Chronograph Design Matters

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT naked

It was my first Baselworld. Not wanting to miss anything, I arrived early. Standing in the middle of the growing crowd, all I could see was the first booth inside Hall 1: a metal-clad honeycomb structure illuminated by a warm orange glow. The name BVLGARI loomed large, the backlit logo placed high atop the other branding. When the doors opened, the crowd made a break for Bulgari, trying to get a glimpse of the record-breaking Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT . . .

H. Moser & Cie

Bulgari had announced the watch in the lead up to Baselworld. Like bees, the crowd buzzed and hummed with admiration and appreciation as I, too, tried to get a closer look. Sadly, I knew what was coming – I had seen the launch pictures beforehand and was prepared for disappointment.

Some part of me hoped the production version at the Bulgari booth wouldn’t be compromised, but it was not to be. I thought to myself, “It just doesn’t hit the mark.” I wasn’t wrong. The chronograph seconds hand failed to reach out far enough to touch some of the seconds and sub-second markers on the chapter ring around the dial’s edge.

Triangle in a square crop

To understand why that happens, let’s remind ourselves how shapes behave when they move. Crank any smaller shape inside a polygon and the polygon’s corners will remain unswept. Imagine a triangle rotating inside a square. The square’s edges remain untouched.

That’s exactly what’s happening within the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT. As the chronograph’s seconds hand traces a circular arc around the dial, it loses contact with the markers.

1992 Maserati Shamal (courtesy motorious.com)

Imagine if a Maserati Shamal came with a tachometer that couldn’t point to every single rpm. If you drove it, you’d have a vague idea of what’s going on, but you’d end up mistiming your shifts. You’d be steaming almost as much as the Maserati’s twin-cam. Most importantly, you’d look like a fool while operating very sexy exotic precision machinery. 

Bottom line: chronograph design matters.

The whole point of a chronograph: to measure the precise amount of time that elapses between initial activation and cessation. A seconds hand that points in the general vicinity of an index – rather than its exact relative position – violates the genre’s raison d’être.

Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani

Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani is the man who missed the mark (literally). Mr. Stigliani is an industrial designer. He’s designed everything from sunglasses to motorcycles.

Bulgari’s watch design chief openly admits that he doesn’t approach watches from a horological angle. He treats them like everything else he’s designed – as products. Besides, the deeply fashionable Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT is a record-breaking watch: the world’s thinnest automatic chronograph. Do its details matter?

Mr. Stigliani says they do. In an interview with Esquire Middle East, the designer claims he’s obsessed with details. In a New York Times profile, Watch Time Magazine Editor-in-Chief Roger Ruegger describes Mr. Buonamassa Stigliani as being an aesthete: “He literally breathes design.” Mr. Stigliani must have been out of breath when designing the Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT.

Cartier Santos Chronograph

Although I was trained as an industrial designer, I’ve also worked as a graphic designer. I worry when an essential and functional detail has been overlooked. What we have here: a watch whose flawed graphic design that doesn’t do justice to the watch’s industrial design.

The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT isn’t the only watch unveiled last year that failed to marry the two elements. The Cartier Santos Chronograph is guilty of the same oversight.

The chapter ring for the Santos chronograph’s seconds indications runs outboard of the collection’s signature Roman numeral hours (which follow the case and dial’s square shape). Same problem: the chronograph seconds hand’s relative position is vague at best, especially in the corners.

Glashütte Original Seventies Chronograph Panorama Date

Disappointed with SIHH and Baselworld’s chronographs, I waited for the SWATCH Group to announce their later-than-usual reveal. I was let down yet again. The culprit this time? The Glashütte Original Seventies Chronograph Panorama Date. The German watchmaker released two limited editions with fumé dials.

The TV-shaped Seventies Chronograph has been around for nine years. With the release of the two limited editions, I figured Glashütte Original would consider rectifying its design flaw. Sadly, no.

In 2019, the Swatch Group (proprietors of Glashütte Original), Richemont (proprietors of Cartier) and LVMH (proprietors of Bulgari) all chose to introduce chronograph models with case designs that were technically brilliant, beautiful to look at and graphically challenged.

Patek Philippe chronograph

A square-ish watch with an accurate seconds hand is not an impossible dream. The Patek Philippe Nautilus Chronograph 5980 shows us how it’s done. The seconds hand high-fives each and every index marked on the chapter ring. (I can almost feel it high-fiving me.)

The Patek’s sub-dial chronograph indexing solution is also a model of graphic and functional design. It shows us that great design is simple, beautiful and practical. Finissimo.

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