Age and beauty
Watchmaking in the ’50s turned up some of the most memorable designs ever conceived, and Vacheron Constantin’s all-new FiftySix is a tribute to that glorious era.
Most of us can only imagine what it’s like to be living in the ’50s. This rock ‘n’ roll period following the Second World War had been an amazing decade charged with positivity, renewal, fashion, style, pop culture and above all, change. Christian Dior defined his New Look, Elvis Presley rose to fame, television revolutionised the scene, the Formula One Grand Prix kicked off… Basically a good half of everything Billy Joel sang in We Didn’t Start The Fire happened in the ’50s.
Technology and advancements in manufacturing opened up the latest trends and luxury to everyone who wanted it, and not just to wealthy members of society. In the watchmaking arena, several key events helped shape the way timepieces are made, sold and perceived.
One of them was of course the First and Second World Wars, when soldiers and aviators started to wear watches and other instruments strapped to their wrists and occasionally thighs. So by the ’50s, pocket watches were all but completely phased out and the general public began to accept wristwatches as the norm.
THEY DON’T MAKE’ EM LIKE THEY USED TO Improvements in manufacturing techniques also allowed watchmaking firms to produce better and more reliable timepieces, so most watches made in the ’50s evoked a sense of heightened precision and chronometry. Brands were less preoccupied with celebrity endorsement in those days.
Print advertisements from all the top watchmaking houses in this era focused on the message of quality and performance, showing pictures of scientists, engineers and other professionals instead of actors and actresses. Remember, too, that this was before the time of quartz technology and electronics, so people depended on their watches for things like time and date.
As air travel became accessible to larger segments of the population, timepieces took on additional duties. Contemporary features such as the GMT complication, the world timer, the alarm function and various calendar displays were preferred over traditional high complications such as the tourbillon, minute repeater and perpetual calendar.
In terms of design, clarity was the order of the day. Vintage ’50s watches that we see today are almost always round because that was the prevailing trend of the period. Watches in those days also veered towards the small side in comparison to modern-day standards. A gentleman’s timepiece seldom exceeded 36mm, with 35mm or 34mm being the more commonly accepted size.
FLASH BACK TO THE ’50 S There were many prominent watch companies active during the ’50s and Vacheron Constantin was one of them. Indeed, being the world’s oldest watch manufacture with 263 years of history and counting, this Geneva-born company probably also has the world’s most well-stocked archive of antique and vintage watches. Its Les Collectionneurs range of restored and certified vintage watches, for instance, proves this incredible pedigree and reaffirms that it can service and repair any watch it has made over more than two centuries.
One piece in particular stood out in 2018. This watch, known simply as Ref 6073, bears all of the usual stylistic hallmarks of a watch made around the ’50s. It had a plain round case made in yellow gold, trapezoidal faceted hour appliques rather than numerals, sharp dauphine-style hands for the hours, minutes and seconds, and an eggshell white dial offering nothing more than the name of the manufacture in print, along with its emblem— the Maltese cross—in gold. Yet this deceptively ascetic timepiece also hides a second Maltese cross in plain sight.
It is said that Vacheron Constantin chose the Maltese cross, which is also known as the Amalfi cross, as its official emblem in 1877 because a similarly shaped barrel component is used for all its movements. So this eight-pointed cross not only symbolises the manufacture but is also an essential element of watchmaking.
First introduced in 1956, Ref 6073 appears to be no different from any other classical ’50s style gent’s watch, but take a closer look at its four lugs and you’ll notice that each one is a branch of the Maltese cross and together they form the sacred emblem. While it’s not too technical or complex to produce, this is just another example of Vacheron Constantin’s design ingenuity.
Ref 6073 was also fondly remembered as being one of the first Vacheron Constantin watches to be equipped with a self-winding movement. Calibre 1019/1 was made to be reliable and precise at a time when the majority of mechanical movements were still manually wound. Delivered with a multi-sided caseback, it was also one of the earliest water-resistant watches made by the manufacture.
This remarkable yet nondescript timepiece thus became the source of inspiration for Vacheron Constantin’s latest elegant gent’s watch collection launched in 2018, aptly and succinctly named FiftySix.
