Aweek has passed already and SIHH is still but a blur… And if I was to pick the blurriest part of all, it would be the windows of the booths – but only after the countless straight faces that fly past me in that utterly beige interior of the fair. When rushing from one 30 to 60 minute one-to-one appointment to the next, I always had to be head-deep in my phone or some other consumer electronic device that demanded my attention, leaving time only to wave hello to friends and colleagues, but none for window shopping. As such, in this week-long marathon most all windows with pretty watches, I did not get to see at all… And yet, I could not miss this Piaget Altiplano Flying Tourbillon, with its green malachite marquetry dial – it was almost begging for attention, even though it was not in a prominent location of the Piaget booth. Fortunately, I had a chance to go hands-on with it and its blue, lapis lazuli marquetry dial counterpart.
On a personal note, I will say that, for a number of reasons, this green dial Altiplano was a textbook example of falling in love at first sight. Everything about it, to me at least, seemed both charmingly surprising and reassuringly familiar; unique and yet natural. It was all lovely in the truest sense of the word. Utterly typical for such affairs, it was only after a while that I began to see its flaws and I am yet to accept them – clearly, the first impression was just too neat for its own good. Let’s begin with the positives.
Wrapped in a 41mm wide, perfectly round polished ribbon of rose gold, with its narrow, straight lugs and slender profile, the exterior of this green dialed Altiplano works more as a carefully picked frame of an exquisite painting than something that would carry much visual weight or importance in its own right. I’m sure there’s a great article somewhere out there about how picking the wrong frame can destroy the viewing pleasure of the finest of paintings, and I’m also sure what’s been said there applies to this watch case just the same.
The Altiplano really shines in this setting much more so than when paired with some of the dull, more basic dials that Piaget offers further down the Altiplano food-chain. It is only now that I realize how for years I’ve been trying to “get” the Altiplano but it never once came together how this one does – there finally is a perfect balance between dial and case, not just proportions-wise, but also in textures and colors and so on.
The dial is by all means the party piece of this Piaget Altiplano Flying Tourbillon, something that holds true even when seen live in person. The ticking and turning of the tourbillon can’t keep up with the infinite pattern of vibrant shades of green and black. It’s produced by Hervé Obligi, a multi-talented artist – exactly the sort more brands should credit when they take his work and stamp their own names on it, like, to its credit, Piaget did in their official documentation of the watch as well as when presenting it to me at SIHH. When it’s an in-house know-how of a brand that passes it on to its workforce of more than 1, I’m much more willing to accept that said production technique belongs to the brand – but when it’s just 1 person producing this sort of work, as it often is, they do deserve the credit Piaget gave here.
Produced with a miniature marquetry technique over the course of 2 to 3 weeks, the green malachite or blue lapis lazuli dials form a spiral pattern from the way the individual pieces are cut, and then a series of other patterns that come both from the individual pieces of stones and their orientation. The way the parallels and perpendiculars work would be refreshingly impressive even in a printed or guilloché dial, but here, made up by what appears to be impossibly thin and fragile pieces of stones, it’s just on another level.
As Obligi explained: “One of the hardest challenges is to make the color of the stone truly vibrant by creating graphic effects on such a small surface.” The contour of each element is precisely traced on the stone using a pointed brass tool. The plate is cut into extremely thin strips using a tiny bow saw composed of a hazel tree branch and an abrasive-coated steel wire. Once cut out, the elements are adjusted and assembled with neighboring components. The facing thus composed is affixed to a smooth red or white gold surface before heat gluing the joints by filing the empty space between the bevelled edges with pine resin.
This truly is the sort of work that is impossible to expedite and automatize – it takes immense expertise to pick the right stone to begin with, choose the correct bits and pieces of it and then machine, retouch, fine-tune and assemble it into a whole that looks so natural as though these random pieces of stone were always meant to fit this way. Beyond the sheer quality of execution, it is this entirely natural and unforced look that commands appreciation. I am not surprised there’s just one guy who does these for Piaget.
All this masterful play with stone marquetry would not have been possible to present in such a sleek form without Piaget’s ultra-thin calibers. Interestingly, the avenue of stone marquetry opened in 1957 for Piaget thanks to its launch of the 9P movement family that was just 2mm thick. This left a lot more room in the case for thicker dials and hence they could begin experimenting with stone marquetry. By 1963 more than 30 different types of stones found their place in Piaget’s collections.
