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Engineering Luxury: The World’s Thinnest Luxury Watch

They say necessity is the mother of invention. The horrors of WWII created jet engines, plastics, modern computing, and of course the nuclear bomb. Other inventions come from a desire to push humanity to new limits and make groundbreaking discoveries such as the numerous brilliant achievements from the space race. However, some inventions exist solely as exercises in exuberance and personal or corporate prestige. Nowhere is this seemingly pointless innovation more explicit than the world of luxury timepieces. In a world where computers can utilize nuclear timekeeping to mark near perfect accuracy and sync that information to billions of devices across the globe, wristwatches using springs and spinning gears can fetch upwards of a million dollars apiece. If a manufacturer can implement new technology in these archaic tools, it can mean a wellspring of cash from the wealthiest people in the world. The Piaget watch company has done just that by releasing their Altiplano Ultimate concept watch to market as an automatic mechanical wristwatch with a thickness of just 2mm. Piaget as a brand may not have the wide recognition of Rolex or Omega, but the world of horology marveled at their incredible feat of luxury engineering and masterful design.

Economies of Prestige

One of the hallmarks of luxury is its frivolity. Fine art can be laser scanned and replicated with incredible accuracy, monstrously powerful sports cars can’t legally reach their top speed on any road, and lab-created gems can replicate priceless stones at a fraction of the cost. With that, the value of these goods comes from the artistry of its creators and the exclusivity of its rarity. This puts luxury products such as wristwatches in a very slim category called Veblen goods.

Veblen goods have an upward-sloping demand curve. By SweetSweetPassionCocktail, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

Veblen goods are described as a product in which demand for the product rises as the price of the goods rise. So while exclusive sales sporting huge discounts can drive sales on the vast majority of products, (see the repulsive indulgence of an American Walmart on Black Friday to see this in effect) the high price and the prestige of owning Veblen goods is what is actually being sought out. It is the same effect that has sent the price of Bitcoin, which has no inherent value, through the roof. Once some people saw that these intangible goods were increasing in value, they rushed to buy them. The rush of the new demand raised the price even more in a positive feedback loop. The same basic concept is true with luxury watches. Brands need to come up with new and interestings ways to make sure their product is the center of conversation and make them more desirable to the greatest number of people and insure their continued demand.

Analog Tools for a Digital Age

One of the most oxymoronic facts about luxury watches is that a toy watch given in a McDonald’s Happy Meal is several times more accurate than anything in Rolex’s catalog. The reasoning behind this is quite simple. The majority of consumer timepieces today utilize a computerized quartz movement. The movement is the part of the watch that keeps time and either moves the hands, or signals the display what time to show. As an oversimplified explanation of an enormously complex process, electric signals sent through quartz crystals make it vibrate at a precise rate that can be tracked by miniature computers to keep incredibly accurate time. With the proliferation of microprocessors and computing in nearly every product, these have become incredibly inexpensive to produce, often less than $1 apiece. This is why Casio can sell their basic watches with multiple time zones, alarms, and timer functions on a watch for less than $15. On the other hand, the vast majority of luxury watches are made the same way they have been for over a century, with tiny gears and springs. Rolex proudly boasts all of their watches’ status as Superlative Chronometers, which guarantees all of their watches will keep time being no more than two seconds a day fast or slow, but will need to be serviced by an expert watchmaker every few years to keep that accuracy. Even the cheapest and least accurate quartz watches will be less than half a second fast or slow per day and can work near indefinitely with regular battery changes, although it’s often cheaper to chuck the whole thing out and buy another one, which Rolex owners aren’t terribly likely to do.

After a very short period of digital watches being a high end luxury (spot the cameo on Roger Moore’s wrist in the beginning of the classic 1973 James Bond film Live and Let Die) high end watch manufacturers such as Rolex and Omega doubled down on their commitment to traditional mechanical movements. Although less accurate than their digital counterparts, the producers of mechanical watches use the century of tireless engineering from watchmakers to sell their products. Many high end pieces contain features that are nearly pointless to the consumer, but add impressive lines to their spec sheets. Many high end divers’ watches contain helium release valves that have absolutely no purpose unless the wearer intends to take their luxury watch hundreds of meters deep on a saturation dive with them which is the only time helium is used in diving. Since it is extremely rare to find a watch that costs under $5,000 that has this feature, we are willing to bet that the majority stay perfectly dry. Also, there are multiple pieces of high horology that contain a tourbillon, a complication which is meant to keep the watch even more accurate by counteracting the effects of gravity on the mechanical movements, but has absolutely no practical effect at all. The Singaporean watch brand Zelos made waves in the watch world by offering the Zelos Mirage with a flying tourbillon at a price far below any competitor at only $11,000. It was in this environment that the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept watch was born.

