Neither entirely a movement nor exactly a case – or rather both at once — Piaget’s Altiplano 38 mm 900P is the world’s thinnest mechanical watch. Merging the hand-wound calibre with the case elements, it is designed as a single entity in order to achieve record-breaking slenderness at just 3.65 mm thin.
Representing a crowning achievement in over half a century of virtuoso skills displayed in the realm of ultra-thin watchmaking, where Piaget reigns supreme, the new watch conveys the excellence of the two integrated Manufactures run by the Maison. The skills of the watchmakers, case constructors and designers converge in giving life to this masterpiece of reliability and precision.
2014 is a vintage year for Piaget. The Maison is celebrating its 140th anniversary and marks the occasion by launching a model that is set to defy the conventions of ultra-thin Fine Watchmaking for many years to come: the Altiplano 38 mm 900P. While clearly geared towards cutting-edge innovation, it is also a nod to history, since it gets the 900P part of its name from Calibre 9P, which was the first ultra-thin hand-wound movement made by Piaget in 1957. That particular mechanism measured just 2 mm thin and sealed Piaget’s destiny in the field of ultra-thin horology.
By 1960, Piaget was ready to set a first record with its Calibre 12P, the world’s thinnest automatic movement at just 2.3 mm. The following years witnessed a spate of new slimness records in the fields of hand-wound and automatic models, with or without horological complications – like Calibre 600P, the world’s thinnest hand-wound shaped tourbillon movement; and 1208P, an automatic movement that was also the thinnest in its category, to mention just a couple of these feats.
An impressive ultra-thin heritage
Constantly reaffirming its unconditional love of slim mechanisms, the Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie Piaget has produced no less than 23 ultra-thin calibres out of the 35 movements developed and produced in-house, of which 12 have set new records for thinness over the past few years and are now part of the collection.
Within this impressive body of work, each new accomplishment lays a new milestone in terms of the expertise. It is this know-how that nurtures the Maison in constantly pushing the boundaries of its art and perpetually innovating through a string of exceptional creations. The latter are distinguished not only by their extreme slenderness, but also by their uncompromising reliability – a criterion that governs each and every choice made by the Manufacture.
Testifying to the impressive success of this double challenge, all of the 23 ultra-thin movements have been produced continually since the time of their launch, while Calibre 430P has established itself as one of the world’s most widely produced ultra-thin hand-wound movements, due to its extreme resistance.
Merging the skills of the two integrated Manufactures
Making an ultra-thin watch is a constant challenge. Right from the first project sketches, all those involved must anticipate the functional, aesthetic and durability constraints involved in paring down parts to the extreme. Very few manufacturers are tempted to adopt such an approach, and even fewer develop and produce in-house both their calibres and their cases under the watchful eye of the in-house designers. Piaget belongs to this exclusive circle.
While the Altiplano 38 mm 900P merges the case and movement to establish itself as the thinnest mechanical watch ever, it also stems from another fusion without which such a feat would have been impossible: that of the two Manufactures Piaget – one based in La Côte aux Fées, where the movements are traditionally made; and the other in Plan-les-Ouates, where the cases are crafted. These skills are now inextricably intermingled, since within the Altiplano 38 mm 900P, the mechanism and the external components form a single indivisible entity.
For a full three years, watchmakers, case constructors and designers worked together at each stage of development, production, adjustment and finishing in order to give life to this slender marvel. Each technical choice had an aesthetic impact, and vice versa. While each of the 145 parts composing the Altiplano 38 mm 900P has been trimmed to a size sometimes barely thicker than a hair’s breadth – including some wheels measuring a mere 0.12 mm thin (compared with 0.20 mm on a classic movement) – special care has been devoted to clearances. In other words, the process involved cleverly arranging the components to within the nearest hundredth of a millimetre so as to create optimal play between the fixed and mobile organs, while being careful to ensure that the latter move freely and thus guarantee the smooth running of the mechanism.
At the heart of the thinnest mechanical watch ever made
The true secret of this extreme slenderness lies in the structure of the case itself, of which the back also serves as the mainplate, thereby merging calibre and case. The latter was machined directly from the case-back in order to house the mechanical parts.
This highly complex architecture meant reversing movement construction so as to fit the bridges on the dial side – an approach that also has an aesthetic effect by keeping them visible. To save another precious few millimetres, the entire mechanism and the hand-fitting system are contained within the thickness of the balance-wheel itself, thus entailing an off-centred display of the hours and minutes entirely in tune with the iconic design features of the Altiplano line.
These characteristics are further enhanced by the entirely visible wheel-train that invites the owner of the watch to plunge into the very heart of this supremely slender and technically sophisticated mechanism. Working within this extremely confined space, Piaget has devised a suspended barrel hanging from a single bridge on the dial side, contrary to classic barrels that are also fixed to the mainplate side. This highly unusual device is no way detrimental to the performance of the mechanism, since the Altiplano 38 mm 900P has a generous power reserve of around 48 hours.
A patent pending for a major breakthrough in promoting reliability
When a watch is subjected to strong pressure, such as when immersed in water, its glass or crystal is slightly deformed. While this physical phenomenon goes relatively unnoticed on a classic timepiece, the same is certainly not true of an ultra-thin watch. Given the extremely confined space available, the glass would be liable to press on the hands when deformed, thus causing the movement to stop. To avoid this challenge to any ultra-thin model, Piaget has come up with a revolutionary device (patent pending) representing a major breakthrough in ensuring the reliability of this type of watch. Instead of fitting the hands above the bridges, Piaget has placed them underneath, thereby freeing up space between the cannon-pinion and the crystal. When the latter is deformed by the effects of pressure, it presses not on the hands – placed below the bridge level – but instead on the wheel-train bridge, thus avoiding any consequences on the rate of the movement.
While for Piaget, the extreme slimming down of the parts in an ultra-thin watch must in no way compromise its reliability, the same goes for the level of finishing. The Altiplano 38 mm 900P is no exception to the rule. Even though some of its 145 parts remain hidden from sight, all of them have been meticulously finished in keeping with the noblest horological traditions, through countless hours of patient work rendered even trickier by the extraordinary slenderness of the components.
The mainplate carved out of the watch case-back has been satin-brushed and sandblasted, while the wheels are alternately sunburst or circular satin-brushed. Hollowed so as to reveal the subtle mechanical intricacies at the heart of the Altiplano 38 mm 900P, the bevelled and satin-brushed sunburst bridges are black-coated to create elegant contrasts with the white gold case. The index-assembly bearing the Piaget “P” strikes a resounding signature note within this subtly orchestrated Fine Watchmaking symphony.
Spanning more than 1,500 km at the heart of the Andes Cordillera, the Altiplano – literally ‘high plain’ in Spanish – is one of the world’s highest populated regions, with an average altitude of 3,650 metres. The latter figure is echoed in the exceptional slenderness of the Altiplano 38 mm 900P measuring just 3.65 mm thin.
Constantly swept over by strong winds, the sparse vegetation of the Altiplano forms infinitely flat landscapes devoid of any artifice, despite harbouring precious natural resources such as gold, silver and copper. Inspired by these splendidly ethereal expanses, the Altiplano line by Piaget also conceals a treasure – in this instance mechanical – beneath a pure modern design. The latter is distinguished by an off-centred dial alternately punctuated by single and double hour-markers in a contemporary interpretation of timeless classicism. Clothed in an 18K white gold case, the new Altiplano 38 mm 900P also maintains an apparently simple bearing despite its exceptional architecture and this might also make one forget that it is indeed the world’s thinnest ever mechanical watch. Rarely has an Altiplano so powerfully lived up to its name…