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Review: Bulgari Octo Solotempo

It’s not often that a watch is stumbled upon that makes you do a bulgy-eyed double take and say, “How much?!”—at least, certainly not at the bargainous end of the scale. This, the Bulgari Octo Solotempo, is one of those watches. At £4,500, it represents one of the biggest, most secretest bargains in all of watchmaking. Now, I know you and you’re thinking, “£4,500 doesn’t sound like much of a bargain to me.” Well hang on to your hats, because here are some jolly good reasons why it most certainly is.

Far be it from me to tell you what to like and not like, but I’m pretty certain that a great majority of you here would be very happy to secure an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or a Patek Philippe Nautilus. I know this because nothing’s caught on quite this veraciously since fish started crawling out of the ocean thinking, “You know, this land malarky might be alright”.

But if you want one of those two watches, famously designed in the 1970s by Gérald Genta no less, then—well, I stand a pretty good chance, statistically speaking, of pointing out that you are never having one. Not until the end times when we’re trading them for bio rations at least. And I’m not just being mean—I won’t be having one either. I had one, a while ago, before things went nuts, but I won’t be having another.

Never mind watches designed by Genta—watches just inspired by watches designed by Genta are harder to get than love and affection in this cold, cold world. The Vacheron Constantin Overseas—nope—the A. Lange & Söhne Odysseus—nope. Again, I’m not being mean, listing all the lovely things you can’t have. I’m setting up a very good and well-made point.

So, if you can’t have all that, what can you have? Oh, I don’t know—how about a Gerald Génta-designed watch with an in-house automatic movement and that classic Genta octagonal profiling for less than a Rolex Oyster Perpetual? See what I mean when I say bargain?

It’s a design with a tonne of pedigree too, not a quick sketch done over a weekend on a cruise—you know, like the Nautilus—originating from the mid-eighties when Genta was creating some truly insane pieces. I don’t mean insane like, woah, crazy awesome—I just mean outright bonkers. If the Royal Oak and Nautilus are what Genta penned for corporate contracts, his personal watch designs are him really letting his hair down and having a wild old time of it. He’s like the H.R. Geiger of watchmaking, part genius, part maniac.

So although the early watches looked more like time-telling trifles brimmed with complications, the design was refined with time and, as Genta moved into the autumn years of his life, passed with his blessing—and I expect a heft invoice—to Bulgari. The cynical side of all of us would assume that Bulgari went and capitalised on this by wringing out every last drop of character from Genta’s work, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything Bulgari went the other way, using this iconic platform as a chance to honour Genta’s legacy by breaking record after watchmaking record.

And you could be a part of that, own a slice of history from a man whose designs saved watchmaking and made it what it is today—for just £4,500. I think bargain is fair. Do you think bargain is fair?

This is the point where I’d usually say, “But is it any good?”, but I’m not going to play that game today. It is good. It’s not small, not at 38mm square, but it is good. Thankfully, the centimetre thickness makes the size bearable, and lets what’s good about the watch really shine through.

In broad terms, it’s an interesting watch that’s well made and well finished and packs in a handy movement for good measure. The calibre BVL 191 won’t be setting any records like its stablemates, but with a 42-hour power reserve and a generous bit of decoration, it feels appropriate for a watch that claims such high station. You won’t be scoffing at the Royal Oak and Nautilus owners, but they won’t be scoffing at you either. And if they do, just remember, the end times are coming …

What makes a Genta watch in the hands of a brand like Audemars Piguet or Patek Philippe, however, is how those finer details can be realised with extraordinary precision. These—the Octo included—aren’t reserved, restrained creations; they’re busy, fussy even, and the balance of their success lies very much in the execution. When you think Bulgari you think fashion watch, or at least, you certainly used to, and that’s just not the case here. What is the case, however, is the case, literally, its many, many facets brushed and polished with a level of intricacy that really underpins Bulgari’s approach to this watch and Genta’s legacy as a whole.

The overall experience is one that’s surprisingly elegant and refined. The hands and markers encourage exploration to appreciate the detailing that’s gone into making them. The numbers could well have been flat and lifeless, but instead they’re neatly faceted, catching light around the perimeter to further separate them from the darkness behind. The movement could well have been a run-of-the-mill ETA, but instead you get something a bit more unique. What that tells me is that the investment in making this watch is not insignificant.

And that’s a risk for Bulgari. As a brand predominantly known for its jewellery, taking on the pet project of a designer who, outside of watchmaking, is a virtual unknown, ploughing the development time into making such a complicated case and filling it with a movement of its own making—let alone one of the record-breaking variety—is an elevated cost it really has very little way of knowing if it will recoup or not. That this watch—now discontinued—can be had for just £4,500, and new, its replacement, the Octo Roma, £5,650, demonstrates not only a commitment to watchmaking culturally, but also within the spirit of the community.

This brings us to the watch’s biggest flaw, and the sole reason it represents such good value. Buyers of Bulgari jewellery probably won’t be so inclined to spend quite so much on a watch, and enthusiasts who’ve followed Genta’s story probably won’t want to spend their hard earned on a watch with a jeweller’s name on it—at least, not until now. Over the last few decades, the broader public’s awareness of mechanical watches has driven brands we know and love so far into the mainstream, they just aren’t attainable anymore. Those Royal Oaks, those Nautili—they’re no longer the ugly ducklings of the collections favoured only by the most diehard of fans, they’re the posterchildren of a rising fascination with luxury. And yet here, in amongst it all, is Bulgari, giving us exactly what we want.

Understanding what makes a good watch and a bad one isn’t a question of logic, but of heart. It’s speculation, but I honestly believe that what Bulgari has been quietly doing here to keep Genta’s incredible story alive for generations comes from the heart. The raw ingredients that have gone into making this watch would surely make no sense from any marketing or accounting department’s point of view. “Who is Gérald Genta?” they’d say. “Just make a £500 watch that says ‘Bulgari’ on it.” But they didn’t. They made something for you and I, that I’d wager a good chunk of those fortunate enough to get a Royal Oak or Nautilus would probably have no interest in. All that for £4,500? Can you see why I think this watch is the biggest bargain in watchmaking?

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