he “perfect alliance between technical innovation and creativity” is how Antoine Pin views Bulgari’s watchmaking division. You can’t have one without the other. This Italian-born brand must express its Roman origins in both jewellery and watchmaking. There is a distinct Italian design, just as there is Swiss, American, French and German design. It’s a matter of stylistic references, of course, but it goes beyond that: there’s a certain roundness, a tasteful extravagance, and a sensuality that can occasionally verge on provocation. All of these elements are present, to varying degrees, at the heart of Bulgari’s creations.
Since taking the helm of Bulgari’s watch division in September 2019, Antoine Pin has been strategically guiding the brand in the direction he believes is best. The managing director began his career in the LVMH group at Zenith in 2002. Not only does he know the group very well (he also worked at TAG Heuer and Berluti) – he understands the expectations of its owner, Bernard Arnault, which are what drive the group’s success: a relentless pursuit of performance to ensure long-term strategic growth. To accomplish this, the brand relies on its design studio and three watch production sites in Neuchâtel, Le Sentier and Saignelégier, which includes its new finishing workshops. All of these entities work closely together.
- Antoine Pin, Managing Director of the Bulgari watch division
Although the first jewellery watches bearing the Bulgari name date back to 1918, they first entered the limelight in 1962. That was the year Hollywood icon Elizabeth Taylor immortalised the Serpenti watch (which celebrates its 75th anniversary this year) in a photograph taken during the filming of Cleopatra at Rome’s Cinecittà studios. Another “watch named desire” emerged in the 1970s: the Bulgari Bulgari. After acquiring the Daniel Roth and Gerald Genta brands in 2000, Bulgari integrated the horological expertise of both workshops while gradually adopting certain historical aesthetic approaches, such as octagonal designs, to launch the Octo model in 2010 – a design that was subtly revised this year. But the brand earned widespread recognition when it entered the ultra-thin race with the Octo Finissimo model. With eight world records and the Octo Finissimo Ultra model to its credit (the latter, launched in 2022 with a thickness of just 1.80 mm thick, boasts eight patents), Bulgari has clearly won the ultra-thin race hands down. They could go further, but the question remains: “What would be the point?”
Europa Star: How is Bulgari approaching 2023?
Antoine Pin: We’re aware that 2023 is a challenging year; the world has not stabilised. In fact, we’re still managing the fallout from the 2008 crisis while also facing new crises with their own repercussions. In this context, we choose to rely on our certainties and areas of expertise – our collections, our production capacity and our teams. We strive to absorb external shockwaves and adapt to them as best we can to protect the essence of who we are, our identity. We continue to build and expand our presence as a watchmaker, focusing on product development and long-term industrial investments that are based on the confidence we have in the growth of our business.
- The 41 mm automatic version of the new Octo Roma, with three hands and date, is powered by the Manufacture Calibre BVL 191, with 42 hours of power reserve.
How do you achieve this?
We innovate continuously to prepare for the future. We invest in people, tools and skills. We’ve integrated gem-setting activities in Switzerland and expanded the range of artistic crafts produced in-house – not with the aim of integrating everything, but because there are limits to our production capacity and demand remains strong. We’re also exploring new industrial production methods. This is how Bulgari is approaching 2023: with great confidence in what we’re doing, while remaining fully aware that the road is long. We are protecting what is most important: the long term.
Protecting the long term also means developing existing models. Why did you decide to rethink the Octo Roma?
Bulgari’s watchmaking identity really solidified around the Octo Finissimo, after eight years of world records, but it is a very specific product: it is a flat, wide watch, more square than round, and very iconoclastic. But we had another piece that sold very well: the Octo Roma, with a rounder, more classic design. It carved its own path. It’s as if we had two children, and we devoted all our efforts to one, leaving the other somewhat neglected. That’s not quite how it happened, because most of our grand complications were built on the Octo Roma case. So, we naturally decided to give it a boost and capitalise on the Octo family to enhance our presence in the most difficult segment to conquer – the one occupied by the great leaders of watchmaking, houses with over a century of watchmaking expertise, and recognition from the general public. In comparison with them, we are children.
“We have access to a portfolio of innovations that shatter many codes, enabling us to rethink many aspects”.
