The Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept is the world’s thinnest mechanical watch, with a thickness of just 2mm. (It is also incidentally one of the world’s lightest mechanical watches weighing just 23 grams with its strap fitted.) But just how thin is 2mm?
When you behold the 41mm in diameter watch in the flesh, you’d think you are witnessing some optical illusion. It literally looks like someone has taken a picture of the watch, cut it out and placed it in front of you. That is how effectively two dimensional it feels. But look closer, and you realize that its very special balance wheel is oscillating. It’s only when you reach out and pick up the watch, that you get that it is very much real. This dynamic tension and shift in perspective — from what you thought to be two dimensional now becoming three dimensional — is what is initially so alluring about the watch.
But more than that, the Ultimate Concept is one of the most technically ambitious watches of all time. In the process, it pays tribute to some of the most groundbreaking concepts in the history of watchmaking, created by geniuses such as royal watchmaker to the French court Jean-Antoine Lépine, Jean Lassale and the duo of André Beyner and Maurice Grimm, two watchmakers who created seminal works in the 1980s for the likes of Audemars Piguet. Above all, the watch is a celebration of Piaget, which is synonymous with the creation of some of the world’s most famous ultra thin calibers: the 2mm manual wind 9P from 1957 and the 2.3mm micro-rotor equipped 12P from 1960.
The whole idea, as Piaget’s ultra dynamic CEO Chabi Nouri explains, was to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the 9P with an entire watch that was the same size as the groundbreaking 9P, and in so doing, affirm Piaget’s status as the creator of some of the most elegant ultra thin watches ever made.
Personally I love Piaget’s design vibe which I always associate with the seminal and ineffable Riviera chic of the 1960’s to 80’s, and which is now more relevant than ever. So the fact that Piaget combines that sense of elan with real horological credibility and ambition is a very winning combination for me.
Finally, I should say that the Ultimate Concept could not have been made without a real understanding of watchmaking history, with an incredible sense of technical ingenuity and the one quality that I sometimes feel is most lacking in the watch industry today — courage. I would like to give a big shout out to Chabi Nouri and the team at Piaget for the incredible fortitude expressed by this mind-blowing watch. They are the true expression of their company’s motto, “Always do better than what is necessary.”
2014 – The Altiplano 900P
Before we get into the Ultimate Concept, let’s jump back in time to 2014 when Piaget made its first groundbreaking move in the creation of ultra thin watches with the Altiplano 900P. Previous to this, we always talked about thin watches first by the dimensions of their movements and then the dimensions of their cases. For example, a Bulgari Octo Finissimo manual wind has a movement that is 2.23mm in thickness but a case that is 5.15 in thickness. With the Altiplano 900P, Piaget realized that no one really cares about the dimension of the movement.
What people care about is the dimension of the final watch, which in this case is an incredible 3.65mm in thickness. Anyway, there is no separate measurement for the movement because Piaget utilized a really cool concept for the 900P, which was to merge the case and the movement into one.
In a typical watch you have a midcase, a caseback and a bezel. In the 900P, Piaget merged the midcase and caseback into one monoblock unit. Now for the super cool part: Piaget then transformed the case into the baseplate of the watch.
As you probably know, the baseplate is like the chassis of the movement, or the main structural element where you attach bridges, gears, pinions and rubies. Piaget normally makes its movements at its La Côte-aux-Fées workshop in the Val-de-Travers municipality of Neuchâtel, and its cases at its Plan-les-Ouates facility in Geneva. With this watch, they had to develop this movement at the same facility that made the cases because the components for the case and the movement are the same.
The next thing to understand is that in the 900P, Piaget built everything to essentially be on the same plane to reduce volume. That means there is no dial on the watch. The hands are integrated into movement. The gear wheels and upper bridges are all on the same level as the hands. This basically means that the watchmaker builds this watch directly onto the case, fitting each perfectly finished component including the totally visible gear train and upper bridges into case from the front of the watch before sealing it completely with the bezel, which is secured by screws at the back of the watch. This is a super challenging process because in a normal watch you can construct the movement, adjust and regulate it before casing it up. Everything for the 900P has to be done on the watch itself, and the care you have to take not to scratch any surface while ensuring that clearances for gears to run smoothly is extremely challenging.
But that was just the beginning. Next, Piaget had to optimize the thinness of every part and also solve some fairly substantial hurdles. They basically looked through every one of the 145 parts that made up this watch to try to make it as slim as possible.
That’s why gear wheels that are normally 0.2 mm are now 0.12 mm. Piaget also realized that one of the thickest components of the watch was the balance wheel and so, it ensured that the entire mechanism and hand-fitting system would be contained within the thickness of the balance wheel.
In order to reduce the dimensions of the barrel, Piaget used a technique called the Suspended Barrel, invented by watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lépine. This kind of barrel is only supported on one side, similar to a flying tourbillon, and requires a great deal of precision to mount effectively. Amusingly, this technical breakthrough was necessitated by the trend in men’s fashion. Lépine was the watchmaker to the French court in the mid-18th century. Around this time, men started to wear tighter and shorter waistcoats, which led to bulky pocket watches protruding from them in a vulgar way. So Lépine created a new, much slimmer caliber that featured a cylindrical escapement and a hanging barrel. This has been used in only a few wristwatch movements, also in pursuit of thinness, such as the Jaeger-LeCoultre designed automatic 2121 used in Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, which is 3.05mm thick with a date wheel added and 2.45mm without it.
