by Anurima Sen
“Vacheron Constantin will never be out of fashion, because it never courted fashion,” says Claude-Daniel Proellochs, the Chief Executive Officer of the brand, and his words ring true when one takes a sweeping look at the rich, uninterrupted history of the brand. In 2005, Vacheron Constantin celebrated its 250th anniversary having been in incessant production since the year of Marie-Antoinette's birth, 1755. The first workshop was setup in Geneva by the exceptionally brilliant, young Jean-Marc Vacheron- a cabinotier- as Geneva's clockmakers were known in those days. His first creation is supposed to be a watch he made for personal use, an exceptional timepiece in itself. It is a silver pocket watch engraved with the inscription J: MC Vacheron à Genève.
Vacheron's fame spread all over Geneva, and subsequently, in Europe. For thirty years, he built up his business, teaching men the craft of horology. The engine-turned dials at Vacheron Constantin appears for the first time in the year 1779. In 1785, he handed over his business to his son Abraham who in turn handed it down to his son Jacques-Barthélemy. Barthélemy had already initiated the brand's first exports to France and Italy but he was averse to traveling even though the trade demanded it. In 1812 he creates a collection of six quarter-repeater watches which strike the hours and the quarters upon request.
Francois Constantin, a friend and a man with shrewd business acumen became his partner,and took up traveling all over Europe for Barthélemy, in order to bring orders and deliver the goods. The company's motto: Do better if possible, and that is always possible can be traced back to a letter sent to Barthélemy by Constantin, dated July 5, 1819. Needless to say, business prospered like never before. Moreover, having reached the shores of North America, the partners employed a mechanical mastermind named Georges-Auguste Leschot in 1839 as the firm's technical director. This gifted engineer guided the brand into uncharted territories by developing new machinery and equipment; he increased the production process by adapting the pantograph to the requirements of this industry and built a wide range of precision machines to allow successive fabrication of movement components, but he did not compromise on the excellence of the timepieces. He standardized movements into calibers, an accomplishment that revolutionized the art of watch-making. In 1872, Vacheron Constantin entered a precision competition organized by the Geneva Observatory and won. Soon after, in 1880, it adopted the Maltese-Cross trademark, a symbol that has ready recall value today. This simple, unencumbered motif was inspired by a component of the barrel. The part had a cross-shape and was used for restraining the tension within the mainspring of the watch.
It is from 1889 that wristwatch production begins at Vacheron Constantin, following requests from the American Forces. The first important watch that emerged from the stable in the 1920s was the Grande Complication it had a minute repeater with split seconds chronograph, moon-phase, perpetual calendar and alarm. Even though the company decided to concentrate on quality watches for everyday use instead of making high-end watches, their technical advancements inspired the entire horological industry. In 1935 they created a complex pocket watch, commissioned by King Farouk of Egypt, which took almost five years to finish. In 1955 the company created a world record for building one of the thinnest watches ever produced with a caliber of only 1.64mm deep. This accomplishment proved beyond doubt that the company had not lost any of its creative dynamism and mechanical inventiveness. These achievements, though highly laudable, removed the company's focus from the market with the result that the establishment was left with obsolete and outdated stock, and an inefficient retail network. It was Claude-Daniel Proellochs who restored the brand to its former glory and ensured that within five years more than ten thousand timepieces were produced annually.
In 1972, Vacheron Constantin produced the classic Cambrée series- wristwatches with a novel appearance which won the highly coveted and prestigious "Diplôme du Prestige de la France" which won the highly coveted and prestigious "Diplôme du Prestige de la France". In 1979 they came up with the world's most expensive watch called the Kallista. It is manually engraved and wrought out of one kilogram of solid gold, bedecked with a hundred and eighteen emerald-cut brilliant diamonds. However, the owner of this fantastic timepiece a result of painstaking labour and mechanical genius remains unknown having received a pledge of secrecy from Vacheron Constantin. It is interesting to note that the previous Vacheron Constantin owners include the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Pius XI, the Duke of Windsor and Harry Truman.
