Watches

Vacheron Constantin’s new complications are their most complex watches to date

Vacheron Constantin complications are considered some of horology's finest. Here they are exclusively photographed. Simon de Burton reveals why the Swiss watchmaker makes some of the finest complications

Words by Simon de Burton, photographs by Alain Costa, creative direction by Tim Holloway

Vacheron Constantin’s complications are revered throughout the watchmaking world. However the story of the brand goes back to when Jean-Marc Vacheron set up his first workshop in Geneva’s ‘Cite’ in 1755. Little could he have known that his name would still be appearing on some of the world’s best timepieces almost 270 years later. But ‘Vacheron Constantin’ would never have been able to claim the title of ‘world’s oldest watch house to have remained in continuous production’ were it not for a chance encounter between Vacheron’s grandson, Jacques Barthelemy, and watch-loving businessman François

Constantin.

Born a year after Vacheron in 1788, Constantin cut his teeth as an itinerant trader when he was just 14 after being sent to walk the rough roads of the Alps and Jura buying stock for his grain dealer father. But within a couple of years he was putting his natural talent for commerce to use in the more luxurious world of watches, first as a purveyor of cases and then as a travelling salesman for the renowned horologist Jean-François Bautte. A subsequent partnership with another watchmaker was foundering when, in 1819, he met Vacheron.

The pair had been travelling independently through the Italian countryside on roads that were then so dangerous that a surviving letter from Vacheron describes how ‘…at intervals on the journey we encountered arms and legs nailed to posts as an indication to travellers of the places where brigands who had been condemned to death for murder had been executed.’ The two men struck-up a conversation, during which Constantin’s silver-tongued dialogue had such an effect on Vacheron that he soon signed a six-year deal that gave his new colleague an equal partnership in the newly-minted firm of ‘Vacheron & Constantin’.

That meant Vacheron could focus on what he did best – ie making watches – leaving Constantin to sell them around the world. And that’s exactly what he did, as revealed in the firm’s well-preserved ledgers that describe his travels to destinations as far afield as China and Brazil in the successful pursuit of new markets.

Vacheron Constantin is now celebrating the roving ways of its co-founder in a slew of new watches that merge the travel theme with its reputation as a creator of true horological works of art enhanced with multiple decorative techniques ranging from engraving and enamelling to marquetry and micro-sculpting. The nine one-offs are the first pieces to have been unveiled from the brand’s ‘Les Cabinotiers’ collection since 2019.

Originally conceived as Vacheron Constantin’s bespoke offering, Les Cabinotiers was expanded to include what CEO Louis Ferla describes as ‘one collection per year of unique, amazing pieces’. But Covid hold-ups and a subsequent lack of product meant it has taken until now to complete the latest collection, which was first shown in the desert of Dubai – the now glittering metropolis of skyscrapers which, coincidentally, was established as a minuscule fishing village in 1822. Just as Francois Vacheron was getting going as Vacheron Constantin’s roving ambassador…

Here are the watches that pay tribute to his travels,to the company’s subsequent global expansion and toartistic techniques found around the world.

Vacheron Constantin
Vacheron Constantin pink gold Les Cabinotiers malte tourbillon ‘Tribute to Haussmannian style’ 41.5x38mm

Les Cabinotiers ‘Recits de Voyages’ / ‘Travel Stories

’Minute repeater tourbillon – Tribute to Arabesque

The star of the show in terms of sheer intricacy, this completely open-worked watch is impressive both for its ‘filigree’ dial and for the movement that lies beneath which combines a tourbillon regulator with a minute repeater – two of the most admired creations in the horological lexicon. The skeletonised dial pays tribute to Muslim architecture, drawing on features such as domes, arches and ‘mashrabiyas’ – the typical lattice-worked windows and balconies found in Islamic architecture that are designed to keep rooms cool and private while also allowing in light. Based on Dubai’s 82-dome Sheikh Zayed grand mosque, the 44mm white gold watch is rich in hand engraving and bas relief that took Vacheron Constantin’s artisans more than three months to complete.

Minute repeater tourbillon – Tribute to Art Deco Style

Another high complication model, this watch recalls the booming city of New York during the Art Deco period of the 1920s and ‘30s – by which time Vacheron Constantin was a well-established name in the U.S having been introduced there almost a century earlier by ex-pat Swiss watchmaker Jean Magnin. Inspired by the celebrated Chrysler building constructed between 1928 and 1930 (then the world’s tallest tower at 319 metres), the dial of the pink gold watch emulates the skyscraper’s distinctive terraced top using wood marquetry and champlevé enamel topped with pearl hour markers. The piece features 110 individual veneers made from pear and tulipwoods that are designed to pay tribute both to the building’s spire and to its luxurious, timber-clad elevators, while the chevron-engraved case reinforces the ‘roaring 20s’ vibe.

