60 Years Of Piaget Altiplano: Sophisticated Style Versus Fugitive Fashion
Piaget’s Altiplano collection is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful contributions to horological design of the last century.
Timeless refinement and unique understatement distinguish both the inside and the outside of this ultra-slim style icon.
Miniaturization: a holy grail of horology
The history of watchmaking in essence tells the story of miniaturization.
Technical geniuses have striven to downsize the monumental mechanisms of the gigantic tower clocks of medieval times, those mighty rulers over timekeeping, resulting first in imposing long case clocks followed by smaller mantel pieces, carriage clocks, table clocks, pocket watches, and ultimately wristwatches.
Although timepieces had been the privilege of the noble and rich for a very long time, the progression of miniaturization (and modern production methods) made timekeeping mobile and available to ever more people.
The holy grail of this ongoing quest for smaller sizes was famously attained when a convenient method of timekeeping was finally put on the wrist, largely symbolized in the modern era by Louis Cartier having attached a slim watch case to a strap in 1904. This was a genius idea born of need: his Brazilian friend Alberto Santos-Dumont, a pioneer of the early days of aviation, had complained about the inconvenience of pulling a pocket watch out during his adventurous flights when his undivided attention was crucial for survival. However, women had already been fashionably wearing watches for decades before that (see The First Wristwatches From Breguet, Hermès, And Patek Philippe Were Made . . . For Women).
Indeed, it has been the truly great achievements of dedicated craftspeople who managed to implement autonomous microcosms of gears, wheels, and dozens of other tiny parts, all working perfectly in harmony with each other, in ever smaller case sizes. The task has been an endless source for creativity, with many beautiful examples emerging in the last century: Patek Philippe’s Calatrava, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master line, and Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony to name just a few.
The race toward smaller and thinner inspired competition.
Since the renaissance of mechanical timekeeping in the 1980s, new records have been set for the slimmest designs in terms of automatic movements and all kinds of grand complications and complex timepieces each and every year.
Where every millimeter counts
Benefiting from an almost 150-year-old tradition of movement manufacturing, Piaget has excelled more than once in this ambitious field. In fact, after 70 years of supplying calibers to prestigious Swiss watch brands, many of which were considered ultra-thin, the company only started producing wristwatches for the first time in the 1940s. Today, Piaget counts 25 slim movements ranking among the more than 40 calibers that the Swiss manufacture produces.
Following in the footsteps of his ancestors and pushing the boundaries of technical possibility, product manager Valentin Piaget, grandson of company founder Georges-Edouard Piaget, introduced a record-setting masterpiece at the Basel Fair 1957: the incredibly thin hand-wound Caliber 9P with a height of just 2 mm. Comprising 96 components, it was beautifully hand-finished with Geneva stripes, polished bevels, a circular-grained base plate, and blued screws. The design allowed for a sleek, elegant case, while a remarkably wide dial opening earned the founder’s grandson instant fame.
In order to understand the craze for fractions of the smallest metric units, we need to travel back in time. Being the number-one technical accessory for men, the wristwatch was of higher importance in the 1950s and ҆60s than it is today. There were no mobile phones, tablets, or other technical gadgets – so an ultra-slim timepiece exuding a unique elegance represented the dernier cri.
Just like the evolution of ever slimmer mobile phones and laptops have been both the ant’s pants and the bee’s knees over the past two decades of human existence, this comparison is not without precedence!
The next chapter of extreme thinness
It was only three years later, in 1960, that Piaget scored another major coup, this time with an automatic movement. The engineers’ challenge was to integrate a small, but still-efficient, rotor with sufficient inertia to fully wind the mainspring without increasing height.
Valentin Piaget’s Caliber 12P measured just 2.3 mm in height thanks to a slim, 24-karat gold, off-centered micro rotor ingeniously incorporated into the base plate. Gear train parts were barely thicker than a human hair.
To give you an idea of the delicate yet strong appearance of this movement, its entirety had about the same height as a one-euro coin or an American silver dollar.
The slenderness of these movements paved the way for a very distinctive, extremely reduced case and dial design based on the principle of the golden ratio. Nothing but long indexes for the hours, a double index at 12 o’clock, and two fine baton hands were present on the extremely minimalist dials. Embodying the ideal of timeless chic rather than short-lived fashion, the Altiplano watches would soon be sought after by the international jet set with many famous fans including French actor Alain Delon.
As is the case with most legendary timepieces born in the 1950s and ҆60s, Piaget’s Altiplano model evolved over the ensuing decades, whatever fashion styles were en vogue – be it hippie chic, glam rock, or even punk and grunge – without losing its ultra-minimalist “DNA.”
To mark the 50th anniversary of its legendary Caliber 12P in 2010 (see Piaget 12P: The Birth Of An Ultra-Thin Legacy), Piaget took on a new challenge by setting a double record for both the caliber and the case: the thinnest automatic movement and the thinnest automatic watch in the world, measuring just 2.35 mm and 5.25 mm respectively. That new Altiplano watch had a generous diameter of 43 mm, which highlighted the elegance and finesse of its silhouette even more.
