And the watch industry Oscar goes to . . . the Altiplano Ultimate Concept. Piaget scooped the ultimate accolade from the 2020 GPHG (Fondation du Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève) with the world’s thinnest mechanical watch currently in production. Not the thinnest watch in the history of the world. That honor belongs to . . .
the early 80’s Concord Delirium IV, a quartz-powered watch that was a scarcely credible, barely visible, 0.98mm thick.
Note to Piaget: an insanely thin watch does not corporate immortality make. (Actually, nothing does.) Despite this horological high water mark, Concord tumbled from the horological heights into de facto obscurity. Thank you Movado Group. Anyway . . .
The award-winning Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept comes hot on the heels of 2019’s non-award-winning Citizen Eco-Drive One.
The Japanese watchmaker’s light-powered timepiece clocked in at 2.98mm. As the Concord Delirium IV was prone to bending, as the Eco-Drive One was available in titanium, Citizen can justifiably claim to have produced the world’s thinnest practical wristwatch.
At 2mm, the Altiplano Ultimate Concept misses the Delirium’s world record thinness by 1.3 mm, but bests the Eco-Drive One by 1mm. And the Piaget is mechanical.
The Altiplano Ultimate Concept is a tie for the thinnest mechanical watch ever made. By Piaget’s own admission, the AUC is the same thickness as the Piaget Cal. 9P unveiled in 1957 at Baselworld (image courtesy watchprozine.com).
In other words, Piaget used CAD-CAM, lasers and 3D printing technology to create a watch that guys armed with pencils and simple machine tools built 63 years ago. Truth be told, the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept reflects the fact that the Swiss watch industry’s hit a brick wall.
Once upon a time, mechanical watchmakers achieved fame and fortune through technological innovation. A mechanical watchmaker could leap to the top of the sales chart by creating a watch with world-beating accuracy, reliability, durability, self-winding capability, power reserve and/or water, magnetic and shock resistance. And yes, slimness.
The quartz crisis sounded the death knell for all that. Battery-powered watches’ superior capabilities and lower price were an enormous G-SHOCK to mechanical watchmakers. Those that survived stuck to their guns – producing and selling the best mechanical watches they could make. Which is what they do today, even as the smartwatch crisis pulls the rug from under the low-to-mid-priced manufacturers’ feet.
As mentioned above, traditional watchmakers now have astoundingly capable computerized design and manufacturing tools. (Not to mention access to low-cost Chinese parts for their so-called “Swiss made” timepieces.) Traditional watches are getting better and better – to the point where “better” is so ubiquitous it’s become more-or-less meaningless, in terms of actual performance.
When was the last time you wore a watch that stopped working? Or failed to keep time? Or took a knock and shit the bed? In the same way that owners of today’s cars find it hard to believe that SAAB owners used to take pictures of their odometers cresting 100k, today’s traditional watch buyers expect mechanical excellence in all aspects. And get it.
What’s left to distinguish a mechanical watch from a quartz watch or smartwatch? Beauty! Style! Romance! Glamor! Fun! Bling! Which returns us to the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept.
While its thinness gets the press, it’s the Altiplano Ultimate Concept’s design that makes it relevant. Unlike its 1957 ancestor, the 41mm WYSIWYG AUC sets itself apart visually from every other watch ever made. It’s not just mechanical; it’s transparently, triumphantly mechanical. As it should be for $448k. But wait, there’s more!
If an Altiplano Ultimate Concept owner runs into another Altiplano Ultimate Concept owner they can safely compare watches. Buyers choose the color of the case, hands and dial, bridges, screws and caseback; provide an engraving and select a strap. So no two AUC’s are bound to be alike.
I suspect that the GPHG jury chose the Piaget Altiplano Ultimate Concept as a vindication of traditional watchmaking. And so it is.
The AUC reminds us – if not the traditional watch industry – that the quartz watch and smartwatch crises have liberated mechanical watchmakers from the tyranny of the past. The need to put timekeeping per se front and center. The need to mass produce minor variations of the same thing.
In short, the mechanical watch industry is free to reinvent itself. What’s next? Watch this space . . .