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
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?
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
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.
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!
I used to consider the Patek Philippe 5119/3119/5196 to be ultra slim, but I was told that I was wrong. They're still very slim in my book!
If you're considering those fine Patek Philippe models, I would highly encourage you to consider the Patek Philippe 5140 and Vacheron Constantin's perpetual calendars as well. Those are top notch pieces that will be great for your son when he is ready to take the helm.