Piaget Altiplano 900P: la montre mécanique la plus plate du monde
The Altiplano 900P by Piaget goes back to the horological drawing board. A new holistic approach produces the thinnest watch in the world, a record that draws its legitimacy from the maison’s own history. Here’s the whole story.
If I had to choose one of the new timepieces presented during 2014’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), it would no doubt be the Piaget Altiplano 38 mm 900P. Both the site in Plan-Les-Ouates and the factory in Côte-aux-Fées – cradle of the Piaget family – contributed to the development of this technical tour-de-force, which truly reflects the brand’s heritage. The fact that they have released the thinnest watch in the world proves the sheer range of the brand’s different and complementary skills. This model is just 3.65 mm thick, which makes it the thinnest mechanical watch on the market.
Such a record may have sufficed to justify my interest in this exceptional timepiece, but how it was developed is the real feat.
The ultra-thin: Piaget’s legacy
Before making its own watches, the Piaget manufacture from La Côte-aux-Fées used to supply finished movements to other watchmakers. The calibers produced by Piaget were known to be reliable and robust, above all they were appreciated for their thinness, which was a quality that very few manufacturers were able to produce. Piaget’s skill in producing thin movements was already famous in the 1920s. However, it wasn’t until 1943, with the creation of the ”SA Ancienne Fabrique Georges Piaget & Cie,” that the first watches with the brand’s logo appeared.
Thanks to the leadership of Gérald and Valentin Piaget, the manufacture has never stopped expanding its expertise in thin movements since 1945. In 1957, all the hard work came to fruition and the legendary 2-millimeter-high, hand-wound 9P was born. Piaget’s latest ultra-thin caliber, named 900P, therefore pays tribute to the 9P, a key movement in the manufacture’s history. In 1960, Piaget broke its first record with the release of its 12P caliber. Indeed, this 2.3-millimeter-high piece was the thinnest self-winding movement in the world at the time!
After that came a succession of achievements for the brand: no less than 12 of the 23 ultra-thin calibers they developed and produced in-house broke records for their slenderness. Today, Piaget continues to be the leading specialist for this particular watchmaking complication.
Two integrated manufactures provide a global approach
Over the past years, the quest for ultra-thin seemed to have reached its limit. The miniaturization of watchmaking components could not go on ad infinitum without affecting the reliability of the watch. The probability of producing still slimmer movements and cases seemed, well, slim. Aware of this limitation, Piaget started to develop the Altiplano 900P three years ago taking a holistic approach to the problem. The initial idea was to merge the elements of the movement with the case in order to reduce the thickness. In other words, not only would the caliber be impacted, but the case middle as well, in fact, the entire watch needed to be rebuilt.
Most watchmaking products are designed within the constraints imposed by the size of the movement.
In the case of the 900P, each department of the two Piaget manufactures was involved in the design and development of the external parts and the movement. Piaget has all the necessary skills to produce components and to assemble movements in La Côte-aux-Fées. This verticalization goes as far as having a workshop exclusively dedicated to the production of tools. The site in Plan-les-Ouates, which has its own prototype and design departments, produces elements of cases as well as metallic straps. The two- part report published on Watchonista provides more detailed information on how the two verticalized sites work together.
“Always do better than necessary”
The Piaget Altiplano 38 mm 900P is, above all, the fruit of a collaboration between the know-how of two different Piaget production sites. What are the technical innovations? Firstly, the case – the key element – has been redesigned so that the back serves as the mainplate.
While this veritable fusion of caliber and case allows for a thinner piece, it also creates a major constraint: the need for inversing the caliber. Indeed, the back of the case cannot be dismantled as in a classic watch, so all other elements must be assembled through the front of the case.
This very complex architecture represented a true challenge. Implementing it is what produced the technical solutions that further reduced the thickness of the watch while guaranteeing strength and reliability. In a conventional watch, the hands are placed on the surface of the dial. However, in the Altiplano 38 mm 900P, the whole mechanism and its hands are fixed in the thickness of the balance. The bridges and gear trains have likewise been assembled and are visible on the dial side and offer one of the most esthetically pleasing views of the watch’s mechanics.
Designing this timepiece in this way broke thinness records. However, it also created a major challenge that had to be included in the specifications manual, namely the distortion of sapphire crystal when subjected to high pressure. The usual – even normal – effect of this pressure is a tendency by the sapphire crystal to press onto the hands, particularly if they protrude from the bridges. This could cause the watch to stop. In order to avoid the problem, Piaget decided to place the hands under the bridges.
A patent has been filed for this original idea, which guarantees the reliable functioning of the watch, even under high pressure. Thus, when the crystal expands, it presses on the gear bridge without the slightest effect on the movement’s functioning. In addition to these technical achievements, it’s the veritable team work on this project that reflects the tradition of excellence typical of Piaget. It echoes the motto of the brand: “Always do better than necessary.”
Ultra-thin and ultra-wearable
Now onto my hands-on experience. On the wrist, the Piaget Altiplano 38 mm 900P reveals its qualities to the fullest. The quest for the ultra-thin does not make it uncomfortable or, indeed, indiscreet, since it slides easily under the cuff of a shirt. The most surprising aspect that is felt the moment the watch is strapped on is the sensation of volume in spite of its 38-millimeter diameter and 3.65-millimeter thickness. Both the large aperture of the dial and the highly streamlined bezel make the diameter feel larger than it actually is. As for the thickness – or thinness –it is counterbalanced by the animated mechanics and the components’ finishing, the gear train, the suspended barrel, the balance-spring and the bridges, all of which are visible on the dial.
On the whole, the mechanical spectacle that appears under the sapphire crystal has an unreal quality about it, it even seems highly improbable that all that can be contained inside a mere 3.65 millimeters.
The off-center hours and minutes display essentially a technical consequence of placing the hands under the dial while sticking to the true Altiplano tradition – the watch’s home collection.
The two basic versions, namely white gold and pink gold, are both attractive with only a few differences in their respective finishes. The black treatment of the dial and the components of the white gold version offer the model a more contemporary look. As for the pink gold version, in spite of the first impression, it is not as classical as it may seem. In fact, its esthetics are almost as modern as the white gold version. The series is rounded off by a third version in white gold set with 304 diamonds; another great Piaget specialty. At 5.65 millimeters, this watch also holds a record, for the world’s thinnest haute horlogerie timepiece.
By taking a holistic approach to the design of the Altiplano 38 mm 900P in the quest for ultra-thinness, Piaget has produced the most coherent timepiece in early 2014. The brand has brilliantly demonstrate that in haute horlogerie, as in quantum physics, nothing is created or destroyed, it only change form.