When my journey into horology began a few years ago, I used to devour all sorts of articles regarding the most iconic watches. For example: the first mechanical movement, which brand made the first dive watch, and so on and so forth. Lately, it seems that certain Swiss brands have been competing with each other to make the thinnest watches in the world. The current record is held by Richard Mille and the RM UP-01 which clocks in at 1.75mm in thickness. To put it in perspective, it’s about 15 times thicker than a hair strand. That blows my mind.
In this article, therefore, I wanted to discuss the most iconic and thinnest watches in the world and first, how does one make such a thin watch. This article does not qualify as a scientific or engineering study of these watches—because explaining what makes them thin goes beyond my comprehension—however, I will try to go over simpler concepts that the brands in question have figured out in order to make thin watches. So let’s get into it!
How Do You Make an Ultra Thin Watch?
Two years ago, I bought my wife a tiny Seiko dress watch that comes with a very small dial and I imagine an even smaller quartz movement inside. Reading the time is actually difficult even for a woman in her early 40s. But seeing how small the watch is made me wonder how tiny the parts inside must be. It also made me think of how computers went from taking up a whole room to taking over an entire desk to now fitting in the palm of our hands. Miniaturization. And making miniature components and mechanical parts require special machinery and skills.
Think of it for a moment: ever since the first wristwatches were made, and I would argue even the first pocket watches, people have found ways to make small parts. Because before that pocket watches existed, clocks used to be built inside towers—hence the name “clock tower.” These towers were tall because the mechanics of the clock required so much space. So now we have wrist watches that measure 1.75mm in thickness. That’s a huge step from a 30 feet tall clock tower.
Anyway, how does this relate to the thinnest watches in the world? Well, designers, engineers, and watchmakers found ways to make thin watches by changing the ways in which they make the movements and also by redefining what a watch should look like. For instance, the dial disappears to make space for the movement, and sometimes the crystal disappears and the entire unit of the watch is basically just a movement attached to a strap. One can find, for example, a Piaget 4.30mm thick that has a dial and crystal. But it is the way in which the elements that normally define a watch are redesigned that explains how thin watches can even exist.
In another example, watchmakers work as hard as they can to make the thinnest movements possible, often reengineering every component that makes up the movement in order to make them a couple of millimeters thin or even thinner. This makes me think of how Jaeger-LeCoultre created miniature rectangular movements to fit in the Reverso. However, what goes into making thin movements is beyond my comprehension, however I will leave you with the image of a very thin JLC movement below. Making thin movements was, for the longest time, the best and easiest way to make thin watches.
Best Examples of the Thinnest Watches in the World
Let’s now take a look at some of the thinnest watches in the world, starting with the currently thinnest one: the Richard Mille RM UP-01. As mentioned above, its total thickness is 1.75mm. I find it comical to hear so many watch enthusiasts complain that full-fledge chronographs measuring 15mm thick are enormous while Richard Mille can make a watch 1.75mm thin. This was made possible by reengineering mechanical movements and using the baseplate of a movement as the main structure of the watch. (Meaning there is no case and case-back.) The movement itself is 1.18mm thick, the rest is just details. The time is indicated by a small register at the 12 o’clock and the watch can only be wound using a special tool. It also retails for $1.5M.
Before Richard Mille released the RM UP-01 in July of 2022, two Swiss brands were at war for making the thinnest watches: Bulgari and Piaget. For a few months in 2022, the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Ultra 103611 was the thinnest watch in the world measuring 1.8mm in thickness. To achieve this prowess, Bulgari opted for titanium to make the movement, case, and bracelet given that it is a material that is light and ultra-resistant. The Octo Finissimo looks more like a traditional watch than the Richard Mille, however it still remains unattainable for most of us as it retails for $440K.
The third example I would like to share with you is the Piaget Altiplano 38mm 900P. This watch measures 3.65mm in thickness and constitutes a great example of how watchmakers can rearrange the dial layout to make a watch thinner. Indeed, they placed the dial at the top-left corner of the watch to make space for the movement which encircles the dial. This means that the movement and dial are on the same plane which explains why the watch can be 3.65mm thin. This is a strategy that Piaget and other brands have used to make watches thinner. By the way, it “only” costs $20K!
Lastly, I wanted to share my favorite of the top 10 thinnest watches in the world: the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra-Thin Jubilee. Measuring 4.05mm thick, the Master Ultra-Thin is a traditional dress watch with incredible technology and engineering behind it. It is one of the thinnest watches in the world that showcases a traditional layout as in having a dial, a case, and a case-back. JLC actually made the caliber that lives within that watch in the early 1990s—the caliber 849 that measures 1.85mm in thickness—and then found a way to house it into a thin case. This watch retails for $16K.
It goes without saying that these watches are way, way above my budget, however this doesn’t prevent me from marveling at how thin they are and what makes them so. As usual, I don’t get technical and only share general thoughts that support the article. I didn’t want to bore you trying to explain something that I don’t really understand myself. While a lot goes into making these watches ultra thin, they are perhaps not the most useful for day-to-day wear, and seem to be mostly collection pieces. Regardless, I’m left speechless.
How do you feel about them? Please share your comments below.Featured image: www.lepetitpoussoir.fr