Grey Scale

I don’t know what a true-to-form, ultra-high-end Frank Gehry watch might look like, but it can’t be comfortable. Swooping titanium biting into your trapezium? I’d rather fly the 14 hours to Bilbao and encounter the man’s genius full-scale.

Still, the prospect of a Pritzker-winning architect-designed watch is compelling, especially—and this is to take nothing away from the joys of the Renzo Piano Swatch—when executed at a high level of craftsmanship. 

Great architects have collaborated with watchmakers, but too often you get the sense that their only presence in the design studio was an email. Take the Richard Meier for Project Watches: an under-designed piece that relies on a famous signature for wallop, kind of a horological equivalent to the 1979 Lincoln Continental Mark V by Givenchy. 

The Octo Finissimo Tadao Ando Edition by Bulgari. Exclusively designed for the Japanese market. Photo courtesy of Bulgari.

Or, ponder the admittedly gorgeous Hublot Aero Bang 44mm Oscar Niemeyer from 2011, presented to the 104-year-old architect in testament to his career. The face is chunky, nearly sparking with the citrus yellow and green of the Brazilian flag, the country for which Niemeyer designed a series of iconic federal buildings—including the Brazilian National Congress rendered on the case back. Niemeyer’s contributions to the design of the 2011 Aero Bang 44mm ended around 1960, when the building was inaugurated. 

Luckily, every so often petty demands—Pritzker-level flair that goes with a suit! Cross-industry collabs! Obelisk-scale spectacle for the wrist!—are not only heard, but answered. 

Yes, picked up by the ether above North America and deposited as far away as Japan, where they tickle the ears of none other than Tadao Ando, architect, legend, and casanova of concrete. In response, Ando—crassly, Pritzker class ‘95—has worked with Bulgari to create something special: a new expression of the Octo Finissimo series, with dials designed by the architect. Finally! A certified Ando design that weighs less than a million pounds. 

Architect Tadao Ando. Photograph by Kazumi Kurigami courtesy of Bulgari.
The transparent sapphire caseback features architect Tadao Ando’s signature. Photo courtesy of Bulgari.

To appreciate the mini-monumentality of the Bulgari/Ando collaboration, it’s important to know something of the architect’s work. Born in Osaka during World War II, Ando initially trained as a boxer. During a trip to Tokyo, he was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel and two years later took up architecture, which he learned through a combination of self-study, correspondence courses, and travels to see the work of greats like Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. 

His studio, founded in his hometown in 1968, is known for using concrete as if it were mahogany, or gold. Ando’s buildings are almost exclusively made of a proprietary blend, as creamy and luscious as Earl Gray soft-serve. Besides this trademark dot pattern—made by the meticulous wooden formwork into which concrete is poured—Ando is known for a slavish devotion to natural light, use of existing landscapes, and framing perfect views. It’s almost a challenge: What if you treated the rougher materials of your life with enough care to render them beautiful? 

While made of a more traditional titanium, the Octo Finissimo Automatique echoes Ando’s structures in its color, simplicity, and graphic solidity. For the face, the architect designed a spiral that begins at the seconds hand, spooling lazily outward like ripples in one of Ando’s reflecting pools (after a drunk museum patroness tosses in one of her Manolos). The lacquer-painted design, per Ando, “…unravels from minutes to seconds, until it cannot be seen.” With this watch, you can frivolously check the time or confront the world’s march towards oblivion. Your choice!

The 4×4 House by Tadao Ando located in Kobe, Japan. Photo Creative Commons.

(Less dramatically, the octagonal, crisply built case stands in for Ando’s buildings, while the concentric circles represent their integration with elements of nature, like water and wind.)

Now, for the thrill of specification and the minor tragedy of availability. The Automatique is 40mm wide and just 5.15mm thick—waifish. Bulgari’s BVL 138 and its platinum mini-motor keep things humming, with up to 60 hours of power reserve. The clear sapphire case back allows a tidy view of the watch’s inner workings, with Ando’s signature obscuring only minor aspects of the mechanism. The whole piece, including titanium bracelet, is waterproof to 30 meters should you valiantly dive into the aforementioned reflecting pool to save that woman’s shoe. 

The Church of Light, located in the town of Ibaraki, Japan. Photo Creative Commons.