Vacheron Constantin
Vacheron Constantin pink gold Les Cabinotiers minute repeater tourbillon ‘Tribute to Art Deco style’ 44mm

Armillary Tourbillon – Tribute to Art deco Style

A watch for the true horophile, this combines abi-axial tourbillon with a bi-retrograde time display– i.e. both the titanium hours and minutes hands automatically spring back to their starting positions on the semi-circular track every 12 hours. The tourbillon in this piece is a serious showpiece, being covered by a crystal dome that both protects and magnifies the mechanism. Only by flipping the watch over, however, is the ‘Art Deco’ aspect of the watch revealed. Again based on Vacheron Constantin’s long-standing presence in New York, the watch has bridges that are heavily engraved and decorated with bas relief, hand-chasing and guilloche based on the city’s first skyscrapers, while the pattern on the barrel of the hefty, 45mm yellow gold case reiterates the 1920s theme.

Malte Tourbillon – Tribute to Haussmannian Style

Vacheron journeys back across the Atlantic to Europe for this one, which uses the distinctive tonneau shaped case of the Malte model as a blank canvas for a decorative theme that pays tribute to Baron Georges-Eugene Haussmann, the architect famous for reworking Paris into ‘the City of Light’. The ultra-thin, hand-wound tourbillon movement is engraved and skeletonised throughout – but it’s the case of the watch that is the most eye-catching. Sculpted along the lines of Haussmann-style Parisian facades, it includes shapes that recall the landmark Eiffel Tower as well as the ubiquitous lion motif that appears throughout the city. Vacheron claims the engraving work alone took a single craftsman 150 hours to execute.

 ‘Memorable Places’

Memorable Places comprises four watches powered by Vacheron Constantin’s exquisitely crafted, ultra-thin Calibre 1120 self-winding movement. Serving as showcases for exceptional engraving techniques, three are designed to symbolise the firm’s long-standing links with the far east, while the fourth represents its long-standing headquarters on Geneva’s ‘Tour de L’Ille’.

Vacheron Constantin
Vacheron Constantin white gold Les Cabinotiers minute repeater tourbillon ‘Tribute to Arabesque’ 44mm

La Tour de L’Ile

Vacheron Constantin moved to the Tour de L’Ille (a former police tower on an island in the River Rhone) way back in 1843. It remained the site of its workshops for more than 30 years until it moved to the Quai des Moulins in 1875 – although, in 2012, it rekindled the historic connection by leasing the top floor in the name of posterity. The Tour de L’Ille is depicted on the dial of its namesake watch with an illustration based on a drawing by the 19th century French lithographer Auguste Deroy. To create it, seven pink, yellow or white gold elements were individually micro sculpted and line-engraved before being assembled into the complete image.

Entrance Gate to Angkor Thom

Angkor is a key archaeological site in south-east Asia, comprising 200 temples and waterworks spread across a 400 square kilometre area of Cambodia and encompassing the various locations that served as capitals of the Khmer empire between the ninth and 15th centuries. Angkor ‘Thom’ was built during the 1100s and was the longest-surviving of these, and the three-dimensional dial of the Angkor Thom watch shows its southern gateway as depicted by artist Louis Delaporte. It is made from nine individually engraved and damascened pink, yellow and white gold plates and took 200 hours to create.

Vacheron Constantin
Vacheron Constantin white gold, yellow gold and pink gold Les Cabinotiers ‘Memorable Places, Entrance Gate To Angkor Thom’ 40mm

The Old Summer Palace, Beijing

Beijing’s historic summer palace, originally called ‘the garden of perfect clarity’, was built between the 18th and 19th centuries as the main residence of the Qing dynasty – but was razed to the ground during the Second Opium War, on the orders of Britain’s Lord Elgin, as retaliation for the capture and torture of an allied delegation. The Vacheron watch shows the palace in its former glory, depicting the vast and intricate building and its gardens using eight engraved and damascened plates of pink, yellow and white gold.

The Entrance Gate to the Confucius Temple

The final piece in the ‘Memorable Places’ quartet shows the entrance gate to Beijing’s Confucius Temple and Imperial College museum – at 20,000 square metres, the second largest such temple in China after the one in the celebrated philosopher’s home town of Qufu, The buildings, dating back to the start of the 14th century, were depicted in an 1864 travel journal with a drawing by artist Emile Therond – the image on which the dial of this watch is based. Half-a-dozen pink, yellow and white gold plates were engraved and micro-sculpted to produce the three-dimensional dial.

Vacheron Constantin yellow gold Les Cabinotiers armillary tourbillon ‘Tribute to Art Deco style’ 45mm

GRISAILLE HIGH JEWELLERY FIRST GREEN Grisaille for Vacheron Constantin

China represents a golden goose for every high-end watch house, hence the enthusiasm for creating pieces bedecked in oriental imagery – especially the all-powerful dragon. And horological dragons don’t come much hotter than the one on the dial of this unique watch, which was created using a new ‘grisaille’ enamelling technique.

Grisaille usually refers to a painting made entirely in shades of grey, but this one has been made with what Vacheron claims is a new technique that involves applying layers of rare ‘Limoges white’ enamel to a darker enamel base. Each layer is individually fired at ultra high temperature, with this particular image being given a twist with the application of a green tint.

To finish the job off, the 40mm white gold case was set with 146 baguette-cut diamonds, the crown with a reverse-set brilliant–cut and the white gold buckle of the green alligator strap with a further 16 baguette-cut stones. The sphere on the dial in line with the winding crown, meanwhile, represents a pearl – the emblem of wisdom that is always seen in depictions of the Chinese dragons regarded as symbols of power, nobility and good fortune. 

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