Bulgari has become a major player in luxury timepieces. Monocle meets its watch-making team to find out what makes them tick.
The headquarters of Bulgari’s watch-making division add a novel pop of colour to the quaint lakefront town of Neuchâtel, which sits in the middle of Switzerland’s famous horological valley stretching from Basel to Geneva. Amid a series of neutral buildings towers one painted burnt orange – a terracotta hue more commonly seen on the façades of Roman houses. And it is from here that the Italian luxury brand has, over the past 10 years, shouldered its way into the upper echelons of Swiss horology.
“We were a jeweller that made timepieces without any technical know-how,” says Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, the Naples-born creative director of Bulgari’s watches. The designer, who sports a thick auburn beard, is standing in his office, which overlooks Lake Neuchâtel. The room brims with books, dozens of pens – all his ideas are born as ballpoint sketches – and at least six model cars (he came to Bulgari from Fiat). Stigliani is the person to thank for the brand’s game-changing watch model, the Octo Finissimo, which has broken eight world records since its first iteration – it was the world’s thinnest watch – and last year the Octo Finissimo Perpetual Calendar was awarded the industry’s top prize, the Aiguille d’Or. “Now the most important collectors are buying our watches,” he says.
The world of Swiss watch-making is not an easy one to break into, even for an lvmh-backed luxury powerhouse. Bulgari was founded in 1884 and became a mandatory stop for the dolce vita jet set in the 1950s for its gem-encrusted jewellery. The atelier made watches too but it always used movements (the mechanism that makes a watch tick) produced by external suppliers. That is until 2000, when the company took over the factories and staff of two famed Swiss watch-makers, Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta, becoming one of the rarefied brands that manufactures and assembles every wheel and spring in-house.
“There are a lot of products that are ugly from an engineering point of view but with beautiful aesthetics,” says Stigliani. “And many that are amazing technically but old-fashioned in the way that they look.” To bring the two to the same level, he moved Bulgari’s watch-design team from the company’s Rome headquarters to Neuchâtel in a bid to bridge the gap between the Italian design and Swiss manufacturing sides of the business. “You need a blend between technical innovation and new aesthetics,” he says. Take the Serpenti, Bulgari’s most iconic design, that coils around a woman’s wrist like a snake.
This January the brand announced the launch of the Piccolissimo, with a hand-wound watch movement smaller in diameter than a €0.01 coin that can replace the digital quartz technology previously used. Its 102 components are put together by hand (with the help of a microscope) in Bulgari’s factory in Vallée de Joux, while the case, shaped like an elongated snake’s head, is crafted at its jewellery-production site in Valenza, Italy. In the assembly atelier two floors below Stigliani’s office, the dial is then snapped to a bracelet made in the firm’s Haute Joaillerie workshop.
After Stigliani’s shake-up, the real breakthrough came in 2014 when Bulgari launched the Octo Finissimo, an ultra-thin version of the previously released Octo. Made from matte-grey titanium, the Octo was a sharp departure from the norm in Swiss luxe watches, where chunkiness tended to increase in proportion with the price tag. “It’s more discreet – more Italian,” says Stigliani.
Bulgari’s strategy of going ever thinner would not have been possible without its factory in Le Sentier, where all its mechanical movements are made. This mountain valley, an hour’s drive from Neuchâtel, is where the Swiss first started tinkering with timepieces in the 17th century. The most prestigious watch brands, including Jaeger-LeCoultre and Breguet, are all still made here. Bulgari’s Haute Horlogerie, housed in an ivory-coloured glass building in the centre of the town, is where Stigliani’s sketches land on the desks of the research and development team.
We are handed blue lab coats and led through the two manufacturing floors. One watch, depending on its size and capabilities, can contain anywhere from 100 to 1,200 parts. Each tiny component is sliced from metal rods, cut into the right shape, filed, embossed and decorated, and then assembled by hand by a diverse cast of expert horologists. To shave a few millimetres off a watch’s diameter, this mind-bogglingly complex process has to be re-engineered, which requires several years of design and prototyping.
The inner sanctum of the factory, which is found in a light-filled room where four watch-makers work at desks facing out over the valley. “We’re all a bit pig-headed here,” says master watch-maker Pascal Legendre, laughing. “This is a job that requires patience and passion.” Legendre has been at the factory since before it was acquired by Bulgari. He says that not much has changed, except that he now has access to the resources and equipment that only a conglomerate-backed, multinational luxury house can provide. “We are fortunate enough to have carte blanche,” he says. He has helped to assemble a Grande Sonnerie watch with four different tiny hammers that can imitate the melody of London’s Big Ben. Legendre can also lay claim to helping to make the world’s thinnest chiming watch, the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater.
“First, they said that we couldn’t use titanium [for the case] because we need a very noble material,” says Stigliani, back in his office in Neuchâtel. “But I said, ‘Guys, we are not Swiss and that’s the great difference in our point of view.’” Instead, he let the functionality guide the design, choosing titanium for the entire exterior to achieve the best-sounding chime for the minute repeater. “It’s not just because we love the colour; it amplifies the sound,” he says.
Bulgari’s Italo-Swiss approach is clearly working. Though lvmh doesn’t break down profits by company, in its second quarterly earnings presentation this year it singled out Bulgari’s watch division as a star performer. This autumn, to mark the 10th anniversary of its Octo success story, the brand released a model that only needs to be wound every eight days, as well as a limited-edition version in steel, polished to a mirror-like finish, designed in collaboration with Japanese architect Kazuyo Sejima. But the house’s record-setting streak has been broken: only a few months after it debuted the 1.8mm thin Octo Finissimo Ultra in March, rival watch-maker Richard Mille came out with one that is 0.05mm thinner. “A lot of prestigious brands in the watch-making industry play the same game,” says Stigliani. “We are happy because, after 50 years, we are trendsetters again.”
After shaving timepieces down to paper-thin proportions, what is the next boundary that Bulgari watches will push? The success of the past 10 years means that whatever Stigliani sketches next, the manufacturing team will be much more bent on turning into reality. “In the beginning it was, ‘No, Fabrizio, this is not possible,’” he says, throwing up his hands. “Now they say, ‘It’s difficult but we can find a way.’”