Laurent Picciotto, avid watch collector and founder of Chronopassion, talks to Augustman about market trends and his passion for Bvlgari’s Octo Finissimo
If you had not heard of Laurent Picciotto before, you might have at least heard that in 2017, he put the majority of his personal timepieces up for sale at the Phillips’ Hong Kong watch auction while attempting to restart his collection. For the unacquainted, he’s an influential man in the watch industry. He’s one of the “Fs” (friends) in MB&F; he also co-founded Richard Mille while Mille was still president of Mauboussin. Though Picciotto’s store on Rue Saint Honoré started as a Gérald Genta boutique in 1988, the man is “brand blind”, carrying nearly all of the independents from MB&F to H. Moser, as well as “mainstream” names like Breguet and Tudor.
“I love watches and I like the people behind the craziness,” Picciotto tells Augustman over a Zoom call on a Friday evening. “I don’t care about brands, what is important for me is the product. That’s why Chronopassion is different from other retailers. For sure retailers want to carry what’s really popular, but retailers must also remember that we are in a position to surprise people with what we offer. If we’re on the same taste frequency, it becomes much more fun. My vision may be a high proposition but this has been my goal since the beginning.”
Suffice it to say, just looking at the many unique collaborations and prototypes up for sale back then, he enjoys an extremely close relationship with all his brand partners compared to classic retailers. “We have embarked on many adventures (collaborations) because I am deeply passionate about things I believe in,” he says animatedly. “I’m always glad to be among the first to represent the brand and support the people behind the brand. This proximity has given me many opportunities to do special editions since the beginning.”
When you say you don’t care about the brands, does this mean you ignore the “prestige” associated with the brands?
Those popular brands are already well-known. If the product is good and the innovations are good, then one day or another, the truth will come to light. For me, I love to be surprised outside from the big brands. Very often, these heritage brands have existed for so long that they become prisoners of their history. They cannot afford to be audacious and they don’t want to disturb the perspectives of the customer. Independent watchmakers are often unafraid to go in a different direction.
What are your perspectives on Bulgari’s sudden popularity under a decade?
First, extra-thin watches had small diameters historically and the concept felt dated. The fact that Bulgari went in that direction with a very contemporary approach added a purity of style and lightness to the genre. The first Finissimo was perfection. If you consider the people in the jewellery business and the others found in Place Vendôme, these brands have never successfully attracted attention in the men’s watch categories, they’re all very good at ladies’ watches. It is extremely fresh that Bulgari is the only one that has succeeded in all this time.
Second, the construction of the Finissimo is such that it really becomes a “second skin”. To encourage people to discover the Finissimo, I make them wear it for at least 10 minutes and then ask what they think about it. The models in carbon and titanium are especially wearable.
We have many people who have gotten so used to the Octo that they find it difficult to get back to a regular watch. “I prefer to buy another Octo,” they tell me. For sure, there are many still who insist that Bulgari is still a jeweller rather than a watchmaker; it is because they’re unaware of all the watchmaking records and investments they have made into movement construction. Today, Bulgari is a real watchmaker with a lot of know-how.
I immediately met with Jean-Christophe Babin and Fabrizio Buonamassa [CEO and Product Creation Executive Director of Bulgari, respectively] and discussed retailing with a focus on only the Octo Finissimo so I try to have the best and biggest selection.
Do you feel that part of this success is because of the fact that it is one of the few integrated bracelet sports watches that does not look like every other integrated bracelet sports watch?
The problem with the integrated bracelet is that Genta’s idea could be adapted by everyone in the industry and no one would be 100% unique. If it was just an issue of “recipe”, then every integrated bracelet watch would be cool and we would all want each and every one but this is not the case. On some watches, it’s perfect; on others, it is not so perfect and looks more like an opportunity to do something in that genre.
Would you say the brands that “take an opportunity to do something” end up creating watches that look like one another and Bulgari doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the gang?
