Exploring Piaget’s legacy of ultra-thin watchmaking
Published on 30 October 2020
5 mins read
Millimetres matter in the quest for the ultimate in ultra-thin watches.
Making a mechanical watch is an incredibly complex engineering task. Often consisting of hundreds of components, many of them are difficult to see with the naked eye. With movements arranged in such a punishingly precise manner, a single part being off by a fraction of a millimetre means that the whole show comes to a stop. More than that, these tiny mechanisms aren’t intended to be static objects, sitting safely on the top shelf. These works of art are designed to be continuously worn and required to run 24/7, to a high degree of accuracy.
This description applies to a *normal* mechanical watch movement — something that measures around 5mm thick for an uncomplicated calibre. The world of ultra-thin watchmaking dramatically shaves those measurements down to the razor’s edge. And no one does it better than Piaget, with their signature Altiplano watches.
In the middle of the central Andes, at an average elevation of 3750 metres above sea level, and spanning the borders of Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Chile lies the high plateau — known as the Altiplano. With incredible geography, the Altiplano is home to giant volcanoes, the arid Atacama desert and the Uyuni Salt Flats. These flats are the worlds largest, at over 10,000 square kilometres of incredibly vast, unimaginably flat terrain, dominated by an endless horizon. It’s this unique part of the world that inspired Piaget in 1976 to name their ultra-thin creations Altiplano.
The legendary 9P
Though the name Altiplano was born in the 70s, Piaget’s exploration and mastery in the world of ultra-thin watches dates back much earlier, to 1957, and the calibre 9P. This movement is the brainchild of Valentin Piaget, grandson of Piaget’s founder Georges-Edouard Piaget, who founded the brand in 1874. Valentin and his brother Gerald took control of Piaget in 1945, and their mission was to make the name Piaget stand out from the pack. The strategy was to excel at exceptionally thin watches, and Piaget’s then brand new manufacture in La Cote-aux-Fées was key to this mission. This dedicated facility allowed Valentin, and his team of watchmakers to develop the calibre 9P, an 18-jewel manually wound movement that measured in at 20.5mm across, by an incredibly thin width of 2mm. This exceptionally slender movement allowed for watches that would measure in at just over 4mm thick, setting the bar for ultra-thin watches, and became a legendary standard in the challenging field of ultra-thin watches. This achievement is even more impressive when you consider that the entire design and production process predated computers and CAD technology now commonplace in watch manufacturing.
Ultra-thin and automatic, the 1200P
Piaget didn’t rest on its laurels though, and in 1960, three years after the release of the 9P, the brand unveiled the 1200P, the next evolution of ultra-thin movements. Only this time it was an automatic, thanks to an off-centre gold micro-rotor: a much more space-saving solution than the regular central oscillating mass. What’s more impressive is that even with this additional functionality of automatic winding, the 1200P measured only 2.35mm thick, and could hold a respectable 44 hours of power reserve. To put that in perspective, some of the gears on the 1200P were only 0.12mm thick, which is only slightly thicker than a human hair.
Ultra-thin watchmaking in the modern era
Piaget’s continued quest for excellence in ultra-thin watchmaking didn’t stop in the golden era of watchmaking, and the brand continues to be the leading name in ultra-thin watches today, thanks to a new crop of movements that continue to offer more, in even less space. Take, for example, the Altiplano Ultimate Manual, which was released in 2014. The 900P calibre powers this 38mm watch, and the whole package measures an incredibly slender 3.65mm. This feat has been achieved by designing the watch as a whole, rather than the separate components of watch case and movement. Thanks to this innovative solution, which sees the case back perform double duty as the calibre’s mainplate, and do away with a traditional dial, Piaget has once again been able to pare the Altiplano back to its bare essentials.
Later in 2014 Piaget, not content with time-only watches decided to tackle complications, and released the Altiplano Chronograph, and do with a combination of technical panache and bravura style that is typically Piaget. The resulting movement, the Calibre 883P, is a hand-wound, column-wheel chronograph with a second timezone, and a respectable 50 hours of power reserve. The whole package measures in at 4.65mm, which while thicker than Piaget’s time-only movements, is still significantly more slender than the industry staple Valjoux 7750, which measures 7.9mm thick. So often chronographs are seen as sporty staples, but the Piaget Altiplano Chronograph sets a new bar for what a sophisticated, discreet and slender chronograph looks like.
In 1957 Piaget provided a 2mm thin benchmark with the legendary 9P movement, one that Piaget challenged with the Altiplano Ultimate Concept, first shown as a concept watch in 2018, which was announced as a regular production piece earlier this year. This incredible piece of almost-conceptual engineering still meets that famous 2mm threshold. However, on the Altiplano Ultimate Concept that measurement is for the complete, cased watch as opposed to just the movement. Like the Altiplano Ultimate Manual, the Concept uses the caseback as the movement mainplate, and the sapphire crystal is a barely-there 0.2mm thin. The case is made from a high-tech cobalt alloy, which helps keep the slender package rigid, and wearable in the real world. In 1957 Piaget wowed the world with the ultra-thin 9P, and they’ve continued to impress ever since, with this 2mm package the latest expression of their expertise. The only question is, how much thinner can they get?
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This article is written by our content contributor Felix Scholz and Andy Green