Piaget specializes in an area of watchmaking that is easy to understand aesthetically, but a little more difficult to grasp in terms of the very real technical challenges it poses. Ultra-thin watchmaking is something relatively few companies really excel in, and for several very good reasons.
The evolution of the ultra-thin watch didn’t really get started until the development of the so-called Lepine caliber in the mid-18th century. Before then, watches were of necessity pretty thick thanks to the nature of the escapement used for most watches â the verge escapement â which has an escape wheel at right angles to the movement plate. This adds unavoidable height, and that combined with the fact that the verge is a pretty miserable timekeeper without a constant force mechanism, meant that verge watches also generally had a fusÃ©e and chain. Of course verge watches could be, and often were, really beautiful, but thin they were not.
Lepine used the much flatter cylinder escapement and did away with the fusÃ©e, and as well introduced the bridge and mainplate system still used in most watches today. By the beginning of the twentieth century refinements in metallurgy and manufacturing techniques had made it possible to make almost unbelievably thin movements, like the LeCoultre caliber 145 of 1907 which to this day holds the record for the thinnest, traditionally constructed hand-wound movement of all time (Vacheron experimented with an even thinner movement, only 0.95mm thick but these ran very erratically, and while three were made, they never got past the prototype stage).
“Creating a 2.3 mm-thin self-winding calibre had previously seemed a pipedream. The entire research team in La CoÌte-aux-FeÌes can take pride in having written one of the finest chapters in watchmaking history, and in having worked in the same spirit that drove the pioneers.â
Journal de GenÃ¨ve, 1960
You might wonder, if LeCoultre was able to make such a thin caliber in 1907, why anyone would make a fuss about Piaget’s achievement of a hand-wound movement only 2mm thick with the 9P, in 1957. The answer is that while making a pocket watch movement very thin is surely a huge challenge, making a wristwatch movement that thin is exponentially more difficult. The much smaller size of wristwatch movements means even tighter tolerances and it also means a much smaller mainspring, so there’s less power to work with, and everything has to be made to an extremely high standard of precision. HODINKEE editors have seen extra-thin watchmaking being done in locations as varied as several factories in the VallÃ©e de Joux, as well as in the Seiko watch studio in Shiojiri where the Credor ultra-thin watches are assembled, and true ultra thin watchmaking is treated everywhere it’s practiced as a separate specialization, which requires its own special training â it’s almost as if it’s a complication on its own.
Which is why, when Piaget introduced its caliber 9P at Basel in 1957, it caused such a huge sensation.
The 9P, and in 1960, the 2.3mm thick caliber 12P, enabled Piaget to become synonymous with the ultra flat, extremely elegant dress watch in the second half of the 20th century. Certainly there were other very significant ultra-thin movements but the combination of design and technical capacity Piaget had, and has, set its work very much apart.
For various reasons vintage Piaget caliber 9P and 12P watches remain among the most undervalued vintage watches I can think of; the $3,000 mark is right about where the sweet spot is for models in good condition. Their niche appeal and diminutive (around 34mm) size both certainly have a lot to do with why prices are so low relative to the importance of the watches in watchmaking history. Which is why, for the 60th anniversary models, Piaget has opted for two sizes â 38mm and 43mm â that are much more in line with contemporary tastes.Â
You’ll immediately notice the distinctive cross-hair design; that’s a feature of vintage caliber 9P and 12P models, and the shape of the lugs as well as the overall configuration of the cases are very much straight out of Piaget’s playbook from the 1950s and 1960s. These designs worked extremely well then and they work extremely well now.Â
The movement in the hand-wound model is Piaget’s caliber 430P, which is a 2.1mm x 20.5mm movement beating at 21,600 vph, and with a 43-hour power reserve. The hand-wound model has a solid case back (possibly due to the fact that the movement is not very large, although it is certainly extremely flat). The self-winding 43mm model, on the other hand, has a display back that shows off the microrotor equipped caliber 1200P beautifully.
The 38mm watch is a limited edition of 460 pieces, while the 43mm watch is a limited edition of 360 pieces.Â The 38mm model is priced at $17,900 and the 43mm model is $23,900.
I think it’s safe to say that the 38mm watch is where the sweet spot is for a lot of HODINKEE readers and it feels just great on the wrist; the 43mm watch is just as striking but there’s something about the proportions of the 38mm model that just feel more directly plugged in to Piaget’s past. Either way, you’re getting a sample of a very specific kind of watchmaking which, nowadays, tends to come at a fairly elevated price. For comparison, Vacheron Constantin’s Historiques Ultra Fine 1955 was, when we went hands on with it in August of 2015, a $29,000 watch; the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin in pink gold is listed by JLC at a price competitive with the Piaget 60th Anniversary, at exactly $17,000 (we continue to mourn the disappearance of the steel 34mm Master Ultra Thin which used to be one of the last great bargains in high end watchmaking). Ultra-thin selfwinding watches come at a high premium these days as well (admittedly, the bracelet adds a lot to the cost but Vacheron’s Overseas Ultra Thin in white gold will run you $55,700) and the fact of the matter is, if you want a watch with a movement that uses a well-finished version of the small handful of true ultra-thin movements Switzerland, it’s going to cost you (at full retail, anyway). Â
Still, relative to its competition, Piaget continues to deliver. Currently I think the biggest challenge to the 38mm Anniversary is certainly the Lange Saxonia Thin 37mm, but if the heritage of Piaget as a long-acknowledged master of ultra thin watchmaking is the itch you’ve got, there’s only one way to scratch it.
See all of Piaget’s collections at piaget.com.