In the Beginning

Ask a child to draw you a picture of a watch, and chances are it’ll look something like this: a circle with numbers around the periphery — probably Arabic numerals — and stick-like hands, plus some sort of crude band. And for most of horological history, that drawing would have been perfectly accurate.

Boringly accurate, even.

This notion changed drastically in the 1970s, when a Swiss industrial designer named Gérald Genta was contracted by Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe to design the first “luxury sports watches.” The Royal Oak and Nautilus, respectively — whose cases were more angular and based upon nautical motifs such as the diving helmet and porthole — featured integrated bracelets and unique shapes. No child would have drawn a watch that looked anything like either of them.

Genta would go on to establish his own eponymous manufacture, a logical step for a man rumored to have conceived of over 100,000 watches during his lifetime — including, notably, a fantastically complicated, octagonal-cased timepiece called the Octo Grande Sonnerie, famous for being the billionaire playboy’s watch of the 1990s.

Gerald Genta’s original Grande Sonnerie retailed for roughly $900,000 in 1994.
Courtesy Bulgari

Then, seeking to establish itself as a respectable watchmaking house, famed Italian jeweler Bulgari acquired both the Genta and Daniel Roth brands in 2000, along with their manufacturing facilities in Le Sentier, Switzerland. Over time, the company began iterating upon the Octo design, issuing a Bulgari Gérald Genta Octo Grande Sonnerie Tourbillon in 2010 that updated the yellow gold case of the original with a more modern white gold housing.

Two years later, everything changed.

The (Re-)Birth of the Octo

Italian designer Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani joined Bulgari in Rome in 2001, and one of his first jobs was to design a bracelet for and one of his first jobs was to design a bracelet for the Octo, back when it was still beneath the Genta brand umbrella. He later left the company for a brief spell but rejoined in 2007 as creative director for the watch division, operating under a specific remit: to transform Bulgari into one of the best watchmakers in the world. First, however, some consolidation was necessary.

Buonamassa has overseen Bulgari’s growth into a serious player in the watch space, largely on the strength of ever-thinner and more jaw-dropping Octo Finissimo models.
Courtesy Bulgari

Buonamassa took the bold step of moving the company’s watchmaking design offices from Rome to Neuchâtel, Switzerland, in 2011, in order to be closer to its manufacturing base. (At the time, the brand had separate dial, case and movement makers spread across Switzerland.) Honoring the ubiquity of the octagon in classical and medieval history (and especially in Roman and Italian architecture), Buonamassa and his team reimagined the Octo in a more contemporary guise — something cutting edge and bold.

“I think the uniqueness of this brand,” he says, “is the blend between the Roman sense of aesthetics and the Italian design rules that we have in our history.”

Launched in 2012, the Bulgari Octo, which no longer carried the Genta moniker, introduced the Roman jeweler to the world as a serious horological contender: 41.5mm wide in pink gold or steel, it featured an octagonal flange married to a round bezel, a black lacquer dial and a leather alligator strap. The polished steel and satin case featured an unprecedented 110 facets, while the watch was powered by a dual-barrel automatic movement with 50 hours of power reserve. It was an impressive, innovative design, and it certainly turned heads.

But this was just the opening salvo.

bulgari finissimo automatic
Courtesy Bulgari

The Arrival of the Finissimo

The defining moment — the moment that spun heads in the watch industry — was the launch of the Octo Finissimo in 2014. (Finissimo meaning something along the lines of “superfine.”) Buonamassa, along with Bulgari CEO Jean-Christophe Babin and their team, decided to take Genta’s idea of octagonal luxury and turn it into something more refined than had ever been seen before in modern watchmaking. Something very, very thin.

The first Octo Finissimo was a mechanical Octo with hours, minutes, a small seconds indicator at 7:30 and a power reserve indicator visible on the dial side. Powered by a hand-wound, in-house caliber with 65 hours of power reserve, the entire watch measured just 5.15mm thick including its 2.23mm-thick movement — two nickels and a dime stacked on top of one another.

