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Ultra-thin dress watches: Why you should invest

Complications don't have to be complicated. When it comes to dress watches, the thinner the better

Ultra-thin dress watches: Why you should invest

If you were asked to name a complication, what would you say? If you still use your iPhone to tell the time, you might mention a dinner party where your ex turned up, or maybe post-surgical septicaemia. Those in the know, however, would tell you that a complication is a “tourbillon”, “chronograph” or “perpetual calendar” – all highly complicated functions found in wristwatches, added on top of the hours, minutes and seconds to showcase a watchmaker’s mastery of micro-mechanics. Horology is probably the only field of engineering where complicating something, rather than simplifying, is permissible – encouraged, even.

But there is one almost-paradoxical exception to this rule: the ultra-thin mechanical watch. Despite appearing to be a simpler affair than ever, it is considered a complication, up there with Switzerland’s finest rattrapantes, equation of times and minute repeaters. Why? Because of the vast technical challenge it poses, from its super-fiddly hand assembly to engineering a wafer-thin gear train that still whirrs away rock-steadily, despite its lack of mass. Like the sort of suave tuxedo an ultra-thin watch should be paired with, looking so effortlessly chic actually involves considerable effort.

Ultra-thin watchmaking as we know it began in 1957, when Valentin Piaget presented his ultra-thin 9P manual-winding movement to the Basel watch fair. Just 2mm thick, the 9P was hailed for the elegance of its profile, as well as for its performance and reliability. Above all, it enabled a broader 20.5mm dial opening, heralding a new, clean, expansive aesthetic – hence the name Piaget gave the 9P’s first home: “Altiplano”, after the Atacama Desert’s pancake-flat Bolivian Plateau.

Ultra-thin dress watches: Why you should invest

Today, Piaget is still the master of “extra-plat”. Its three-year-old Altiplano 900P holds the record as the thinnest mechanical watch ever, at 3.65mm including the case. How they managed this was by mounting the mechanics directly onto the caseback rather than an inner baseplate, and sinking the hands into the movement, so they tick flush with the bridges. Extraordinary stuff, and beautiful to behold.

This year is Altiplano’s 60th anniversary, which means Piaget’s new brand ambassador, Ryan Reynolds, is sporting retro reissues in midnight blue. Ticking inside his manually wound 38mm watch is a modern-day heir to the original 9P, the manual-winding calibre 430P – at just 2.1mm thick, its combination of winding barrel, gear train and ticking balance no more voluminous than a two-franc coin.

More and more of the millennial generation are shunning their G-Shocks or Swatches and seeking out something hand-crafted and long-lasting from brands like Piaget. Which means, given the timeless élan of a “simple” thin watch, this complication is enjoying a moment.

Ultra-thin dress watches: Why you should invest

But while Piaget holds the record for thinness, who else has mastered the art? Not surprisingly, Breguet has a whole collection devoted to slim elegance, called Classique. The sheer dial of the Altiplano may evoke desert plains, but every expansive Classique dial is more like a flattened Fabergé egg, adorned with Breguet’s calling card: hand-applied “guilloche” engraving.

Using antique rose-engine lathes (antique because no one makes them anymore), every hair-thin angular groove is painstakingly interwoven with the last, their uniform depth entirely down to an instinctive “feel” that takes every guilloche artisan years to hone. The net result is a fine surface texture that adds a sense of heft to every dainty Classique – in a substantial sense, rather than cumbersome.

Somewhere between the 19th-century classicism of Breguet and the contemporary line of Piaget’s 1950s icon you’ll find Chopard and the Art Nouveau modernism of its crack L.U.C facility. Unlike the storied jewellery side of Chopard, L.U.C has only been going for 20 years – the brainchild of co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele, who wanted to revive the long-lost horological spirit of the collection’s namesake and founding father, Louis-Ulysse Chopard. From hand-finish to complications, L.U.C has distinguished itself, right from the outset, by introducing useful innovation.

Ultra-thin dress watches: Why you should invest

The thing, therefore, that sets L.U.C’s slender XPS apart is its precision and power reserve. Not only does “chronometer” certification come as standard, losing fewer than four seconds or gaining fewer than six seconds a day, but the 3.3mm-thick movement manages to pack a punch by squeezing in two stacked winding barrels. Where the Altiplano will tick for 43 hours on a full wind, the Classique for just 38, the L.U.C XPS is autonomous for all of 65 hours, maybe even more.

That’s a long time to be all dressed up – but unlike a stiff dinner suit, an ultra-thin watch is barely perceptible on the wrist. You’ll never want to take it off.

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