This Altiplano Flying Tourbillon features the 4.6mm thick Calibre 670P that is now equipped with a new barrel to stretch its power reserve to 48 hours – that isn’t great, but isn’t bad either from a thin movement that has to power a tourbillon. Speaking of which, the carriage of the tourbillon, secured only from the caseback side, is crafted from titanium which, with all its 42 components installed, still weighs only 0.2 grams (that’s 0.007 ounces).
I mentioned above that it was after a while that I could discover this love-at-first-sight’s flaws or, as I should have said, flaw – the sub-par finishing on the tourbillon itself. The top of the cage appears to be sandblasted, while its outer edge, especially the one that ends in the point above the “P” appears hand-bevelled, but the rest is underwhelming. The P even has a slight flaw on its left, while the inner edges of the carriage and the screw-heads appear to be not very refined either. When talking six figures in a relatively low component count watch, and especially when a larger component is displayed prominently, it should be absolutely stellar, in my opinion. Titanium isn’t exactly new and although it is admittedly difficult to work with, I think there’s some room for improvement here. I know we’re splitting hairs, but we aren’t talking about an entry-level watch – not in terms of pricing, nor presentation.
The rest of the movement is neat, although it once again is not much to write home about. Panerai has been getting more creative lately with rendering its big plates more visually interesting with some arbitrary cut-outs here and there. So while I understand such extra-thin movements can’t afford to have massive bridges spanning across the caseback, a few more “negative spaces” with more bevelled edges would help make the caseback view more interesting. To their credit, the inner spokes of the large third wheel under the tourbillon, as well as all other edges and countersinks on the back have hand-bevelled and polished edges, which is as it should be.
The white gold version with its blue lapis lazuli dial packs what appears to be a metric ton of diamonds with larger, baguette-cut stones set into the bezel and brilliant-cut gems set into the side and upper segment of the lugs as well as into two rows around the case-band. On a side note, we have certainly been seeing an uptick in “iced out” watches at this SIHH, but the quality of stones and their setting have varied greatly, to put it mildly. Here it is almost as though the jewelers at Piaget responsible for making this particular watch knew it was to go with a dial of such quality, and they really went out of their way to do something exceptional. Just stunning stuff, the sort that won’t make you love diamond-set watches if you don’t already, but will impress you if you do.
This particular blue model had a set of lapis lazuli pieces that were a bit more exciting to me than the stone usually proves to be. With those few larger, more concentrated yellow areas by the tourbillon and the varying depths of blue everywhere else this particular dial resembled a map to me, with little islands and the currents of the oceans on show. For this reason I really enjoyed this very piece but it also made me realize how when commissioning one of these from Piaget, you’ll probably want to be able to choose from the dials available – the colors and patterns can vary and what may be a miss in the eyes of one can prove to be a hit in the eyes of another.
Now, looking at these images I realize that these watches appear much more feminine in pictures than they did live, especially when there is a focus on the straps and buckles and not on the watch itself from a more frontal view. Nevertheless, at 41mm wide and not ultra-thin, these watches have ample volume and presence to render them sufficiently masculine when worn out in the wild. I wonder how they’d look on a grey or a brown strap. They’d probably appear less “seasonal” and hence that much more masculine.
Utterly inundated with all the vintage nonsense recently, this watch is as refreshing as it is effortlessly timeless. This watch, given its size and aesthetic balance will remain relevant and wearable much longer – technically infinitely – than those unimaginative recreations. I applaud Piaget for creatively pairing one of their movements and cases with the commissioning of an expert craftsman. The result is the sort of synergy that takes more creativity and intelligence than all anniversary and homage and jubilee releases of SIHH 2018 combined.
It is futile though to compare this watch to anything else. You either like it and get it, or you don’t and it’s all good either way. There are only 8 of each being made and I’m sure there are 16 people out there who will buy and, hopefully, wear them. Pricing for the Piaget Altiplano Flying Tourbillon with the malachite marquetry dial and the lapis lazuli marquetry dial with the diamond-set case is well into the six-figure range. piaget.com