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Face to face

A Piece of Time

1755 In the middle of the 18th Century, in the city of Geneva, Jean-Marc Vacheron decided to open his own watch-making workshop. 1755 silver pocket watch masterpiece, developed, constructed and signed by the founder of the company.

Text: Betsey Johanson ■

1911 Vacheron Constantin makes its first wrist watches. 1911 platinum watch commissioned by Sir Bhupindra Singh, Maharajah of Patiala.

1929 A present from the Swiss colony in Egypt to Fouad I, King of Egypt. 1929 yellow golden watch.

2004 Farouk, King of Egypt


Inauguration of the new headquarters and Manufacture Vacheron Constantin, located in Plan-les-Ouates, Geneva.


One of the most complex pocket watches ever sold by Vacheron Constantin. This 1934 masterpiece, commissioned by King Farouk of Egypt, took five years to make.


Vacheron Constantin celebrates its 250th anniversary. At the Antiquorum auction in Geneva, the ‘Tour de l’Ile’ is one of the most complicated watches of our time consisting of 834 single components. 25

Face to face

To understand the history of luxury watches, some say a trip through time is necessary – a journey that takes one back to Geneva in the middle of the 16th century. Despite rejecting Papal authority, the French Protestant theologian John Calvin (Jean Chauvin) had managed to establish a new scheme of civic and ecclesiastical governance. He decreed the wearing of jewellery a profanity – making allowances for pocket watches as they served punctuality. This prompted Swiss watchmakers to beautify the until then mainly functional contraptions. Half a millennium later, specialised timepieces are more sought after than ever.

Only a handful of watchmakers possess the skills necessary to incorporate all of these complications into a single movement capable of fitting into a 44 mm case. Two specialist watchmakers in Vacheron Constantin’s facilities in Geneva build them at a rate of two each year. Despite the current price tag of EUR 446,000 each, there have been around 20 orders annually meaning the current waiting time is estimated at between 5 and 8 years. Understanding the market’s desire for unique timepieces, Vacheron Constantin opened the Atelier Cabinotiers at the end of 2006. This specialised consultancy caters to client-specified oneof-a-kind timepieces only. Clients visiting the boutique make decisions pertaining to the watch’s four main parts: the case, the movement and hands, the dial and the wristband.

Vacheron Constantin is the world’s oldest continually operating timepiece manufacturer and one of the elite horology companies situated in the Vallée de Joux. The company has been creating beautiful, unique, cutting-edge timepieces for over 250 years. One example is the ‘Patrimony Traditionelle Caliber 2755’ – a movement noted for three complications* in particular. The first is the perpetual calendar: Through the calculated interaction of various parts, the movement’s date function automatically adjusts for the different

Newest Patrimony Traditionelle Caliber 2755

Those who insist on being punctual to the second should buy a watch with a quartz movement. For those who understand the true value of time however, only a watch from the ‘Valley of the Watches’ or Vallée de Joux will do. month-durations and leap years. The second is the special tourbillon – a type of escapement – designed to counteract the affects of forces on the watch such as gravity. The third is marked by a small lever on the left side of the case. Pressing it activates the watch’s mechanical chime complication. Once an important function in the centuries before electrical lighting, the chime is now more of an extra for connoisseurs of mechanical excellence.

The finishing is done by the watchmakers of the Atelier Cabinotiers Vacheron Constantin. These craftsmen spend hours and hours realising the clients wishes, determining designs, functions and details: engraved or enamelled dial, roman or arabic figures, seconds in the middle of the dial or chronographic functions, additional dial for date and day of the week, personal engravings etc. It is here that the lengthy process really begins … How lengthy? To date, the Atelier Cabinotiers has received approximately 43 orders. Understanding the importance of client satisfaction, Vacheron Constantin has pulled out all the stops so the first examples can be delivered in 2011 – a mere 4 years from now. Buyers understand that perfection will not be rushed and are willing to wait. They will, after all, eventually be wearing a one-off masterpiece created by the world’s oldest continually operating watch manufacturing company. What kind of person invests substantial amounts of financial capital and waits over half a decade to receive a watch? Betsey Johanson spoke with Dominique Bernaz – the man who heads up Vacheron Constantin’s Geneva boutique – to find out more about collecting, craftsmanship and creativity. ■ Headquarter and Manufacture Vacheron Constantin, Plan-les-Ouates, Geneva

*a complication is the name given to any part of a mechanical watch movement that goes beyond simple hours, minutes and seconds.