Bulgari’s Finissimo has a special identity indeed. The truth is there’s no real recipe and to many brands, it’s either the addition or removal of details and sometimes they arrive at a cool and good conclusion. I used to work together with Gérald Genta during the first five years of Chronopassion and I noticed that while he was doing a lot for his own brand, it was never better than what he was working on for others. What he got to do really was take his DNA and apply it within the skin of the brand, it was really interesting to see. Genta brought something very important to the table – if he did not exist, we would probably still be wearing round watches with leather on the wrist.
“The Finissimo is a totally different phenomenon. It appeared and it was a hit from someone who wasn’t focused on making men’s watches.” – Laurent Picciotto
Famously, you were in the news of auctioning off the majority of your watch collection to focus on the Finissimo…
No, no, not really. The idea was to sell my collection and to restart my collection. It just so happened that when I started buying, my focus happened to be the Finissimo because it was not only the perfect watch but also launched during the time that I was looking at buying. They introduced the stainless steel and then the titanium; after that the black PVD, then the skeleton, then the chronograph, then the Tadao Ando, and very quickly I ended up buying six or seven different Octos because I was like, “Wow! It was really super cool!” It was truly iconic from the moment of launch.
Is this this generation’s “Royal Oak” moment?
It’s a similar phenomenon but they’re both different animals. But if you look at what they have done in the last 10 years, they have explored what Audemars Piguet have explored in 50 years. I’ve seen future prototypes and I’m convinced they will continue to surprise us and that I will end up buying more of them [laughs].
What makes the Finissimo so much more popular than the original Octo?
The regular Octo was a regular watch. In the illustrations it was really cool, but once you saw it in the metal, it felt like and was worn like a regular watch.
This year, we’ve seen a few records in the ultra-thin category. How thin can a watch be before it stops being a watch?
First, I would say that compared to the Finissimo, the other records that have been made are not objectively in the same category; the principle reason being that you need an extra tool to set the watch or wind it. I’m sorry [laughs], this is not the same as having a real crown on the first record-breaking Finissimo.
Second, when the watch is just a movement with a dial, it feels like a sheet of paper on the wrist. I don’t find it particularly nice because there is no attractive proportions to it. It’s pretty far on what I would consider a watch. The Harley Davidson is a show bike but it’s not something you would take out for 400 km; the same applies to watches.
The Finissimo is really light yet it still feels very luxurious. I’ve heard other watch lovers mention that ultra-thin watches don’t feel particularly luxurious, why do you think the Finissimo manages to avoid that?
It’s the purity of the design. Fabrizio told me that when you can no longer remove things from your design, it is perfect. The tonality of the dial and the tonality of the material, even the sandblasted and matte editions, were absolute perfection even to my friends who knew nothing about watches. The Octo always made an impression on people.
What three key Finissimo models should every collector have?
[Laughs] Three is not enough! For me, you have to have the Tattoo! But truthfully, I’m not very objective [laughs]. The concept was interesting because I saw a collector with a tattoo sleeve wearing the Finissimo and I thought it would be very cool to have it extended across the watch. I had discussions with Bulgari and I’m very happy with the final result. The Perpetual Calendar and Minute Repeater in titanium is fantastic; the future upcoming carbon Finissimos will blow your mind, so you can see that three is definitely not enough.
Did you ever expect the Finissimo to change your watch collecting philosophy?
You can already find collectors on Instagram who have become so passionate about the Octo that they don’t want to wear something else. We have customers who already have more than 10 or 15 Octos already. It’s quite interesting because these people used to have a lot of other brands and references. This is really something special. This sensation is really difficult to explain, it has to be lived.
In your long career, have you ever witnessed a phenomenon like this?
Not really. Honestly, we will sell more Girard Perregaux Laureatos this year than our last 30 years, but this is a matter of trend and speculation; it’s not like the Laureato suddenly appeared and became cool. When I opened the first Audemars Piguet boutique in the world, even the Royal Oak did not enjoy this level of madness at the time, it was just another watch in the watchmaking landscape. The Finissimo is a totally different phenomenon. It appeared and it was a hit from someone who wasn’t focused on making men’s watches.
(Images: Chuck Reyesif for Laurent Picciotto)