Patrick’s Ponderings: How Thin Is Too Thin? Extra plate (aka Ultra Thin) Movements Explained

Feb 13, 2020,22:49 PM
 

A Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Jubilee in Platinum.  Photo Credit: Jaeger-LeCoultre


A lot of people ask me what kind of watch they ought to buy; apparently someone wants me to talk about watches and cares about my opinion!  I always suggest a lot of things but one of my top recommendation is to get a watch that is thin enough to fit under a shirt sleeve.  I’ve always eluded that “thin” is elegant.  Well, one of my friends ended acquiring a watch that is even thinner than the thinnest watch I owned! 

I’ve always liked thin watches.  But “thin” is an opinion, and while I can say I think most Patek Philippe 240 calibers and most Vacheron Constantin time-only pieces are quite thin timepieces, I recently thought about going “Extra-plate” (French for Ultra-thin).  Here is some of my research as I walked down my quest to acquire an Ultra-thin timepiece. 

 

Vacheron Constantin Extra Plate Pocket Watch.  Photo Credit: Forbes/Vacheron Constantin


Thin watches usually have thin movements; and ultra thin movement is typically defined as a movement under 2.0mm in thickness, cased up the watches are usually less than 4.9mm thick.  Piaget is an expert in this field, making the thinnest watches on record.  Thin movements are incredibly difficult to manufacture.  Here are just three examples of why they’re more difficult to manufacture than a traditional movement. 

1.     First you have the mainspring that holds all the power, as we all know these springs are flat coiled springs, but the thinner you get, the flatness becomes relatively rounder.  Say a normal spring is 2.0mm wide and 0.2mm thick; when that spring becomes 1.0mm wide and 0.2mm thick, the spring is relatively rounder.  This increases the chance for the spring to twist and coil and tangle within the mainspring housing.

2.     Secondly, and perhaps more obviously, it’s just more difficult to design a movement that is densely packed.  Furthermore, just because a movement designer can design it doesn’t mean it can actually be built.  Building an Ultra Thin movement requires a higher level of watchmaker who is more patient and more precise.  Some Ultra Thin calibers are built in a watchmaker’s Grand Complication room by the manufacture’s most elite watchmakers because they’re so difficult to manufacture. 

3.     Lastly, and this is less obvious, ultra thin movements are incredibly difficult to regulate and fine tune for accuracy.  There are fewer points of adjustment (as the design omits these adjustment points to save space) and finer tolerances.  For this reason and the reason above, Ultra Thin calibers are often built in the Grand Complication workshops of many brands due to their difficulty to manufacture.  Also, Ultra-thin movements are usually subjected to lower standards for accuracy.  Also, many Ultra-thin movements don’t have a seconds hand. 

 

Jaeger-LeCoultre made some thin pocket watches too.  They could fit in one's tuxedo or waistcoat without bulging out.  Photo credit: Jaeger-LeCoultre


Three Frequently Asked Questions an Ultra-Thin Buyer may have?

Why Ultra-Thin?  What’s the Point? 

Two answers; historical style and watchmaking savoir-faire.  Historically, thin watches are considered to be more elegant and more formal.  In the past, formal occasions required gentlemen not to wear watches as it was considered an insult to your host to consult the time at a dinner party.  More recently, thin watches are great for formal occasions and for individuals who want somewhat hidden timepieces.  From the artistic standpoint, a manufacture’s savoire faire and ability to produce a working, accurate, and reliable Ultra-thin movement is nothing short of remarkable.  Very few manufactures are capable to do this! 

Are There Any Real Benefits To Going Thinner?

Honestly, not really.  If you want your watch to be more difficult for others to spot, a thin watch will do that.  But do know you are wearing a timepiece that is supremely special, very difficult to manufacture, and quite rare.  At WatchProSite GTGs I see more minute repeaters than I see Ultra Thin timepieces. 

 

What Are the Disadvantages for Ultra Thin Watches?

There are a few; they’re more difficult and expensive to service.  They’re typically less accurate, have shorter power reserves, and are more susceptible to shocks because they have small balance wheels and are slower to recover from shocks because thee balance wheels operate at slower beats.  They usually lack a seconds hand, useful if you want to see the watch is running.  The movement is typically more fragile and delicate, extra care should be utilized when winding the mainspring. 

 

What Are My Favorite Models? 

