Watches: How the US$300,000 Bugatti watch earns its price tag

This article first appeared in The Edge Financial Daily, on June 13, 2018.

The Bugatti line-up from Parmigiani has expanded to include further variations on the Type 370, and, more recently, the introduction in 2016 of the Type 390.

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PARMIGIANI Fleurier (PF) has had a long-standing relationship with Bugatti, going all the way back to 2006, when the Type 370 watch — inspired by the Bugatti Veyron — was first introduced. PF was founded in 1996, so the partnership has taken place over a significant period of the company’s overall existence. Since then, the Bugatti line-up from Parmigiani — always featuring a movement with an unusual architecture — has expanded to include further variations on the Type 370, and, more recently, the introduction in 2016 of the Type 390.

The Type 390 watch is inspired by the Bugatti Chiron — the successor to the Veyron, also introduced in 2016, at the Geneva Auto Show. The newest version of the Type 390 was released earlier this year, in connection with the Chiron Sport — basically a stiffer, lighter version of the Chiron, intended to be more track focused (it is 18kg lighter and costs US$400,000 (RM1.6 million) over the base sticker price, which works out to roughly US$22,222 a kg).

Both the Type 370 and the Type 390 are part of a class of watches sometimes known as “driver’s watches,” the idea being that the unusual angle at which the time is displayed facilitates telling the time more easily when your hands are on the steering wheel. The definition is rather general, and the term can be, and has been, applied to watches as different as Vacheron Constantin’s Les Historiques 1921, and the MB&F HMX. Whether or not such configurations actually make it easier to tell the time when you are driving is an oft-argued point but the broadness of the definition means that there are any number of possible designs that fit the bill. The Type 370 and Type 390 both employ very unconventional movement architecture in order to show the time in a very unconventional fashion.

The case of the Type 390 is divided into two elements: An upper, cylindrical element, and a lower, wedge-shaped element. The connection between the two is hinged, which allows this quite large watch (42.2mm x 57.7mm, and 18.4mm thick at its thickest point) to fit comfortably on the wrist. It is a deceptive watch — at first glance, the movement seems to fill up pretty much every cubic millimetre of the case, but in fact, almost the entire movement is actually contained in the upper, cylindrical element. From right to left, there is the crown, then two mainspring barrels (the power reserve is 80 hours) then the going train itself, and finally, the flying tourbillon.

The lower wedge shaped element houses just the motion works — that is the part of the gear train that moves the hands. Everything else is tucked neatly away above. Normally, the layout of a watch movement is all in one plane, with the teeth of one gear meshing with the pinion leaves of the next — that architecture’s impossible with this stacked configuration (at least in the amount of available space) so a system of planetary gears is used instead, which is something of a first in watchmaking, at least as far as I am aware. There is a planetary gear system in the going train of Cartier’s ID2 concept watch, but I do not recall seeing any watch where the entire going train is based on a planetary gear system.

The movement is inserted horizontally into the case, and once it is removed, you can see how the whole thing works. The basic engineering problem is that the gears for the going train rotate in one plane, and the hands rotate in a plane offset 90° from the going train. In order to transmit energy to the motion works, a worm gear is used. The worm gear is on the steel shaft just below the cylindrical going train, and the gear on the left-hand side of the shaft is driven by the going train. As it turns, the worm gear rotates, engaging the large wheel at the centre of an even larger gear, which drives the motion works proper.

The crown of the Type 390 works in an interesting way as well. You do not pull it out for winding and setting — instead, you rotate it slightly to unlock it, and it pops out on its own, telescoping into position.

According to PF, one of the most common requests for watches at this level is for some degree of customisation, which is understandable — though one’s mind boggles a bit at the notion of moving in the rarefied environment where someone else showing up at some soiree with another Type 390 is a worrisome possibility. Still, that sort of request is certainly a reality, and the Type 390 For The Bugatti Chiron Sport was designed from the ground up to support a wide range of customisation options. The case has over 80 components, almost all of which can be customised, and as with the customisation options for the Bugatti Chiron Sport itself, once a particular custom configuration has been used, it is retired.

The Type 390 is not an especially complicated watch, but complexity is an odd thing in watchmaking. It can be, and should be, admired for its own sake. At its best, complexity transcends itself to become a kind of philosophical statement about the kind of universe we wished we lived in but it can become, like any kind of technical excellence, a sterile pursuit. The Type 390 reminds me a little bit of Cartier at its best.

The Type 390 has been designed so that pretty much any of the available customisation options will yield roughly the same price, which hovers right around US$300,000 — less than the cost over base of upgrading from a Chiron to a Chiron Sport, so seen from a certain highly specific demographic, it is kind of a no-brainer. — Bloomberg

Originally published on Hodinkee.