Pushing Boundaries

Piaget has been making timepieces for a very long time. They started making clock components in the late 19th century with George Piaget being the single employee at first. By 1911, the company had been handed down to George’s son Timothée, and they were shifting to the newly popularized wristwatches. By the end of WWII, Swiss neutrality allowed them to expand and open a full factory to increase production. However, it was in 1960 that they made a name for themselves by making a movement that allowed automatic watches that were only 5mm thick. To draw a comparison at how impressive of a feat this was, the standard issue watch for the United States military at the time was the Hamilton Field Watch that sat at 10mm thick and was adopted partially because of its slight build. Piaget’s watch was half as thick as its competitor. Also the included an additional counterbalance rotor to wind the watch automatically, while the Hamilton still had to be hand wound every day.

Despite the company changing hands a number of times over the decades, they maintained their status as the makers of ultra thin watches. Even as the digital quartz watches swept the market, they proudly announced their watches were still thinner. However, the demands for their watches were cut severely by the shift in the market and decided to focus on their better performing jewelry. By the 2010’s, the brand maintained their position as respected in the world of high luxury, but their name had nearly evaporated from the cultural zeitgeist. For Veblen goods that trade nearly entirely on name, being so far behind the juggernauts like Rolex and Omega made their expansion difficult. They also lagged behind other old titans of horology that had broader name recognition such as Patek Philippe. Even young brands such as Hublot and Richard Mille had more brand equity. Piaget’s top designers had spent years designing and building a new piece that would turn the conversation back to them, and in 2014, they updated their now classic Altiplano to set a new world record at only 3.65mm thick for the entire piece. Piaget was back in the limelight once again. However, a discussion after the successful release between the proud engineers and marketing team had an unintended effect. One of them had made an offhand joke to the engineers that they looked forward to next year when they made one that was even thinner.

Manufacturing a Dream

Despite the comment being made in jest, Piaget’s design team started to think about the challenge. What could they do to shrink their design even further? To do this, they had to start all the way back at square one. Although many prestigious brands such as Rolex and Patek Phileppe design and manufacture the movements of their watches, many of the smaller parts are still standardized. The miniscule gears, coiled springs, the fragile components may be made by a separate designer and then used to assemble the custom movements.

In short, there are only so many ways to make a tiny gear. However, this simply would not work for their new project. To slim down the watch any further, they would have to rethink how watches are made at all. Usually, a watch’s movement is manufactured independently and then placed into a variety of different watches. That way, the hugely expensive task of designing new movements can be mitigated by using them in many different watches, and even across multiple brands. Seiko, Citizen, and Swatch all own their own movements and sell them to other manufacturers to use in their watches. This collaborative attitude between otherwise competitors makes for lower prices across the board. But because these movements were already designed and assembled, there was no way to slim them down. Also, the case the movement goes in would need to be large enough to accomodate the movement inside of it and leave enough room for all of the moving parts to function correctly. To thin out their design any further, the movement needed to be the case of the watch itself and not a seperate part. Every single part of the watch had to be designed from scratch. Every gear, spring, and wheel needed to be manufactured individually by hand to ensure it complied with the rigorous standards of creating an ultra thin timepiece. With these challenges in mind, the team started work on the new record breaking project.

Unique Difficulties

Since the Piaget team was designing a watch that was unlike any that had ever existed, that means they encountered problems that were equally undiscovered. The first of which was apparent immediately, and that was the case material. Most watches are made of stainless steel with a few high end pieces being made of precious metals like gold or platinum. Precious metals were completely out of the question for this design because they were far too soft. Keeping the watch as thin as possible meant that gold and platinum would crinkle like tin foil when strapped to the wrist. Usually, this would mean reverting to steel, but even that wasn’t durable enough to maintain its shape at the thicknesses required. The team experimented with many different alloys and materials until they eventually came up with one that fit the bill. This metal, composed of a cobalt alloy, was incredibly robust. They even hit it with a hammer to ensure that it maintained its shape, and amazingly, the metal handled the abuse. This created a new problem though. The new and harder metal meant that their drills, saws, and other tools wore out much more quickly against the more robust material. Watchmakers’ tools that were enormously expensive were quickly worn out on their single prototype.

