A Brief History Of Time: Bvlgari’s Complete Watchmaking History — Part Two (2011-2015)
Welcome back to A Brief History of Time. Our spotlight this week is on the story and watches of Bvlgari. In Part One, we saw the founding of the brand by Sotirio Bulgari as a Greco-Roman silver specialist in 1884. We learned about its rise to international acclaim in the early 1900s examined its first important watch design, the Serpenti, in the 1940s. We looked at the release of several high-fashion watch icons, like the Roma, the Aluminium, and the Diagono in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s. Finally, we saw Bvlgari get serious about watchmaking, as it acquired Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth, began production of in-house, high horology movements, and became a vertically integrated manufacturer in the 2000s.
These days, Bvlgari does maintain its status as one of the world’s leading jewelry houses. However, it’s clear that the brand is no longer interested in producing strictly high-end fashion timepieces. Since 2011, Bvlgari has fully assumed its mantle as a true manufacture d’horlogerie, and it has spared no expense in its pursuit of watchmaking excellence. Bvlgari’s evolution over the last decade has been so dramatic that the limitations of a single article would not do it justice. So today, we’ll intentionally keep things relatively brief, exploring an important transitional period for Bvlgari the brand, its designs, and best of all, its high-horology movements. I hope you enjoy it.
Ensuring a strong future for the Bvlgari brand
The year 2011 saw an important turning point for Bvlgari as an entity. Since 1884, Sotirio Bulgari and his descendants had always owned a majority share in the company. But despite its strides in watchmaking in the 2000s, Bvlgari had struggled due to the financial downturn in 2009. Seeking greater financial resources and broader access to global markets, in 2011, the Bulgari family struck a deal worth 3.7 billion Euros with French luxury super-group LVMH Moët Hennessey Louis Vuitton. In exchange for the Bulgari family’s 50.4% shares in the company, LVMH exchanged 3.5% of its own. This made the Bulgari family the second largest family shareholder in the group.
Bvlgari CEO Francesco Trapani, the great-grandson of Sotirio Bulgari, had led the brand since 1984. Seeing the struggles facing independent luxury entities, he had recognized since 2004 that the sale of Bvlgari would eventually happen. Nevertheless, he had waited patiently for the right buyer to present itself. When LVMH expressed interest, Trapani believed the group would help Bvlgari reach its goals. In an interview, Trapani commented,
“We have always had a long-term global plan for Bulgari. This deal does not change those plans significantly. What it does do is make that plan much more easier to achieve. Now we have an opportunity to do things with much greater speed. So the brand is not only going to be much more powerful in five years, but it will be much more powerful than it would have been without the LVMH deal.”
After the sale, Trapani became Head of Watches and Jewelry at LVMH. As such, he oversaw not only Bvlgari but also watch brands TAG Heuer, Zenith, and Hublot. Trapani would remain in this position until 2014, ensuring Bvlgari’s smooth integration into the group. He would also back the defining relaunch of Bvlgari’s modern icon, the Octo.
The Octo is reborn
In 2012, the previously double-branded Gérald Genta Bvlgari Octo received a refreshing redesign, bearing solely the Bvlgari name. With a new scaled-down case size of 41.5mm, the revamped line featured simple three-hand layouts and the traditional Bvlgari 12 and 6 numerals. The Octo case boasted a total of 110 facets, hand-finished with highly polished and brushed surfaces. Inside, the new caliber BVL 193 was a refinement of the brand’s original in-house base movement, the BVL 168. The improved caliber now featured two mainspring barrels and a greater power reserve of 50 hours. With this release, the brand designated the Octo as the modern face of Bvlgari timepieces. The design would spark massive intrigue among enthusiasts. It would also help to bridge the gap between Bvlgari’s fashion-oriented offerings and its high-horology trophies.
The Bvlgari Daniel Roth Carillon Tourbillon
Bvlgari’s most horologically impressive release of 2012, however, was this 30-piece limited edition. The DR3300 manufacture caliber inside featured not only a tourbillon but also a carillon minute repeater. Unlike traditional minute repeaters, which strike a high and low tone with two hammers on two gongs, the rarer carillon mechanism strikes a high, low, and middle tone using three hammers on three gongs. Two barrels — one for the repeater and one for timekeeping — powered the movement, and a 75-hour power reserve indicator was visible on the back. Bvlgari housed the caliber in a 43mm, 18K rose gold double ellipse case. Like the crystal, the dial was clear sapphire, and it featured rose gold indices. Interestingly, though, the dial did not make contact with the case itself. Bvlgari did this to encourage better amplification of the chimes. To see the beautiful Bvlgari Daniel Roth Carillon Tourbillon during assembly, click here.
