A visit to two of Bvlgari’s four watch production sites in Switzerland shows just how far the brand has progressed in the watchmaking arena.
January 2016. It is mid-winter in Switzerland. In the village of Le Sentier, perched 1,013m above sea level in the Jura Valley, a thick layer of snow blankets the ground. Powdery snow has also collected on the roofs of pretty, pastel-coloured houses that line the streets of this alpine outpost, whose inhabitants number around 3,000. On the crisp, cold morning that we — a group of journalists from Singapore, Thailand, Japan, the US and Venezuela — visit, hardly any sign of life stirs.
Inside the Bvlgari Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie — one of four watch production sites that the brand maintains in Switzerland — it is an entirely different story. As the literal heart of Bvlgari’s watch production, where movements such as the basic calibre BVL 191 and the ultra-thin calibre BVL 128, as well as high-complication watches are churned out, the facility positively hums with energy. As must the other facilities in La Chaux-de-Fonds (where dials are made), Saignelégier (cases and bracelets) and Neuchâtel (final assembly of all watches except high complications).
It is said that a person’s environment shapes his behaviour. In this case, it is evident that the relative isolation and quietude of the Jura Valley have forged a patient, contemplative population who are content to spend eight hours a day tinkering away on minuscule mechanical components. Eighty-five of them do so at this facility. We witness the action up-close: an electro-erosion machine, which resembles a handheld hot-wire foam cutter, is used to carve the tiniest components. Except it is an industrial- sized mechanism that uses a wire 1/10 of a millimetre in diameter.
For slightly larger components — “larger” being a relative term, of course, since we are still talking about parts that are a few millimetres across — industrial-standard CNC machines are used. Bvlgari has four three-axis machines and one five-axis machine. The more axes, the more components with complex geometries the machine can sculpt. Five-axis machines are generally utilised by companies that manufacture high complications. “We bought this [five-axis machine] to produce prototypes of cases for chiming watches, because we don’t want to outsource, or let suppliers know what we’re producing or developing,” a technician informs us.
In the next workshop, we witness how the machined components are decorated. Pascal Brandt, Bvlgari’s watch communications senior manager, explains: “Here, we have two types of decoration processes — semi-manual and manual, for all the surfaces of the components, for example the bridges of the movement. Geneva stripes, snailing and so on, are considered semi-manual processes, while bevelling and polishing of the interior angles of the components are all done manually.”
Interior angles are impossible to file using machines, so the process has to be carried out by hand. This is true of other manufactures as well. It is a time-consuming operation that serves as a testament of quality. Indeed, the refinement of a movement is often judged on the quality of polishing of the interior angles. Brandt continues: “A technician will spend one week working on just two tourbillon cages. Imagine if he makes a mistake! He has to start all over again. There is no school for this; it just takes experience and sensitivity in the fingers.” Another unique facet of this arcane operation: Each technician makes his own set of tools for the job.
The pinnacle of the manufacture is the atelier reserved for the production of highly-complicated chiming watches — minute repeaters, grande and petite sonneries, and so on. Not all watchmakers are able to attain a level of expertise that would enable them to work in this department, and even if they do, there might not be a position available. Currently, Bvlgari has three watchmakers dedicated to this role. An uncased Daniel Roth Carillon Tourbillon sits on a wooden sounding board, tempting curious ears to test its sound quality. We do, and it is magnificent. The harmony is exceedingly pleasant, the pitch perfect, the rhythm just right, and the volume impressive.
Brandt proudly proclaims: “The Carillon Tourbillon has been a super bestseller for us since we launched it three years ago. The quality of sound is said by many journalists and those in the industry to be the best in the market.” To that end, Bvlgari developed a special machine together with Switzerland’s top engineering institute, the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, to test the chimes and maintain high standards. “Because when you sell such a watch to the final client, who is a great collector, who spends a certain amount of money for such a piece of art, it needs to have a perfect sound,” says Brandt.
This competence is something that Guido Terreni, managing director of Bvlgari Watches, is extremely proud of. At a meeting in Neuchâtel later that day, he says: “You’ve seen the grande sonnerie in the atelier today. There are probably 15 people in the world that can put their hands on such a movement, and we have three of them. It’s a huge patrimony of know-how that we have internally. And it isn’t just for the grande sonnerie, but also for the Octo Finissimo movement, or the thinnest tourbillon in the world. These are examples of our savoir faire that is extremely high.”
If Le Sentier is the heart of Bvlgari’s watchmaking activities, then Neuchâtel, the biggest facility with about 160 employees, is its brain. Management, marketing, communications — known collectively in the Francophone world as direction — is based here. Terreni and Brandt both have offices here. On the operations side, there is assembly, quality control and after-sales service, all of which are standard for a manufacture, as a tour of the premises reveals. What is interesting is the sense that one gets of the extent of Bvlgari’s supply chain: jewellery watches like the Serpenti have their bracelets made in Italy, their cases and movements made in Le Sentier, and the final product assembled in Neuchâtel.
Not to forget the brand’s Roman roots. Its watchmaking headquarters may be in Neuchâtel, but its global HQ is in Rome. There, of course, the brand began life as a jeweller in 1884. It was only a century later — 98 years, to be precise — that Bvlgari decided to establish Bvlgari Time in Neuchâtel. From then on, it progressed from being an aesthetic and design company, to a developer and assembler, and finally today, a vertically integrated manufacturer with 70% of its production done in-house. “All this was done in a very short time,” says Terreni. “But I’m very proud of the know-how that we have.”
Besides chronicling developments in the luxury watch industry, Aaron De Silva also runs The Time Traveller SG on Instagram (@ thetimetravellersg) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/thetimetravellersg)
This article appeared in the Options of Issue 745 (Sept 12 ) of The Edge Singapore.