 

Currently Produced:


Photo Credit: Vacheron Constantin


Vacheron Constantin Historiques 1955 model of watch is an incredible watch with a gold movement.  While it’s incredibly difficult to produce a movement in gold (just because F.P. Journe does this regularly doesn’t make it any less difficult), Vacheron Constantin decided to do this on an Ultra-thin caliber!  This movement is only 1.64 mm thick!  The watch follows all the proper rules for a Geneva Seal Ultra Thin movement; the movement is based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre 849 Ultra Thin caliber, but it has several modifications to adhere to Geneva Seal requirements.  This is one of the best Ultra Thin timepieces money can buy.  It may cost 50% more than a Patrimony Traditionelle (another one of my favorites), but it’s a much thinner and much more difficult watch to manufacture!  Get the Patrimony Traditionelle for daily use, and the Historique 1955 for special occasions. 


Produced in solid gold at 1.64mm, this is the thinnest movement I've ever held in my hands!  Notice the individual screwed weights on the balance wheel!  Photo credit: Vacheron Constantin

 

Production Stopped But Still Available:

This gorgeous dial with a beautiful sunburst and combination of printed and applied dots makes this dial look both modern and classic; minimalistic and rich.  Photo credit: Patrick_y (author).


Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin 38 – 849 Caliber.  The bargain that was so good that Jaeger-LeCoultre is no longer producing this piece anymore.  But you can still get it at some boutiques and authorized dealers.  The case and dial exhibit an excitingly elegant yet sobering design.  The crown is big enough to feel the feedback of the delicate mainspring.  This is a great watch, the movement is nearly identical to the Vacheron Constantin example; if it had some springs replaced, were built in Geneva Canton, and a higher standard of finishing, this watch would be eligible for the Geneva Seal! 



Notice the similarities and differences with the Vacheron Constantin 1003 caliber and the Jaeger-LeCoultre 849 caliber.  Photo Credit: Jaeger-LeCoultre.


Former Production:

Just 4.05 mm thick!  One of the thinnest watches in the world.  In Platinum.  Even the hands had to be installed abnormally carefully so they wouldn't hit the sapphire glass.  Photo Credit: Amanico.


Jaeger-LeCoultre Jubilee Master Ultra Thin Platinum.  I considered this the best timepiece of SIHH 2013.  It is an incredible value for a platinum watch!   It utilizes Jaeger-LeCoultre’s 849 caliber, a 1.85mm thin caliber that is made alongside Tourbillons and Minute Repeaters in the Grand Complications workshop. Most of these limited production timepieces were quickly sold in 2013 and 2014, but used examples pop up on the market from time to time.  Most are gently used as most buyers view this piece as a piece for special occasions.  The crown is small and difficult to wind but the whole package is incredibly special! 


The posterior of the ultra thin watch is covered in platinum which lends the watch a nice weight.  The movement is rather small relative to the case so I'm more pleased to see the platinum case.   Photo Credit: Amanico. 


Is it worthwhile to acquire an Extra Plate or Ultra Thin watch?  That’s really up to you and maybe if you attend a lot of dinner parties.  But for this watch collector who wants to sample a bit of everything, go to your local watch retailer and try on some Ultra Thin timepieces.  Many will find their inner Goldilocks stating it’s too thin.  But some will experience an enlightening moment and find it to be just right! 





More posts: grand complications

  login to reply

Comments: view entire thread

 

well written Patrick...

 
 By: mahesh : February 13th, 2020-23:21
it never crossed my mind that there are no accuracy claims in Ultra thin models... i happened to try few of them on wrist, esp. the JLC Jubilee & the VC Historique - within few minutes you've a doubt if the watch is still on the wrist (especially i like t... 

Accuracy...

 
 By: patrick_y : February 13th, 2020-23:48
Thank you Mahesh for the kind words. I wouldn't say there are "no accuracy claims" as this really depends on the brand. For instance, JLC claims they have a very intensive 1000 hours test, but there is no accuracy standards claimed, even for thicker model... 

A collection is never complete without one axtra slim watch

 
 By: COUNT DE MONET : February 14th, 2020-01:04
I would say under 6 mm für the whole watch is already extra slim. Rolex 3135 caliber is alone 6 mm, just to give an orientation. Thank you for the enjoyable read!

Thank you Count!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:29
I would agree with you on the 6mm, but I've been told by watchmakers at Piaget that it really starts to get supremely difficult when the movement is 2mm or under. That's when the case and movement team need to work heavily together to ensure the final pro... 

A 2 mm and under movement is unbelieveable thin

 
 By: COUNT DE MONET : February 14th, 2020-11:31
Regarding Patek 5119/5196: my Ellipse 3738 J with the cal 240 is even thinner as the afore mentioned. Like the current Ellipse it is the slimest watch Patek is offering. Patek calls the 240 extra flat.

