Under the auspices of its ‘Les Collectionneurs’ program, the world’s oldest watchmaker has brought 18 rare, important and exceptionally well-restored timepieces to Hong Kong. Last week, with some expert assistance via the magic of Zoom, Christian Selmoni (Director of Heritage at Vacheron Constantin) took us through a selection of what collectors can expect, pictured below. And before you ask — yes, they’re all for sale.
I don’t think it’s any great controversy to say that in matters of history and heritage — as compared to sworn rivals Patek and AP — Vacheron Constantin has long had the upper hand. Over the decades, the high watchmaker has been much more comfortable with the idea of revisiting history than most its competitors: Something that started many years before the current fixation with remakes, ‘fauxtina’ and vintage (though that’s not to say Vacheron hasn’t exploited this boom in nostalgia to good effect).
Of late, the most ambitious aspect of this historical work has been ‘Les Collectionneurs’: an initiative under which specialists hunt down, authenticate, then carefully restore vintage Vacheron Constantin timepieces.
To date, neither of the brand’s biggest nemeses offer a vintage/pre-owned program that is comparable; with much of its recent advancement falling upon the shoulders of Christian Selmoni. Born into a family of watchmakers in the Vallée de Joux, Selmoni had already been at VC 27 years before being asked to head the brand’s heritage department — boosting the profile of initiatives like ‘Les Collectionneurs’ throughout North America, the Middle East and Asia.
To that end, 2020 isn’t the first time the ‘Les Collectionneurs’ exhibition is being seen in Hong Kong — the exact pieces change every year — though the global aviation shutdown in recent months mean it is the first time Selmoni won’t be on-hand to explicate in person and offer the depth of scholarship on many of VC’s lesser known references.
Instead, the brand has partnered with independent menswear retailer The Armoury, in a bid to showcase how a number of its vintage designs suit a more classic, sartorially inclined style of dress. Naturally, I was keen to learn how this emphasis on aesthetics also tied in with key refinements VC has achieved over the years in mechanical watchmaking. Luckily, Selmoni was all too happy to share. Here are five fantastic examples below:
Two-register chronograph in steel, with pulsometer (Ref. 4072)
Manufacture date: 1943
Arguably one of the three most desirable chronographs ever produced by Vacheron, the 4072 is a classic bi-compax design redolent of fine watchmaking during the mid-20th century. For three decades beginning in the late 1930s, 1,178 pieces of this reference were produced. Of this number, experts estimate no more than 300 were manufactured in steel — the present example being sourced from the brand’s own heritage museum. According to Selmoni, the inclusion of a pulsometre and the watch’s Staybrite construction indicate it was originally destined for military use, most likely on the wrist of a medic during WWII.
‘Gentleman’s’ chronograph in 18k pink gold, with gilt dial (Ref. 4178)
Manufacture date: 1942
Next to the aforementioned reference, the 4178 is the most influential chronograph design associated with Vacheron. Immediately recognisable by its distinctive, fan-shaped lugs, this reference’s external elements mirror the balance and sublime use of proportion evident in the dial — all characteristics that have contributed to the 4178’s reputation as the ultimate ‘gentleman’s wristwatch.’ The present example was manufactured in pink gold and outfitted with the calibre 434: Confirming it as one of only 280 pieces that were made early in the reference’s lifespan.
Triple calendar in 18k yellow gold, with moonphases (Ref. 4461)
Manufacture date: 1949
A small watch that makes a momentous impact when worn (thanks to the iconic Cornes de Vache lugs) the 4461 is one of Vacheron’s earliest forays into the world of calendar watchmaking. Though not as difficult to manufacture as the perpetual calendar, the triple indications (in English) sported by the current example have the advantage of superior legibility. In addition, the dial combines applied indices and a printed date track — both elements that are characteristic of post-WWII watchmaking.
Time-only wristwatch in 18k yellow gold, with triangular indices (Ref. 4066)
Manufacture date: 1954
Moreso than any of the other ‘Holy Trinity’ brands, Vacheron had a knack for incorporating bold, artistically inspired shapes into its dress watch designs. The present example (a 4066 manufactured in the mid-50s) is emblematic of this: featuring ‘arrow-head’ indices on the dial, and matching baton hands for the running seconds and time. Meanwhile, the movement is extremely evocative of the era: Measuring 12 ligne (approximately 28.2mm) and constructed with 17 jewels, it is thus ideal for use inside a dress watch.
Art-Deco wristwatch in 18k yellow gold, with gadrooned bezel and ‘Duco’ dial (Ref. 3681)
Manufacture date: 1948
Ideal at 32mm as a ladies’ watch, the reference 3681 is a design that (according to Selmoni) expresses something of the post-war optimism that was engulfing Europe in the late 1940s. This particular reference is most noteworthy for what is known as a ‘Gadrooned’ bezel — a distinctive shape composing multiple circular steps that play into the case’s domed architecture. In addition, the glossy darker-than-black appearance of the dial (wonderfully preserved in the present example) was achieved using Duco: a nitro-cellulose lacquer that was more commonly used as the topcoat for painting automobiles.
The ‘Les Collectionneurs’ timepieces are showcased across the Vacheron Constantin boutique through 22 July (Shop G8, G/F, Landmark Prince’s, 10 Chater Road, Central, Hong Kong, +852 2104 3311); and at The Armoury Landmark through 31 July (Shop B47, Landmark Atrium, 15 Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong, +852 2810 4990).
Unsold pieces will be transferred for a final exhibition at the brand’s 1881 Heritage boutique through 6 August (Shop 103, 1881 Heritage, 2A, 1/F Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, +852 2301 3811)