COME OF AGE

After years of in­te­grat­ing ver­ti­cally, Bul­gari has fi­nally achieved their dream of in­de­pen­dence. They can now make their very own watches in their very own fac­to­ries lo­cated around Neucha­tel, where the head­quar­ters are.

Esquire Malaysia Watch Guide - - Contents - Words by Leong Wong

Bul­gari cel­e­brates its 130th An­niver­sary this year, but its watch­mak­ing di­vi­sion only started quite re­cently. Over the years the brand has grown into a full man­u­fac­ture through ver­ti­cal in­te­gra­tion.

THE EX­PAN­SION of the watch­mak­ing di­vi­sion re­ally be­gan in 1999/2000 when Bul­gari de­cided to pur­chase Daniel Roth and Ger­ald Genta. It sig­nalled to the world of watch­mak­ing that Bul­gari were mov­ing their game up a cou­ple of notches and be­com­ing se­ri­ous about be­ing a key player in Haute Hor­logerie. Bul­gari be­gan its ver­ti­cal in­te­gra­tions, buy­ing up com­po­nents man­u­fac­tur­ers all over the Jura Moun­tains where the high­est con­cen­tra­tion of highly skills watch­mak­ers are lo­cated—they are the dial mak­ers, the case mak­ers, the move­ment pro­duc­tion fac­to­ries, the bracelet mak­ers and, of course, the haute hor­logerie ate­lier Daniel Roth & Ger­ald Genta in Le Sen­tier. This has en­abled Bul­gari to achieve what very few watch­mak­ers can claim: a uni­fied sys­tem of man­u­fac­tur­ing, from de­sign and schemat­ics to the fi­nal pro­duc­tion unit.

In early April, a few priv­i­leged press mem­bers were in­vited to tour and ex­pe­ri­ence Bul­gari’s en­tire watch di­vi­sion man­u­fac­tur­ing sys­tem, from the di­als to the haute hor­logerie ate­lier. The visit en­com­passed all the five fac­to­ries which have pro­duced some of the most ex­cit­ing watches of our time.

On our very first day, we made our way early in the morn­ing to a small town where roads wound along the side of a hill, and all the build­ings were multi-story and in rows above each other fac­ing east. (This is so that each build­ing can catch the sun­light with­out be­ing blocked by other build­ings, through the tra­di­tional large front win­dow. This tra­di­tion dates back 200 years or more, since be­fore the area was sup­plied with elec­tric­ity.

DIAL AWAY

We fi­nally ar­rived at a more mod­ern multi-story build­ing—a unique struc­ture com­pared to its neigh­bours, and right in front a sig­nage that read Bul­gari Man­u­fac­ture de Cad­rans (Dial Man­u­fac­ture). This is where the high- end di­als are man­u­fac­tured, from mother-of-pearls to the more elab­o­rately dec­o­rated di­als of gold. First the di­als are laser­cut or stamped into the de­sired shape; feet are sol­dered on and then gal­vanised; and then holes are drilled for the feet of the ap­pliqué nu­mer­als or in­dexes. De­pend­ing on their de­sign, gold plat­ing is done in-house as well and even lac­quer­ing. The di­als are elec­tro­plated in small quan­ti­ties

and over a long pe­riod as it takes time to cre­ate the re­quired thick­ness of coat­ing re­quired by lay­er­ing. Gold is al­ways the last layer.

They are then sent to another depart­ment to af­fix the ap­pliqués, by ma­chine or hands de­pend­ing on the ma­te­rial of the di­als. The in­dexes and nu­mer­als are all done in-house and so are the hands. If the cus­tomer so de­sires, there is also a cus­tomi­sa­tion ser­vice. Ev­ery process and step is mon­i­tored closely by a small group of tech­ni­cians and en­gi­neers. Where re­quired, es­pe­cially the lac­quered dial, they are ap­plied and baked and holes are drilled, and later pol­ished to a shine. The gold nu­mer­als are milled on a frozen brass block, then pressed on to a gold plate to ob­tain the pressed-out in­dexes, and later cut out by di­a­mond tools.