Patek's 240 caliber is my favorite!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-13:33
I fell in love with Patek Philippe back when I was a teenager because of the 240 caliber. It's sublime slimness and that micro rotor (admittedly my first time noticing a micro rotor) intrigued me and the high quality finishing finished me off. I always co... 

Thanks for a very informative read.

 
 By: halkcb : February 14th, 2020-03:16
I have always enjoyed an ultra thin watch for its elegance and silhouette. Not too sure of its accuracy ,as it lacks a second hand,but has been keeping time adequately for its purpose. An old vacheron with its cal 1003 like the slimness of the case An enj...  

1003! That is a nice watch with a superb movement!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:31
The more I get to understand this watch, the more I realize how special it is. You have a very special watch on your wrist! Do you use yours daily or more for special occasions?

That's wonderful.

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:50
A wonderful watch. And I'm glad you enjoy it! Now I just have to find some special occasions to wear ultra thins!

O I like this one [nt]

 
 By: Jurry : February 15th, 2020-05:35

Thanks for looking. [nt]

 
 By: halkcb : February 15th, 2020-06:17

Good review

 
 By: Jurry : February 14th, 2020-03:17
Thanks for posting your review. It’s comprehensive, clear, and all in all nice summary. Obviously there are many manufacturers who claim they produce ultra plate pieces and some of them actually do produce ultra thin. Although I like it when such a watch ... 

Thank you Jurry!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:33
I agree, I'm a little worried about the fragility. As a special occasion watch for dinner parties, I suppose I'll be okay. But as a daily then I'd be more concerned. For a daily, I'd step into a "slim" but not ultra-slim watch like a Vacheron Constantin 4... 

😀👍👍 [nt]

 
 By: Jurry : February 14th, 2020-13:38

I suppose weird things happen at formal events too...

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-13:42
I suppose when one is in their tuxedo weird things can happen... Runaway bride, wedding cake that rolls into a seated crowd creating panic stampede, dancing, and ice sculpture collapsing creating stampede and panic. These are all potential ways to damage ... 

Beautiful Watch Movement!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:37
Similar movement as the Vacheron Constantin 1003 and Jaeger-leCoultre 849! That's a very realistic problem!

A few of my thin pieces

 
 By: cazalea : February 14th, 2020-05:29
A few are ultra, a few are thin. I think if the watch is thinner than the crown height OR thinner than its strap, it's ultra-thin. Thanks for the article. Mike I don't have one, but my favorite is the Piaget (photo from Nilo) So far I have resisted, but t...  

Those are some thin pieces!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:40
I've always liked those gold bark finished bracelets on those Vacheron Constantin timepieces. Gorgeous timepieces, but I just can't stand how one has to "cut the bracelet" to fit their wrists. I fear I wouldn't be able to wear the watch if I gained girth ... 

”Please allow me to introduce myself”

 
 By: Pelle_thorstenson : February 14th, 2020-06:31
Being a newcomer on this site I must start buy saying how impressed I am by the great knowledge I have seen here. Many writers also bring their thoughts forward with an elegant sense of humour. When I read about slim watches to me it was an illustration o... 

Welcome Pelle!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:43
Thank you for your kind words Pelle! You'll find many of the moderators and our members are extremely knowledgeable about the subject matter, its history, and the back stories of brands and their collaborations. A lot of the Swiss watch industry used to w... 

Thanks Patrick

 
 By: Pelle_thorstenson : February 14th, 2020-10:24
If I told you that this is your lucky day and you have won either one of the 3 I mention or the 5140 which one would you take - to keep and not to sell? When I hold a perpetual it gives me a feeling that is difficult to describe versus an annual watch. Ho... 

You have to go your own way...

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-11:11
I was once considering the Patek 5396G back when it had the sector dial. I ended up getting a different Patek Philippe timepiece instead. One that was thinner. The 5396G was too polished, had sharp edges, and was a little too thick. I like the 5205G but I... 

New thoughts

 
 By: Pelle_thorstenson : February 15th, 2020-00:28
Very interesting to read your reply Patrick. I am going to give some further thinking on how I like to see minutes shown on my watch. Not a thing to take as lightly as I have in the past. The 5140 has become a strong contender on my list. I do like PP mys... 

You're welcome!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 15th, 2020-09:34
If you like the 5140, check out the 3940. Same movement. 3940 has a slightly smaller case. I personally prefer the 5140 over the 3940, mainly because I'm starting to like bigger watches. I'd love to own a 5140J or 5140G someday.