OLD BECOMES NEW AGAIN A modern interpretation of Ref 6073, FiftySix refreshes Vacheron Constantin’s current product line-up with a fresh and young perspective. Indeed, this is the first time in its history that the manufacture is offering a classic collection in stainless steel as well as gold. But this by no means suggests the collection has gone economical—far from it. In fact, even steel timepieces get the full treatment at Vacheron Constantin, as evinced by the use of white gold hands and appliques in what must be the most deliberate showcase of stealth wealth since the 1972 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak.
The unique lug design has been retained, but rather than replicating the two-point branch aesthetic of the historical piece, the manufacture has opted for a subtler take. The result is a smoother, more tapered and elegantly chamfered set of lugs that comes with an additional joint connected to the case.
Apart from the lugs, Vacheron Constantin also continued to use a box-shaped crystal, which is a sure sign of vintage inspiration. Rising well above the bezel, it affords a slimmer case middle that makes the watch extra comfortable on the wrist. But instead of Plexiglas or mineral glass, the FiftySix collection upgraded this component with scratch-resistant sapphire crystal.
Watches in the ’50s were often made with a sector-type dial where chapter rings section different parts for different functions, and FiftySix is no exception. Alternating Arabic numerals and baton-type hour markers encircle the main chapter, while a chemin-de-fer minute track lends old-school appeal, not to mention a touch of sophistication. Showing how much detail Vacheron Constantin puts into the watches, each dial uses a variety of different tones and finishes such as snailing, vertical brushing and soft polishing.
There are elements of FiftySix, however, that place the collection resolutely in the present. Foremost, for purposes of practicality, the case size has been increased to a very manageable 40mm from 35mm in the Ref 6073. Arguably, 40mm is the maximum size for a classical gent’s watch. Secondly, FiftySix preserves the fluid lines of the case by using a crown that’s slightly recessed into the case.
Ref 6073 was one of the first Vacheron Constantin watches to be made with a self-winding movement, and so it only makes sense for the manufacture to equip the FiftySix collection with autonomous winding as well. Not only that, the oscillating weight used in these watches have a completely new design, made of 22-carat gold with an openworked construction bearing the Maltese cross motif in a frosted-snailed finish. This would go on to be a signature feature in every piece within the collection.
Closest in spirit to the historical model, the FiftySix SelfWinding houses a new movement which is positioned as a modernday descendent of the Calibre 1019/1. Calibre 1326 comes with 48 hours of power reserve and exhibits all the usual decorative and chronometric features of a classical Vacheron Constantin movement, except that it is not Geneva Seal-certified. This is because Calibre 1326 was produced at a central movement making facility named Manufacture Val Fleurier, which is owned by the parent company of Vacheron Constantin, the Richemont Group, rather than at Vacheron Constantin’s own manufacture in Geneva.
Next up is the FiftySix Day-Date with a power reserve indicator. This watch, powered by the Calibre 2475 SC/2, displays the day and date via two subdials finished with a snailed effect that adds a nice visual depth to the dial. Its approximately 40hour power reserve is displayed by a discreet gauge at six o’clock and a stop-seconds device (also known as hacking seconds) pauses the seconds hand whenever time is being adjusted, allowing the wearer to properly synchronise time with up-tothe-second accuracy.
Finally, the FiftySix Complete Calendar with precision moon phase takes us back to a popular trend in the ’50s, the triplecalendar function. As more people started wearing watches and relying on them for daily information, high complications like the perpetual calendar became excessive and unnecessarily expensive, so triple-calendars served the same purpose on a more practical level. Indicating the day, date and month effortlessly using the in-house self-winding movement, Calibre 2460 QCL/1, it also offers a high precision moon phase display which requires adjustment just once every 122 years. In comparison, a basic moon phase has to be adjusted once every three years.
In some ways considered a radical departure from Vacheron Constantin’s usual milieu of haut de gamme watchmaking, FiftySix heralds a new vision of the manufacture, one that is unquestionably more inclusive and contemporary.
More new models are due to hit the scene very soon, so check esquiresg.com for the latest intel.
Above: former US president Harry Truman is one of the many notable people who have worn Vacheron Constantin watches.
FiftySix Complete Calendar.