The first thick layer of glistening white snow slows down every department of life in Le Sentier, Switzerland. The heavily regulated Swiss traffic is all the more cautious, nature enjoys its much-deserved hibernation for a good couple of months, and the views from the windows of Bulgari’s watch manufacture are as relaxed as they will ever get. It is here, within the Bulgari Grande Sonnerie atelier, a part of the Bulgari Manufacture de Haute Horlogerie in Le Sentier, that a select few are dedicated to an exceedingly challenging “one man, one watch” principle, starting on a single watch before the first snow of the season but finishing not before the days get longer and birds begin to call spring’s arrival. Although that single watch certainly is no ordinary watch: Rather, it is the quadruple-hammer Grande Sonnerie Magsonic with Westminster chimes — a 1,200-part chiming watch built entirely by the same one watchmaker.
Meet Pascal Legendre, the head of Bulgari’s four-man-strong Grande Sonnerie atelier and the extraordinarily gifted watchmaker who has in his hand and head everything it takes to piece together a three-dimensional, mechanical puzzle comprising well over a thousand parts. His workshop is airy and bright but is perhaps shockingly straightforward and simple in every other way — all the complexity one could ever need is condensed into thirty-something millimeter-wide cylinders that lie on the four watchmakers’ benches, shielded from the world with transparent lids.
Bulgari’s latest book, Beyond Time (published by Assouline), allows for an in-depth look into Legendre’s atelier, along with words from the master watchmaker himself. Legendre is one of Bulgari’s two watchmakers capable of constructing a functioning grande sonnerie — and one of about a dozen believed to presently work in the Swiss watch industry altogether. A grande sonnerie is a watch that is capable of audibly telling the current time using hammers and gongs like a minute repeater, but there is even more to it: It chimes the hours and half-hours en passant, automatically, right as they pass. For a fully mechanical movement to do this, and do so on not the traditional two or the more exotic three, but four gongs, is a truly outstanding feat in mechanical programming — also known as watchmaking.
“But ask Legendre to explain his talent, his genius, or at least the secret to assembling more than a thousand components into a single chiming wristwatch, and the expert-induced amnesia kicks in. “I don’t know,” he says with a Gallic shrug. “But I don’t think I have a particular talent.” This could sound like false modesty, but in the moment, it doesn’t. “Really, I don’t believe in this sort of talent,” he continues. “It’s about hard work, passion, and, to an extent, the good fortune to work with exceptional people and to learn from them,” says Beyond Time about Legendre’s “secret way” to his hardly matched know-how.
Legendre had already been with Gérald Genta for five years when the brand — now operated by Bulgari in an expanded and modernized version of Genta’s original manufacture in Le Sentier — introduced its Grande Sonnerie in 1995 with a minute repeater, a Westminster four-hammer chime, perpetual calendar, dual power-reserve display (one for the main time indication and another for the sonnerie) and thus was soon recognized as the most complicated wristwatch in the world at the time. “When I joined, there were really big watchmakers there. I was 20 and they were 60, and I looked at them with great admiration” recalls Legendre, who can continue their legacy today at the Bulgari Grande Sonnerie atelier with the support of Bulgari’s fully integrated, state-of-the-art watch manufacture.
It was in the year 2000 that Gérald Genta and Daniel Roth (with whom Legendre had also worked very closely) came under the control of a promising new player in the world of high-end watchmaking: Bulgari. Until the new millennium, the Italian jewelry company had been known for its sporty-elegant, instantly recognizable collections such as the Aluminium of 1998 and the Bulgari Bulgari of 1977. Aiming high, Bulgari quick set itself on a path to becoming a fully integrated manufacture that need not rely on external suppliers in pursuit of creative freedom or stellar quality of execution. By the late 2000s, Bulgari had integrated the many disciplines required to make a high-end watch and was ready to experiment with its own tastes and desires.
In 2011, Legendre became head of Bulgari’s Grande Sonnerie department and the Bulgari Daniel Roth Grande Sonnerie Quantième Perpétuel could make its debut as one of only a handful of watches priced over $ 1 million at the time, playing a notable role in placing Bulgari firmly in the dimension of ultra-high-end watchmaking and in kickstarting the hyperwatch-craze — both phenomena have grown nothing but more powerful since.
“In the time that I’ve been working for Bulgari, one of the most important moments was when I delivered the first Grande Sonnerie. It took two years to finish it. To finally deliver it after such an intense period was amazing” — tells Legendre who is still clearly surprised that he was given so much time with that undertaking. “It was magical that I had two years to concentrate on it. To be able to take our time to get these things right, really right, is such an advantage. It’s one of my ambitions — to preserve this advantage in our work.” Since then, Bulgari has introduced 8 eight world records in ultra-thin movement manufacturing, including caliber BVL362 that powers the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater, the world’s thinnest at 6.85mm thick cased up. Talk about preserving an advantage!
Having one’s own watchmaker’s bench inside the Bulgari Grande Sonnerie atelier is a special achievement that comes with its unique set of trying challenges. “Assembling these watches is intense” — says Legendre. “Sometimes we have a problem one hour before the end of the day that we cannot solve, and then we cannot sleep. It consumes your mind. If you don’t have the patience and passion for it, it’s not for you.” It is interesting to know that although a state-of-the-art manufacture like that of Bulgari supplies components produced within a few microns’ tolerance, a 1,200-part movement is so complicated and so sensitive to the tiniest changes that accumulate over an assembly process that Legendre and his team have to make hundreds or even thousands of tiny adjustments as they assemble, disassemble, and re-assemble subassemblies of components that, months later, will all come together and chime for the first time as the hour strikes — quite literally, with a sonnerie.
The atelier runs on a “one watch, one watchmaker” principle, which is extremely rare even in the exotic world of haute horlogerie. Most luxury watches produced today are made in sub-assemblies put together by various craftspeople at various locations inside the manufacture, and it is these already functioning sub-assemblies of tens of components that are then pieced together into a complete movement. By contrast, having a “one watch, one watchmaker” approach is considerably less efficient, and more time-consuming, but it’s also more personal. “Every watchmaker in the Bulgari Grande Sonnerie atelier works from A to Z on his piece, but each of us excels in one area or another” — says Legendre. “And we share this know-how between us. We have to remain humble. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but watchmaking complications are complex and pieces like the Grande Sonnerie never work the first time. To begin with, each watch is like a prototype.”
Noting that difference between regular watch production and what happens in the atelier, perhaps it is easier to understand Legendre when he says: “Really, we make these watches for the sake of it and not because they’re necessary. What we do isn’t really watchmaking. It’s not even watches. It’s madness. But it’s also magic.” You can learn more at the brand’s website.
Sponsored Posts are a form of advertising that allows sponsors to share useful news, messages, and offers to aBlogtoWatch readers in a way traditional display advertising is often not best suited to. All Sponsored Posts are subject to editorial guidelines with the intent that they offer readers useful news, promotions, or stories. The viewpoints and opinions expressed in Sponsored Posts are those of the advertiser and not necessarily those of aBlogtoWatch or its writers.