“The Octo Finissimo is the ultimate expression of contemporary horology. It’s a near-perfect synthesis of art, craftsmanship and technology, and one that continually pushes the boundaries of design.”

The design was unmistakably new. It was freer, based on something more adventurous than the iterative (indeed, often glacial) Swiss industrial design. “The inspiration is everywhere around us,” Buonamassa says. “I often say that the brand itself is the biggest source of inspiration, and Rome is another. But the Italian culture and sense of beauty is the big umbrella of the Bulgari aesthetics.”

This ultrathin time-and-date watch was immediately followed up by a gauntlet drop — a 5mm, tourbillon-equipped Octo Finissimo with another in-house movement that measured just 1.95mm thick. (The tourbillon, invented in the 18th century, ensures accurate timekeeping regardless of orientation.) It was so thin, in fact, that it broke a world record for thinnest tourbillon movement in the world — and would prove to be merely the first in a long list of world record–breaking innovations.

It’s unlikely that any of these feats would have been possible without Bulgari’s vertical integration, as finding suppliers to make ultrathin components for single watch references is far from easy. But the consolidation that began early in the 2000s meant that Bulgari, the watchmaking maison, now owned its own movement maker, its own dial maker, its own case maker, etc. In short: it was now a proper watchmaker.

For the Record

Watch industry veterans quickly took notice of Bulgari’s meteoric rise in the world of fine watchmaking. “Bulgari’s transition from strictly jewelry to purveyor of record-breaking haute horlogerie is pretty much unprecedented in the luxury industry,” says Adam Craniotes, founder of international watch enthusiast community RedBar Group. “To my eyes, the Octo Finissimo is the ultimate expression of contemporary horology. It’s a near-perfect synthesis of art, craftsmanship and technology, and one that continually pushes the boundaries of design.”

Still, Buonamassa and Babin — joined more recently by Antoine Pin, managing director of the watch division — had only just begun. New case metals and finishes followed in 2015 for the time-only and tourbillon Octo Finissimo models, but 2016 saw the introduction of another game-changer: the world’s thinnest minute repeater, a watch that audibly chimes the time using a set of miniature gongs.

The indices of the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater are cut-outs, allowing the chime of its miniature gongs to resonate freely.
Courtesy Bulgari

Minute repeaters were historically stuffy complications — widgets found on antique pocket watches or ultrafine, traditionally round watches from the grand dames of the Swiss watchmaking world. In short, they were impressive but boring, like someone who can speak multiple languages but can’t flirt in any of them. Not so in Bulgari’s case.

Five years in development, the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater appeared in a special Grade 5 titanium case and dial for optimal sound reproduction. With a total case thickness of just 6.85mm, it remains the thinnest minute-repeating wristwatch in the world and has since been joined by carbon and gold versions, all of which feature the same innovation: a special “ventilated” dial in which the indices are cut-outs, allowing sound to transmit freely from the movement through the watch.

An Octo For Every Wrist

Of course, not everyone can afford a minute repeater — especially a $160,000 carbon version. But Bulgari, despite being a luxury maison, wasn’t interested in attracting only one type of customer. So while it developed the Octo Finissimo line, it simultaneously maintained the regular Octo collection, whose flagship Octo L’Originale received a special, black DLC (diamond-like carbon) version dubbed the Ultranero. And in 2017, the Octo was joined by the newest member of the family, the Octo Roma — a somewhat simplified Octo featuring 58 facets rather than L’Originale’s 110, and an overall rounder shape.

“The Octo Roma was born for a different client [than that of the Octo Finissimo],” Buonamassa points out. “This was the Octo for the people for whom the Octo L’Originale was too big and the Octo Finissimo was too expensive. It’s the entry, the gate to the Octo collection — with a very affordable price and very interesting features.”

