It was announced in March 2019 that one of the longest-lasting partnerships between an automobile brand and watch company will be coming to an end. Parmigiani Fleurier signed an agreement to develop co-branded watches with the new Volkswagen Group-owned Bugatti just as that brand was emerging in 2001. Now, 18 years later, Bugatti has announced that the partnership is no more. Although the relationship between automobile and watch brands usually ends in failure, this was an exception: Parmigiani developed some remarkable timepieces and were an excellent match to the “haute automobile” brand.
Collaborations between automobile brands and watches are legendary, but not in a good way. Nearly every such exercise has ended in failure, typically after just a few years. Although some result in interesting watches (e.g. Hublot’s current cooperation with Ferrari), most are quickly forgotten. How many of us even remember the explosion of AMG-branded IWC watches between 2013 and 2016?
The brand value of these collaborations also often leaves us scratching our heads. Why did Ferrari sign Movado to make budget-priced watches after similar failed attempts with Cartier and Longines? It’s not like they’re working with Fiat to create budget-priced cars! And what does this mean for high-end work with Hublot and Cabestan?
In contrast, the collaboration between the re-born Bugatti and horology phenom Michel Parmigiani always made sense. Parmigiani is known for both his engineering and business prowess and, like Ettore Bugatti, never shied away from avant-garde technical and design details. It is a wonder that Volkswagen connected with Parmigiani way back in 2001, but this connection was rewarded once the remarkable Parmigiani Bugatti Type 370 watch was introduced. As it made the rounds in 2004, reviewers universally praised the Type 370’s radical “transverse” design, the movement showing off five stacked plates with a tiny perpendicular dial for only the wearer to see. The Type 370 was truly an exceptional watch, and was priced accordingly at over $250,000.
Parmigiani’s Bugatti line expanded in 2010 with the introduction of the more-affordable Atalante chronograph. While the case took a page from the Art Deco Kalpa and Tonda chronograph, the Atalante’s slatted dial was designed as a reference to the vertical grille bars on a classic Bugatti sports car. Like other automotive chronographs, Bugatti diverged from the classic right-side positioning of the pushers: The flyback chronograph is operated by pushers at 8:00 and 10:00. Curiously, the Atalante has been all but excised from the Parmigiani web site.
The ultimate Parmigiani Bugatti model was the Super Sport. Officially unveiled at SIHH in 2011, this half-million-dollar “super-watch” was a glorious complement to the Bugatti Veyron super-car. The exotic movement was arranged on two axes, showing off the escape wheel and power reserve indicator while reserving a view of the time for the wearer. Gorgeous hand finishing was visible through sapphire windows on all sides of the perfect wing-shaped body.
I was lucky to be able to wear a Super Sport and examine the awesome mechanical elements inside during a visit to the Parmigiani boutique in London. As my understanding of horology has progressed, I have come to respect the minute detailing achieved by haute horology brands. But nothing prepares you for time with a loupe and a true high-end watch like this one. Everything was on display through the sapphire windows on all faces of the case, and everything was perfect. Even the custom screws, hand-made in-house like Ettore Bugatti would have wanted, were immaculate. Yet, on stepping back, it is remarkable to note that the arrangement of the movement is entirely unlike any other watch. The level of engineering on display in the Super Sport shows why Bugatti was right to partner with Parmigiani.
Company insiders tell me that the Super Sport was quite popular with the type of wealthy buyer attracted by the Bugatti Veyron or Chiron sports car. Indeed, many were said to purchase a Super Sport for themselves along with a few additional Parmigiani models for their staff and friends. This explains the most affordable model in the Parmigiani Bugatti range, which I also wore that day in London. The Aerolithe is a re-worked Atalante, with the same movement hidden behind a solid dial with symmetric chronograph registers.
But this is Parmigiani we’re talking about, so many avant-garde details remain. The pushers are cleverly integrated into teardrop lugs that resemble the Kalpagraph and the body of “big brother” Super Sport. Everything is perfectly tasteful but with a flamboyance not found on other luxury chronograph models. And the Aerolithe was almost affordable, priced under $30,000 despite the in-house flyback chronograph movement and titanium and gold case.
The final Bugatti model from Parmigiani debuted in 2016. The Type 390 drew inspiration from its exotic predecessors but was novel all the same. The barrel-shaped movement has seven plates placed below a tourbillon and sits longitudinal to the wrist. The dial is oriented perpendicular, displayed at an angle but facing outward. Priced over $300,000, the Type 390 complemented the Super Sport for well-heeled buyers.
Over 18 years, Parmigiani Fleurier produced just five Bugatti watch models. In retrospect, perhaps this exclusive brand was just too small to match up with a powerhouse like Volkswagen Group. I have come to respect Parmigiani’s engineering, design, and finishing. With the two companies going their separate ways, it is hard to imagine any other watch company doing justice to the Bugatti name.