Talking Time with Ming Liu: Bulgari's Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani

The Italian house’s director of watch design shares his horological tastes and ticks for our new column.
By Ming Liu

Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani was one of the first watchmaking creative directors I ever interviewed, many moons ago, when I was first starting out as a watch journalist. What immediately struck me about the Naples-born designer was his unexpected passion and élan, not to mention his patience and compassion. Sensing my insecurity about high watchmaking and no doubt my American accent, he said to me: “So in America you have Silicon Valley, right? In Switzerland, in watchmaking, we have the Neuchatel Valley.”

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Fabrizio Buonamassa Stigliani, director of the Bulgari Watches Design Centre

Fabrizio’s inherent relatability and humanistic approach to design are, I believe, just a few of the characteristics that have enabled him to propel Bulgari’s watchmaking to new heights (he became director of the watch design team in 2007, and two years later spearheaded the move to Neuchatel, the heart of Swiss watchmaking). Today, Bulgari holds its own – with signature Italian flair – in the often-stuffy world of Swiss watchmaking, as anyone familiar with the iconic Bulgari Octo Finissimo will know. The ultra-thin, architectural-style watch first landed on the scene in 2014, and in the ensuing years has clocked some 60 awards – the latest model of which, the perpetual calendar, recently taking the world record for the world’s slimmest. It’s the Octo Finissimos’s seventh world record. 

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The Octo Finissimo Perpetual Calendar holds the world record for the world’s slimmest of its kind (Image: Bulgari)

Fabrizio’s ability to reinterpret, time again, Bulgari’s rich stylistic and cultural heritage, extends to women’s watches too. Whether walking me through a fully articulated, bejewelled-to-the-hilt Serpenti watch that loops snugly around the wrist, or a disc-based number with no watch hands and adorned with peacock feathers (which he called “a fantastic piece of mechanical art on the wrist”), he never ceases to fascinate me with his insights and mastery of design.

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(Image: Bulgari)
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The Bulgari Serpenti Spiga (Image: Bulgari)

I caught up with Fabrizio in Neuchatel, in his design studio that he calls an “Italian office”. (“Here, we speak Italian and on the rest of the fourth floor we speak French,” he told me). I hope you enjoy our interview and for me personally, it’s such an honour and privilege to have Fabrizio as my very first guest on Talking Time.

What does watchmaking in the 21st century mean to you?

For me, time-keeping is the last feature I ask of a wristwatch. Time is everywhere now – on our mobile phones, on every Zoom call - but reading the time on your wrist is completely different. As a designer, the gesture is important. The ritual is important. 

In the end, watches say something about you. People love mechanical watches because it’s a part of an amazing savoir-faire. There’s the history too: sometimes it’s the legacy between you and your relatives; sometimes it’s just a story that’s unique to you. For example, I’ve been wearing an Octo Finissimo since the saga began. 

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2014: The release of the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon, the thinnest tourbillon ever made (Image: Bulgari)

You started your career at Fiat, and you’ve always loved both cars and watches. To quote, you once said: “The shape of a vehicle must suggest its use, its performance, and in some case a dream; watches have the same goals but with the added, perhaps harder, challenge of fitting all this in a space 40mm across”. What is it like designing for both?

I’m a pure industrial designer. I trained at the Institute for Industrial Arts of Rome, where I designed many different things – chairs, sunglasses, cars… You have to be able to design everything from a helicopter to a chair. The only thing that’s different is the know-how, which a designer has to manage. 

A designer may be good at sketches, but most importantly they have to imagine things that don’t exist. Being a designer combines a technical and human approach, because someone has to use your object. 

If you’re obsessed by one thing, you don’t have the right tools to be a real designer. You’ll become a CAD designer, or furniture designer. So designing many different objects is important. 

What do you love most about your job?

To sketch, imagine and reinvent products for the brand. Each project is a different challenge. Bulgari is a very dynamic brand – I love how it can reinvent itself each time. The soul of this house is very unique.

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What is the most challenging thing about your job?

It’s exactly the same answer. At Bulgari, everything is possible with a certain aesthetic and certain codes. We have such a rich history, where Bulgari has no clear, defined aesthetic – whether looking back at Gianni Bulgari’s time in the 1960s-1980s and all the designers that came after him. Or the iconic dolce vita years when Bulgari completely reinvented the jewellery world.

The hardest thing is imagining a new aesthetic, while managing it at the very same time. You have to reinvent through iconic elements while completely rejuvenating the brand. 

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 The Octo Finissimo Tadao Ando Limited Edition in Titanium

Today Bulgari is a huge company – we make jewellery, perfume, small leather goods; we are in hotels. The scale is completely different to the period of, say, Gianni Bulgari, where there were something like four boutiques. Today we have hundreds of stores, and the environment, markets and economies have completely changed. As a designer, again, we have to manage all these different aspects within the DNA.

What does time mean to you?

Never enough. We design time, but never have enough time to do it. Watches are made by human beings and, fortunately, we make mistakes. So there are always delays in design and product development. 

What do you think will be the biggest change post-pandemic for the watch industry?

Returning to one’s roots will be very important, even more so than in the past. Clients will seek products that reassure, from brands they know. It will be important for us to be innovative in a very consistent way. Not just to create unusual things, but to be innovative – and consistently so. 

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The Bulgari Octo Finissimo Tourbillon Ultranero ref. 102560

Do you follow watch trends and do these influence your designs?

Not in any conscious way. But maybe in an unconscious way, yes. With social media today you are condizionato – you’re not completely free. You’re bombarded by so many things, from so many directions. Add to that the economic and social context, and for sure you make some decisions unconsciously. 

What is on your wishlist right now?

Right now in Neuchatel it’s raining and has been since this morning. So I’d love to have a different light outside my window. It would be great to holiday in the south of Italy – either Naples onto Sicily, or Capri and the Costiera Amalfitana. 

What do you collect?

Pens – fountain pens, ballpoint pens…I started to collect pens like crazy two years ago. But I need to stop because I can’t use them all. I like objects I can use, which is why I probably don’t collect very many things. 

Who is your style icon?

Italian actors from the 1960s: Marcelo Mastroianni, Vittorio Gassman, Antonio de Curtis aka Totò, Alberto Sordi. They were all very, very elegant men with amazing talent. Today’s that’s unique. It was a different era; today the idea of elegance is to be extravagant. To be different just to be different. Trousers that are too short, ties that are too fancy. For me, even Gianni Agnelli in a certain way was too extravagant. 

If I weren’t a watch designer, I’d be a… 

That’s a tricky, tricky question. Honestly I don’t have that dream. But if pressed maybe another designer – Gerald Genta, Dieter Rams, the products of Castiglioni and Marco Zanuso, the cars of Sergio Scaglietti…It’s just impossible to say.
 

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