You might be forgiven for believing that the quest for thinness in watches is a recent phenomenon. Sure, the most recent escapades from the likes of Piaget, Bvlgari and the latest newcomer and current world record holder, Richard Mille, might have garnered the bulk of the social media attention, but in fact, this quest began back in the early 1900s, before social media was even a pipe dream…
The Wafer-Thin Genesis
In 1903, Edmond Jaeger, challenged the Swiss watchmakers to create an ultra in calibre, and Jacque-David LeCoultre (grandson of founder Antoine LeCoultre) rode his bike for 20km to the nearest phone booth to accept the challenge. The calibre 145 was presented in 1907, measuring a mere 1.38mm. It was fitted to a knife-edge style pocket watch, and it remains till today one of the thinnest production pocket watches.
Fast forward to 1931, Vacheron Constantin set a new world record producing a pocket watch movement measuring a svelte 0.94mm thin. It was cased up in a similar knife edge style case as the LeCoultre from 1907. However, Audemars Piguet did produce a pocket watch with a total cased up thickness of just 3mm.
As we firmly enter into the era of the wristwatch, the battle for thinness did not ease up.
The Thin Movements of the 40s and 50s
Now this part of the history is a bit blurry and somewhat controversial, as it almost comes down to a case of he-said-she-said. I suppose as most of us weren’t around back then, we’ll just have to take this info at face value. So what’s the confusing part? We have Audemars Piguet, with their calibre 9ML in 1938, measuring at 1.64mm thin in limited numbers. However, some also claimed this movement was from 1946.
Another movement, the AP Calibre 2003, was said to be released in 1946 (or just before 1946), whilst others have stated specifically November 1953. The AP Calibre 2003 however, is definitely based on the 9ML and in fact, AP released a limited edition 50th anniversary model with an updated version of the Calibre 2003, which kinda makes the 1946 date the officially recognised one.
This calibre was either jointly developed or manufactured (depending on which brand you ask…) with both Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre. They were known as the Calibre 1003 and Calibre 803 respectively, although supposedly the JLC movement was never used by JLC themselves, but rather, supplied to others. This is a very basic hour-and-minute manually wound movement with a frequency of 18,000 VPH.
Now just to be a little more confusing, up until this point, the emphasis is on the thinness of the movement itself, rather than the fully cased up watch.
To gauge the thinness of a fully cased watch (and a better comparison to today’s ultra thin watches) the Vacheron Constantin Ref 6194 from the 50s, powered by Calibre 1003, was a mere 4mm thin. The more recent Vacheron Constantin Historique 1955 Ref 33155/000R-9588 from 2010 was also around the same thinness at 4.1mm.
Thinness in the Present
At this point in time (2010), it seemed like we had hit the utmost possibility of thinness in terms of a traditional watch case set up (ie, crystal – hands – dial – movement – case back). It wasn’t until 2013, when Piaget unveiled the Altiplano 900P, which did away with a traditional dial, as well as using the case back as the baseplate of the movement, and clocked in at 3.65mm (which seemed like the limit again).
Piaget, unwilling to leave the idea of thinness alone, in 2018 presented the Altiplano Ultimate Concept (AUC), which is essentially the 900P on steroids if… um… steroids made you thinner. They managed to flatten it down to a mere 2mm, and at the time I did wonder out loud whether it was possible to make a watch any thinner than that. It was already beyond ridiculous, no matter how incredible the innovative technology was/is.
This concept became a reality in 2020. Yes, you can buy it as a production piece. Never mind the pricing, which was 400,000 CHF (~$A605,130). But with that you do get to customise the watch to your heart’s content… within limit.
However, hindsight is 20-20. As many now know in 2022, that record was smashed by Bvlgari with their Octo Finissimo Ultra, sharing the same basic strategy as the Piaget AUC, pressed further to just 1.8mm. Priced at 400,000 Euro (~$A596,250), it’s around the same price point as the Piaget, but there’s no customisation involved. But you do get a bracelet. And a massive QR code. On the watch.
Yet ridiculously thin was only a starting point, because soon after, the new kid on the block (both as a watch brand and thinness), Richard Mille has shaved it down to 1.75mm. And Richard Mille, being Richard Mille, wants 1.7mil CHF (~$A2,570,900) for it. This kinda makes both the Piaget and Bvlgari seem almost cheap in comparison, and is losing that 0.2mm to 0.25mm in “thickness” is worth the extra 1.35 million Swiss Francs or Euro? Well, just ask Lamborghini and Ferrari owners who pays extra to lighten the car…
Oh look I’m not going to call it anymore. I’m sure someone will find a way to file the case down another notch or two and claim another world record. We’re waiting…
But if you ask me, a movement at 1.64mm created in a time without computer aids, and a fully cased back watch at 4mm thin… That, is infinitely more impressive.
**Note this article is purely discussing mechanical manual wind watches, where the complication is the thinness itself. We are not considering automatic watches, high complications or quartz watches.
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