On sale since December, the Tadao Ando x BVLGARI Octo Finissimo is available only in Japan, for around $18,000, depending on conversion rates. Only 200 will be made. 

Rarity and distance will be obstacles for many pursuing this piece of Tado Ando design. Still, 200 watches means 199 more chances to buy than any other Ando masterpiece. 

(The folks at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth remain closed to even generous offers.)

The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Texas designed by Ando in 2002. Photo courtesy of The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.

Roman Holiday

On a sunny Wednesday morning late last year, Fabrizio Buonamassa found himself behind the wheel of a sleek twin-turbocharged sedan, juking through traffic in downtown Palm Springs, making a beeline for the deadliest road in America.

Buonamassa, the 46-year-old head of watch design at Bulgari, had never been to California. The night before, he’d paced slowly across the rooftop at Chateau Marmont, taking in the Los Angeles skyline, seeming pensive. But when he arrived in Palm Springs, an unsuspecting publicist tossed him the keys to a new Maserati Ghibli. Buonamassa promptly set the navigation to Route 74, that infamous widowmaker of a mountain road running into Coachella Valley, and laid down two fat strips of rubber exiting the hotel parking lot.

“Police?” he said, slowing the Ghibli from felony to misdemeanor speeds, eyeballing a suspect black-and-white sedan in the opposing lane. When it passed, he shrugged, downshifted, and ripped into the throttle again. “Hah!”

Bulgari Octo Maserati GranLusso.

Ostensibly, Buonamassa was in town for the Los Angeles auto show, celebrating the release of the new Octo GranSport and Octo GranLusso, the latest Bulgari x Maserati watches. The collection brings together two titans of Italian design—the former company being Rome’s premier jewelry house, the latter Modena’s oldest luxury automaker. For Bulgari, which is now owned by Paris-based luxe conglomerate LVMH, it’s an assertion of the brand’s domestic sensibilities. For Maserati, which has seen sales increase tenfold over the past decade, it’s an opportunity to bake in an additional layer of exclusivity. (While the GranSport and GranLusso aren’t limited-run pieces, they will be available only to Maserati customers.)

Still, joint ventures between watch companies and automakers can feel contrived. Buonamassa brings a unique credibility to this one. He grew up in Naples and studied in Rome, worshipping at the altars of Bertone and Zagato and Pininfarina, the famed carrozzeria that coach-built bodies for Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. Before joining Bulgari in 2001, he actually served as an auto designer at Fiat Group, Maserati’s corporate parent. It was the realization of a childhood dream.

“If I have to make a choice, my heart is closer to the Italian vintage cars than the Swiss watchmaking heritage,” Buonamassa admits. “My father, he was working for Hertz, you know, the rental car companies. He would travel and bring me home books of cars from around the world. I was sketching them from the age of four or five, and this is what I enjoyed drawing first—the cars. But I have always loved designing product. This idea of making emotion from an object. I just love it.”

Bulgari Octo Maserati GranSport.

These two new watches are a testament to that fascination. Buonamassa’s design cleverly recalls a vintage sports-car tachometer; the standalone, retrograde hand sweeps a linear path to indicate minutes, which are displayed in single digits and underscored by a “MINx10” multiplier. The GranSport even has hash marks near the top “6” marker, aping a redline. Hours are shown through a crystal aperture at the three o’clock position, clicking off like an odometer.

The GranSport is DLC-treated steel, black to match the textured dial. It’s slung on a black perforated leather strap with electric-blue contrast stitching, mirroring a Maserati bucket seat. The GranLusso brings a more formal vibe, with an 18-karat pink gold case and gray sunburst pattern dial, hanging on a padded chestnut band. Both pieces measure 41.5 mm, house the same 33-jewel automatic movement, are assembled in-house, and offer a 42-hour power reserve. More important, both pieces look and feel as unimpeachably Italian as the man who designed them.

Back in Palm Springs, having crossed Route 74 off his bucket list, the lanky Buonamassa strode across the courtyard at The Parker hotel, hands in his pockets. Wearing an impeccably tailored blue jacket, Jacob Cohen denim, and purple Persol sunglasses, he stopped to admire a large bronze statue of a half-peeled banana, installed on a grassy patch next to his room. Astrud Gilberto’s “Portami con Te” played over a lawn speaker. He hummed along with the refrain, smiled, then checked his watch.