Watch collectors are highly motivated people that spend a lot of money to pursue their passion and not because they want to know how late it is.’ says Sotheby’s expert Herbert van Mierlo. Considered one of the more beautiful investments, is watch collecting a financial proposition or an emotional purchase? Both. It is firstly an emotional purchase like for any art acquisition by individuals. Though, it is de facto an investment as passionate people and collectors aim for timepieces of exception and, in the case of the Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order, for unique timepieces. As in art in general, the value is closely tied in with the man behind the work, his know-how and expertise as well as with the exceptional character of the timepiece and its uniqueness.

with Dominique Bernaz, Director of the Maison Vacheron Constantin in Geneva which includes four departments, based in the Vacheron Constantin historic building in the centre of Geneva: The historic boutique, The Heritage department, The Métiers d’Art department with craftsmen such as engravers, enamellers, watchmakers etc. and The Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order.


Patrimony Traditionelle Automatic, Caliber 2455

In 2005, a pocket watch crafted in 1929 belonging to Fahd bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, King of Saudi Arabia, went under the hammer for 3,3 million Swiss francs. What does the brand Vacheron Constantin mean to collectors? I am tempted to suggest you refer to the collectors directly. But to meet them regularly, what they are attracted about in Vacheron Constantin is the human side or the “hand of the man” – accessible – and the transmission of knowledge, a chain that has never stopped for more than 250 years of history.


Face to face

NEWS 2007 – Vacheron Constantin receives a ‘Watch of the Year’ award in Amsterdam.

Man müsste wohl eine Zeitreise machen, um die Geschichte von Luxusuhren zu verstehen – eine Reise nach Genf, zurück in die Mitte des 16. Jahrhunderts. Der unnachgiebige Reformator Johannes Calvin, der im 16. Jahrhundert in Genf herrschte, verachtete das Tragen von Schmuck und Tand als gotteslästerliches Laster und verbot das Tragen von Geschmeide kurzerhand. Höchstens Uhren durfte ein wahrhaft frommer Mensch anlegen, diente die Pünktlichkeit doch der Selbstdisziplin. So konzentrierten sich die Schweizer Uhrmacher darauf, die Stücke zu verfeinern, bis es keine reinen Zeitmesser mehr waren, sondern Pretiosen und Kostbarkeiten. Und so ist es bis heute geblieben.

Wer die genaue Uhrzeit erfahren möchte, der benutze eine Quarzuhr. Wer aber einen wirklich wertvollen Chronometer am Handgelenk tragen möchte, der kaufe eine Uhr, die im „Tal der Uhren“, im Vallée de Joux gefertigt wurde. Verständlich, dass die älteste Uhrenmanufaktur der Welt mit ununterbrochener Produktion im Vallée de Joux zu finden ist: Seit über 250 Jahren werden im Hause Vacheron Constantin außergewöhnliche Zeitmesser von modernster Technik, ausgewogener Ästhetik und höchster Vollendung gefertigt. Zum Beispiel die „Patrimony Traditionelle Kaliber 2755“, die mit drei Komplikationen* aufwartet. Die erste ist der „ewige Kalender“: Dank einer komplizierten Technik berücksichtigt das Uhrwerk auch Wochentage und Schaltjahre. Ebenso außergewöhnlich ist der so genannte „Tourbillon“, der ursprünglich in Taschenuhren eingebaut wurde. Beim Winken oder Schütteln des Arms wirken Kräfte auf die Uhr, welche die Mechanik normalerweise etwas bremsen und den Gang verlangsamen. Der Tourbillon verhindert dies. Die dritte Besonderheit ist ein kleiner, unscheinbarer Hebel auf der linken Seite des Gehäuses. Drückt man ihn, verkünden leise * Die einfache Armbanduhr hat zwei oder drei Zeiger. Dazu gibt es weitere so genannte Komplikationen, also technische Finessen.

Vacheron Constantin was presented with First Prize in the Men’s Design category for its Malte Quantième Perpétuel Open Face Collection Excellence Platine.