Other exclusive models of Vacheron Constantin consist of the Mercator, the 240 and the Tour de I'lle. The Mercator watch came out in 1994, saluting the 400th anniversary of the master cartographer Gerhard Kremer (1512-1594), inventor of the Mercator projections and a highly regarded mathematical scholar. It is in 18-karat gold, having a hand-enameled gold dial and represents one of Mercator's maps of the hemispheres showing Europe, Africa and Asia, with a self winding movement. The time hands look like compasses and displays the hours and minutes in an arc. Only 1,000 pieces were produced of this limited edition. 240 was released to commemorate the company's 240th anniversary and it came in 18-karat pink gold with a self winding movement, a power reserve indicator and a pointer-like date hand. An engraving of Geneva's Tour de I'lle adorns the back of each watch. Only five pieces of these watches were produced. In 2005 they produced the Tour de l'Ile watch which, according to the brand's website is “the most complicated double-faced wristwatch in the world, with a unique combination of 16 complications and astronomical dials. Its exceptional calibre of 834 components involves Vacheron Constantin's designers, engineers, constructors and watchmakers in more than 10,000 hours of research and development. It bears the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva.” Only seven of these timepieces were produced and the initial price was 1.5 million dollars.
The most popular product range of Vacheron Constantin consists of: Phideas, Les Historiques, Les Absolues, Les Complications and Les Essentielles. Phideas is the flagship line of the brand- it has a classical design on 18-karat gold cases on matching bracelets, with the company's own automatic movements. The Les Historiques is also modeled on traditional design, for example Jalousie which is inspired by one of their 1930s models. It has a unique system of shutters that cover the dial and they can be opened and closed with the help of a slide set that boasts of a cabochon sapphire. The gold case is usually pink, and this makes an interesting contrast with the white gold of the shutters. The mechanical movement is handwound.
The most embellished line of the lot is the Les Absolues. One could call a watch belonging to this series, a jeweler's work of art. It is studded with precious stones, and diamonds. The Kalla Amalfi is typical of the Les Absolues; it is in 18-karat white gold case set with baguette cut diamonds, with a manually wound mechanical movement. The Les Complications, as the name suggests, highlights the technical advancements of the company, flaunting technical skills invested in such a quality timepiece. The Jumping Hour is a hand-wound model in 18-karat gold on a leather strap. Most Les Complications watches flaunt a simple silver index dial. The Les Essentielles is perhaps the most basic model of the lot, concentrating solely on round gold-cased models with a leather strap.
Certain notable watches that deserve special mention in this column are the Patrimony: Power Reserve, Les Essentielles: Ladies 1972 series, and Malte: Perpetual Calender Chronograph. The Patrimony Power Reserve is from the Complications collection and features a dial with a lined guilloché pattern. Available in both yellow and white gold it boasts of a self winding movement, and water resistance up to thirty meters. The face indicates not only the time, but also the date and power reserve. The Les Essentielles: Ladies 1972 series is a well-designed, elegant and graceful collection. The design is asymmetrical, and the bracelets are made of braided 18-karat white or yellow gold. Engraved with precious stones and bedecked with well cut diamonds, this watch is perfect for any occasion- be it formal or informal. The Perpetual Calendar Chronograph is available in both platinum and 18-k rose gold, and it features a 31-day retrograde readout, with a manual winding movement. Other interesting features of the model are the leap year indicator and the visible moon phases. This watch is water resistant up to thirty meters.
While discoursing upon any Vacheron Constantin creation, it is imperative that one keeps in mind three fundamental factors: firstly, the technique that has been carefully developed by the founders aided by visionary production equipment; secondly, the understated aesthetic sense that permeates all of the timepieces; thirdly, the quality of finish that is almost incomparable to any other brand, perhaps because of the firm's dedication to quality over quantity. The advertisements by Vacheron Constantin highlight the company's dedication to both tradition and excellence. One such newspaper advertisement depicts iconic heritage sites such as Machu Pichhu and the Eiffel Tower, and plays on the concept of tradition in relation to the age of the company and the value of its watches: “When the lost city of the Incas was discovered in Peru, Vacheron Constantin was 156 years old.” Succinctly put, Vacheron Constantin is a representative of watch-making at its most complicated yet sophisticatedly best.