“Oh!” he said. “Time for lunch.”

Buonamassa in his Neuchâtel office (Photo: Lukas Wassmann)


In the beginning, I started to appreciate beautiful drawings. Design was a consequence, because it gave me the opportunity to make sketches. This is why I’m a designer. I’m lucky because my profession is to make drawings.

I’m a formative designer. In my career, I design a lot of different things. I think that a designer should be able to do this. Honestly, the process is sort of a small mystery, but the approach is the same for airplanes, for cars, for watches, for furniture. You have to solve problems. You have to know the problems and imagine solutions, and you have to do this in a beautiful and unique way.

Design is a compromise. Even the credit process. And if you do not trust your idea, it’s impossible to sell, even to the boss. So I have to imagine something, to start to make sketches, to tell you I think that this idea is correct. The sketch is just a skill, it’s just a tool because sometimes I need to fix the image that I have in mind. But I have to trust the idea.

My job is to turn technology into emotions. Bulgari is well known for geometry and color innovation. We were the first to use cabochon cut in jewelry. We were the first to use aluminum in couture watches, plastic in watches—we were the first to use porcelain, exotic material, and steel in fine jewelry. This is the case with the Octo Finissimo, the thinnest automatic watch in the world. I have to know the technology, and I have to be able to transform it into something that makes sense to the client. Otherwise, it’s just a movement. Yes, okay, it’s a fantastic movement, but this is the role of the designer. And I have to do this through the iconic signs, the codes of the brand, and the heritage of the brand.

We have a word in our vocabulary, sprezzatura. That means you can make something very complex in a natural way. The most important innovations are made by simple things. And the simplicity, like Leonardo da Vinci says, is the latest complication. [The Octo] is very difficult to produce, but it works very well. It’s strong enough for everyday life, and it looks absolutely simple. This concept of sprezzatura, for the first time you can find it in watchmaking. Because in Swiss watchmaking, you can find a lot of watches that are very hard [to produce], but also very difficult in terms of language. How can I read the time?

If a product is able to talk to you about its function, I’ve done a good job. Good design expresses itself. If I tell you the watch is this, this, and this, and that you have to use it this, this, and this way, maybe it’s not a good design. It’s another thing.

The retro trend, it is copy-and-paste design. For some brands, it’s easier to open the desk and say, ‘I want to make the new edition of this watch.’ This is not our approach. We make a lot of sketches on the wall and we say, ‘This is good. Wow, it’s fantastic.’ After five minutes, we see again the products and we say, ‘It’s not Bulgari enough.’ The octagon has a lot of different meanings in different cultures, different religions—eternity, friend, perfect balance between the heaven and the earth. It’s a shape that Bulgari started to use in the 1950s. When we decided to revamp, for Gérald Genta, sure, you have to make an Octo. But the Octo that you see today, it’s an Octo made by Bulgari. This [new] watch, it’s the same shape, but with different attention to the details of the faces. It still performs, but in a contemporary way. This is the signature of the brand. When you see this watch, you cannot make mistake it. But when you see this watch compared to a vintage one, it’s two different worlds.

We don’t have a creativity issue at Bulgari. We don’t just put the logo on a watch and say it’s a Bulgari x Maserati, because we have a lot of ideas. The idea [for the GranSport and GranLusso] was to tell you the time in a different way—to tell you the time as a rev counter, as in the dashboard of a car, thanks to our retrograde and jumping hour movement. The number on the watch dial, it is the same font on the Maserati dashboard. After that, it’s a matter of color. The GranSport is very dark. It’s a nod to the performer. The GranLusso, it’s more exquisite. It’s more elegant, more luxurious. This is the two faces of the Maserati, the brand that invented the gran turismo, the kind of cars driven not only by performance but also luxury.

Bulgari and Maserati have a lot of elements in common. Both Italian brands made by [families], the Maserati sons and Sotirio Bulgari with his sons, Giorgio and Constantino. Very strong entrepreneurial skills. The same attention for proportion, the same attention for beautiful things. [The Octo] is an impressive watch in terms of technical skills, let’s say ‘performance,’ but it’s not the first thing you notice. Maserati is the same. It’s engine technology, performance chassis. But when you look at a Maserati car, first of all you see that it’s beautiful.