Vacheron Constantin: Endgame Watches Part 3

Posted by Jason Swire on March 10, 2021

If such a thing as an underdog could exist within the rarefied realm of the Big Three Swiss watchmakers, it would be Vacheron Constantin. Collectors and speculators alike fawn over Patek Philippe, and to a slightly lesser extent the Royal Oak in all its incarnations from Audemars Piguet, but Vacheron is often overlooked. There are a few reasons for this; notably, Vacheron does not have a Gerald Genta designed watch in its collections, and unlike both Patek and Audemars it is owned by the conglomerate Richemont rather than being a family-owned business. That being said, Vacheron is still among the most prestigious watchmakers in the world, and possess something that neither of the other two brands can claim: 266 years of continuous watchmaking.

Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 reference 5000H/000P-B058 ©2021 Vacheron Constantin

Vacheron Constantin was founded in 1755 by Jean-Marc Vacheron, making this the oldest watch brand in the world that never ceased trading. The brand was owned by the Vacheron family exclusively until 1819 when a partnership was formed with business strategist Francois Constantin, and the business became known as Vacheron et Constantin for the first time. Francois would be responsible for marketing and selling the company’s watches abroad. The letters between Jacques-Barthélemy and Francois during this period contained a phrase that would go on to become the company’s motto: “Do better if possible and that is always possible.”

In 1839 Vacheron Constantin employed a horological engineer and inventor named Georges-Auguste Leschot, who developed machines for the company capable of serial production of watch components. Leschot invented the Pantograph, which was capable of engraving dials and small components in a mechanised, duplicable way. He was awarded a Gold Medal from the Arts Society of Geneva in 1844, enhancing Vacheron Constantin’s reputation and prestige. Leschot soon became supervisor of manufacturing and technical director for the company, and Vacheron Constantin become the first modern industrial watch manufacture in Switzerland.

The brand remained jointly owned by the Vacheron and Constantin families all the way until 1938 when it was sold to the SAPIC Holding company, which also owned Jaeger-LeCoultre at that time. George Ketterer from SAPIC’s board of directors took leadership of the company, followed by his son Jacques, who kept the business alive during the quartz crisis of the 70’s. In response to the new trend for steel sports watches that emerged in this era, in 1977 Vacheron Constantin released the “222” wristwatch to commemorate its 222nd anniversary. This was a steel sports watch fitted with a screw-down bezel and integrated bracelet, clearly inspired by the Nautilus and Royal Oak, which was the forerunner of the modern Overseas collection.

Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 reference 5000H/000P-B058 ©2021 Vacheron Constantin

When Jacques Ketterer died in 1987 the company was purchased by Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a watch enthusiast and former Oil Minister of Saudi Arabia. In 1996 the company was sold again to the Richemont group, who owns Vacheron Constantin to this day. Most of the brands’ modern catalogue was designed after the acquisition by Richemont, which is a large part of why Vacheron almost feels like a newcomer when compared to the tradition-bound collections from Patek and Audemars, although in truth Vacheron predates both by almost a century. In one area though Vacheron could be considered more traditional and patrimonial than either; its watches still bear the Geneva Seal.

The Geneva Seal is among the rarest and most esteemed of all Swiss hallmarks. It was introduced in 1886 by the Canton of Geneva as a way to certify that a watch was produced in the City or Canton of Geneva, the traditional heart of Swiss watchmaking, and that it meets stringent quality criteria befitting a Genevan watch. Initially those criteria were primarily focused on the finishing of the movement, but in 2011 and 2014 the Seal testing requirements have been adjusted to include both chronometry tests and cased-up tests of the watch as a whole, elevating it into a more modern and thorough certification. For a full examination of the updated Geneva Seal testing, I recommend this article by quill & pad as the requirements are far too extensive to list here.

Neither Audemars Piguet nor modern Patek Philippe watches bear the Geneva Seal. Audemars is based in Le Brassus, making them ineligible, and Patek moved to an in-house certification process in 2009 with their “Patek Philippe Seal”. Meanwhile the majority of Vacheron’s watches bear the Seal and all the quality testing that entails, including most references in their “entry-level” Fifty-Six collection.

