Do you feel like the Patek Philippe Nautilus is taking the fun out of watches? You know the feeling; breathless social media hype, endless discussion of price – and only price – with almost no oxygen left to acknowledge that other watches and brands exist. Basically, take everything you hate about Rolex fixation and raise the stakes to six figures. That’s what I mean.
I’m here to assure you that there’s a better way. Bulgari has Patek Philippe 5711 alternatives available for purchase right now for (relatively) rational money and immediate delivery.
Prior to 2017, Bulgari rarely appeared on the radar of male luxury watch collectors. Despite years of acquisitions designed to in-source mechanical watchmaking, Bulgari’s long-cultivated image as a purveyor of jewelry, fashion, and women’s watches obscured its snowballing commitment to building credible men’s watches for traditional buyers.
The 2017 Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic announced Bulgari’s arrival as a luxury watch manufacturer of eminence and standing. Although the LVMH-owned company had been stockpiling wristwatch component builders for two decades, the OFA represented the first breakout mainstream product that combined the forces of Bulgari’s case makers, bracelet outfits, dial factories, and movement manufacture. Previous Octo Finissimo complications and manual-wind models had been statements of intent; the OFA was a watershed product and a dam-burst all in one.
The Octo Finissimo represents more of a critical mass than spontaneous combustion. Bulgari inherited the watch’s basic shape when it acquired Gerald Genta and Daniel Roth in 2000. More than a styling house, Gerald Genta’s manufacture in the Vallée de Joux was a world-renowned center of excellence for ultra-thin and complicated movement development. The Octo Finissimo combines both threads of the Genta legacy into a modern classic.
Bulgari creative chief Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani had the confidence to do what normal watch designers rarely have the confidence or restraint to do: tailor rather than obliterate prior art. Joining Bulgari watchmaking shortly after its purchase of Genta, Buonamassa worked to refine the existing Octo model line for over a decade-and-a-half before launching the highly evolved OFA.
And it’s a masterpiece. The 40mm case and integrated bracelet are standard fare for this class of watch, but, as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe would say, “God is in the details.” At 5.15mm thick, this is a watch that stuns with its subtlety. At face value, there is well-worn design language pioneered elsewhere, but the Bulgari’s precise alchemy of curves and facets, lugs and bracelet, and bezel and case are unique. Unlike many recent entrants in this class, the OFA doesn’t evoke immediate comparisons to Patek Philippe or Audemars Piguet.
God is in the details. Bulgari claims over 100 facets on the face of its watch, but like the 1,000 swords of the Iron Throne, this is a claim best absorbed as folklore. Regardless, the appearance of Bulgari’s opus is razor-sharp and magnetic. Despite the mass of details, the OFA design seems economical and spare; Buonamassa employed the bare minimum of embellishment necessary to achieve the blade-like countenance of this watch. Naturally, that’s true of the waifish bracelet and clasp as well; all of it feels as silken and supple as natural fiber – not metal.
Bulgari offers the OFA in rose gold, ceramic, steel, and titanium, but only the latter two should be considered as Nautilus 5711 surrogates. Titanium is the original material with which the Finissimo Automatic model was launched in 2017, and its minimalism best fits the spirit of watch; this is the variant that won the GPHG “Men’s Watch” prize upon release. In this spec, the OFA is so slim, gossamer, and minimal that one shoots furtive glances at the watch to confirm it’s still present on the wrist.
But stainless steel offers a more substantial and rugged alternative that’s paired with a major upgrade: 100-meter water resistance. Launched in 2020, this version of the Octo Finissimo Automatic is designed as a like-for-like rival to the Patek Philippe 5711. With a screw-down crown and a swimmable 40mm steel case, this OFA is a sports watch that’s ready to attack life in your choice of a business suit or a bathing suit.
Regardless of the case and bracelet material, each Octo Finissimo Automatic boasts the same world-class automatic movement, the BVL-138. This in-house caliber is the product of the same Gerald Genta workshop that gave the world its thinnest minute repeater in the 1980s and the world’s most complicated watch in the early 1990s.
At 2.23mm thick and 36.6mm in diameter, the BVL-138 bears the hallmark of a true manufacture; this movement was sized and shaped specifically to fit in its house-supplied case. Moreover, the OFA has been constructed conventionally in order to provide a sapphire display case back; many ultra-thin watches build the movement base plate into the solid case back of the watch in order to achieve sub-6mm thickness with automatic winding.
Technical specifications of the caliber 138 are impressive. Despite its thin profile, automatic winding and a 60-hour power reserve are achieved courtesy of a platinum micro-rotor and a large single mainspring barrel. The balance is supported on a full balance bridge that braces the staff against shock and provides a measure of additional rigidity to the razor-thin base plate of the movement.
The finishing on the caliber 138 reflects a combination of mechanical and manual execution.
While full hand-finishing is the ultimate in luxury, many high-luxury watch brands combine mass-production techniques with traditional hand crafts to achieve a judicious balance between quality and price. In this regard, Bulgari finds itself in league with industry luminaries including Montres Journe (F.P. Journe), Audemars Piguet, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Glashutte Original, and Zenith. And given inevitable comparisons to the Nautilus, it’s worth mentioning that Patek’s prior caliber 324 and succeeding caliber 26-330 also combine artisanal with industrial techniques.
Finish of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Automatic is outstanding inside and out. The titanium variants are media-blasted, matte, cool to the eye, and light to the touch. In stainless steel, buyers have their choice of brushed and polished execution on the 100-meter models or a mix of blasted steel with plated flashes of palladium, rhodium, and gold to dazzle the eyes.
Pricing of the OFA line reflects good value for the consumer and rare sobriety from a Swiss luxury manufacturer. A titanium model with full bracelet retails for $14,300; the 100-meter steel equivalent is even more appealing at $12,000.
As of April 2021, a used Patek Philippe 5711 in steel will leave an $85,000 – $100,000 hole in a watch collector’s wallet. For $12,000, Bulgari’s Octo is the thinking man’s Nautilus.