MOV­ING PARTS

A short drive away lies the move­ment mak­ers, where the com­po­nents for the heart of the watch are made. The in­dus­trial lot looks like any util­i­tar­ian pur­pose-built fac­tory lot, a lit­tle faded and de­void of any sig­nage. But the minute you walk through the se­cured glass door, it’s a whole dif­fer­ent sce­nario. The space is su­per clean and some­where in the mid­dle lies two rows of CNC ma­chines which work through the day, mak­ing com­po­nents and parts. Th­ese in­clude the bridges and the plates for the move­ments and the bal­ance wheel, amongst other parts—and this is the fac­tory that will pro­duce their in-house move­ments BVL 191 and Solotempo, which took five years of re­search and de­vel­op­ment, and BVL 168 (now discontinued).

Th­ese CNC drilling ma­chines are stan­dard in the in­dus­try, the num­ber of dif­fer­ent sizes and shapes de­ter­mined by the pro­gramme en­tered into the com­puter which di­rects them. The base plates and bridges are pressed and cut and then the de­sired holes and in­den­ta­tions are drilled, a sin­gle bridge re­quires 21 dif­fer­ent kinds of tools. Dur­ing the cut and drill process, the bay is con­tin­u­ously be­ing hosed with lubri­cant and coolant to keep the metal pow­der and chips from get­ting in the way and most im­por­tantly to cool the drill down. They are then filled and fin­ished and dec­o­rated be­fore be­ing as­sem­bled on the premise. All this may sound easy, but it’s not—each com­po­nent takes time to get ready, to be cut and drilled, and the ma­chines run thor­ough­out the day and night. The move­ment man­u­fac­tures 38,000 units per year. This is only just enough for Bul­gari’s own con­sump­tion, though a look at the vast floor space could sug­gest that they’re will­ing to ex­pand their op­er­a­tions.

HOUS­ING AND SAFETY

The sec­ond half of the day brought us to a dif­fer­ent part of the val­ley called Saignelègier, and tucked away in an in­dus­trial es­tate is a mod­ern struc­ture which looks

semi-per­ma­nent. The case and bracelet man­u­fac­tur­ing were merged four years ago un­der one roof, which makes sense as they are a unit that should work to­gether.

Octo is the best ex­am­ple as a case study for this trip, as it’s the lat­est model that has gone into mass pro­duc­tion. The Octo with­out a doubt is one of the best look­ing watches around as its case is a work of com­plex­ity which has 110 facets. Each case takes up to 33 min­utes to cut, and we are talk­ing a gold case, which is a soft pre­cious metal. Another fine ex­am­ple of the de­gree of com­plex­ity: the Finis­simo is made of plat­inum, and it is a dif­fi­cult metal to han­dle as it is ‘sticky’ and that takes five months to pro­duce ten cases and three times longer to pol­ish than a steel or gold va­ri­ety. The head of pro­duc­tion showed us a rack of ready cut gold cases to show us a sam­ple of the Basel ‘star’: the Am­mi­raglio del Tempo. The case is made out of three pieces and took them two years to de­velop due to its ex­treme com­plex­ity. Once again the CNC ma­chines play the cen­tral role here, as they are used to cut or press the case into the de­sired shape. Stain­less steel, which is a re­ally hard metal, takes longer to cut as a spe­cial ma­chine laser or high volt­age cut­ting tool is re­quired.

All the com­po­nents of the case and bracelets are man­u­fac­tured on the premises, in­clud­ing the screws. That is very much the same way the bracelets are done, ex­cept that it is takes a lot more time as there are sev­eral com­po­nents that need to be done, like the Ser­penti’s. One di­vi­sion that stands out from other man­u­fac­ture is the pol­ish­ing depart­ment—a large room ded­i­cated to pol­ish­ing ev­ery­thing from the case to the bracelet. Ev­ery pol­isher re­quires at least five years of ex­pe­ri­ence to guar­an­tee the high qual­ity of Bul­gari.

THE SPE­CIAL­ISTS

The jewel in the crown, the di­vi­sion that ev­ery­one en­vies and less than a hand­ful make it to, is Bul­gari’s Haute Hor­logerie ate­lier Daniel Roth or Man­u­fac­ture de haute Hor­logerie–Ger­ard Genta, which is lo­cated in Le Sen­tir. To the watch­mak­ing world it is lit­er­ally the shrine of the Me­chan­i­cal Re­nais­sance, as the founders of this ate­lier are the pi­o­neers of the new era of me­chan­i­cal move­ment Ger­ald Genta and Daniel Roth. When Bul­gari bought them out, they parted ways, and Ger­ard Genta sadly passed away a cou­ple of years back. But Daniel Roth is hap­pily en­joy­ing his re­tire­ment down the road.

