Vacheron Constantin may have been around for some 264 unbroken years, but it stands as one the most underrated of Swiss watchmaking names. In the nearly three centuries of its existence, the brand has made some of the most important contributions in horology. It has engineered a lineage of ‘super complications’ (most famously for the Egyptian kings Fuad I and Farouk); embraced vintage watches with the full force of modern technology; developed one of the world’s iconic ultra-thin movements; and, more recently, succeeded in crafting a watch with a 65-day power reserve.
Historically, it has been a very specific kind of individual who collects Vacheron. Before the age of 44mm sports watches, the brand was instrumental in creating what we now think of as the classic mid-century design language: Art-Deco cases, characterful lugs and painstakingly balanced proportions have all contributed to its reputation for ‘refined’ watchmaking. In conjunction with a long history of intricate, highly technical watchmaking, the brand has built a truly international clientele. In the latest edition of History of Time, we share a handful of our favourite ‘highlights’ from the house of Vacheron and maybe, just maybe, convince you to discover the Swiss watch industry’s most under-appreciated marque.
This article was first published on Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong.
The 24-year-old cabinotier-watchmaker Jean-Marc Vacheron signs his first apprentice, Jean Francois Hetier. At that time, Vacheron is already closely associated with leading figures in the French Enlightenment (e.g. Rousseau and Voltaire), using their liberalist and scientific ideas to inspire his own work in mechanical watchmaking. The contract of employment between him and Hetier is widely seen as the ‘birth certificate’ of Vacheron Constantin; solidifying its title as the world’s oldest, continuously operational watch brand.
Jean Marc’s grandson Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron invites the experienced entrepreneur François Constantin to join his company. The former realises that in order to grow the business, he will need a partner. To that end, Constantin spends the next three decades traveling widely, opening up overseas markets for his partner’s watches — now sold under the name ‘Vacheron et Constantin’.
Vacheron Constantin develops an extremely innovative pocket watch design for the period, fitted with a jumping hours display. The piece is encased in red gold and powered by the calibre 20: an unusual movement made with a monometallic balance and cylinder escapement. This jumping-hours pocketwatch is among the first ever made in Europe during the 19th century that features a date complication.
The pantograph (invented by horological engineer Georges-Auguste Leschot) enables the production of movements that possess interchangeable parts. Because essential watchmaking components such as bridges and the baseplate are now manufactured using a uniform process, Vacheron Constantin is able to raise the general quality of all its watches.
In Bern, Vacheron Constantin registers its Maltese cross symbol with the Swiss federal trademarks office. Embodying the company’s quest for precision, this logo was in fact inspired by the shape of a constant force mechanism, mounted to the barrel of one of the brand’s early pocketwatch movements.
This history of the Maltese cross itself can be traced back to the 16th century: when it first appeared as a heraldic device on currency and equipment produced for the Knights of Malta. Today, the symbol continues to be a popular artistic component in prestigious royal orders of merit in Sweden, Portugal and the Netherlands: strengthening Vacheron’s association with the European aristocracy.
Vacheron presents its first ever high-precision pocketwatch that is optimised for daily use, registered under the name ‘Royal Chronometer’. The model becomes an international hit: thanks to its robustness, accuracy and resistance to climates that were once considered too hostile for watches to normally operate in.
To celebrate the original design’s centennial, Vacheron launches a wristified Royal Chronometer in 2007: complete with an enamel dial, 39mm pink gold case and self-winding movement certified with the Geneva Seal.
Six years after the completion of the equally acclaimed ‘King Fuad I’, Vacheron delivers an even more sophisticated grande complication to Prince Farouk — future king of Egypt. Development of the piece (nicknamed ‘The Farouk’) took five years: integrating 14 complications into a movement composing 820 distinct parts. Among other functions, The Farouk features a carillon minute repeater, grande sonnerie, petite sonnerie, split-second chronograph, perpetual calendar, alarm, and twinned power reserves for the gear train and striking mechanism.
Swiss authorities in Egypt presented Farouk with this watch prior to his instruction at the Royal Military Academy. Upon succeeding his father King Fuad I in 1937, the young prince embarks on a European tour — making a point to visit the Vacheron Constantin manufacture in Geneva.