Upgrading a ’70s Bvlgari icon
Dating back to 1977, Bvlgari’s Bvlgari watch was one of the earliest major successes for the brand in the men’s watch market. Its boldly branded bezel had become a signature stylistic trait of so many of the brand’s early hits. In 2013, the brand gave the Bvlgari Bvlgari a modern update, equipping it with an in-house caliber BVL 191. Powered by a single mainspring barrel and with a power reserve of 42 hours, the BVL 191 was not quite as high-spec as the BVL 193 found in the Octo. Nevertheless, it marked an important shift for Bvlgari, as the brand began using its very own three-hand movements to power even its fashion-forward offerings. The 41mm three-hand Bvlgari Bvlgari came in both steel and two-tone steel/rose gold. A chronograph version powered by the legendary Zenith El Primero also made its debut that year, thanks to both brands’ LVMH alliance.
But the coolest Bvlgari Bvlgari to see the light in 2013 was the tourbillon version, powered by the intriguing new manufacture caliber BVL 263. What set this movement apart from Bvlgari’s previous tourbillons was its automatic winding capabilities and its transparent sapphire upper bridge. The invisible bridge gave it the pleasing look of a flying tourbillon and offered an unobstructed view of the tourbillon cage. The rhodium-finished 22K gold rotor was artfully skeletonized to provide the best view of the movement possible. The movement was a sign of things to come. In a few years, a true flying tourbillon would finally be within Bvlgari’s grasp.
Bvlgari welcomes a new CEO
While former Bvlgari CEO Francesco Trapani would remain Head of Watches and Jewelry for all of LVMH for one more year, in 2013, the group recruited Jean-Christophe Babin as the new CEO of Bvlgari. As the CEO of TAG Heuer since 2000, Babin had worked relentlessly to strengthen the brand in both sales and watchmaking. His efforts led not only to the opening of over 100 TAG Heuer boutiques worldwide but also eight awards at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, including the coveted Aiguille d’Or in 2012. Working with Fabrizio Buonomassa, Bvlgari’s Director of Watch Design, and Guido Terreni, the brand’s Head of Watchmaking, Babin would help Bvlgari watches reach an unprecedented level of desirability among industry veterans and collectors alike.
The debut of the Octo bracelet
As the final noteworthy event of 2013, Bvlgari released the Octo on a steel bracelet for the first time ever. The new Octo Steel may not have had any earth-shattering upgrades under the dial. It was still powered by the in-house BVL 193. But adding the bracelet was the final step in solidifying the image of Bvlgari’s most important modern watch line. The new bracelet complimented the 110 facets of the case and their alternating brushed and polished finishes. It featured highly polished rectangular segments, nestled into finely brushed cradles. Short links made the bracelet wrap around the wrist like a piece of jewelry, and a hidden butterfly clasp provided a seamless look.
With its sleek new bracelet, an in-house caliber, and a modern case, just 41.5mm in diameter, 47mm lug-to-lug, and 10.5mm thick, Bvlgari’s modern icon was finally complete. Or was it?
No, it wasn’t
The very next year, Bvlgari pushed the envelope with the 2014 release of the Octo Finissimo. With it, the brand aimed to create a timepiece that embodied “dynamic tension”. The watch would balance the aggressive styling of the modern age with the slimness and elegance of an era gone by. The result was this new version of the brand’s flagship watch, the Octo, with a case thickness of only 5.15mm. It was less than half the thickness of the Octo that debuted just two years before, and it featured a brand new, manually wound BVL 128 caliber. It was quite a wide movement at 36.6mm in diameter. Its width allowed the components to be spread more horizontally than vertically, for a total height of just 2.23mm. It featured a sub-seconds display at 7:30, a full balance bridge, and an indicator for its 65-hour power reserve on the mainspring barrel itself.
Understandably, Bvlgari wanted to show off this impressive ultra-slim caliber. A traditional sapphire display back, however, would have made the watch significantly thicker. Bvlgari worked around this by constructing a monoblock case with an integrated sapphire window. This made the sapphire display an inseparable part of the case itself. After mounting the 0.2mm-slim dial and hands to the movement, the bezel and sapphire front crystal sealed the watch. Eight hollow, threaded posts on the underside bezel extended through the monoblock case to the reverse side. There, they were fastened with miniature five-sided bolts in each corner of the octagon. The Octo Finissimo debuted in a platinum case, brilliantly sized at 40mm in diameter, and again, just 5.15mm thick.
