What goes around, comes around –call them ultra thin or extra flat, thin dress watches are back, and a rose by any other name would be just as elegant. Though a newcomer to fine watchmaking in recent years might be forgiven for not knowing it, making a thin watch (and wearing one) was for decades considered an indispensable sign of sophistication. Only a top watchmaker could make a very thin watch, because a very thin watch needs a very thin mechanism inside, and during the golden age of the wristwatch –the period just after the end of World War II and, roughly, 1970 –the ultimate dress watch was gold, round and thin.
Making the mechanism (or movement) fit in a space with only a few millimeters’ headroom is no easy task. A thicker watch is easier to construct and maintain, and it’s a rule of thumb in watchmaking that the thicker the watch, the more accurate. A thin watch demands much higher precision in construction and more skill in assembly to run well –and achieving the elegant purity of design found in the best thin watches demands a discerning eye.
The earliest watches were thick, heavy objects, but by the mid-18th century, watchmaking had become advanced enough that thin movements could be made. By 1755, Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais (today better remembered for the Figaro plays that are the basis of the world famous operas by Mozart and Rossini) had managed to eliminate or redesign many watch parts that require a thicker construction. His brother-in-law, Jean Antoine Lépine, further developed Beaumarchais’ ideas, and the extra thin movements that still follow his basic design are known as Lépine style movements to this day.
Today’s heirs to the tradition established by Beaumarchais and Lépine are a mixture of both old school traditionalists and new wave iconoclasts –sometimes both in the same company. Jaeger LeCoultre, for instance, is one of the best-known creators of thin movements, and such watches as their Master Ultra Thin contain mechanisms that would have been instantly recognizable to a watchmaker of Lépine’s day, but the firm is also a research powerhouse in cutting edge micromechanics. Piaget, another renowned leader in the creation of classic, ultra thin watches, has also continued to push the limits of movement design and in recent years has broken several long-standing records in thinness. Whether traditional, cutting edge or a mixture of both, today’s ultra thin watches all share the hard to define but instantly recognizable quality of elegance that’s let the thin dress watch stand the test of time.
AudemarsPiguet Jules Audemars Extra Thin Automatic
Rose gold, $21,800; white gold, $23,300
Though rightly famous for its Royal Oak and Royal Oak Offshore watches, AudemarsPiguet is also known to insiders as one of watchmaking’s greatest masters of complicated watchmaking. Though they may look simple, many experts rate true extra flat watches as complications in their own right, thanks to the difficulty in designing and assembling them. One of the most legendary extra flat movements in the world is behind the simplicity and purity of the Jules Audemars Extra Thin Automatic: the AudemarsPiguetcalibre 2120. One of the thinnest self-winding movements ever made, and still the thinnest full-diameter rotor automatic movement, the exquisitely finished skeletonized rotor rides on ruby rollers to help keep it functioning smoothly despite the extremely tight tolerances in its construction.
The VacheronConstantin “Les Historiques” 1955
It’s only natural that the most venerable of watchmaking houses –VacheronConstantin has been in business since 1755 –is one of Switzerland’s greatest masters of ultra thin watchmaking as well. The “Les Historiques” 1955, based on a vintage model from that year, blends old school charm with carefully chosen, up to date technical advances. At only 1.64mm thick, the hand-wound movement inside (Vacheroncalibre 1003) is one of the thinnest ever made, and the entire watch is a mere 4.10mm. Such ultra thin watches are usually ultra fragile but clever engineering allows the use of a see through case, with a water resistance of up to 30 meters. Owners will appreciate this update to the original, solid case back design from 1955 –it allows a view of the stunning 18k gold movement.
The Jaeger LeCoultre Grande Reverso Ultra Thin
Rose gold $16,000; stainless steel $7,800
A classic since 1931, the Reverso’s rotating case was originally developed after an English polo player showed the cracked glass of his wristwatch to a Jaeger LeCoultre executive and asked for a watch that could protect itself. Though originally designed as a sports watch, the Reverso has come to be considered a classic dress watch as well, and an icon of Art Deco design. The reversible case is customizable with anything from an engraving to a one-of-a-kind miniature enamel painting, making the Reverso one of the most personal of treasures for the wrist as well. The newest addition to the Reverso family, the Grande Reverso Ultra Thin, is the first extra flat Reverso from Jaeger LeCoultre, in a contemporary size that still preserves the proportions of the 1931 model.