The Machine
The Machine

A second issue the team faced was that the watch would inexplicably speed up or slow down tremendously, far outside of the few seconds a day expected of pieces at this level. Adding to the confusion is that when the springs and gears were tested independently, it stayed consistent, only speeding up as the watch was assembled. The culprit was soon recognized. The regular back and forth motion of one part built up a small electric field next to the glass of the watch crystal. This caused it to become magnetized and affect the careful timing of the movement. A quick coating on the underside of the crystal alleviated this problem easily.

A bigger issue arose as they assembled some of the more delicate parts. To maintain the minimum possible certain parts were affixed using adhesives. One adhesive leaked through the miniscule gaps in the gearworks and froze the entire movement in place. They had to remake every single part from scratch and include some specially milled channels within the watch case for the adhesive to spill into and keep it out of the more vital parts of the gear train.

At last, the watch was complete. Piaget had spent the better part of a century making their movements smaller and smaller, and this team of engineers had spent nearly half a decade ironing out the kinks, but the Altiplano Ultimate concept watch was finally revealed to the public in 2018. But much to Piaget’s surprise, the reception wasn’t as warm as they had hoped. The watch sat behind glass on a pedestal on the showroom floor of the crowded convention and ticked away happily, keeping time accurately just as it was meant to do. However, it stayed behind the glass. Nobody was able to handle it, much less wear it around and show it off. Some skeptics claimed that it was so fragile, that even bumping it would destroy Piaget’s masterpiece. The concept piece was a one of one, and although it had the record for the thinnest mechanical and thinnest automatic watch, it wasn’t going to get the recognition that it wanted and deserved until this watch could be brought to market.

In April 2020, with much of the world still in lockdown from the COVID-19 pandemic, Piaget announced that the Altiplano Ultimate Concept Watch was available for purchase. Despite the previous fears, the watch proved to be incredibly robust, considering its incredibly slight build. Even the band was reinforced with kevlar to assure that no part of the watch suffered due to its ultrathin frame.

This time, everyone recognized Piaget’s achievement. It even brought home the “Aiguille d’Or” , the most prestigious award in watchmaking. Think Best Picture, but for expensive watches. Despite being a concept no longer, Piaget kept the name as the Altiplano Ultimate Concept Watch, because it was made as a proof of concept. The watch that nobody asked for, inspired by an offhand joke, had become an incredible reality. Looking at pictures of the Altiplano Ultimate Concept Watch, it looks almost unreal. The design doesn’t match the standard view of a wristwatch. All of the components are completely visible though the 0.2mm piece of clear sapphire crystal embedded flush with the case. Looking at it from the profile, it nearly disappears. Only the slightest glare from the sliver of reflective cobalt stops it from fading into the white background of the product photos. On Piaget’s website, it says the price is available upon request. However, we will save you the phone call. This piece or horological history can be yours for the price of 400,000 Swiss Francs, which is just short of $430,000.

Works Cited

Forster, Jack. “Introducing: The Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept, The World’s Thinnest Mechanical Watch.” HODINKEE, 25 April 2020, https://www.hodinkee.com/articles/piaget-altiplano-ultimate-concept-the-worlds-thinnest-mechanical-watch-introducing. Accessed 23 November 2021.

GMT Post. “Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept.” Gmtpost, 26 January 2018, https://www.gmtpost.com/post/piaget-altiplano-ultimate-concept. Accessed 23 November 2021.

Koh, Wei. “The Ultimate Guide to the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept.” Revolution Watch, 27 February 2021, https://revolutionwatch.com/the-ultimate-guide-to-the-piaget-altiplano-ultimate-concept/. Accessed 23 November 2021.

Lee, Richard. “In-Depth: The Audacity of Piaget’s Altiplano Ultimate Concept.” SJX Watches, 29 July 2021, https://watchesbysjx.com/2021/07/piaget-auc-altiplano-ultimate-concept-explained.html. Accessed 23 November 2021.

Piaget. “Cobalt Alloy Mechanical Ultra-Thin Watch.” Piaget, https://www.piaget.com/watches/altiplano/cobalt-ultra-thin-mechanical-watch-G0A45501. Accessed 23 November 2021.

Piaget. “Ultra-Thin Watch Know-How – Altiplano.” Piaget, https://www.piaget.com/craftsmanship/altiplano-watches. Accessed 23 November 2021.

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