The Battle for the World's Thinnest Watch

By Simon de Burton

Visitors to A Collected Man who have attained a certain age might remember a time before the appreciation of a good wristwatch had developed into the widely practiced field of academic study it is today. Back then, it was likely that the uninitiated would praise a particular watch in one of two simple ways: "You can tell it's a good one - it's so nice and heavy ", or "it's obviously a decent make - look how thin it is...." 

These days, most would agree that the weight test is certainly no measure of quality in a mechanical watch. But the thin test? That's a very different matter because, even now, the wafer-thin mechanism remains largely (or small-ly?) the mark of a truly accomplished maker.

 

The Vacheron Constantin Calibre 1003 is the same size as a Swiss 20 centimes coin

 

But the range of ultra-sophisticated kit, modern watch designers and manufacturers have at their disposal does make the truly hand-made products of old seem all the more remarkable. Since early wrist watches were converted from small-sized pocket models, it would have been easy for larger dials and thicker cases to have become the norm – but regular life had not long resumed after WWI before horologists set out to establish that small was, indeed, beautiful.

Women's cocktail watches were the first to receive attention, with the desire to create discreet 'jewels that tell the time' leading to Jaeger-LeCoultre's almost unfathomably tiny 'Calibre 101' movement of 1929 that – despite computer-aided design and manufacturing machines then being beyond the imaginations of all but the most extreme sci-fi enthusiasts – measured just 14 mm long by 4.8mm wide and 3.4mm high.

 

The evolution of Jeaguer-LeCoultre’s Duoplan movements culminating in the  cal.101, courtesy of Jeager-LeCoultre.

 

It's still the world's smallest mechanical movement overall but, in 'thinness' terms, it was already relatively lumpen when it first appeared.

Vacheron Constantin's remarkably complete historical archives highlight the creation in 1926 of a rock crystal watch powered by a red gold movement of 2.6mm thick while, five years later, the firm set a world record with a pocket watch mechanism measuring 0.94mm, in height – although Audemars Piguet's 'super-thin' pocket watch of 1927 was almost as impressive, since its wafer-like Lepine 17.5 ligne movement resulted in a cased size of just three millimetres all-in.

 

 

A Vacheron Constantin ref 10726, known as a “knife” watch, it was so thin.

 

With more diameter in which to 'spread-out' , however, creating a very thin pocket watch doesn't seem quite so impressive as creating a very thin wrist watch – and it wasn't until the 1950s that the quest for slimness developed into an unofficial competition among a handful of makers.

Prior to then, the years of WWII had necessitated a focus on military-type 'tool watches', the functionality and robustness of which led to a post-war increase in demand for what came to be known as 'sports' models – neither of which were then expected to have especially thin cases.

But the post-war optimism of the 1950s also gave people (men, in particular) the confidence to express style and sophistication in their wristwear – and what could be more stylish and sophisticated than a watch that was ultra-thin? Back then, a forest of pushpieces, a sea of subdials and a multiplicity of functions was not necessarily something to be proud of – but a wafer-like case most certainly was.

 

A Vacheron Constantin ref. 6099 made razor thin back in the 1950s, courtesy of Vacheron Constantin.

 

Vacheron Constantin placed itself into the thick of the thinness battle (maybe even started it?) in 1952 with the release of the Calibre 1001 that, at 2.94mm, set a record for being the world's slimmest wristwatch movement. It followed-up in 1955 with the 1.64mm Calibre 1003 which it fitted to models such as the Reference 6125, 611, 6099 and 6704 to create what were, unequivocally, 'the flattest watches in the world'.

 

 

 A Vacheron Constantin ref. 6194, measuring just 4mm thick.

 

The launch of the 1003 at the Basel Watch Fair produced a flurry of interest from other manufacturers keen to 'downsize', IWC, Patek Philippe, Zenith and Audemars Piguet among them.

Jaeger-LeCoultre also wanted to get in on the act and, both because of its exceptional production facilities and its history as a top-grade movement manufacturer (early Cartier wristwatches were only so slim due to the use of exquisite JLC movements) it collaborated with Vacheron to produce thousands of Calibre 1003s both for its own use and for that of rival dial names.

 

French actor Alain Delon sporting a Piaget ultra-thin Patrimony watch.

 

Piaget, however, chose to plough its own, narrow furrow. Although its two-millimetre Calibre 9P of 1957 still didn't knock the 1003 off its perch, the Calibre 12P that arrived three years later caused a new sensation – at 2.3mm, it was the thinnest self-winding movement yet created. From there a Piaget watch with a funky, hardstone dial came to be regarded by many playboys of the '60s and '70s as an essential piece of operational equipment, along with a pair or Ray-Bans, a Ferrari 275GTB and a villa on the Cote d'Azur.

As we all know, however, that same era was far from a golden one for mechanical watch making. The arrival of the quartz movement in 1969 suddenly made it a whole lot easier to create a very thin watch – although the traditionalists did fight back, led (again) by Jaeger-LeCoultre with its Calibre 920.

 

"Back then, a forest of pushpieces, a sea of subdials and a multiplicity of functions was not necessarily something to be proud of – but a wafer-like case most certainly was."