Richard Mille RM 017
Titanium $375,000; red gold $395,000; white gold $405,000
Richard Mille’s watches practically define modern watchmaking –he pioneered the use of exotic materials taken from such worlds as Formula 1 racing and the aerospace industry, and brought a whole new design language to the world of watchmaking. The RM 017 integrates this next generation with one of the most traditional complications: the tourbillon. Housed in a thin, sensuously curved gold case, the RM 017’s titanium and black PVD movement is visible through the transparent dial, with the tourbillon cage rotating not in a conventional jeweled bearing, but in a high tech ceramic for reduced friction and improved resistance to wear.
Zenith Elite 681 Ultra Thin
Rose gold $11,000
Zenith’s most enduring legacy is its El Primero chronograph, which was the world’s first self-winding chronograph when it was introduced in 1969. Though the firm has created some very unusual designs in recent years, it has never lost touch with its roots in the world of classical fine watchmaking. Some of the best evidence of its firm grasp of watchmaking’s most enduring values is the Elite 681 Ultra Thin. Housed in a slim, rose gold or stainless steel case, with diamond hour markers and a small seconds display at 9:00, the Elite 681 offers a spare, impressively straightforward interpretation of the classic men’s dress watch that’s versatile enough to go casual as well.
Ralph Lauren Square Slim Classique
The idea of a Ralph Lauren watch collection might have been surprising to watch connoisseurs when it was first introduced a few years ago, but since then many have been won over by the same perfectionism and obsession with detail for which he’s famous for as a designer. Born out of the same love of elegant design and precise machinery that led him to create one of the world’s most famous car collections, Ralph Lauren’s timepieces draw their inspiration from many sources. At just under 28mm wide and only 5.75mm thick, The Art Deco era influenced Square Slim Classique is a retro-chic exercise in flat-out elegance.
Piaget EmperadorCoussinTourbillon Automatic
Price upon request
Piaget, perhaps more than any other firm, is synonymous with extra flat watches. The company’s ultra thin movements such as the 12P are legendary, and last year it set a new record for the world’s thinnest automatic movement when it introduced the 2.35mm thick caliber 1200P. This year, Piaget showed its mastery of complicated thin watches yet again, introducing what is now the world’s thinnest self-winding tourbillon watch: the EmperadorCoussinTourbillon Automatic. At only 5.35mm thick, the CoussinTourbillon Automatic not only breaks records, but also puts on an unparalleled horological show by placing the flying tourbillon and the microrotor on the dial side of the movement.
Breguet Classique Reference 7337
One of the most famous watchmakers of all time was A.L. Breguet, whose clients included the royal court of King Louis XVI and who invented many of today’s most prized complications. The firm bearing his name still makes some of the most elegant classic watches in the world. This one, the Classique ref. 7337, takes its design from a pocket watch originally designed by the master himself (no. 3833) including the butterfly shaped apertures for the day and date on either side of the moonphase indication found in the pocket watch that inspired it. The dial carries Breguet’s signature engine-turned engraving –often imitated, but never equaled.
Patek Philippe Split-Seconds Single Push Piece Chronograph Ref. 5950A
441,600 Swiss francs
Extra flat watches appeal not only because of their restrained elegance, but also thanks to their insider’s appeal –the more you know about watches and watchmaking, the more you appreciate the tradition and craft that ultra thin watches represent. The straightforward, descriptive name of this Patek Philippe split seconds chronograph, and the clean lines of its stainless steel case give few clues to its significance- this is the thinnest split seconds, or rattrapante, chronograph ever made. Only 5.25mm thick, the movement –calibre CHR 27-525 PS –is not only extra thin but ultra sophisticated as well, incorporating a number of new developments as well as two patents. The movement was first introduced in the round, platinum cased 5959, but true Patek aficionados know that some of the most rare, valuable and collectible Patek Philippe watches are stainless steel, and understand that in the rarefied world of ultra thin watches, it’s the inside story that counts.