ROME WASN’T BUILT IN A DAY. This well-known phrase aptly portrays how Roman luxury brand Bulgari takes its ticking creations seriously. Beyond the Western hills of Switzerland, Chris Andre steps into the world of cutting-edge watch manufacturing
Bulgari has shown a strong proposition in recent years. With its acquisitions of Daniel Roth and Gérald Genta, followed by the very elegant Octo watch creations, the Roman luxury house has become the most representative of Italian companies in speaking of fine timepieces. As such, when Bulgari extended an invitation to see what goes on beyond the closed production doors, I instantly jumped at the opportunity—not knowing that it was miles, miles away from Rome.
Much has changed since Bulgari’s acquisition by LVMH back in 2011. The seminal move of the watch design team, under the tutelage of creative Italian designer Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, from Rome, Italy, to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, was pretty significant. The following year, the brand revealed the new Octo watch line, an exquisite legacy from the late Gérald Genta. At the same time, Bulgari showed up at the Baselworld Fair 2013 in Switzerland, proudly and confidently standing right at the entrance of the most prestigious hall 1. In 2014, the Octo watch graced headlines in and out of Baselworld for being the world’s thinnest tourbillon watch, namely the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon. Swiss-made but with real Italian traditions, Bulgari watches are the fusion of cultures and aesthetics that confirm with our ever-connected modern world.
FOUR SEPARATE MANUFACTURERS
To uncover that greatness, I made a long trip to the Jura Mountains on the Western Alps of Switzerland. This is the Mecca for all watch enthusiasts. It is the cradle of fine timepieces, where watch artisans craft the most poetic timekeeping instruments in history. It is also home to the most venerable watch brands, which is why Bulgari fits in so perfectly.
As a matter of fact, Bulgari has not only one or two, but as many as four stations in the vicinity that manage watch production. Each station is responsible for a particular department. The watchcases and the bracelets are produced in Saignelégier, a municipality in the canton of Jura. The watch dials are made at Bulgari Manufacture de Cadrans in the hilly plains of La Chauxde-Fonds. For in-house movements, including the most intricate chiming complications like Carrion Tourbillon, the Italian house keeps all secrets and production in Le Sentier, a watchmaker village in the Vallée de Joux. Most of the pieces are then assembled in the lakeside headquarters of Bulgari Watches in Neuchâtel.
I, myself, couldn’t help but wonder about the logic of having four separate manufactures instead of a big, concentrated one. Pascal Brandt, Bulgari’s Watch Communications Senior Manager, smiled at first, knowing all too well that question would arise every now and then. “It took some time for Bulgari to grow to be a watchmaking manufacturer,” he started off. Indeed, for a watch brand to be a certified manufacturer requires not only talent, but also technology and space to create all the tiny pieces that make up a watch, both for the movements and the rest of the watch. Even some brands that have been around for decades or centuries may not be a manufacturer yet, due to the lack of resources. “So, along the road, the brand [Bulgari] acquired one manufacturer after another to produce each element in the best way possible,” concluded Brandt.
THE CASES AND BRACELETS
It takes a skillful driver and lots of determination to arrive safely at the watchcase and bracelet manufacturer in Saignelégier. Far from the city and high on a sloping hill, the location is such a fitting setting for a recluse. Like any traditional craft, Swiss watchmaking is a trade that is passed on from generation to generation. It was the shepherds and farmers in the Jura Mountains in the past who first took on rudimentary watchmaking jobs to earn a living during the winter periods. That chance trade evolved into a permanent staple as Swiss watch brands began cultivating a global market over decades, creating high demand for this profession.
Watchmaking is now a professional culture in this part of the world, and Bulgari values this respectfully by setting up manufacturers relevant to the skills of the workers in the vicinity. The watchcase and bracelet station employed approximately 80 people, with around 20 personnel working on case polishing. Designs for the cases and bracelets came from the Neuchâtel headquarters, and the manufacture created most of the complex shapes, including the Octo and the iconic Serpenti timepieces.
THE BEAUTIFUL DIALS
A simple layer on top of a watch movement—how difficult could that be? With more than 200 references available and around 40,000 dials to create this year alone, the dial-making business is extremely complicated. It stands as the face of the watch, one that sums up the mechanical complicacy to a general watch reader.
The Bulgari Manufacture de Cadrans has 40 personnel, varying from workers, designers to artisans. The workflow starts from a dial blueprint inspected thoroughly by designers and, once given the green light, it will go into production and is later on finished with decorative adornments in the end. The labor-intensive process takes into account the varying degrees of each dial model; the one for, say, the Bulgari Bulgari 2015 watch with different complications (be it a date display or a seconds hand) would require distinct dials. And already in the manufacturer were multiple production lines for various dials, such as the Octo, Lucea and Serpenti, running simultaneously during my visit. Interestingly, for special products like the Serpenti watch, the head sculpture that contains the watch is produced in Switzerland, while the rest of the body—the exquisite spiraling bracelets—is made in Rome.
THE POETIC MOVEMENTS
The manufacturer in Le Sentier is an expanded old mansion, which looked warm and inviting. Almost immediately, master watchmaker John Sheridan showed up upon my arrival and gave me a guided tour around the medium-sized manufacturer. Solotempo movements were ubiquitous in most departments, but, with a certain measure of pride, Sheridan revealed his throne: the master watchmaker room.
There in the white, sterile quarters, three laconic but ingenious craftsmen, including Sheridan himself, sat as the respectable “kings” of Bulgari movements. Their daily grind includes tourbillons, minute repeaters and other movements of such caliber. Like a proud father, Sheridan pulled attention to his pristine table with only two movements as the centerpieces. “This is a Carrion Tourbillon—the minute repeater,” his innocent, boyish smile was obvious, “each is numbered, and when it needs some maintenance every four years or so, the movement will be given back to the same master watchmaker who assembled it in the first place.”
Without further ado, the British master watchmaker pulled the watch lug that instantly triggered the movement to emit crisp, clanging sounds that resembled none other than the Big Ben in London. It set off 11 gongs and a few more following rings. “Could you guess the time? I’ve set the chiming to maximum, so it should tell 11:59,” bragged Sheridan. To see a watchmaker so wrapped up in excitement over his creation was a very privileged experience, I must admit. “Bulgari is among the best few, if not the best, in the world for this kind of movement,” his head nodded along.
That most fascinating Bulgari movement concluded the inspiring trip. On a separate note, the Carrion Tourbillon epitomizes how Bulgari watches are today. Swiss-made but with real Italian traditions and worldwide inspirations, the fine timepieces are truly modern in its aesthetics and sophistications.