Becoming a record-setter
Having dipped their toes in the waters of ultra-thin timepieces, Babin, Buonomassa, and Terreni wanted to see how far Bvlgari could take the concept. In 2014, alongside the new Octo Finissimo, Bvlgari released the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon. With it, the brand would claim the title for the thinnest tourbillon movement ever made. Bvlgari designed the 249-component caliber BVL 268 completely around its thickest component, the tourbillon cage. To reduce its overall thickness, Bvlgari utilized ball bearings instead of jewels and did away with the traditional regulator assembly. The timing was therefore adjusted directly on the 3Hz, variable-inertia balance itself. The result was a true flying tourbillon movement just 1.95mm thick. It smashed the previous record of 2.97mm, set by the Arnold & Son UTTE in 2013. But this was just the first of seven world records Bvlgari would set by 2021.
Pioneering materials and technology
As it did in 1998 with the Aluminium, in 2015, Bvlgari once again pushed the envelope of design with the Diagono Magnesium. It drew on the brand’s successful sports watch design of the late ’80s while using a combination of materials rarely seen in watchmaking. The middle case and dial were made of magnesium. This high-performance metal was 33% lighter than aluminum, 50% lighter than titanium, and 75% lighter than steel. The magnesium was then shielded with Motorlac, a protective coating known in the automotive industry for its heat resistance and extreme durability. It gave the magnesium base not only greater scratch and corrosion resistance, but a colorful, grained finish as well.
The sides of the case, the inner lugs, and the buckle were made of a polymer called polyether ether ketone, or PEEK. No ordinary plastic, this premium material is known for its strength-to-weight ratio and extreme resistance to temperature fluctuation. It was even used on parts of NASA’s Juno spacecraft on its mission to Jupiter. The 100m water-resistant case was topped with a scratch-resistant ceramic bezel and fitted with a vulcanized rubber strap. If there was ever a Bvlgari “beater”, the Diagono Magnesium was it.
Bvlgari even introduced a concept version of the Diagono Magnesium — detailed by Rob Nudds in this 2015 article — with a built-in NFC chip. The watch itself acted as a “key” to the Bvlgari Vault smartphone application. The user could enter any manner of high-security information into the app, and it would be encrypted and stored on military-guarded servers in the Swiss Alps. It seems, however, that Bvlgari has put that project on hold for now.
Celebrating the Roma
The year 2015 also marked the 40th anniversary of Bvlgari’s very first successful men’s watch, the Roma. Originally a yellow gold digital watch, limited to 100 pieces and gifted to Bvlgari’s best clients, the Roma was the precursor to the 1977 Bvlgari Bvlgari. With its coin-like shape and engraved bezel, the Roma was the true origin of much of Bvlgari’s watch design language. So the brand took the opportunity to celebrate it, honoring the Roma with its latest and greatest mechanical movements. The 41mm Roma Finissimo, featuring the 2.23mm ultra-thin caliber BVL 128, made its debut, with 100 pieces in yellow gold and standard production versions in rose gold and steel. And like the Octo before it, the Roma Finissimo also saw a tourbillon version. Equipped with the ultra-thin caliber BVL 268, the case measured just 5.4mm in thickness.
Carrying on Daniel Roth tradition
Rounding off 2015, Bvlgari released several high-horology pieces in its Daniel Roth line. From a carillon minute repeater to a rattrapante chronograph with a tourbillon, they were complicated watches for the connoisseurs. One of the most interesting, however, was the Papillon Tourbillon. It used the “butterfly” minutes display developed by Daniel Roth, in which two opposing minute hands circled the dial. When one reached the 60-minute mark, it would retract, pivoting 90 degrees. The opposing minute hand would simultaneously extend, rotating in the same fashion, indicating minutes from zero. Paired with a jumping hour disc, it was a display that many Daniel Roth enthusiasts knew and loved. But Bvlgari took it one step further, adding its first-ever central, flying tourbillon. This new manufacture caliber BVL 266 was both a tribute to Daniel Roth’s legacy and a symbol of Bvlgari’s very own watchmaking vision.
The storm was brewing
The year 2015 was, in a way, a line of demarcation in the modern history of Bvlgari watchmaking. Though it was certainly not a “boring” year, it would pale in comparison to the bevy of world records Bvlgari would claim in 2016 and beyond.
The years since 2011 had certainly seen a lot of changes for Bvlgari. The brand had changed hands, revamped its flagship Octo, and made its first breakthrough in ultra-thin horology. And every year since 2016, Bvlgari has made horological headlines with its inestimable desire to push its own boundaries. It is therefore my hope that you’ll join me back here in a few weeks, as we discover the final six years in the story of Bvlgari watchmaking. Believe me, my friends, they are marvelous years indeed.