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

Virtuozity - - WATCH -

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.

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