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  • Felix Scholz

Thin end of the wedge

The surprising fight over ultra-slim watches. By Felix Scholz

The strikingly minimalist, futuristic and wafer-thin RM UP-01 Ferrari watch from Richard Mille. Photography courtesy of Richard Mille.

If you thought the world of Swiss watchmaking was a quiet, placid affair, you’d be wrong. We’re currently in the middle of a fiercely fought three-way battle in pursuit of the title of the thinnest watch in the world. A place where hair-widths can make all the difference, and where each millimetre of thickness costs roughly one million dollars.

In the past, there were numerous reasons for a slender movement, from allowing for a dressy, slender aesthetic to giving watchmakers more space for other elements. Today we have very efficient quartz movements that don’t take up much space. So if a watch brand is going for “world’s thinnest” in 2023, they’re doing it purely for bragging rights. Shaving fractions of a millimetre off a watch is a demonstration of credibility and capability. At the moment, the contenders are Piaget, Bulgari and Richard Mille.

The old guard

Piaget is the legacy champion when it comes to ultra-thin watches. It first rose to fame back in 1957 with the legendary calibre 9P. This hand-wound movement was 2mm thin and set the benchmark for super-slim watches for decades to come. In 1960, it released the 12P, which measured 2.3mm but had the very real benefit of being automatic, powered by a space-saving micro-rotor.

A unique Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept watch, which measures just 2mm including the case. Photography by Clément Rousset/Studio Contraste Sàrl.

With these two calibres at its disposal, Piaget achieved some truly remarkable feats — and slender watches were just the beginning. Space saved inside the case allowed the brand to get creative with dials, specifically dials crafted from hard and semiprecious stones. Coral, onyx, lapis lazuli and beyond — these rare and colourful gems quickly became a calling card of Piaget, all enabled by its slender calibres.

A unique Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept watch, which measures just 2mm including the case. Photography by Clément Rousset/Studio Contraste Sàrl.

In recent years, Piaget has expanded on its ultra-thin legacy. In 2013, it debuted the 900P, the case of which measured a mere 3.65mm thin, thanks to a mechanism integrated into the case. This was followed in 2017 by the Altiplano Ultimate 910P, a 4.30mm automatic which reclaimed the “world’s thinnest” crown from Bulgari. In 2018, the brand doubled down with the Altiplano Ultimate Concept watch, which dramatically improved on previous attempts, coming in at 2mm — including the case. In 2020, this concept watch became, almost unbelievably, a commercial reality. To prevent the watch from bending on your wrist, the case is made from cobalt alloy, which ensures a wearable degree of rigidity. From 2020 until 2022, this expression of Piaget’s slender prowess stood tall, until Bulgari, once again, snatched the crown.

The challengers

Bulgari is a relative newcomer to the watch space and an even more recent arrival to the ultra-thin arena. But it has been making up for lost time, rapidly establishing its skill in the genre and providing a contemporary counterpoint to Piaget’s classicism.

Bulgari’s skeletonised Octo Finissimo Ultra. Photography courtesy of Bulgari.

This journey started in 2014 with the Octo Finissimo collection, a modernist masterpiece of slender watch design. It debuted with a 1.95mm-thick tourbillon movement, followed in 2016 by the thinnest minute repeater, with a movement measuring 3.12mm and a cased thickness of 6.85mm. The collection went mainstream in 2017 with the automatic version, which for a while was the thinnest auto on the market at 5.15mm in the case. In 2018, the brand broke its own tourbillon record with a 3.95mm-thick automatic tourbillon. In 2019, it decided to casually release an automatic chronograph (and GMT) calibre that measures 3.3mm. In 2020, it combined a slender tourbillon and chronograph in a skeletonised movement that clocked in at 3.5mm. In 2021, it added even more complexity with a perpetual calendar calibre only 2.75mm thick, and 5.8mm cased.

Bulgari’s skeletonised Octo Finissimo Ultra. Photography courtesy of Bulgari.

It has been a wild ride, but in under a decade Bulgari has amassed, in a seemingly effortless manner, one of the most comprehensive collections of ultra-thin mechanisms around. Not just a single watch, but a dazzling array of complications. On its own, thin watchmaking is hard, but to integrate chronographs, minute repeaters and the rest into the array — that’s stunning.

Since 2014, the Octo has claimed eight records, the most recent being the Octo Finissimo Ultra, which edged Piaget’s contender off top billing by .20 of a millimetre. Bulgari achieved this by integrating the movement into the case, made from titanium and tungsten carbide.

Bulgari and Piaget have spent countless hours and millions of dollars tic-tac-toeing for the title of world’s thinnest watch over the past few years, each honing their craft and advancing the industry along the way. So it must have come as a great surprise when Richard Mille blew them both out of the water.

The usurpers 

In July 2022, Richard Mille left both Bulgari and Piaget in the dust with its surprise debut into the world of ultra-thin watches, the UP-01 Fighting for the Last Hundredths. True to its name, it shaves .05mm off the total width of Bulgari’s champ and is .25mm slimmer than Piaget’s best.

Richard Mille has strong form when it comes to technical watchmaking: ultra-light cases, cutting-edge materials, shock-resistant tourbillons — you name it, Richard Mille has done it in style. Now, it can add the world’s thinnest watch to its list of achievements.

At 1.75mm, Richard Mille’s RM UP-01 is currently the world’s thinnest timepiece. Photography courtesy of Richard Mille.

The most remarkable part of Richard Mille’s new record breaker isn’t its literally wafer-thin nature, it’s the fact that, unlike the other watches we’ve discussed, the calibre is completely separate and can be removed from the case. Richard Mille is revered for its technical prowess and its seemingly painless triumph within the ultra-thin discipline proves that the reverence is deserved.

As a category, mechanical ultra-thin watches have existed for the past 60 or so years. For 50 of those years, the conversation was dominated not just by a few makers, but by a few movements. The past 10 years have seen an explosion of activity, a dynamic and ongoing contest between the legacy maker Piaget and the determined newcomer Bulgari, which has invested seriously in an entire suite of thin complications. Richard Mille has just emerged — out of nowhere — to claim the prize. The 9P’s longstanding record of 2mm has been repeatedly smashed, not just for calibres but for cased-up watches.

Every year or two, we’re seeing a new chapter in the pursuit of the thinnest watch possible. The real question, though, is: just how thin can we go? 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our tenth edition, Page 50 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “Thin End of the wedge”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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