27 April 2021

Vacheron Constantin: 57 complications of success

by Eugénie Rousak

Plus ancienne que la Genève helvétique, la pépite horlogère, Vacheron Constantin remonte le temps avec précision.

While skilled craftsmen and women came from all over the world with their know-how, the Protestant republic flourished with new talents and became more and more refined in technical fields. The 18th century thus became the apogee of an art that combined knowledge and skill, watchmaking. Concentrated in the Saint-Gervais district, the Master Watchmakers, perched atop their cabinets of curiosities located on the top floors, the light is fundamental let’s not forget it, handle pinions, wheels and cogs. Among them, a certain Jean-Marc, an unknown man who is about to found what will become the oldest watch manufacturer in the world. This is the story of Vacheron Constantin.

The year was 1755. Son of an emigrant weaver, Jean-Marc Vacheron is part of what is called the “cabinotiers cultivés”, a reference to the name of the workshops at the time, the “cabinets”. At only 24 years old, he decided to open his own factory and hired his first apprentice. Although the name of Esaïe Jean François Hetier has not gone down in history, his work contract is the first trace of the existence of this two hundred year old company. A true relic of the future dynasty! It was soon joined by the first creation of the factory, the watch signed “J.M. Vacheron à Genève”. Elegant and technical, it sets the tone, placing the standard hand above the wind crown.

Vacheron before Constantin

Jean-Marc Vacheron, First watch “J.M. Vacheron à Genève”, The pantograph and Jacques-Barthélemy Vacheron ©Vacheron Constantin

Although the factory has never ceased its activities in 266 years, its development has truly taken place in cogwheel fashion. As the name family watchmaking implies, the art, as subtle as it is technical, is passed on from father to son. Alongside his father, Abraham Vacheron joined the company before welcoming his own son, Jacques-Barthélémi Vacheron in 1810. This change of generations with leaders as ambitious as they were visionary enabled the company to weather the political storms of the period. While the French Revolution hit the company’s loyal aristocratic clientele and Geneva was annexed to France, the Vacheron family continued to perfect its art and its models. The famous Lépine, with its dial dedicated solely to the seconds, the appearance of the first watch complications and musical watches with two melodies were born timidly under the roofs of Geneva. While the deterioration of commercial relations forced many competitors to close their doors, the brand refused to accept the same fate. Like clockwork, it ingeniously linked sales strategies. While exploiting its address book to position itself in other European countries remains prosaic, selling watch+cloth or watch+bottle of alcohol packs is off the beaten track. And these innovations work, allowing Vacheron to continue its activity until the fall of Napoleon, a great relief for the whole Geneva industry! The birth of a motto also appears:

The watchmaking company is known under the double name, yet only Vacheron was mentioned until now. Is this a mistake? Absolutely not, Constantin is coming! The year 1819 marks a turning point both in terms of the name and its future. While Jacques-Barthélémi Vacheron had already given the impetus to the internationalization of the brand, it was his meeting with François Constantin, a Geneva businessman, that propelled the creators across borders and oceans to the American continent. In 1832, the small family business was even established in New York. A true American dream for the company that was henceforth called Vacheron & Constantin (before losing the name & in 1970). In fact, for the record, this market was so important to the company that a wristwatch in the shape of a cushion was dedicated to it in 1921. But let’s not be too hasty, let’s go back to the 19th century. If only the names Vacheron and Constantin have survived, there is a third man who changed the destiny of the factory… and of the entire watch industry. His name is Georges-Auguste Leschot. He is the technical director and it is to him that we owe the pantograph. A symbol of precision, this machine made it possible to drill holes in the plates, which greatly increased the speed of production. The effect was so revolutionary that a new building was built to accommodate the growing factory. A few years later, the first floor was given over to a boutique and showroom, marking the customer experience of this prestigious brand. To accentuate and symbolize the importance of precision and the place of rigor in the DNA of the brand, the directors chose a telling logo: the symmetrical and refined Maltese cross

From 1 to 57 complications

First “Cottier system” watch with 31 time zones, 1932 ©Vacheron Constantin
Watch “57260″ ©Vacheron Constantin

Watchmakers’ prowess is distinguished either by batteries, or rather drums, of innovative techniques, or by ingenious and fascinating designs. Vacheron Constantin excels in both. While the world plunges into a succession of wars and conflicts, the craftsmen of the House, year after year, seduce the public with ever more surprising creations. The number of complications evolves with each collection and their combination becomes more and more complex. If the first watch with the display of 31 time zones seduced in 1932 and the technological delight with 14 complications astonished in 1946, the apogee of the brand’s excellence is surely symbolized by the creation of the 57260 for the 260th anniversary. It took eight years to compose this jewel, which, as its name suggests, is packed with mechanics, with a total of 57 complications! But Vacheron Constantin is not just about technical prowess. The challenges are more intriguing than the others! How can we not mention the wristwatch as thick as a 20-cent coin or the asymmetrical dial for which Vacheron Constantin was the first watch company to obtain the Diplôme du Prestige de la France.

A thousand and one sparks

The other characteristic of the Geneva factory is its inexhaustible creativity with convoluted craft techniques. Textures, colors, materials, everything goes! The brand does not hesitate to venture into new methods, such as enameling or engraving designs that are as elegant as they are meticulous, with surprising results. Vacheron Constantin’s other great passion is stones. What could be more sparkling and magical than the Kallista model with its 118 diamonds or the avant-garde Lady Kalla, an emblematic marriage between watchmaking and fine jewelry? The House’s designers do not hesitate to draw their inspiration from the unconventional fields of industry to push back the limits of craftsmanship. Who would have thought of reproducing the masks of the Barbier-Mueller Museum in the middle of the dial? And yes, Vacheron Constantin presented it at the 2007 Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie. Another example would be this multicolored collection with motifs by artist Maurits Cornelis Escher! A true visual delight, what more can be said? Between the casual elegance of some models and the oscillating explosion of others, Vacheron Constantin sets the tone for the industry with its unwavering commitment to the technicality of its mechanisms and the avant-garde nature of its collections. Meticulously composed, each of the creations tells a new story to its owner, enhancing the family heritage of the small rooftop workshop.

Diamond watch “Kallista”, Watch “Tour de l’Île” and the international headquarters in Plan-les-Ouates, Geneva ©Vacheron Constantin

Political conflicts, the quartz crisis and changes in leadership have not been able to stop the brand’s rotating mechanism. Initially family-owned, then integrated into Jaeger-Lecoultre and now under the emblem of the Richemont Group, Vacheron Constantin is undeniably part of the Ivy league of watchmaking. A staunch defender of its ancestral know-how and its Swiss quality values, the manufacture launches new challenges to the industry every year. But patience, patience the 270 years jewel is surely already in development in Plan-les-Ouates.

Égérie Phase de Lune

Heures Créatives Heure Romantique

Patrimony automatique

Overseas Tourbillon

Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955

Traditionnelle Twin Beat Quantième Perpétuel