Bulgari would in time adopt this rounder Octo platform to house ultracomplicated movements, but the basic, time-only version on a bracelet begins at $6,800, maintaining a purposefully wide-ranging price scale in the Octo universe. Still, if Bulgari wished to appeal to the average luxury watch buyer — neither the beginner nor the connoisseur — it needed a more practical offering within the Octo Finissimo line itself. It needed an automatic watch.

“Often we begin with the grand complication watches, and after, we go more for a mainstream approach for the big crowd. If you’re able to produce the thinnest manual-winding tourbillon, you are able to produce the thinnest hour/ minute/seconds. Sometimes the opposite is not true.”

That same year, Bulgari launched the 5.15mm-thick Octo Finissimo Automatic. With its brand-new, ultrathin, integrated bracelet and ultrathin automatic movement, it succeeded the manually wound version from 2014 without adding any thickness whatsoever to the case. The in-house caliber powering the watch immediately won the maison yet another award — this time for thinnest automatic watch movement in the world, at just 2.23mm.

At $12,200 in steel, the Automatic still sits firmly within the realm of “luxury sports watch.” But now Bulgari was finally appealing to the typical buyer looking for an everyday timepiece — an Italian-designed fastball right up the middle.

Still, the timing was odd. Upon the launch of the Automatic, Bulgari was already three years into the Octo Finissimo release schedule. Why begin with ultra-complicated pieces such as a hand-wound tourbillon and wait so long to introduce the type of watch that most consumers find truly useful?

“Often we begin with the grand complication watches, and after, we go more for a mainstream approach for the big crowd,” explains Buonamassa. “Some other brands do the exact opposite. But if you’re able to produce the thinnest manual-winding tourbillon, you are able to produce the thinnest hour/minute/seconds. Sometimes the opposite is not true.”

Bulgari’s vertical integration in the early 2000s granted it the capacity to manufacture its own highly complex movements in-house. The brand also earns respect by making its own complex cases and dials.
Courtesy Bulgari

The Evolution Continues

The world records continued flowing in, sometimes two at a time. In 2018, Bulgari released the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Automatic, an open-worked model in which you can view the movement beating away beneath the dial. At just 3.95mm, it became the thinnest automatic watch in the world, and the thinnest tourbillon watch in the world.

In 2019 came perhaps the most unique Octo Finissimo to date: the Chronograph GMT Automatic. “After the hours/ minutes/seconds, you are obliged to do a chronograph watch — everybody’s asking for one,” Buonamassa says. “It was, as often happens in Italian industrial design, that the constraint was the turning point of the project, and what drives the aesthetics. We don’t need to have three counters for the chronograph, and on the other hand we have enough room on the movement to put a 24-hour counter, which is even maybe more useful. This is the most interesting thing when you’re on the manufacturing side: you’re able to develop your own complications.”

The result — the thinnest mechanical chronograph in the world — was a revelation. But Bulgari barely skipped a beat, quickly following it up in 2020 with the Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Skeleton Automatic — the thinnest tourbillon-equipped chronograph in the world. (Indeed, this record is sufficiently esoteric enough that most watchmakers likely shy away from breaking it out of lack of interest. But the watch itself is bonkers, featuring an openworked dial with a dual-register chronograph display and the tourbillon visible at 6 o’clock.) At 150,000 EUR and limited to just 50 pieces worldwide, it was the sort of piece that said “We dare you to do better,” and, as of yet, no one has.

“The Octo Finissimo [line] is about as contemporary as you can get while still maintaining an ultrasleek and elegant look. So many brands either try too hard to be different or to do their own version of the hype watch of the moment. The Octo Finissimo is in a category of its own.”

