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Piaget Altiplano 60th Anniversary: Ultra Thin line between genius and madness

by Jonathan Ho on December 9, 2016

In 1976, a little known (in modern time) watchmaker named Jean Bouchet-Lassale was making ultra thin movements in the fairly esoteric category of “prestige watches”. In magical terms, “the prestige” refers to the final act of an Illusionist where he performs an act of illusion so nigh miraculous and beyond common understanding that it becomes the definition of the word – widespread respect and admiration felt for something on the basis of perception of achievement or quality.

Indeed, when it comes to ultra thin watches, the prestige category (however little used), is a fairly accurate assessment of a genre which goes often unsung and usually misunderstood. Where a tourbillon might be a “luxury”, a high complication correcting for errors in chronometry as a result of gravity, construction of an ultra thin movement acts against known understanding and practical application of engineering mechanics and physics and instead, forces human will and creativity to make something impractical into a practical marvel. Like rear-engined Porsches, ultra thin watches are a testament of sheer willpower to overcome engineering and physics based inefficiencies with power and grit.

His and Her’s Piaget Pre-SIHH 2017 Altiplano watches with ultra thin calibres

 

The impracticality of ultra thin movements

In cars as in watches, power and torque are essentially for optimum operation. By its very nature, an ultra thin movement is designed from its foundations to be constrained by proportions – there has to be enough space for the balance wheel to swing at a large enough amplitude for chronometric precision and there has to be just enough power and torque from the mainspring to provide enough power via the gear train to keep it running accurately. When running in such tight spaces, too little “give” or “play” means the tolerances are too tight leading to excessive friction between the gears and immense power loss results.

In comparison with a regular calibre, an ultra thin calibre is conceptualised to take “architectural shortcuts”- mainspring barrels, typically one of the thickest components (because a spring needs space to unfurl, stick it in a tight space and again, you get friction and energy loss) in a movement, so a watchmaker would have to “take a little off the top” and make do with just the mainplate and bridge sandwiching the mainspring much in the way Lepine did.

The exposed movement of the new Piaget Pre-SIHH 2017 Altiplano self-winding

 

Another space-saving methodology is to either do away with automatic winding rotors and stick to manual winding or to move the oscillating rotor to a position where it runs unimpeded within the height of the calibre; ergo – the peripheral rotor or a micro-rotor self winding mechanism. By the laws of physics, efficiency of a central rotor is best exemplified as a large weight which winds a small pivot at the centre of the movement, the inner pivot turns to a greater degree than the circumference of the winding rotor. Yet, a micro-rotor or peripheral rotor is by design, constrained by the necessity of ignoring winding efficiencies for space-saving efficiencies – by that definition, dropping a 1 kilo rock on your toe from the height of your shin is significantly less painful than the same rock dropped from waist level – that’s because less energy has been imparted from a smaller distance travelled; with a micro-rotor, the winding weight is much smaller than a full rotor which reduces the additional forces granted by leverage.

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Piaget Altiplano Ultra Thin: How Genius Evolves (or sometimes goes in a bizarre direction)

1957, Valentin Piaget presented the ultra thin 9P manual winding calibre at Baselworld to great fanfare. A revolutionary for its architecture, the 2mm Piaget Calibre 9P succeeded where most ultra thin calibres floundered – in reliability. A scant 10 years later, Valentin’s own grandson would equal the horological milestone with an 0.3 mm thicker SELF-WINDING Piaget Calibre 12P by doing the improbable – the world’s first efficiently operating off-centre micro-rotor. Because of Piaget, we were no longer constrained by mere physics; instead, grit, steel, brass and weighty 24K gold made winding the mainspring an engineering marvel.

“Creating a 2.3 mm- thin self-winding calibre had previously seemed a pipedream. The entire research team in La Côte-aux-Fées can take pride in having written one of the finest chapters in watchmaking history, and in having worked in the same spirit that drove the pioneers”

An incredible feat in the 1960s, the Piaget Calibre 12P became the standard bearer and movement to which all other ultra thin calibres were judged. At the height of horological crossfit, only three other calibres met the standards set by the Calibre 12P – the Vacheron 1120, the JLC 849 and the AP 2120.

While it is true, that neither the Calibre 9P nor 12P were the world’s thinnest. Jean Lassale’s Calibre 1200 was an unprecedented 1.2mm and while it was groundbreaking (abandoning bridges for gears and securing everything to the mainplate), it was never going to be revolutionary. In making too many compromises in deference to space, Jean Lassale’s Calibre 1200 not only suffered many drawbacks (potential destruction of the movement as you removed the caseback being the chief among them) but was also produced at a time when quartz was as thin and doing an even better job (chronometrically speaking) than ultra thin calibres of the time. Today the Lassale’s Calibre 1200 exists in the Piaget Calibre 20P and in Vacheron’s Calibre 1160 but you’re going to have a mighty hard time when it comes time for servicing. At the end of the day, a supermodel is going to have to decide if an emaciated skeletal structure is preferable to some curves to hang designer togs on.