FiftySix Day-Date reference 4400E/000A-B437 ©2021 Vacheron Constantin

Most aspiring owners looking to buy their first trinity-level timepiece will be looking at the steel sports watches each brand has to offer. The Nautilus and Royal Oak are juggernauts in this arena, but Vacheron’s Overseas collection offers some real advantages over both that merits it for consideration. Foremost among these is size; the Overseas Selfwinding is available in both 41mm and 37mm versions, the former with a date aperture and a central second hand while the latter omits the date window and opts for a small second sub-register.

While the Nautilus is available in 40mm and 35mm sizes, the latter is disappointingly gendered as a “Ladies Automatic” and compromises in both style and durability versus the larger model, utilizing a different handset, indexes and dial patterning to the 40mm reference and reducing water resistance from 120M to 60M. Likewise, the Royal Oak 37mm reference 15450ST utilizes an older calibre than its 40mm sibling the reference 15500ST, with a reduced oscillating frequency of 3Hz and lacking the instantaneous date change and variable inertia balance.

Overseas Selfwinding 37mm reference 4400E/000A-B437 ©2021 Vacheron Constantin

Meanwhile the Overseas Selfwinding feels uncompromised in both its iterations. The power reserve on the smaller model is reduced from 60 hours to 44 hours, owing to less space in the smaller case for a large mainspring, but otherwise the two references share all of their most desirable traits. Both are Geneva Seal certified, both offer quick-swap systems for their bracelets allowing for owners to swap to an included rubber or alligator strap with ease, both offer anti-magnetic shielding in the form of a soft iron ring around the movement, and both offer class-leading 150 meters of water resistance. Given that neither the Royal Oak or the Nautilus are magnetically resistant, neither offer three straps and a quick-change system for style versatility, neither bear the Geneva seal, and neither are available (without compromises) in a smaller size to flatter slender wrists or traditional tastes, and the Vacheron Constantin Overseas starts to look really appealing as an alternative.

Harmony Dual Time reference 7810S/000R-B141 ©2021 Vacheron Constantin

Aside from the Overseas, Vacheron have two other collections that are especially notable; the Harmony collection with its cushion-shaped cases, and the Historiques collection with its vintage charm and elegance. From the Harmony collection my personal favourite is the Dual Time in 18K pink gold reference 7810S/000R-B141, with a supremely elegant interpretation of the dual time complication in the form of a second timezone sub-dial at 4 o’clock and a day-night indicator at 8 o’clock. The way the case flows into the lugs in the Harmony collection is a thing of beauty, at with a dial size of 40mm by 40mm and only 11mm thick, this reference manages to look modern in proportion yet still restrained and classical.

Historiques Cornes De Vache reference 5000H/000A-B582 ©2021 Vacheron Constantin

The ultimate grail watch from Vacheron Constantin has to be the Historiques Cornes De Vache chronograph in stainless steel, reference 5000H/000A-B582. At 38.5mm in diameter and 10.9mm thick, this is as svelte a chronograph as you could ask for and wouldn’t look out of place at a black-tie event. Stainless steel adds an element of everyday practicality to this watch, making it a potential daily wearer despite its stratospheric price tag, and the dial layout is harmonious and symmetrical without drawing undue attention to itself. The lugs look like teardrops of liquid metal, a unique feature that I’ve not come across in any other watch, but the real treat is the movement visible through a sapphire case-back when the watch is turned around.

Reference 1142 chronograph calibre, finished by hand to the exacting standards of the Geneva Seal ©2021 Vacheron Constantin

This is rather unassumingly branded by Vacheron as the Reference 1142, but the watch world knows this calibre better by other names; the Lemania 2310, aka the Omega 321. This was the calibre that was tested by NASA more thoroughly than any other chronograph calibre at the time, and has a reputation for being one of the greatest chronograph movements ever made. Omega may have relaunched the 321 in some highly expensive Speedmasters recently, but the Vacheron incarnation has one important distinction; it is Geneva Seal certified, and thus is finished to a much higher degree than the reissued Omega 321. That makes the Historiques Cornes De Vache possibly the finest production chronograph money can buy, and a fitting testament in and of itself to Vacheron’s continued status as one of the Holy Trinity of Swiss watchmakers.

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