Vacheron begins manufacturing the Ref. 4072: an extremely refined mid-century chronograph that will go on to attain iconic status amongst collectors. In production until the early 1970s, the 4072 design language usually encompasses 60-second and 30-minute registers; blued chronograph hands; a sunburst dial; and a combined tachymetre/telemeter scale illustrated using Latin-inspired fonts.
Over the years, Vacheron equipped this design with three different chronograph calibres (i.e. the calibre 295, 434 and 492), which derive from the historically important Valjoux 22. In typical Vacheron fashion — despite the closed casebacks of this era — the movements powering the 4072 are meticulously finished, exhibiting Vacheron’s expertise in the decorative artforms of straight graining, polishing and anglage. A total of 1,178 pieces of this reference were made.
Produced for a relatively brief period between 1955 and the mid-1960s, the Ref. 6087 (colloquially known as the ‘Cornes de Vache’) bears the distinction of being the only anti-magnetic water-resistant chronograph fielded by Vacheron during this era. The ‘Cornes de Vache’ moniker derives from the powerfully shaped, bull-inspired lugs — Vacheron has always been renowned for its eclectic, beautiful lug designs — while the dial configuration evolves the brand’s established design language — restrained, legible and extremely beautiful. A total of 36 pieces (mostly in yellow gold) were made.
In 2017, Vacheron revives the core Ref. 6087 design as part of its Historiques collection. Featuring a 38.5mm case and reworked Lemania calibre, it is currently available in pink gold or platinum.
Less than five years after the introduction of the Royal Oak and Nautilus, Vacheron responds to growing demand for steel sports watches with the 222 — a design that diverged dramatically from its traditional wheelhouse. German designer Jörg Hysek — working from certain ‘first principles’ set down by the legendary Gerald Genta — created a steel sports watch that could compare, yet offer a distinct alternative to the likes of the Nautilus. The tonneau case is true to the geometric forms that were popularised during the 1970s, while the bezel is among the most forward-looking of its era: imbued with an almost steampunkish charm thanks to the serrated edges and mono-block construction. Along with a high degree of luminescence, these characteristics of the 222 would go on to form the basis of the brand’s best-selling Overseas collection.
Due to relatively miniscule production numbers — originally 500 were made in steel, with an additional 100 in gold — the 222 is highly sought-after by Vacheron aficionados.
In an ongoing quest to improve and modernise its watchmaking traditions, Vacheron merges two of its workshops in the Vallée de Joux. Together, the Haut de Gamme Sàrl and Cellule Technique facilities become known as the Ateliers Vacheron Constantin. This development eventually leads to the construction of a fully integrated manufacture in Le Brassus. Established in 2013, it brings R&D and component manufacturing/finishing activities altogether under one roof.
To commemorate its quarter millennium, Vacheron launches a series of five complicated clocks and watches, that pay tribute to the various aspects of fine watchmaking. Among them is the Tour de l’Île: a model that, true to Vacheron’s reputation, combines 16 horological combinations inside a movement with an R&D cycle of 10,000 hours. At the time, it is considered the most complicated wristwatch to ever be serially produced. A total of seven pieces were made.
In a move that will prove prescient in years to come, Vacheron launches the ‘Les Collectionneurs’ program: its own, meticulously organised foray into the world of vintage watch collecting. Under the Les Collectionneurs remit, Vacheron specialists procure rare and important timepieces (mainly from 1910-1970) through auction houses, museums and private collectors. These undergo a total restoration in Vacheron’s vintage customer service department before being made available for sale at thematic events around the globe.
In order to guarantee the provenance of these restored vintage pieces, the brand delivers each with a certificate of authenticity and 2-year warranty. (The latest iteration of this documentation utilises Blockchain technology in order to authenticate the accuracy of each unique paper certificate.)
At the behest of a private client — rumoured to have parted with upwards of US$5 million — Vacheron brings its tradition of complex pocketwatches into the modern age with the Ref. 57260. Developed over a period of eight years by three of the brand’s master watchmakers, the 57260 showcases an (almost obscene) number of technical innovations: one of its three perpetual calendars displays information in Hebrew; the split-second chronograph features retrograde hands; and a ‘silencer’ is integrated for use in combination with the grande and petit sonnerie.
To learn more about the history of Vacheron Constantin, or locate your nearest boutique in Hong Kong, visit Vacheron Constantin online.