In 2021, Bulgari tackled that famed complication for which Patek Philippe is so beloved: the perpetual calendar, a sort of mechanical computer that hardly needs manual adjusting. That the Octo Finissimo Perpetual Calendar is the world’s thinnest quantieme perpetual probably goes without saying — the automatic, in-house BVL 305 movement with micro-rotor clocks in at a mere 2.75mm thick, while the watch itself is only 5.8mm tall.

It’s a stunning accomplishment in both micromechanics and in the realm of industrial design, what would seem a fitting pinnacle for a series that the watch world has very much recognized as a triumphant achievement. “The Octo Finissimo [line] is about as contemporary as you can get while still maintaining an ultrasleek and elegant look,” remarks Paige Reddinger, watch and jewelry editor for The Robb Report. “So many brands either try too hard to be different or to do their own version of the hype watch of the moment. The Octo Finissimo is in a category of its own.”

But Bulgari wasn’t quite done yet.

bulgari octo finissimo ultra
Courtesy Bulgari

The Way Forward

Seven world records in seven years — an extraordinary stunt in the world of horology. What else does Bulgari have to prove to the world? After all, it has already shown that it’s capable of not just top-tier watchmaking but of some of the best watchmaking on Earth.

As it turns out, the maison had one more trick up its sleeve, which it revealed at Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022: the thinnest mechanical watch in the world. A record previously held by the Piaget Altiplano, a 2mm wafer of a timepiece, the title now goes to the Octo Finissimo Ultra, at just 1.8mm thick and 40mm wide. The hand-wound movement — as well as the bracelet and buckle — are completely new designs. The bracelet is nearly half the thickness of the standard Octo Finissimo bracelet, and the run is extremely limited — just 10 exclusive pieces.

Of particular note is a QR code visible on the movement’s barrel. When scanned, it gives the wearer access to a unique NFT that accompanies the watch — part of a metaverse that’s increasingly becoming part of the daily conversation at the intersection of commerce and art. “I love these kinds of things,” says Buonamassa. “We put all our know-how on the table to have something that you cannot touch.”

Of course, the majority of said savoir-faire is going into the watch itself. “When you see the watch from the face, it looks like a normal watch — when you see it from the side, it makes the Octo Finissimo S look like a Royal Oak Offshore,” he says, comparing the thin, automatic Octo Finissimo to a notoriously thick watch. In fact, the watch is so thin that it was impossible to include a conventional time-setting crown; instead, it comes with a custom-made box that winds and sets it via connection to a nuclear clock. James Bond–level stuff.

bulgari finissimo ultra
Courtesy Bulgari

So is this finally the end of the line — eight world records in as many years? Can Bulgari finally rest on its laurels? It would seem like the brand has earned that privilege. After all, the world records aren’t even the real point. Bulgari, a renowned jewelry maker not particularly known for its watchmaking, did the unthinkable — slingshot itself from relative horological obscurity to the absolute top of the heap within a decade.

“From my point of view, this is the beginning of the new journey,” reflects Buonamassa. “Before the Octo Finissimo we were just a jewelry brand that made timepieces, but now we’re recognized as the masters of miniaturization, the masters of ultrathin watches. We were able to combine Italian design, Italian elegance, Italian taste with the most incredible execution in the watchmaking industry. You cannot find another watch like Finissimo on the market. If you love it, you love it — if you don’t, it becomes a matter of taste.”

Indeed, the iteration could conceivably continue forever, until the Octo is so buried in the horological conscience that it becomes a new trope. Who knows — maybe another decade in the future, if you ask a child to draw you a picture of a watch, it’ll no longer be round, but octagonal. And with a certain Italian flair.

“Each time, we push the limit on a different dimension,” Buonamassa concludes. “It was not enough for us to make the thinnest watch on the market, but we pushed again to have the thinnest bracelet and buckle for this kind of watch. The idea was to have the full package — and we are very happy with the results.”

Octo Innovation, by the Numbers

These six watches represent a nice little timeline of Bulgari's horological evolution.

A version of this story appears in Gear Patrol Magazine. Subscribe today