The Race to Make the Thinnest Watch

Courtesy of Piaget Altiplano
Piaget Altiplano 900P — The company’s 38mm dress watch is less than one-third as thick as a typical Rolex Submariner.

Hoping that bragging rights translate into sales, the watch world is locked in a heated contest to create the slimmest timepieces ever as refined looks come back into fashion.

From dive watches that can travel down the deepest to timepieces that boast the most complications, the watch world is a continual race to set records, from.

Last year at the big Baselworld watch fair in Switzerland, one particular contest saw a new record-holder emerge. Two competing brands arrived at the industry’s major trade show, each claiming to have created the thinnest watch with a tourbillon ever. It was only after representatives from one brand visited the competitor’s booth and saw for themselves that they had been bested that they rescinded their claim.

This sort of competition isn’t just about gaining bragging rights. Records and superlatives often resonate with collectors and help move their wares across the retail counter.

One of the most hotly contested arenas right now is the race for the thinnest watch. Slim is now in. After a decade in which watches got bigger — at 47mm or more in diameter and verging on 22mm in height,
the watch equivalent of McMansions — refined mechanical watches are back in vogue.

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These thin timepieces, known as ultra- plate or ultrathin, slide under a shirt cuff with ease. They whisper to the cognoscenti, rather than shouting “Look at me!” Not only are they elegant, they also show watchmaking at its best. One of the sure signs of a watchmaker’s hand has traditionally been the ability to pare down the size of his mechanisms without compromising precision.

For the past few years, the record holder for the thinnest mechanical watch has shifted back and forth between two masters of the art. This summer, Jaeger-LeCoultre announced that its new 39mm Master Ultra Thin Squelette clocks in at just 3.6mm, less than two-tenth of an inch.
A typical Rolex Submariner by com- parison is 13mm, more than three times as thick. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s new watch bests the previous record holder — Piaget’s 38mm Altiplano 900P dress watch — by a mere 50 microns. Piaget itself took the crown slightly more than a year ago from, you guessed it, a Jaeger-LeCoultre. Vacheron Constantin heavily competes in the category as well; its Historiques Ultra-Fine 1955 is 4.13mm thick.

Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra-Fine 1955

Prices for ultrathins run high, given the costs of R&D. The challenge becomes even more noteworthy when watch marques seek to slim down watches and at the same time add complications, an industry term for functions other than telling time. 

Races are ongoing to produce the thinnest chronographs, the thinnest self- winding and hand-wound tourbillons, the thinnest minute repeaters. 

The current title holders for those achieve- ments are Piaget’s 8.24mm Altiplano Chronograph, Audemars Piguet’s 5.5mm Ultra-Thin Automatic Tourbillon, Bulgari’s 5mm Octo Finissimo Tourbillon and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 7.9mm Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon. 

Piaget, which has built its name producing a series of slim movements and timepieces, still boasts the thinnest chronograph in the world, the Altiplano Chronograph, which is 8.24mm in height. In addition to the chrono function, which is notoriously difficult to miniaturize, this watch also has a second time zone function, a favorite among travelers.

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Way back in 1986, Audemars Piguet announced what still remains the thinnest self-winding (automatic) tourbillon ever, the Ultra-Thin Automatic Tourbillon Calibre 2870, just 5.5 mm in height. Nipping at its heels is Breguet’s Classique Tourbillon Extra-Plat, which boasts an automatic tourbillon movement of 3mm and a total case height of 7 mm. The automatic winding module is itself quite an achievement. Typically, automatic winding is the first function to be eliminated as a watchmaker looks to make a watch thinner. Breguet maintained it by adapting a peripheral rotor that slides along the outer edge of the movement and adds no additional height.

Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo Tourbillon (5mm in height) remains the thinnest hand-wound tourbillon ever produced. Bulgari, not a marque previously associated with the ultra-thin category, achieved this record by dispatching the movement’s regulator assembly (used to fine-tune the watch) in exchange for saving space. This made regulating the Octo Finissimo a bit trickier for the watchmaker, who is now required to make timing adjustments directly to the balance wheel. Graff, a brand widely known for the quality of its precious stones, comes in second with a tourbillon measuring 6.95 mm in height.

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Vacheron Constantin and Jaeger-LeCoultre have each come out with ultra-thin minute repeaters, arguably the hardest complication in all of watchmaking. Making such a mechanism ultra thin presents not only engineering and aesthetical challenges, but also acoustical ones. Vacheron’s Patrimony Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731 comes in with a movement thickness of 3.9 mm and a total watchcase height of 8.1 mm. And not only is this watch thin, it’s also been finished and tested to meet the strict quality standards of the independent Geneva Hallmark. For its part, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s foray into ultra-thin minute repeater territory actually manages to come in slightly thinner while even adding a tourbillon escapement for good measure. The Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon is a mouthful of name that surely belies its own slim profile: just 7.9 mm thin.

What makes the competition fascinating for watch lovers are the different, ingenious ways that watchmakers solve the challenge. That’s nowhere on more pronounced display than in Jaeger- LeCoultre’s and Piaget’s thinnest watches. Where the Altiplano 900P completely reimagined the construction of both case and innards to achieve its svelte size — simply put, it’s a watch in which the baseplate and the caseback are one and the same — Jaeger- LeCoultre’s thinnest offering is a tra- ditionally constructed wristwatch with an elaborately hand-decorated and skeletonized movement. 

As for Jaeger-LeCoultre’s new 3.6mm record, it’s only a matter of time until someone bests it.

This story first appeared in The Hollywood Reporter's fourth annual Watch Issue.