The Accidental Watchmaker
Despite having spent close to two decades designing watches for Bulgari, Design Head Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, still doesn’t consider himself a watch designer
“I don’t make watches,” says Fabrizio Buonamassa as we congratulate him on yet another epic feat of horology at BaselWorld 2019. We were of course referring to the Bulgari Octo Finissimo ultra-slim integrated chronograph with GMT complication, birthed alongside the famed chronographs of TAG Heuer and Zenith, two of Bulgari’s sister watchmaking firms at LVMH. Having a career spanning almost the entire gamut of industrial design, Buonamassa has amassed a portfolio of design, including everything from chairs to cars. Impressive as his work at Bulgari is, it barely scratches the surface of his talent.
In 2018, Bulgari became the youngest watchmaking brand nominated in the most GPHG categories ever. Which recognition do you feel was the most important to you?
It was a great achievement. It was amazing and unbelievable, we are very proud of all the prizes won by the Octo range, but the Grand Prix is the most prestigious one. We gained two prizes in the same year for the same watch in two categories, so it was amazing for us. We also gained important international design prizes – IF Gold and Red Dot’s “Best of the Best”. The watch is not just a beautiful product anymore but an icon. As a designer, it’s not my place to declare something an icon but certainly this universal recognition defines the Finissimo as one.
Across the three variations of the Octo, you have your Sports, Roma and Finissimo, which is the most popular commercially?
I believe the Finissimo has changed the perception of Bulgari’s prowess as a watchmaker. It’s easier to get an Octo Roma because of the price. The Sports chronograph is always popular because of its appeal but it’s the Finissimo that makes the biggest statement. It’s a great success.
A popular misconception is that the angled corners of the Octo recall Genta’s designs. How did the Octo actually evolve?
Yes, we acquired the Genta and Daniel Roth manufactures but it was the Bulgari design team that starting working on it in 1999 with an external consultant to create some proposed designs. The shape and form was completely in-house reflecting the Bulgari heritage, a combination of two forms – the round and the octagonal (found in our jewellery collection from the 1980s – a coin in an octagonal case). The Octo that you know today with the bracelet was designed by the team led by myself; and it has been this way since 2004.
Considering that you’re a brand within a group of brands known for their own legendary chronographs, do you feel development of this record-breaking ultra-thin integrated chronograph is a little bit provocative?
No! Honestly, when you make watches like this, you don’t consider the competitors. The concept of the Finissimo was really to take a grand complication watch and execute it in a normal, very functional way. Starting with the manual winding tourbillon and then a minute repeater in titanium case – we have no competition in that space. You have no competition in a watch like this; we changed the rules in the ultra-thin segment and again, proved that Bulgari is a trendsetter because brands older than us started to re-introduce the ultra-thin execution. Honestly, you can’t find another timepiece in this genre, it’s uniquely Bulgari.
That said, it’s one thing to create an ultra-thin minute repeater because having been to the Le Sentier manufacture, the brand is famous for that. However, having used the (Zenith) El Primero for so long, Bulgari has no prior competence in integrated chronographs…
The idea was to develop our own ultra-thin chronograph to enlarge the Finissimo collection. We made the thinnest automatic tourbillon, minute repeater, time-only calibres – the idea was to cement ultra-thin segment with the most “everyday’ complication with an easily-set world-time GMT complication accessible via a push of a button designed with our globetrotting customers in mind. I feel it’s the most practical Finissimo. This is a completely new calibre with a platinum and aluminium rotor, and I’m very proud of it.
What challenges did you have to overcome to achieve this thinness?
Every ultra-thin product has its own challenges. Each component is a challenge in and of itself. Essentially, the vertical clutch in an ultra-thin calibre of this has tighter tolerances over your typical column-wheel chronograph.
For the last four years, Bulgari has shown its watchmaking prowess. Is this sort of constant pursuit of achievement completely necessary?
No, it’s not that we set out to break the rules specifically each year. An Octo Finissimo is an important asset for us, and we are not obliged to make every model a world record. We are required to nourish (the watch collection) each year, and we do a new complication each year to enlarge the collection. We are not obsessed with records, but when you are adding a chronograph to the line, we couldn’t find one on the market to fit this case. We definitely couldn’t use the El Primero. Since developing our own became a necessity, it was decided that having this competence in-house would be an asset for us.
Would this knowledge be shared across LVMH group?
This is purely for us. LVMH leaves each brand to develop its own business. We developed, designed and produced this new novelty in house.
There are moments in watchmaking where brands produce a novelty for PR value, a scenario where what is the “coolest” doesn’t necessarily sell the best. Do you find this is a situation the Finissimo faces at times?
The Finissimo is a great global success. You have to understand that we spend years developing a new movement and in the genre of grand complications, often longer. At times, you discover you’re the last to release your vision of the complication, and you discover the time (for that watch) is over. Something like a completely ceramic Finissimo was our watchmaking signature of taking an uncommon material and expressing it in a conventional way. The perception of the brand has changed in the market as a result.
What was the key push factor in deciding to enlarge the brand with a GMT-chronograph?
We didn’t have a GMT in our assortment and the idea was to give an opportunity for our clients to have a helpful complication. I travel a lot and someone like myself would probably buy this model for the GMT functionality rather than the chronograph. That said, these two complications are the most practical and functional of complications in terms of daily usage.
What’s next for Finissimo? A moonphase perhaps?
It’s impossible to tell but for sure, we will be concentrating on ultra-thin executions. Our focus and priorities today are on the Octo and the Bvlgari Bvlgari.
Now that you have your own manufacture chronograph, would that reduce your reliance on Zenith?
It’s a different target and price segment. We will continue to use the El Primero in other collections like the Octo Originale; it has half the retail price of the Finissimo.
Provenance is very important to buying watches, which is more important for you – the technical aspect or the aesthetic aspect?
Both. Bulgari is driven by not just iconic design, but also the technical functionality. A new movement in a common case is an opportunity lost. Everything has to be consistent with an original idea because those are our roots. Otherwise, the brand wouldn’t be able to claim design inspiration from Davinci.
Lastly, will you be adding a women’s model to the Finissimo?
Good question! Women love the Finissimo but the problem is the case diameter. We cannot make a watch smaller than the movement. Female customers have been making do with the sand-blasted Finissimo but in the meantime, we have the Serpenti and Lvcea. We feel it’s not the right moment to introduce a women’s model for the Finissimo in the near future before we have established its fine watchmaking position.