Finally, even the sapphire crystal of the watch was optimized by reducing it to a mere 0.2mm in thickness. One issue that resulted was a slight flex to the crystal when pressure was exerted on it. If the crystal flexed too much, it could press on the watch hands, causing the movement to stop. To avoid this, Piaget ensured that the hands are recessed below the height of the movement’s upper bridge, which acts as a kind of block to protect the watch. The resulting timepiece was a revelation in terms of design and technical ingenuity.
2017 – Altiplano Ultimate Automatic, Calibre 910P
In 2017, Piaget unveiled the next chapter in its pursuit of ultra thin innovation with the Altiplano Ultimate Automatic with the Caliber 910P. Amusingly, Piaget seems to also have gotten a little bit more inventive with the naming of its family of watches, as they threw the name “Ultimate” in here. Which was actually pretty accurate.
Back in 1960, Piaget followed on the amazing 9P with the pretty staggering 12P movement, an ultra thin caliber equipped with a micro-rotor that was just 2.3mm in thickness. Indeed, this record stood all the way until 2017 when Bulgari launched its automatic micro-rotor movement at 2.23mm. But that same year, Piaget once again set a new standard with a watch that is 4.05mm in thickness.
Like the 900P, the 910P took advantage of Piaget’s signature integration of the case and movement into one monolithic unit. But the question was: how would they integrate an automatic winding system without adversely affecting the thickness of the watch?
A centrally mounted rotor would have added too much height and a micro rotor would have necessitated space, which the watch couldn’t afford. Piaget’s solution was a brilliant one, which was to use a peripheral rotor mounted at the perimeter of the movement just inside the watch’s bezel. This oscillating weight takes the form of a thin 22k gold ring treated with a black PVD coating. It is connected to the movement with a ceramic ball bearing system, visible at 2 o’clock. Because it occupies such a large diameter and has such a good moment of inertia, this weight is incredibly efficient and winds the movement very quickly. It also brought additional visual pyrotechnics to the front of the watch.
While the manual wind 900P is 38mm in diameter, the 910P equipped watch is 41mm in diameter to make space for the peripheral rotor and to offer a sportier look. As the bezel could not be screwed from the back of the watch (because these screws would pass through the space occupied by the rotor), the bezel is attached at the side in the 910. The screws on the caseback of the 910P, meanwhile, are not used for fixing the bezel, but only to push it away from the case after unscrewing the screws on the case side. These are the little details that show you how much went into the creation of this watch.
As for Piaget’s brilliant innovation in merging the case of the watch with the baseplate and making it one unit, it is not a totally new idea in watchmaking. But this is the first time it has been totally successful, and perhaps most importantly, made in a watch suited to modern needs, such as one with 20m water resistance.
The idea of making a watch where the case, dial and movement are one unit was also undertaken back in 1986 by Audemars Piguet with their Jacqueline Dimier designed ultra thin automatic tourbillon (often credited to be the very first wristwatch tourbillon). However, this watch did not feature a regular crown, its mainspring could not be manually wound and the rubies for the gear train pinions were actually visible from the back case. However, this watch was more of a one-off experiment rather than a watch that was to be continuously produced.
The point is that the groundbreaking Piaget 900 and 910P are the first watches that were able to make this integration so precise and robust that these watches could be serially produced, and I think that’s quite an achievement. They both run at 3Hz and the manual wind watch has 48 hours of power reserve, while its automatic sibling has 50 hours.
2018: The Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept
Now you can see that the amazing Geneva Grand Prix Aiguille d’Or winning Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept is a further extension of the innovations you find in both the 900 and 910P watches. Think of it this way: If the Altiplano 900 and 910P are GT cars, then the Ultimate Concept is an ultra rare concept car like the Pagani Huayra Imola or an Aston Martin Valkyrie, where the pursuit is the ultimate in design and performance with no limits. But what exactly is so special about the Altiplano Ultimate Concept? You get the fact that it is, in the words of Monty Python, “wafer thin.” But what else? Well, check this out. The watch is also the very first timepiece in the world to have a flying balance wheel combined with a flying barrel, combined with a flying gear train.
What am I talking about? OK, you all know what a flying tourbillon is right? Basically, there is no upper bridge to the tourbillon, and it is supported entirely from the back by the pinion of the cage. The visual effect is that it looks like it is flying or suspended. On the Ultimate Concept, the balance wheel is floating in space. It is entirely supported from behind and instead of resting on a pinion between rubies, it is supported and oscillates between ceramic ball bearings. This is to minimize height, but ceramic ball bearings also have the advantage of offering very good shock absorption to the balance, allowing Piaget to dispense with an Incabloc or KIF style system.
