesthetically as much as functionally. Bulgari Serpenti and Octo ceramics are first and foremost beautiful and extremely resistant. Surely this makes the designs even more contemporary and pleasurable to wear?”
The watch is available in a stealthy black-on-black version with a minute scale featuring injected metal in the paint plus hands and indexes in a black chrome finish to reflect light and aid legibility. The case has a sandblasted finish to play with light. It is the light that makes it legible. With existing experience working with ceramic in the Serpenti collection, Bulgari has yet to attempt making the material internally, preferring to draw on the services of experts in the field – not that this stopped them from pushing the limits. “Ceramic cases are usually a lot bigger than a Finissimo,” explains Terreni. “We were told that we couldn’t go under 0.8mm but we challenged our supplier and said: ‘Why not?’ And then we took it to the extreme.”
As ceramic retracts when fired, with different colours behaving in different ways, the process was far from easy and Bulgari decided to balance aesthetics and reliability, allowing a new tolerance for the bracelet taking it from 2.5mm to 2.8mm. The Octo Finissimo Ceramic Automatic contains a lot of R&D, but still manages a retail price of CHF 14,900. At just 5.5mm thick, the 40mm ceramic case with display caseback (water-resistant to 30m) really is an impressive feat. Add to that the ceramic crown, the ceramic dial and ceramic bracelet with folding clasp and the challenge in creating this piece of black magic becomes obvious. The hands are skeletonised and made in polished ruthenium to refract the light and allow easy reading of the time on this super-stealthy timepiece. Inside the case beats the 2.23mm-high automatic manufacture Calibre BVL 138 with platinum micro-rotor that provides 60 hours of power reserve from a full wind.
The ceramic model is also available with a skeleton movement (priced at CHF 23,500). Something that the Octo Finissimo is known for, skeletonisation emphasises both the aesthetic and technical mood of the watch showcasing the octagonal baseplate and choice of movement design, which is an important part of the watch. While skeletons are often very traditional in feel, thanks to the generic 1950s-style cases that house them, for Bulgari, the exuberant design comes first and the technical side has to follow this.
The skeletonised version of the ceramic watch features the same case dimensions as the Automatic but houses the manual-winding openworked manufacture movement BVL 128SK with small seconds and power-reserve indication. At just 2.35mm thick it provides 65 hours of power reserve. The openworked dial has a minute, seconds and power reserve track and faceted, skeletonised black PVD-plated hands.
The brand’s belief that having a genuine story to tell is more important than being a storyteller for marketing purposes, is refreshing and is the true essence of luxury. As Terreni says: “At Bulgari, we are about 51 per cent design and 49 per cent technique. Technique by itself is not an emotion, it is technique at the service of aesthetics that is the way to create legends. The ultimate goal for the Octo Finissimo is to become the ultimate contemporary ultra-thin watch. Our message is that if you want to stand out, you have to do it with taste. To be different is easy but to do it elegantly is hard. We are definitely not traditional but we are different and we certainly have style.”
And in the case of the ground-breaking Octo Finissimo, who could disagree? Year after year, Bulgari continues to reinvent the rules of traditional watchmaking, bringing together the old and the new to create timepieces that transcend the boundaries of fashion and conventional style. The multi-tasking Chronograph GMT sits in perfect harmony with its siblings, a beautiful, robust and multi-tasking timepiece and a true Renaissance watch.
David Alexander Flinn: Renaissance Man
Revolution UK’s March cover model, and unofficial Bulgari “friend of the brand”, is Brooklyn-based photographer, sculptor, filmmaker and occasional model David Alexander Flinn. Growing up between New York’s SoHo and Turin, Flinn pays homage to his (as well as Bulgari’s) Italian roots with a tattoo on his hand of the Roman declaration SPQR – Senātus Populusque Rōmānus/the Senate and People of Rome. With a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from New York’s School of Visual Arts in 2009, he is a man with a very particular view on the artistry of modern industrial objects and tools and was happy to share his opinions with Revolution during shooting.
There is an ongoing discussion in the watch world about where time and art meet and whether an object that tells time – and is essentially a tool – can ever be truly considered art, despite the magnificent examples of craft that we see on dials and bracelets. Do you have an opinion on this?
It’s an interesting debate, but I think that watches have to be considered pieces of art, especially when you break the object down and look at the individual operations required to complete the end product – each one adding extra value to the piece and each one essential to the final work. Beyond that aspect, a watch today certainly has more scope and purpose than just the function of keeping time. As anyone who collects timepieces knows, watches have a very different role and dimension in this fast and digital world, and this is where key elements such as design and decorative arts and techniques come into play.
What is it about Bulgari in particular that you connect with?
Bulgari is a brand that never follows the pack in terms of creation – on the contrary, I would argue that in terms of style and trends it actually sets the benchmark. Not only does Bulgari perfectly express market trends, it actually anticipates contemporary artistic direction, often giving the designs buyers want before they even know they want them. Always in step with modern culture, always delivering on emerging social dynamics. I always remember Andy Warhol’s famous quote about his love of visiting the brand’s boutiques when he said: “I always visit Bulgari, because it is the most important museum of contemporary art.” This Is exactly how I feel – Bulgari consistently gives us creations that mirror their epoch.
Have you always been a watch lover and what would you look for in a wristwatch – design, function
All the usual daily objects – including industrial objects – catch my attention and, naturally, this includes watches. The perfect combination of design (form) and function is fundamental in any artistic approach and work. This is what every artist and every art lover is seeking, whatever it relates to. This is equally true for a wristwatch as it is for any contemporary industrial object.
As an artist, what appeals to you most about the Bulgari Octo Finissimo?
Octo is a good example of my previous words. This model appears to break the codes and the existing design rules in an industry which I feel is very conservative and conventional. That appeals greatly to me, of course, since I am not really a big fan of convention. Octo is a combination of shapes, which result in something very sophisticated. This watch definitely requires a cultural knowledge and sensitivity and I love this. It is very challenging and, for me, this is so much more interesting than resting in a comfort zone.
The watch you are wearing in our cover shoot is a dual-timezone watch, one of the most useful modern functions thanks to the amount we all travel today. Apart from timekeeping, what do you most value in a watch?
I must say that I’m really amazed by this Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT. Its thinness is stunning when you consider the functions: indicating time, a stopwatch and measuring two time zones – so much within such a small volume. Regarding the GMT function, it is almost mandatory today. As you say, travel is a part of everyone’s life and this function is so useful. And that is what I truly value in a watch – genuinely useful complications, but also what I qualify as beauty. The watch must generate such an emotion that I think: “I need this.” This driver is central to all watch buyers because, as I said before, a watch is no longer an object that is solely a timekeeper.