 

Produced with financial help from Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin, it wasn't actually used by JLC and, in basic date form, isn't super-thin at 3.05mm. But it was thin enough to enable the creation of ground-breaking, slim-cased, self-winding sports watches from Audemars Piguet (the Royal Oak), Vacheron Constantin (the 222) and Patek Philippe (the Nautilus).

 

The Jaeger-LeCoultre 920 acting as the base for an Audemars Pigeut QP.

 

It was also highly adaptable (it formed the basis of AP's Reference 5548 Royal Oak perpetual calendar watch) and still remains the thinnest self-winding movement with a full-sized rotor.

Despite the quartz onslaught, the '70s also produced a few other mechanical movements of truly remarkable thinness, not least (or, actually, completely least) the Jean Lassale Calibre 1200 hand wound of 1976, that measured an insane 1.2mm from front to back. The automatic version, the Calibre 2000, was a mere 2.08mm thick and the production of both was carried-out by Lemania-Lugrin (later Nouvelle Lemania) with the ebauches being variously supplied to Piaget, Vacheron Constantin and Cartier as the Lemania 1210 and 2010.

But the watch that probably had more to do with ensuring 'thin was in' with any self-respecting member of the (by now fading) 1970s Jet-Set came from a brand that may not even be on the radar of many a committed horophile today – and that was Concord.

 

Concord was not shy about their achievement.

 

Founded in Switzerland in 1908 but bought by the North American Watch Company (now Movado) in 1970, it cashed-in mightily on the craze for quartz by producing what were, quite simply, the thinnest wrist watches of all time – the 1.98mm Delirium of 1979, its successor, the 1.5mm Delirium 2, and a Piaget-like sports model called the Centurion that, in 1982, carried a price tag of $7,950 (equivalent today to around $21,000. For a quartz watch). 

It's difficult to believe now, but the various Concord models were so successful that the firm was able to shoulder a reported $14m annual spend on marketing and place its products on the wrists of top sports stars and TV celebrities. 

The problem with the Delirium, the Lassale-based models and other ultra-slim watches – both mechanical and quartz – is that they were really best kept 'for best'. They simply weren't up to the job of being worn with anything but care, and their super-slim cases were sometimes so flexible that simply tightening the strap could cause the crystal to burst off.

 

The designs of Fabrizio Buonamassa for the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT, courtesy of Bulgari.

 

It's fair to say that such a situation wouldn't be tolerated today – and, according to Bulgari design guru Fabrizio Buonamassa, it doesn't have to be due to the huge advances in watch making technology that have taken place since the turn of the millennium. 

He should know, since he's penned no fewer than six versions of the distinctive Bulgari Octo Finissimo that have each claimed thinness records – starting with the manual-winding tourbillon of 2015 (thinnest tourbillon movement at 1.95mm) and moving to minute repeater, three-hand automatic, automatic tourbillon, chronograph and tourbillon chronograph, Buonamassa's masterpieces have set a raft of benchmarks.

 

Paper thin, by Bulgari.

 

"The difference between now and the way things were during the 1970s and 80s is all down to the technology we have available," he told A Collected Man. "The way the design of these very thin watches has to be approached today is similar to that of designing a Formula One car – there is so little material to play with and the constraints are enormous, but the technology makes it possible.

"It's necessary to develop special machinery to manufacture the components, and we have to be incredibly careful how we decorate them in order to prevent them becoming too fragile to be practical – our aim with the Octo Finissimo range, you see, was not simply to make ultra-thin watches but to create an entirely new way in which to wear a grand complication watch. 

 

The minimalistic movement of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, courtesy of Bulgari.

 

"And they are  made to be worn a lot – my own Finissimo has been on my wrist for more than three years, it has never been serviced, I have fallen off my bicycle with it twice and it still works perfectly" he says.

Indeed, the rough and tumble of daily life is what made many people sceptical that Piaget's Altiplano Ultimate Concept would ever become more than just that – a concept – following its unveiling at Geneva's SIHH show in 2018.

Last year, however, it  entered production more or less as it had first appeared – measuring an ultra-minimal 2mm from top to bottom. It features a case that forms part of the movement and a unique, integrated winding crown. Most of the already tiny components used in a standard watch had to be re-scaled, with wheels, for example, being reduced from a conventional 0.20mm thick to 0.12mm and the sapphire crystal, normally 1mm thick in a standard watch, being pared-down by 80 per cent to a scarcely believable 0.2mm.

The unfathomably slender Piaget Altiplano Ultimate, courtesy of Piaget.

 

Priced at more than CHF 400,000 in basic form, it can be ordered with several bespoke components through Piaget's extra cost 'Infinitely Personal' customisation scheme.

But while such record-breakers by Piaget and Bulgari may represent the boundary-pushing extreme, they could also spark fresh interest in the often overlooked arena of ultra-thin watches among enthusiasts who may have become so caught-up in today's clamour for sports watches and the kudos of complications that they have never considered a simple, superbly engineered, deliciously slim three-hander.

If you're among them, we suggest you give one a go. You might find that less really can be more...



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