July 25, 2015
by Rob Nudds
Parmigiani Fleurier has the look of a classic brand. There is something honest about the typographic logo, the often restrained styling, and the simple use of case shape and material quality to set it apart from other brands at first glance. But this is not an old brand. 2016 will see the 20th anniversary of Parmigiani’s foundation. So how has a brand gone from a standing start to the release of the Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950 Tourbillon watch – which just so happens to be the world’s thinnest automatic flying tourbillon movement – in less than two decades?
I think it has something to do with the high standards Michel Parmigiani, the founder of the brand, has set for his creations since day one. This was not a company that was happy to power its timepieces with off-the-shelf engines. The early years of Parmigiani are remembered for the production of in-house calibres, including the two eight-day mechanical and automatic movements. And if that’s not enough to pique your interest in this softly-spoken brand, the case design is simply superb.
I’m a sucker for a good silhouette. As essential as I believe that to be to any brand’s long-term success, the icing on the cake is a concept that performs across all three dimensions. After all, a watch case does not exist on paper, but on the wrist. Nailing the angles that no amount of shading can really capture is a true art form. Parmigiani Fleurier have succeeded in this task by producing a case shape that looks great in graphite or metal.
The lugs flow from the case – a line broken before the apex of the case width. Those slight protrusions, giving interest without interruption, are the crux of this design. It is infuriatingly simple. Just as Stepan Sarpaneva‘s cases keep me awake at night wishing I’d come up with that design, the cases used for the Tonda range of Parmigiani Fleurier, will torment me to my grave.
So in-house mechanical pedigree and unique, refined styling aside, what have Parmigiani Fleurier produced in the Tonda 1950 Tourbillon that’s worth raving about? Without appreciating the minutiae of its technical achievement, just read how Parmigiani Fleurier makes watches in our James Lamdin’s superb report and you will get a very good idea on the amount of work Parmigiani has put into the Tonda 1950 Tourbillon. It looks as if every component has been thoroughly well designed and realised. With a variety of dial material and finishing options available, each one brilliantly rendered, there is likely to be something that appeals to your aesthetic sensibilities.
There is a feminine mother of pearl design, set in a white gold case, studded with bezel-mounted diamonds and a crown-topping ruby cabochon; you could go for black or white jade in a white gold case, or the rose gold cased version sporting a more masculine navy blue Geneva striped dial; if you prefer a bit of classic subtlety, maybe the white frosted dial encased in rose gold would suit you better. It’s nice to have options!
All of the dials feature the understated text logo located between 12 o’clock and centre. The tourbillon, which is, of course, the main event, is located between six and eight o’clock. Its slightly unusual location interests me. This appears to be for practical reasons. Due to the significant challenge of creating an off-centre micro rotor, the only way in which Parmigiani were able to keep the time display central was to rearrange the position of the setting mechanism, the barrel, eccentric oscillating micro-rotor, and the gear train. It looks really cool, I think, and is something a little bit different. In a world where the tourbillon is becoming an almost staple complication for high-end brands, it is nice to see something outside the box.
What is less unusual though, is Parmigiani’s attempt to break records. In haute horlogerie, the pursuit of titles and “world firsts” fuels R&D departments across the globe. The calibre PF517 that powers the Parmiginai Fleurier Tonda 1950 Tourbillon is 3.4mm thick. The dial-side is finished with a perlage pattern, while the movement side, visible through a display case back, is decorated with what appears to be a satisfyingly deep Geneva wave. The micro rotor itself is to thank for the thinness of the PF517. The rotor is integrated directly with the mainplate, adding the benefit of automatic winding but eliminating the need for another level to the movement.
It is here where our David Bredan adds a note from a recent experience he had with the brand, as when discussing this release, he told me something that stood out for him from a recent chat he had with Michel Parmigiani. When asked about how he would like to see his work is remembered a century or two from now, and how the watches bearing his name should stand out from the rest at that time, his reply to David was “reliability and durability”. That is an interesting answer because, as David recalls, Mr. Parmigiani did not mention record-breaking performance, uniqueness in watch and movement design, or any other from the myriad of factors that define a fine watch.
Not because those are not important, but likely because to Mr. Parmigiani, being a master restorer by trade, the repairability of a luxury mechanical item comes first and before anything else, because this is his idea of creating lasting value. And while manufacturing the thinnest watch caliber – of any kind – is a major trial for those values of his, this conversation at least shows that these watches, unlike some other record-setting ones from the industry, were designed to work, and work well for decades and more.
The presence of a flying tourbillon, as opposed to a standard tourbillon, is due to space constraints. A highly sophisticated ball bearing replaces the mounting function, enabling the tourbillon cage to “float” in front of the movement. The tourbillon cage is crafted from titanium, to keep it as light as possible. Titanium is a particularly difficult (and highly flammable) material to work with at these dimensions – in fact, Parmigiani is among just a handful in the industry who can work with it – but having perfected the process, they have created the world’s lightest tourbillon cage at 0.255g. Such levity is important as it reduces the strain on the power supply as it requires much less torque – something such a thin movement will not have as much of, as its beefier counterparts that house larger mainsprings. Because of this, the watch has a power reserve of 42 hours.
Additionally, the tourbillon features a variable inertia balance as opposed to a more traditional screw balance. This reduces the protrusions on the outer rim of the balance and streamlines the whole effect. It is also an incredibly neat presentation of the balance and one that is no less watchmaker-friendly when it comes to adjustments. The principles of an inertia balance are simple (pretty much identical to a screw balance). Four eccentric “nuts” sit on the balance wheel arms. This can be rotated to chance the poise of the balance.
As one side of each nut is heavier than the other, the balance can be made to spin faster when the weightier sides are turned towards the centre and vice versa. Just picture an ice skater spinning on the spot with their arms spread, and then imagine how much faster the spin becomes when they draw their arms into their body. Simple and beautiful – the way watchmaking should be.
The last thing of note about the tourbillon cage is the seconds hand. This has also been produced in house by Parmigiani and has been designed to perfectly counterbalance the other components of the cage. Its weight, dimension, and setting are all essential to correct and optimal function of the complication.
When cased, the watch measures 40.2mm across and 8.65mm thick. They are available in either 18k rose or white gold. All of the watches come fitted with Hermes leather straps. All models feature alligator straps, except the mother of pearl variant, which comes on a calfskin strap. Additionally, the mother of pearl watch features 74 diamonds with a total weight of 0.8043 carats. All of these watches are water resistant to 30m, feature an anti-reflective sapphire, a 4.3mm crown, and individual engraving on the back. The Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda 1950 Tourbillon will be priced at $130,000 for the black or white jade dials in the white gold case, the white frosted dial in the rose gold case, and for the blue Geneva Wave dial in rose gold case. The ladies’ mother of pearl and diamond version will have a price of $135,000. parmigiani.ch