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Review: Piaget Altiplano 43mm

This watch here is the Altiplano by Piaget. It’s pretty nice, isn’t it? Nice and simple, nothing too overbearing. Probably wouldn’t make you look twice. It’s refined, it’s elegant, it’s subtle and it’s sensible. But what if I told you that it’s actually one of the most impressive watches ever made?

I don’t know what your thoughts are about Piaget, but I’ll wager they’re something like this: it’s a high-end Swiss manufacturer of glitzy, expensive jewellery worn by dusty old billionaires once a year at the charity ball. Wrong. I can see why you’d think that, but wrong nevertheless.

The truth is more intriguing than that, way more intriguing. It’s back to 1874 to uncover Piaget’s origins, to the small village of La Côte-aux-Fées nestled deep within the Geneva mountains. There’s no jewellery to be found here, but there are jewels of a different sort, because nineteen-year-old-founder—yeah, that’s one-nine, not nine-oh—Georges-Édouard Piaget had decided that he was going to make watch movements for a living.

Try to remember what you were doing with your life when you were nineteen, and then think about young Georges-Édouard Piaget. Still a teenager, he set up shop in a shed on his parents’ farm, handmaking watch components that he’d sell to other watchmakers. And do you know what? He was pretty good at it, too. He actually sold the parts he made. He was so good in fact that he went the whole hog and started to make the rest of the movement, too.

So, think Georges-Édouard had a strong work ethic? His son, Timothée, figured that if they were making whole movements for watches, they may as well make the rest of the watch as well. Makes sense, really. By 1943, the outfit was no longer just a teenager in a shed making bits; it was a fully-fledged manufacturer operating out of a purpose-built facility.

And think Timothée had a strong work ethic? They say the third generation is too disconnected from the struggles of the first two, and that’s why ninety percent of family fortunes are lost by the grandchildren—but not for Piaget. Both Gérald and Valentine Piaget took the brand another step forward with the 1957 and 1960 announcements of the calibres 9P and 12P, record-breaking ultra-thin manual wind and automatic movements at 2 and 2.3mm respectively.

This was the turning point where an already successful watchmaker became an icon. The small stand Piaget had at the international watch fair Baselworld was swamped by journalists marvelling at this incredible breakthrough. Piaget became a household name overnight, favourite of surrealist Salvador Dalí, First Lady Jackie Kennedy and superstars Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren. This is where the jewellery arm of the business came to be, taking the Piaget name ever further into the stratosphere.

It was this same decision that carried the brand through the difficult years of the introduction of quartz watches. Whilst it was a highly profitable move to realign the business from watchmaker to jeweller, the outcome now is that people just don’t know what kind of accomplishments this brand has achieved in watchmaking, how it all started in a teenager’s shed out of a desire to make movements—a year before Audemars Piguet, I might add.

That’s why we have this, the Piaget Altiplano, the spiritual successor of the 1960 calibre 12P that caused all that hype. Let’s go back to when Piaget was a pure watchmaker and see what all the fuss was about.

It’s more than half a century on from that day at Baselworld when things took off for Piaget, and here we are again with the ultra-thin calibre 12P. Although, it’s now the calibre 1200P, or in this sub-second iteration, the 1208P. It’s the same thickness—well, it’s quoted to an additional decimal place as 0.05mm thicker, but we’ll put that down to accuracy rather than growth—which gives the Altiplano an overall depth of a scarcely believable 5.25mm.

Between the 12P and the 1200P, the architecture is much the same. Piaget didn’t invent the micro rotor—that honour goes to Universal Genève back in 1955—but it did demonstrate the amazing potential of being able to immerse this large and somewhat visually obtrusive element into the movement itself. Patek Philippe’s micro rotor calibre 240 came out in 1977, the decade Piaget shone brightest. Coincidence?

So, the new 1200P doesn’t exactly seem like a march of progress, hardly the vision of growth the three generations of Piagets might have hoped for—but actually it does in fact move the game along as an evolution of that original movement. The 19,800 vph beat, for example, has been increased to 21,600 vph for a smoother half-beat per second, whilst also gaining an additional seven hours of power reserve for a total of forty-four. No easy feat when the movement is the thickness of a nickel.

It’s through advances in modern production that these improvements have been made. To get a thirty percent increase in efficiency—that’s taking into account both the faster beat and the additional power reserve—is a significant gain, and it’s the result of not just one big adjustment, but a whole host of little tweaks. Gears are as thin as 0.12mm—that’s the same as a sheet of paper—reducing frictional losses; the micro rotor ditches its original perimeter support wheel and glides over a quintet of self-lubricating jewels instead; and the winding system gains a slotted gear to save room usually taken up by the sliding pinion.

What’s incredible is that at the time of launch, the calibre 1208P maintained the record originally set by the 12P all those decades ago. The movement was so ahead of its time that it held on to the title of thinnest automatic watch all the way through to its own replacement. You’d never be able to tell by the reserved, unassuming dial, silvered finish printed with skinny black markers and patrolled by skinny black hands, but there it is.

The Altiplano and the 1208P seem like the antithesis of the brand when you consider its striking, colourful jewellery and heavyset gold watches of the seventies and eighties—but when you consider the origins of Piaget, a humble brand founded in humble beginnings, it couldn’t be more perfect. It’s a watch that people might notice and dismiss, unaware of the horological significance that it carries. In car culture it’s known as a “sleeper”, a creation that offers no suggestion as to the surprising engineering accomplishments that lie beneath the deceptive surface. To everyone else, it’s just a nice watch made by that nice jewellery brand. Little do they know that it’s actually one of the most remarkable feats of watchmaking ever achieved.

Well, there you have it, a look back at Piaget’s past and an insight into what makes this modest Altiplano one of watchmaking’s greatest achievements. It may seem like a nod to a time when Piaget was at its greatest, a sombre look back to when the watchmaker peaked, but the truth is that it’s just the start of something new, something exciting. That’s because, in 2017, the calibre 1208P lost the record for the thinnest automatic watch—beaten by another Piaget, the Altiplano Ultimate 910P. At just 4.3mm thick, the Ultimate really is what it set out to be. The Piaget work ethic lives on.

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