How did you develop this model?
To gain market share, we had to incorporate the best of everything we’d learned in recent years. We rounded and softened the case without erasing its character and applied the same level of finishing as the Finissimo. We worked on the dial’s texture, incorporating a finely detailed Clous de Paris decoration. We also developed a system of interchangeable bracelets that is totally invisible and very easy to use. We made sure that the new Octo Roma would be offered at a price point nearly identical to the previous model, with only the cost of the extra bracelet added. We knew this was a challenge, but the feedback from professionals has been remarkable, and I’m extremely pleased.
The Serpenti is 75 years old this year. How do you keep the model fresh?
Staying creative after 75 years is challenging. However, there was a new dimension to explore: innovation that enables us to rethink the entire product. This is the case with the Serpenti Tubogas Infinity that we launched in January. We’ve overcome the technical constraint posed by the historical production of the Tubogas. The traditional Tubogas is made by winding a thin metal wire (in gold or steel) around a titanium spring. The wire’s thinness doesn’t allow for stone setting or metal engravings. To address this issue and allow for greater creativity on the snake’s body, links are threaded around the titanium core. These links, being significantly thicker than the metal wire, can be set with diamonds from the first link to the very last. The setting can take any form, allowing us to decorate the model with coloured stones and invent different graphics, thereby reviving our creativity. We are also increasingly collaborating with high jewellery studios on shared themes and projects. The Serpenti Pallini watch has inspired a jewellery collection, and in return, we plan to create a more delicate watch model based on this jewellery.
In recent years, the watchmaking industry has broadened its horizons, exploring patents filed outside its own category, category 14, to identify potentially interesting developments. Watchmaking has built bridges with aeronautics, biotechnology, electronics and industries focused on material chemistry. Some of these companies boast research budgets equivalent to the sales of the world’s leading watch companies! As a result, we have access to a portfolio of innovations that shatter many codes, enabling us to rethink many aspects. We can certainly expect to see some remarkable innovations in the next five to ten years.
- Powered by the Calibre BVL 399, the 42 mm Octo Roma Chronograph is distinguished by a very thin, highly legible dial in blue and black.
Last year you launched the Piccolissimo calibre, which powers smaller women’s watches. One year later, how is it going?
One year on, we’re still amazed at how accurately and swiftly we managed to launch the Piccolissimo calibre, as it’s a 100% in-house development. We drew heavily on our miniaturisation expertise, acquired through the Finissimo calibre, to develop it. We’ve also discovered that industrialising a small movement like this can be quite complex. However, the knowledge that we’ll be able to capitalise on brings immense satisfaction. With this calibre, we can rightfully earn recognition in a niche segment: high jewellery watch complications. This makes sense because, much like Cartier and Chopard, Bulgari has mastered both trades exceptionally well. Today, most of the high jewellery watches we create are powered by the Piccolissimo calibre.
What is the added value of Bulgari, the Roman jeweller, in the Swiss watchmaking universe?
With 300 watch brands in existence, Bulgari stands out as being both Swiss and Italian. We think about our Italian origins, particularly in terms of Italian design and how it contrasts with Germanic design, for example. For us, form doesn’t follow function; aesthetics are just as crucial as usability. Our design studio works hand in hand with our manufacturers, co-creating the movements. This is what makes us different.
- The Octo Roma collection also encompasses four exceptional tourbillon models, including the Octo Roma Precious Naturalia with its visible plate on the dial side and its indexes adorned with tiger’s eye, a semi-precious stone with brown accents.
Will you continue the ultra-thin race, or have you reached the limit?
Yes and no. While there are numerous ways to express performance, and we have some ideas in the pipeline, going down to 1.70 mm wouldn’t be particularly interesting. We could do it, but if it’s just to break one more record, what’s the point? There are plenty of other things that can be achieved by thinking about how to master this ultra-thin technology. This isn’t the end of the story, but I’d rather focus on chronometry, reliability, power reserve, or extremely small dimensions. And I don’t want to fall into this world record madness. The next time we set one, I’d like people to be genuinely amazed by our achievement. I like the idea of being where you don’t expect us to be. I enjoy the element of surprise.