Artisan craftsmanship meets high horological and jewelry expertise
So it was pretty clear that at SIHH 2017 Piaget would celebrate the 60th anniversary of its elegant flagship again with much fanfare.
Indeed, the Swiss manufacture had something very special up its sleeve: the first tourbillon to crown the Altiplano line – and not just any tourbillon, but an extremely thin flying tourbillon with a three-armed bridge on the bottom and a titanium carriage indicating the seconds. Manually wound Caliber 670P, measuring just 4.6 mm in height, is equipped with a new spring barrel that increases the movement’s power reserve to 48 hours.
Its ideal size was calculated so that it perfectly fits into the ultra-thin Altiplano case.
The mechanical virtuosity and aesthetic quality of the entire movement is revealed through the watch’s sapphire crystal case back. Its superb finishing includes circular Geneva waves, a circular-grained main plate, and bridges as well as blackened – yes, blackened with PVD coating – screws.
Piaget would not be Piaget if the material choice of this one-minute tourbillon didn’t satisfy the exclusive taste of its clientele. The case crafted in white gold and set with 48 baguette-cut and 265 brilliant-cut diamonds frames a likewise noble high-fire enamel flinqué dial with an off-centered, beautifully executed guilloche pattern which radiates from the subdial indicating the hours and minutes on the left side of the dial.
As it befits this sought-after horological element, the tourbillon clearly stands out against the majestic blue enamel background, serving to highlight the mechanism while retaining the refined character of the Altiplano line.
Quick Facts Piaget Altiplano Tourbillon High Jewellery
Case: 41 x 7.4 mm, white gold, set with 48 baguette-cut and 265 brilliant-cut diamonds (approx. 2.5 ct)
Movement: manually wound Caliber 670P, 21,600 vph/3 Hz frequency, 48-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes, seconds
Limitation: 38 pieces, available only in Piaget boutiques
Capturing the quintessence of Piaget’s Altiplano
Of the many intriguing new Piaget releases for both men and women, there are two that might appeal best to lovers of vintage watch styling in general and lovers of vintage Altiplano in particular.
Reflecting the distinct elegance of the two original Altiplano timepieces, these two new models, one sporting a unisex diameter of 38 mm and the other a larger diameter of 43 mm, are worthy successors to the history of this line. Both shine with vibrant sunburst-finished dials in “historical Piaget blue,” an intense hue somewhere between cobalt and midnight blue as the maison describes it.
Adorned with the historical Piaget logo, these time-only models feature the characteristic hour markers and baton-style hands crafted in white gold. The smaller version is powered by manual-winding Caliber 430P, a mere 2.1 mm high and a descendant of the original Caliber 9P. It ticks behind an engraved case back with Piaget’s logo, the house’s coat-of-arms, and the number of limitation.
In that respect, the larger automatic version has more to offer for the “voyeuristic connoisseur” who loves to admire inner mechanical beauty since it showcases the Geneva waves, beveled bridges, circular-grained main plate, and sunburst-finish wheels that distinguish automatic Caliber 1200P through the case’s pane of sapphire crystal. Like its historical predecessor, Caliber 12P, it is wound by the movement’s characteristic off-centered solid gold micro rotor.
Quick Facts Altiplano 60th Anniversary
Case: 43 x 5.64 mm, white gold
Movement: automatic Caliber 1200P, 2.35 mm in height, 21,600 vph/3 Hz frequency, 44-hour power reserve, 180 components
Functions: hours, minutes
Limitation: 360 pieces
Quick Facts Altiplano 60th Anniversary
Case: 38 mm, white gold
Movement: manually wound Caliber 430P, 2.1 mm in height, 21,600 vph/3 Hz frequency, 43-hour power reserve, 131 components
Functions: hours, minutes
Limitation: 460 pieces
Limited edition hard stone dials in Piaget’s best vintage tradition
In addition to the above-mentioned limited editions, Piaget also introduced a pair of Altiplano models with hard stone dials reminiscent of the variety of stones that the brand has used throughout its existence in order to celebrate its ultra-thin icon. These stones have included coral, lapis lazuli, jade, malachite, opal, onyx, turquoise, and tiger’s eye.
The two new Hard Stone Altiplano models, also powered by manually wound Piaget Caliber 430P, are 34 mm in diameter and set with diamonds on the bezel. They come with either a white opal or a natural turquoise dial. For more on the use of opals in watches, see Shrouded In Mystery And Fire: Opals In Jaquet Droz And Piaget Timepieces.
For more information, please visit www.en.piaget.com/watches/altiplano.
Quick Facts Piaget Altiplano 34 mm Hard Stone Dial Opal
Case: 34 mm, pink gold set with 72 brilliant-cut diamonds (approx. 0.52 ct)
Dial: natural white opal from Australia
Movement: manually wound Piaget Caliber 430P, 2.1 mm in height, 43-hour power reserve
Functions: hours, minutes
Limitation: 38 pieces, boutique edition
Also published on Medium.