History of innovation
One of the world’s oldest watch brands, Vacheron Constantin is best-known for its numerous innovations, which, over the centuries, has advanced the world of horology by leaps and bounds
Having started as a business in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is one of the oldest watch manufacturers in the world. Indeed, it could be the oldest with an uninterrupted history. The epitome of high-end Swiss watchmaking, it’s regarded as one of the ‘big three’ Swiss brands, along with Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. That title hasn’t been granted to the brand lightly— along its over-250-year history, Vacheron Constantin has not only created astonishing watches, but contributed hugely to the fine watchmaking industry at large. Many of the norms we take for granted in high-end Swiss watches were created as a result of Vacheron Constantin’s efforts, meaning it’s little wonder that famous wearers include the likes of Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Pius XI, the Duke of Windsor and Harry Truman, to name a few.
Many of Vacheron Constantin’s achievements in horology were predicated on the adherence to a simple company motto (which remains to this day)—“do better if possible, and that is always possible.” That was the message that Francois Constantin, who joined the brand in 1819 as it sought to expand, carried with him to the North American market. But it also tugged on the heartstrings of the brand in Switzerland—the phrase was actually taken from a letter written by Constantin to Jacques-barthelemy Vacheron, the grandson of the founder, and it appeared that Vacheron took the words to heart. After all, the company had already brought to the world new innovations such as creating the first complication, as well as the first engine-turned dial.
Indeed, Vacheron Constantin seems to have thrived on innovation since its inception. The story started in 1755, when Jean-marc Vacheron, an independent watchmaker in Geneva, hired his first apprentice. He created the world’s first complication in 1770, and designed the world’s first engine-turned dials in 1779. Quickly, his name spread across Switzerland and beyond, and the name Vacheron became synonymous with high- quality horology.
As well as being a skilled craftsmen, Vacheron was a keen proponent of the idea that his skills should be passed on. And so, in 1785, his son, Abraham, took control of the business. Abraham Vacheron’s nouse allowed the company to survive the French Revolution. Following the revolution, the company continued to see success, and in 1810, the aforementioned Barthelemy Vacheron took control of the company.
This was when Vacheron Constantin of today began to take shape. Jacque-Barthelemy realised that, if he was going to take the company to the next level, he needed to expand well beyond the borders of Switzerland. He was the first in the Vacheron family to export timepieces to France and Italy. However, going any further was proving to become something of a challenge, and Jacque-barthelemy quickly deduced that he would need a business partner if he was going to continue with his expansion plans.
In 1819, then, Francois Constantin was brought on board as an associate, and the company began international expansion under the name Vacheron & Constantin. Constantin handled business development, travelling around the world and marketing the brand’s timepieces. He quickly gained the company a strong following around the major markets in Europe, and later concentrated on North America.
Following years of aggressive expansion, Vacheron & Constantin brought on board Georges-auguste Leschot in 1839, to supervise manufacturing operations. A prolific inventor, Leschot oversaw a number of key innovations that would have farreaching ramifications across the entire watch industry. He was the first person to standardise watch movements into calibres. He did this by developing machines capable of making interchangeable parts, in particular a device called the pantograph. This revolutionised the production process of horology, giving Vacheron & Constantin a significant edge over the competition. Leschot’s efforts earned him a gold medal from the Arts Society of Geneva in 1844.
Constantin died in 1854, and Vacheron passed away in 1863, following which the company was run by a series of heirs. However, the culture of innovation at the brand was still alive and well. In 1862, Vacheron & Constantin became a member of the Association for Research into nonmagnetic materials. And in 1885, the company created the first non-magnetic timepiece, which included a complete lever assortment made of materials that could withstand magnetic fields.
In 1877, feeling a refresh was in order, the brand changed its name to Vacheron & Constantin, Fabricants, Geneva, and in 1880 it adopted the Maltese cross as its symbol, which is still kept to this day. It was inspired by a component of a barrel, cross-shaped and designed to limit the tension within the mainspring.
In 1887, the company was reorganised into a stock company, and thanks to its contributions to the world of horology, it was awarded a gold medal at the Swiss National Exhibition. Indeed, the company was beginning to garner plenty of praise among well-regarded artists and thinkers of the time. Faberge’s 1887 Third Imperial Egg, for example, contained a Vacheron & Constantin lady’s watch as a surprise.
The company opened its first boutique store in Geneva, in 1906—a store that can still be seen today on Quai de I’lle. However, the First World War, and the following Great Depression, hit the brand hard, with sales of luxury timepieces globally plunging. The company struggled on, and still continued in its quest for innovation. In 1934, it created one of the most complex pocket-watches ever sold at the time, in response to a special order from King Farouk of Egypt. The movement comprised 834 parts, including 55 jewels. Five full years were required to create that piece.
But it wasn’t until Charles Constantin, a descendant of Francois Constantin, took the helm in 1936 that things started to really turn around. His appointment as president of the company marked the first time since the 1850s that a member of the Constantin family had been named head. The brand enjoyed something of a renaissance up until World War 2, which, like the first war, hurt sales badly. During the war, Georges Ketter took over the company, and helped to rejuvenate sales during the post-war period. Following this, Vacheron & Constantin carried on with its culture of innovation.
In 1955, the brand presented the world’s thinnest ever movement at the time. Calibre 1003 measured just 1.64 mm thick, equivalent to a small Swiss 20-centime coin. And that same year, for the Big Four Geneva Summit, Vacheron & Constantin created seven watches that were presented to American president Dwight D. Eisenhower, Russian premier Nikolai A. Bulganin and British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden, among other statesmen.
In 1970, the brand changed its name to Vacheron Constantin, as it is now known today. The last few decades of the 20th century saw it continue in its tradition of creating never-before-seen timepieces. For example, in 1979, it created the Kallista, one of the most expensive wristwatches of the time. It featured 118 emerald-cut diamonds, and took about 6,000 hours to manufacture—it was valued at $5 million, but today it is worth around $11 million.
In the late 1980s, the brand changed hands, and was owned by a number of shareholders, though production ramped up to around 20,000 units per year – a figure that stands to this day. In 1996, the entire share capital of the company was bought by Richemont Group, which oversaw Vacheron Constantin introduce new lines, as well as move to a new headquarters in Geneva. However, despite being part of a large conglomerate, the company is still highly regarded as one of the most skilled creators of fine watches.