What Bul­gari in­her­ited from the takeover is the stu­dio and the head master watch­maker who has worked with Ger­ard Genta him­self since day one. Now there are four master watch­mak­ers work­ing in the stu­dio, a lux­ury very few have, as there are only a dozen in the whole of Switzer­land. The stu­dio is fairly small but it has large glass win­dows on three sides, lined by the master watch­mak­ers’ benches (for ob­vi­ous rea­sons). The mod­ern ex­ten­sion be­hind housed the man­u­fac­tur­ing and as­sem­bling of the sim­pler but just as re­fine cal­i­bres; the Finis­simo and Solotempo.

The day we ar­rived we were for­tu­nate enough to meet the head watch­maker, who had worked with Ger­ard Genta for nearly 20 years. He ex­plained how the ate­lier works, how they keep in con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion with the de­sign­ers as they de­velop the time­pieces. They not only make their own com­po­nents and move­ments as long as they are round, they also hand fin­ish and dec­o­rate the move­ment within the stu­dio it­self as they are very low in vol­ume. A fine ex­am­ple is that their main­plate are dec­o­rated on both sides which is a priv­i­lege rarely prac­ticed. How long does it take a master

watch­maker to as­sem­ble a watch? That all de­pends on the com­pli­ca­tion of the watch: the tour­bil­lon car­riage alone takes at least 20 hours to as­sem­ble. To be able to qual­ify to as­sem­ble a tour­bil­lon you will need around seven years of ex­pe­ri­ence. The watch­mak­ers not only hand­make their watches, they also do the ser­vic­ing and re­pairs of haute hor­logerie pieces. The head of watch­mak­ing was kind enough also to show us a work­ing demo move­ment of the Car­il­lon Tour­bil­lon, with its unique four ham­mers. It sounds su­perb.

THE FI­NAL DES­TI­NA­TION

The com­mand cen­tre of the Bul­gari Watch is the Neucha­tel HQ, Bul­gari Time Switzer­land, lo­cated right on the shores of the scenic Lake Geneva. It’s not only the home to the head hon­chos of the Swiss di­vi­sion but also the home to the de­sign, pro­duc­tion and the as­sem­bling line for the watches; and also the Bul­gari Par­fums. We were first taken to the as­sem­bling di­vi­sion, where we saw the prod­ucts be­ing put to­gether, checked for dam­age and then a ran­dom few sent to an in­de­pen­dent tester, Dubois. After all is given the thumbs up, they will then pro­ceed to the qual­ity con­trol and when they pass that they will be la­beled and cod­i­fied and ready to ship out to the re­tail­ers and shops.

The first visit was to the de­sign stu­dio at the HQ, where we met up with three de­sign­ers, who went through the pro­cesses of their depart­ment. Here they re­search ma­te­ri­als from all kinds of de­sign el­e­ments from the past and present for their de­signs, but their rich­est in­spi­ra­tions have al­ways been the large ar­chives from Bul­gari's 130 years of his­tory. They not only de­sign the jew­ellery but are also re­spon­si­ble for de­sign­ing the watches them­selves, and there were some sketches of the Am­mi­raglio del Tempo ly­ing on the ta­ble. They work very closely with the tech­ni­cal depart­ment in de­sign­ing the time­piece, whose in­put will be in­cor­po­rated into the de­signs where nec­es­sary. They will then pro­ceed to the 3D print­ing and as­sem­bling to see what is pos­si­ble and what is not, be­fore pro­ceed­ing to the mock-up stage us­ing real ma­te­ri­als.

With that we con­cluded our visit to the Bul­gari man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ties. An im­pres­sive sight for a brand who had no proper watch­mak­ing di­vi­sion just over a decade ago. Their newly ac­quired sta­tus as a man­u­fac­ture should help shake up the horo­log­i­cal world in more ways than one.

Clock­wise from top left: Hand pol­ish­ing the gold bezel, screw­ing down the tour­bil­lon bridge, ma­chine milling a screw bathe in cool­ing and lu­bri­cat­ing liq­uid.

Clock­wise from top: Ap­ply­ing feet to the dial back, milling the hole on the plate, hand-stamp­ing pearlage on a base-plate, moth­erof-pearl di­als.

Above: Man­u­fac­ture de Cad­rans de BVL­GARI.

Top: Sketch of the L’Am­mi­raglio Del Tempo. Right: Putting on the last screw on the pink gold Octo case­back.

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