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.
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.
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.
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 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.