The baton hour indexes are sharp, crisp and match the sunburst dial finishing to sublime effect.

 

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Hands-On Review of the Pre-SIHH 2017 Piaget Altiplano

The propensity of the industry to draw muse from one’s historical archives continues in the first of two pre-SIHH 2017 Piaget Altiplano models to be launched. One is the Piaget Altiplano Manual-Winding 38 mm (G0A42107) while the other is automatic Piaget Altiplano Self-Winding 43 mm (G0A42105), both joined by common heritage and aesthetic codes of Piaget’s pioneering ultra-thin watches: Everything from the historical logo to the hour indices and cross motif is authentic to the era by which it was inspired.

Like many vintage watch re-issues of late, legacy designs tap on a deep wealth of heritage in order to evoke necessary nostalgia and lust. Rather than use a black dial (as is typical), Piaget elected to revive the historical Piaget blue, a dark almost mysteriously hypnotic shade which plays but the sunburst decoration in a manner best described as ‘sublime’. The light plays and tracks on each crevice, the glint like the faint appearance of lacy unmentionables beneath the waistband. The classic elegance of the 50s and 60s updated to modern proportions and finishing lead to the inescapable conclusion that design which can last 50 years without appearing dated could probably last another 50, turning mere timepiece into a generational heirloom.

It’s 43mm but it wears super slim thanks to the ultra thin 1200P movement within

At 43 mm, the Piaget Altiplano wears much smaller despite its physical proportions thanks to tapered lugs and slim bezels. Yes, the watch idiot savant might prefer a more gentlemanly 36 to 38mm dimensions (which thankfully, there’s a manual-winding pre-SIHH 2017 edition as well) but I believe that slim profile and cultured countenance credits the 2017 Piaget Altiplano Self-winding with a stately appearance complimented by the soft, emotional flair of the “Automatique” script in cursive. It demurs in deference to the original not only in dimensions but execution of the large “A” font.

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Making a return is the blue cross from Piaget’s archive models, elegant white gold markers and slim hands complete the third act of the illusion before the great unveil of the prestige – the 4th generation of the 2.35mm Calibre 1200P ultra thin self-winding movement. To the casual viewer, the three-year development process is not what excites you about the legendary calibre, it’s the discovery of high finishing like bevelled bridges and Côtes de Genève which makes one muse about the extra effort taken to further “reduce material” on an already diminutive movement. High contrast satin-brushed steel and blued screws complete the checklist of haute horlogerie finishing but it’s really the gold Piaget coat-of-arms which seals the deal, affixed on the gold oscillating weight, the watch is as annoyingly charming as its brand ambassador.

The Piaget seal always gets me.

The new Piaget Altiplano Manual-Winding 38 mm is driven by the 2nd generation Calibre 430P and while it is designed as a ladies’ timepiece, I believe this pre-SIHH 2017 model is versatile enough to pull double duty as a men’s dress watch, especially given that the aesthetic codes all follow what was originally 34 to 36mm in dimensions. Given the slender profiles of both watches, I found the heft or lack thereof a little disconcerting, like having to always take a glance wristwards to see if the watch was still there. That said, it’s never tiresome to cast your gaze on the sunburst dials of either Piaget pre-SIHH 2017 limited edition Altiplanos.

Piaget Altiplano 60th Anniversary Collection – 38 mm – Retail Price: s$25,700

Piaget Altiplano 60th anniversary Collection – 43mm – Retail Price: S$34,400

Technical Specs

Piaget Altiplano 60th Anniversary Collection – 38 mm
18K white gold ultra-thin case
Blue dial, cross in the center, white gold appliques index
Piaget Manufacture 430P ultra-thin mechanical hand-wound movement Movement thickness : 2.1 mm

Casing dimensions : 9’’’ (20.5 mm)
Number of jewels : 18
Frequency : 21,600 vph/3Hz
Power reserve: approx. 43 hours
Finishing : Circular Côtes de Genève, circular-grained mainplate and bridges, beveled bridges, blued screws
Functions : Hours, minutes
18K white gold ardillon buckle with Blue alligator leather strap
460-piece limited edition G0A42107

Piaget Altiplano 60th anniversary Collection – 43mm
18K white gold ultra-thin case
Sapphire case-back
Blue dial, cross in the center, white gold appliques index
Piaget Manufacture 1200P ultra-thin mechanical self-winding movement Movement thickness: 2.35 mm
Casing dimensions: 13 1⁄4’’’ (29.9 mm)
Number of jewels: 27
Frequency: 21,600 vibrations/hour (3 Hz)
Power reserve: approx. 44 hours
Finishing: Circular Côtes de Genève, circular-grained mainplate, bevelled bridges, blued screws, sunburst-brushed wheels

“P” fixed to the regulator-assembly as Piaget signature, 22K slate grey colored pink gold oscillating weight
Functions: Hours, minutes
18K white gold ardillon buckle with Blue alligator leather strap

360-piece limited edition G0A42105


Also published on Medium.

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