On the subject of the balance, this element is completely redesigned to be much thinner than on a normal watch and the way it is set up is with the hairspring under the balance. Also, as there is no more bridge for the balance, the hairspring is now attached to the main plate, which is monobloc to the case. If you look at the tiny banana-shaped cut-out under the balance wheel to the left, you can see that Piaget had to invent this system, which allows them to change the effective length of the hairspring.
Now look just to the right of the balance wheel and you will see the escapement wheel. This escapement wheel has its pinion fixed to a ruby in the figure eight-shaped bridge/chapter ring that frames the dial and the balance wheel. What you don’t see is the escapement, which interacts with this escape wheel and balance to lock and unlock power from the mainspring eight times a second, thanks to the watch’s impressive 4Hz vibrational speed. Note that the balance wheel is on ceramic ball bearings as well as three wheels and the barrel.
Now look at the barrel at 6 o’clock. You can see that the barrel has been reconceptualized to be as minimalistic as possible. It is fully skeletonized so you have visibility into the mainspring’s state of wind. But importantly, there is no jewel or bridge retaining the barrel, it is also floating in space. Like the balance, it is supported on all sides by ceramic ball bearings that are clearly visible to the eye, which allows it to be much flatter. There are three more wheels in the gear train which you can see at 3 o’clock, that are also fixed only from behind and supported by ceramic ball bearings. This is what I mean by a flying or suspended gear train.
Interestingly, the Altiplano Ultimate Concept is not the first watch or movement to attempt the suspended gear train. However, it is the first to get it to work perfectly.
In 1976, Jean Lassale created a movement that was one of the most daring technical breakthroughs of all time. It was a manual wind caliber that was a mere 1.2mm in thickness and named the Caliber 1200. In order to achieve this, the barrel of the movement and the gear train were suspended, meaning they were only supported from one point from the back rather than having an upper bridge. Because this meant they couldn’t be supported with traditional jeweled pinions, they were secured in place using — you guessed it — ball bearings. But the problem was in the context of the time, these tiny bearings couldn’t be made as uniform as needed, which led to service issues. The mythology goes that these movements were so fragile that when a total service was required, the practice was simply to remove these movements and replace them with new ones. Not a cost-effective procedure.
Eventually, Lassale was purchased by Lemania. In 1981, the group that owned Lemania decided to sell it to its own management team and the investors that backed them were led by the Piaget family. The new company was called Nouvelle Lemania and, as such, Piaget had the rights to use the Lassale calibers. This formed the base of the famous Piaget Caliber 20P. The point is that Piaget’s history with the suspended gear train and barrel goes back more than 40 years, and there is no other brand in the world that has greater legitimacy to use this innovation than Piaget.
What is amazing about the Ultimate Concept is that because the case and mainplate of the movement are one uniform piece crafted from an ultra rigid cobalt alloy (the technical name of the alloy: M64BC – Sexy… I know), it offers the perfect stability to a suspended gear train. In addition, the use of computer numeric machining combined with ceramic ball bearings — which can be made with incredible precision and uniformity — require no lubrication and are not susceptible to magnetism, allowing the Ultimate Concept to be the perfect vehicle for the suspended gear train.
Another major achievement of the Ultimate Concept relates to the crown and its time-setting operation. In many of the ultra thin concept watches, time is set using a key integrated into the backcase, as with the aforementioned Audemars Piguet ultra thin tourbillon. For Piaget, this wasn’t good enough.
Chabi Nouri, the brand’s CEO, has stressed how the watch had to be a real functional ergonomic wearable and usable timepiece, and that meant having a real crown. The issue is that the time-setting in a normal crown uses a vertical wheel, which occupies a certain height. But this would not be possible in the Ultimate Concept. As such, Piaget spent five years developing an endless gear system which could accomplish the task. But as the crown is tiny and has been integrated into the case, Piaget also supplies you with a motorized tool that you can use for winding and even setting the watch.
On the material front, the case of the Ultimate Concept is made from ultra rigid cobalt alloy, which is expensive to machine because of the wear it exerts on tools. It was necessary to use this material to ensure that the watch, at its 2mm thinness, never bends even if you were to accidentally sit on it.
The sapphire crystal is 0.2mm thick, which is five times thinner than a normal sapphire crystal, and it is fitted directly to the case with aerospace glue as there is no bezel for the watch. As with the super cars I mentioned, Piaget doesn’t produce many of these each year; the number I’ve been told is somewhere around five watches.
So stressful is the process to construct one of these that after each watch, the master watchmaker is required to go to Hawaii and stare at the ocean for a month to regain his sanity. OK I’m joking here, but only just a bit.
The crazy research and development that went into this watch is reflected in its CHF 400,000 asking price. However, as the Geneva Grand Prix has already affirmed, this is a super historically important watch. Last but not least, if you do have CHF 400,000 in the bank and are enamored with this watch, you can fully customize it to your taste. That means the color of the case, the plate, the chapter ring, the dial — just about everything is in your hands. In short, the Altiplano Ultimate Concept is not just one hell of a technical breakthrough and a demonstration of Piaget’s commitment to excelling and pushing boundaries, it is also a canvas for your self-expression.