Glockenschläge der „Repetition“ die Uhrzeit. In einer Welt, die mit Kerzen auskommen musste, war das unentbehrlich – heute ist es eher ein Detail für Liebhaber. Es gibt nur eine Handvoll Uhrmacher auf der Welt, die alle diese – durchaus ungewöhnlichen – Elemente zusammenbauen können. Denn die Uhr soll trotz ihrer vielen komplizierten Funktionen nur 44 Millimeter Durchmesser haben. Die Fertigung erfordert viel Geschick – und noch mehr Zeit. Zwei Exemplare werden von den beiden Vacheron-Spezialisten in Genf jährlich gebaut, gleichzeitig gibt es allerdings 20 Anfragen. Wer mit dem EUR 446.000 teuren Stück sein Handgelenk schmücken möchte, muss momentan fünf bis acht Jahre Wartezeit einkalkulieren. Doch das schmälert das Vergnügen keineswegs, die Nachfrage nach handgefertigten Einzelstücken ist groß wie nie. So war es nur natürlich, dass Vacheron Constantin Ende 2006 das Atelier Cabinotiers eröffnete: eine Werkstatt nur für Sonderanfertigungen. In dieser einzigartigen Uhrenboutique werden Uhren vollkommen auf die persönlichen Wünsche des Kunden auf der Basis von vier Kriterien kreiert: Der Kunde wählt ein Gehäuse, ein Laufwerk mit den entsprechenden Anzeigen, ein Zifferblatt und das Armband.

Das Ergebnis ist ein absolut individuelles handgefertigtes Einzelstück, das einzige seiner Art, hergestellt in großer Uhrmachertradition. Wer eine solche Kostbarkeit sein Eigen nennen möchte, braucht vor allem ein Höchstmaß an Geduld. Etwa 43 Uhren wurden im Atelier Cabinotiers seit seiner Eröffnung bestellt. Der Auslieferungstermin für die ersten Uhren liegt im Jahr 2011. Was sind das für Menschen, die für ihr Objekt der Bewunderung und Begierde neben der finanziellen Investition auch in Jahre der Wartezeit investieren? Betsey Johanson sprach mit Dominique Bernaz, dem Leiter des Hauses Vacheron Constantin über Sammelleidenschaft, den Wert von Zeit und Handwerk als Kunst. ■

Is there any particular collector that has left a lasting impression on you?

The buyers of these unique one-off pieces wait up to five years to receive their watches. What makes them so patient?

Yes, of course, and there are many. It would not be fair to mention one of them amongst the others but Doc who sends me an e-mail every morning to tell me what the weather is like in Sweden. By the way: How are you today, Doc?

In fact, they are not patient at all! And, as a matter of fact, they are quite impatient. When you have a passion, you are not patient but ready to wait in order to get the best. When it comes to develop a mechanism from the beginning – which is possible within our Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order – there is a minimum necessary time needed, of 2, 3, 4 or even 5 years, from its conception by our engineers and designers until its realisation by our master watchmakers. Furthermore, regarding the Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order, the slack periods have been eliminated. In a usual production process this could take two to three times longer. That is to say that we, at Vacheron Constantin, do our best to take into account our client’s impatience while respecting our quality and craftsmanship standards.

Vacheron Constantin’s CEO, Juan-Carlos Torres considers the Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order as a milestone in the history of watches. Why? Juan-Carlos Torres CEO Vacheron Constantin

Den Rest erledigen die Uhrmachermeister des Atelier Cabinotiers von Vacheron Constantin. Sie verbringen ungezählte Stunden damit, die Wünsche der Kunden zu realisieren, Designs festzulegen, Funktionen und Einzelheiten zu bestimmen: guillochiertes oder emailliertes Zifferblatt, römische oder arabische Ziffern, Sekunden in der Mitte des Zifferblattes oder chronographische Funktionen, Nebenzifferblätter für Datum und Wochentage, eine persönliche Gravur ...

The Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order is a wish of Juan-Carlos Torres, CEO. Thanks to him, these timepieces upon special order are the cornerstone of the Haute Horlogerie. The brand was born from special orders and never stopped producing timepieces of exception for customers of exception. What is new today is the institutionalization of this service. There is no need for privileged relations in a watch manufacture any longer to realize one’s dream. It is now the responsibility of a dedicated team within the Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order, placed at the service of all Vacheron Constantin aficionados. The team is based in our historic Maison in Geneva, yet available for private consultations for any client of our exclusive boutiques worldwide as well as in our Vacheron Constantin’s retailers.

Is there a particular watch from past collections of which you take particular pride? I could answer that I take pride of each watch we made but then you will tell me: come on ... Indeed, there is a watch I‘m particularly proud of. It is the ‘Tour de l’Ile’ and, to be 100 % honest, this watch was made before I joined the company and was initiated by our CEO Juan-Carlos Torres. That is to say that it is much easier to work with people who know what high watchmaking means.

How similar are Haute Horlogerie and Haute Couture? It is the same. It is real luxury. 28


Vacheron Constantin - A Piece of Time