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Review: Bulgari Daniel Roth

Patek Philippe is through the roof, Vacheron Constantin is following. Collectors are hoovering up anything and everything that has any attachment to high quality, classical watchmaking. Even the new—relatively speaking—guys, the F. P. Journes, Roger Dubuis and so forth are getting snapped up like there’s no tomorrow. But here’s a tip that’s as fresh as a warm loaf of bread, that’s so far not been pounced on by the collecting elite: Daniel Roth.

The desirability of watches has never shifted quite so much as it has in the last few decades. Throughout history, periods of technological and socioeconomic change have often been the drivers of timepiece evolution: the Great Depression rending pocket watches too flashy and ornate, for example, giving us the Patek Philippe Calatrava, a watch that’s defined classicism for almost a century; the decline of mechanical movements and the rise of wealth in the 70s and 80s forcing the hand of watchmakers into bold designs priced high as a mark of status.

Those two major turning points are spaced some fifty years apart; by comparison, the last fifty just can’t seem to sit still. If the 70s was a rebirth for mechanical watches as a luxury possession rather than a practical one, and the 80s cranked that display of wealth up to eleven, then the 90s reverted back almost on a dime to a period of refined classicism where watches were small and their value defined by their pedigree. The noughties sparked yet another change with the advance of modernism into watchmaking, sprouting brands like Urwerk and Richard Mille, as well as ever-increasing case sizes, and the tens drew the community’s attention to the importance of the in-house movement with a move back towards the past.

The big difference is change—or rather how much change is changing. A hundred years ago, you could be more or less expected to live the same life as your parents and your children live more or less the same life as you; now, technology is advancing so quickly that the world looks completely different from one generation to the next, and with that comes a rapidly shifting economy. For a nascent community like the watch collecting one—speaking relatively, of course—these external influences will be reflected rather prominently until it finds its feet.

Sotirios Voulgaris founded Bulgari in 1884, Rome, Italy

Sotirios Voulgaris founded Bulgari in 1884, Rome, Italy

And finding its feet it is, because there’s been enough history in watchmaking post-quartz crisis for the real treasures to begin standing out. This is where the likes of early F. P. Journes start to increase in value, as collectors recognise and appreciate the expertise in this maturing community. Watches that were once within the realms of possibility are launched into the stratosphere, where they will likely stay. But this is a maturing community, not a mature one, not just yet, and that means there are still places to go: one of those places is Daniel Roth. A watchmaker for Breguet during the brand’s post-quartz crisis resurrection, as well as for Jaeger-LeCoultre and Audemars Piguet, and one in a long line of watchmakers in his family, Roth honed his skills with the likes of tourbillons and perpetual calendars, and before long he wanted to make a go of it under his own steam, creating the eponymous brand in the late eighties.

Like any true watchmaker, Roth pushed himself with the most difficult of complications, such as monopusher chronographs, retrograde time displays, perpetual calendars and tourbillons, all housed in his signature flat-sided circle case. The 10th anniversary Papillon became the platform for Roth’s signature pieces, like the conceptual Papillion Voyager dual time-zone watch.

In the early 2000s, Roth’s company was purchased by Bulgari—which you might think sounds like the end of what made it special, but quite the contrary. As Bulgari has demonstrated with its acquisition of the late master Gerald Genta’s brand, its stewardship has allowed the brand to explore even more of its own identity. And that brings us to this, the Bulgari Daniel Roth calibre 206, the watch collectors will very soon be starting to pay attention to.

Bulgari is a brand known for both it's fine jewellery and incredible watches

Bulgari is a brand known for both it's fine jewellery and incredible watches

On initial inspection, this watch doesn’t quite seem to cut the mustard when it comes to collector material. Daniel Roth, by comparison to some of the more famous independent creators, is pretty much unknown, even with the Bulgari connection. Bulgari’s emphasis on jewellery hasn’t really done much to make the Roth name any more famous. If anything, the sale to Bulgari has kept the name from really hitting its stride.

And this is what presents such an interesting opportunity, because there aren’t many watches that herald from an independent watchmaker with the credentials of Roth that can still be purchased for a reasonable sum. In gold, you can hope to acquire a Cal. 206 like this one for a little over the price of a new Daytona—but instead of a mid-range, volume sports watch, you get a handcrafted piece with a legacy in true horological mastery.

It may say Bulgari most prominently on the dial, but the flat-sided circle, the unique three-sided second hand—the longest arm of which disappears into a slot in the rehaut—and the contrasting separation of the top and bottom halves of the dial are all distinctly Roth. Even the step-sided case with its hand-soldered lugs is everything anyone would expect of a late-eighties, early nineties independent watchmaker—even though this watch is from the 2010s.

And here’s where the watch retains the most of its period-correct features—remember how I said that the fascination with in-house didn’t arise until the last decade? Back when these long-time servants of the master watchmakers all decided there was a market to take their skills and go it alone, most chose to demonstrate their abilities by modifying and finishing existing calibres. Only the very best dared make their own.

Bulgari over the years have introduced several record-breaking moments. This includes the worlds thinnest minute repeater and automatic tourbillon

Bulgari over the years have introduced several record-breaking moments. This includes the worlds thinnest minute repeater and automatic tourbillon

So here we have an ultra-thin Frédéric Piguet movement, first designed in the 1950s as a pocket watch calibre. Despite being modified for use in a wristwatch, it stills retains the glorious bridge arrangement popular at the time, offering a view through to the train of wheels progressing through the calibre, as a well as a period 21,600 vph beat.

The calibre’s original use means it dominates the case back and makes for a wholly rewarding view, particularly given the very traditional use of finishing. Graining, bevelling and polishing are all present and all applied in the manner in which they would have been by the man himself when it all began: by hand.

The cumulative experience is one that is every bit what a collector yearns for, a blend of a personality and tradition that makes the watch neither bland nor outdated, offering a recognisable milestone in the revitalisation of a centuries-old tradition at its very turning point. It may say Bulgari on the dial and Daniel Roth may be a name most haven’t heard of—so make sure to snap one up before they do.

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