In Focus Watches

How the Bulgari Aluminium Went from Iconoclast to Lightweight Classic

Bvlgari Aluminium Smeraldo

It’s a well-established fact that fashion trends are cyclical; it’s why parts of your wardrobe that were out of date 20 years back are suddenly in vogue. And while the watch industry moves much, much slower than the catwalk, it’s not immune to the vagaries of time. Trends may change at a glacial pace, but they’re still there and as the old guard of 60s divers followed by 70s sports watches give way it’s time to head back to the 90s. I’m so very sorry.

Unlike other era-specific watch trends, I was actually alive during the 90s. Only just, but I’ll take it. I remember listening to Nirvana on my way to see The Matrix smashing a packet of Nerds – which is odd as I’m pretty sure I was on my way to Space Jam and listening to the Spice Girls. I still to this day wake up at night haunted by the imagined theme tune to Pinky and the Brain.

Bvlgari Roma 1975

Bulgari Roma quartz (1975)

However, while pop culture may have hit a low point, watchmaking was in its ascendency. Whereas the much-documented quartz crisis of the 70s forced terrifying numbers of watchmakers to shutter their manufactures, the 90s was when the industry started to heal the damage. Swatch Group was buying up prestige brands, Patek was releasing insanely complicated calibres and there was an optimism to watches in general.

It was the kind of optimism I think we need a little more of these days. This was the era that Swatch really hit its stride with their funky, semi-disposable pieces. G-SHOCK were colourfully killing it with the Baby-G and Ikepod were building UFO-shaped watches aplenty. Sure, there were serious brands making serious things – A. Lange & Sohne comes to mind – but there was a sense of fun in unexpected combinations of colours and shapes. There was a willingness to try new, outlandish things, like an insanely high-end luxury jeweller leveraging aluminium and rubber to build an iconic watch.

Bulgari Diagono

Bulgari Diagono (circa 1988), image credit: Catawiki

I am of course talking about the Bulgari Aluminium, but before we get there it’s worth knowing that the Aluminium didn’t come out of nowhere. In 1988, the Italian-Swiss brand introduced the Diagono, their first foray into sports watches. They’d been releasing timepieces since the 1920s, including the Serpenti of the 1940s and the first Bulgari Roma of 1975, with its now famous brand-printed bezel. But these were meant to compliment their jewellery rather than appeal to a completely new audiences, so when the Diagono appeared with its integrated strap and quartz chronograph movement, it was a dramatic shift to the prestige level Bulgari had been working at. It was, dare I say, accessible.

Bvlgari Diagono Professional Scuba SD 42

Bulgari Diagono Professional Scuba SD 42 (circa 2000s)

In 1994 they launched the Diagono Scuba which, as the name suggests, was a diving variant of the watch that came with a COSC-certified movement this time and 200m water resistance. More importantly for our little biography, it came with a unique rubber strap that used big, bracelet-like links to join case and strap. These allowed the watch to lie flat against the wrist and avoid the springiness of the usual diving-appropriate rubber numbers.

Original Bvlgari Aluminium Advert 1998

Original Bulgari Aluminium Advert (1998)

Finally in 1998, Bulgari released their sports watch in its final form: the Bulgari Aluminium. The Bulgari name punched into the rubber bezel was taken directly from the original Diagono (and therefore the Roma of the 70s); the odd, rubber-coated trapezoidal links either side of the strap were taken from the Diagono Scuba and in its own twist, it introduced lightweight aluminium to the mix.

Style wise, it wasn’t just a throwback to Bulgari’s own watchmaking heritage, but the sports watches of two decades prior. The integrated strap, the industrial look, the whole thing felt like an accessible homage to the Genta era. In the 2020s, I’ve read similar sentiments in too many press releases from terrible Kickstarter brands to not roll my eyes, but back then it was just cool.

Bvlgari Aluminium Alitalia Boeing 747 Advert 1998

Bulgari Aluminium advertised on a Alitalia Boeing 747 (1998)

It’s hard to overstate how left-field the Aluminium was. It made sense from a product point of view of course. Aluminium is super lightweight and much more accessible than titanium. But at a time when the watch industry had only just started to be seen as a luxury purchase, Bulgari heading the other way was audacious at best, a gamble at worst.

We’re still talking about it, so it’s obviously a gamble that paid off. Sure, it helped that Bulgari plastered it across the side of 747 planes (back when Boeing were less terrifying) under the tagline, ‘Bulgari Aluminium Flies with Alitalia, but even under its own merits the Aluminium became an instant jet-set icon. Perhaps it was the innate fun of the watch. Perhaps it was the sleek, high-contrast aesthetics. It might even be that in the 90s we all loved a bit of branded – and the bezel, links and dial of the Aluminium were all VERY branded.

Bvlgari Aluminium 2020
Bvlgari Aluminium 2020

Bulgari Aluminium (2020)

It was successful enough that, after ending the Aluminium run back in …, Bulgari brought the collection back in 2020, with new automatic movements rather than the accessible quartz of the original generation. Again, it was a surprise given that at the same time the brand was showcasing their thinline watchmaking through the record-breaking Finissimo line. And yet once again it was the perfect time to bring it back, a time where collectors were looking for value and cool factor as much as classical prestige. It’s no coincidence that with the accessible microbrands, Bulgari’s uber-accessible slice of fun made a comeback – and it did so with a GPHG win right out of the gate.

That comeback was faithful to the original aesthetically, superior mechanically and has since spawned an ever-growing collection of fun pieces across time-only watches, chronographs and GMTs. Case in point, the trio of new releases for 2024.

Bvlgari Aluminium GMT

Bulgari Aluminium GMT

The first is the most straightforward. The Aluminium Black GMT is pretty much a retread of the debut design codes of 1998, with black, white and red. With a crisp white dial and black bezel and strap, it’s high contrast and jet-set enough that you could easily see it on the side of an aircraft. An Airbus, maybe. The 24-hour ring is mildly coke flavoured with it’s split between black for the night hours, red for the day. It’s similar to the previous blue version, but much more eye-catching. It’s also the same price at the older model at £3,540.

Second, we have the time only version which takes a clean, minimalist approach. The whole watch, Bulgari-stamped bezel included, is white, with just hints of red either end of the second hand. It looks and feels light and while it certainly veers more feminine, it’s nonetheless a seriously cool watch if you can get away with it, limited to 1,000 pieces and priced to move at £2,980.

Bvlgari Aluminium Smeraldo

Bulgari Aluminium Smeraldo

Finally, we have the highlight of the new drop – and in my opinion, the modern Aluminium collection as a whole – the Smeraldo. It’s not hard to guess why I like this one. The gorgeous mediterranean green of the dial goes from emerald at the bottom to white at the top, a fun take on a fume gradient. The chronograph subdials, rubber bezel and strap are in a darker, forest green which tones down the brighter dial colour nicely and marks it out from the rest of the Aluminium collection.

At £4,750, the Smeraldo is perhaps not as accessible as you might want from the collection as a whole, and it’s still a limited edition at 1,000 pieces, but it’s still a perfect summer watch. And there’s no denying it’s a fresh new look for the Aluminium, a watch that itself still feels as fresh and new as back in those halcyon days of 1998. At the very least, it’s aged a hell of a lot better than me.

More details at Bulgari.

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About the author

Sam Kessler

Legend has it that Sam’s first word was ‘escapement’ and, while he might have started that legend himself, he’s been in the watch world long enough that it makes little difference. As the editor of Oracle Time, he’s our leading man for all things horological – even if he does love yellow dials to a worrying degree. Owns a Pogue; doesn’t own an Oyster Perpetual. Yet.