My radar

 
 By: Pelle_thorstenson : February 15th, 2020-23:56
Interesting that you mentioned the 3940 since it is a watch I always thought was very elegant. However I have never seen it live and never worn it. Despite this I could consider take chance and buy it on chrono24 but in addition to never have seen it they... 

All very well said.

 
 By: LS : February 14th, 2020-07:03
As an owner of a vintage Vacheron & Constantin with the 1003 movement I will agree that the piece is delicate. However, I don't wear it when it would not be appropriate. As for winding.. I think it just takes a light touch. The winding is not differen...  

Gorgeous Vacheron Constantin...

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:46
I'm glad you have a good grasp on the crown. I'm finding some difficulty with my crowns, as it's getting quite difficult for me to feel the "end" of the winding period. Gorgeous watch, just an incredible timepiece!

Thank you!

 
 By: LS : February 14th, 2020-17:50
Your JLC is very nice, as well. The frosted/polished hands and dial are gorgeous.

Thank you for the post!

 
 By: Jim : February 14th, 2020-08:04
The JLC Jubilee was a grail piece that I wanted for wearing at my son's wedding in 2019 and I found it! One thing I particularly like is that it is a full 40mm in diameter whereas most ultra-thin are a little too small for me. Because of the memories and ...  

Very nice piece!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-08:48
If you ever do decide to wear it more often, try it with the alternative matte navy blue strap that is in the photo above. The shiny strap is great for formal occasions, the matte blue is great for daily use!

Excellent article Patrick!

 
 By: sham1 : February 14th, 2020-10:31
I love ultra thin watches as they are light and easy to wear and tend not to catch too many objects unlike a more bulky watch. My only gripe would be the fact that should the movement be visible, it tends to not have great depth due to the thinness of the... 

The Jaeger really doesn't make sense sometimes...

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-11:12
The Master Ultra Thin 38 has a 38mm case and the Platinum Jubilee is 39mm! But the movements inside them are tiny and the cases are huge! Even the VC has a big border within the case! It really is an achievement that they got the movement so thin and smal... 

Agreed!

 
 By: sham1 : February 14th, 2020-12:03
the brands would not be faulted if they made a smaller sized case with their ultra thin movements. You might recall that Jaeger used to make the 38mm case in 34mm before it was discontinued. Such a pity, not to mention that the movement would look better ... 

The 34 is very nice!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 14th, 2020-13:34
I only mentioned the 38mm version because I still see those in stores sometimes. I think they made more of them. I haven't seen the 34mm version in a store for a long time. And if I did, I probably noticed more of the 38s.

A great Article, my dear Patrick. Ultra Thin watches deserve more attention, indeed.

 
 By: amanico : February 14th, 2020-23:30
And there is even more " Ultra Thin " watches... This Master Ultra Thin Blue enamel, for example, is only 3, 60 mm high. Here you have two challenges: Ultra Thin, of course, but also Skeleton. My favorite are those made by Jaeger Lecoultre. The MUT 34, th...  

If only they'd finish the 849 a little better...

 
 By: patrick_y : February 15th, 2020-09:31
That skeleton 849 is incredible! I've always loved JLC's Reverso ever since I was very young. But I never acquired one until now, as I was always hoping the finishing would improve. But sometimes one has to break their own rules... I'd love to get my hand... 

Here is another one for you...

 
 By: amanico : February 16th, 2020-00:05
MUT 34, White Gold, Skeleton, 75 pieces. ...  

;) [nt]

 
 By: amanico : February 16th, 2020-01:24

great post

 
 By: jml_watches : February 15th, 2020-08:20
ultra thin very much a case of less is more. I'm really struck by the earlier version of the JLC. The MUT 34 - lots of presence despite its size - the standout versions for me are the steel with the black dial and the white gold with the grey/anthracite d... 

Thank you JML!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 15th, 2020-09:32
That MUT 34 is definitely a cool piece!

This was awesome, Patrick!👏

 
 By: thegrailwatch : February 15th, 2020-10:39
A few days back I opened up this story on my iPad and began to read. I got busy and closed the iPad, only to open it up two days later and have this post waiting for me upon return. I’m glad it was there otherwise I probably would have missed it. Thanks f... 

Thank you for commenting!

 
 By: patrick_y : February 15th, 2020-11:58
There's really no need for an Ultra Thin watch. But they're definitely something to appreciate! Thank you for commenting and I'm glad your iPad steered you back to my post!