In the past 12 years the watchmaking industry has certainly gone through more changes than the whole of the 20th century united!
After its almost disappearance due to the arrival of cheap quartz timepieces the Swiss watch industry (later followed by the Germans) reinvented itself, concentrating on high end mechanical watches…no longer used as a time telling device but rather a status symbol or the symbol of traditional arts and crafts almost fully lost.
This revival that dates from the late 80s basically saw the industry continuing doing what it used to do, the ways of working remained the same, designs, sizes etc… had not changed. The different marques were continuing making watches like they were doing 20 years before. However, with the new millennia everything changed and the whole way the industry was functioning was turned upside down.
This article is not meant to be exhaustive nor a history of Swiss watchmaking but rather consists of my personal thoughts on what the major changes were but would also love to have your opinions.
Traditionally Swiss watchmaking – especially in Geneva was a divison of labor, a multitude of watchmakers, goldsmiths, jewelers combining their skills to produce watches and jewelry.
This can obviously be seen in the fact that up until the late 90s brands were using movements sourced from specialised third parties.
However, in the early 2000 it became obvious that collectors and enthusiasts wanted more something more exclusive which would only be available for the brand using it and started a huge race for inhouse movements which in return hiked up the prices of watches as investments in machinery were huge and volumes low (the development of a watch movement can go anywhere between CHF 3 million to CHF 5 million).
Late 1990s Vacheron Constantin had launched its first modern inhouse movement, the tonneau shaped Cal 1790 found in the Malte Tourbillon, followed in 2001 by Cal 1400 a beautiful manual wind which was originally launched in the Malte Grande Classique.
|Cal 1790 skeleton||Cal 1400|
Things rapidly accelerated in 2005 and the 250th anniversary and the launch of Cal 2460, the brand’s first modern inhouse automatic caliber. In the past 12 years the brand has actually developed 26 inhouse movements and modules which represent the vast majority of the calibers found in its timepieces. Remain the manual wind chronograph cal 1141 which is based on Lemania and the movements housed in the Overseas models which use external ebauches. However Vacheron Constantin’s goal is to have 100% manufacture calibers in a very near future.
|Cal 2450||Cal 1120|
|Cal 2755 (minute repeater, tourbillon, perpetual calendar)||Cal 2253 (tourbillon, perpetual calendar, time of sunset/sunrise, equation of time)|
Most watch movements are made of steel, brass or maillechort which are machined. These components are finished to remove burrs and traces but also to ensure longevity (for example beveling blocks the pores in the metal and thus become less prone to oxidization).
For me hand finish is the true mark of haute horlogerie as hand finish (the vast majority of finish in the industry is done by machines) can make up almost 1/3 of the price of a watch.
It is difficult to explain where this interest in superlative finish came from as the industry applied finish but not the type with WOW factor we can find today. For a long time I thought the trend had started with Lange whose finish woke up the Swiss watchmaking industry but back in the mid to late 90s Lange was too small and modern German haute horology still in its infancy to be considered really a threat to the Swiss, but nevertheless the result is the same and collectors around the world are cheering to the finish of their timepieces.
Watchmaking schools do not teach movement finish so in Vacheron Constantin’s case a special training program has been set up which takes between 6 and 18 months (an apprentice needs 18 months of training to be able to work on interior angles!).
|unfinished bridge||finished bridge|
For me superior hand finish truly sets haute horlogerie brands apart from the wannabes and VC is doing things correctly in my opinion by applying consistent finish not only on the complicated pieces (which is logical) but also on the “entry” level movements whether on visible parts or those hidden under the dial. I once asked a lady working in this department if it wasn’t frustrating finishing parts that no one could see she answered “I’m making something beautiful that the watchmaker assembling or servicing will see and when they do they will be pleased with what I do and this is something which gives me great satisfaction.”
|underdial of Cal 2460 R7 R31||underdial of Cal 1420|
A full article on movement finish
Historically complicated watches, especially multicomplications were made by a handful of very high end manufacturers who had the reputation and the clients to sell these pieces too. Apart from Patek Philippe’s perpetual calendar chronographs and Vacheron Constantin’s unique triple date minute repeaters I can’t think of any wrist watch from the 1930s-1980s with multicomplications.
However in the late 80s brands started creating timepieces with only a few complications, the perpetual calendar minute repeater from 1994 comes to mind.
In 2005 Vacheron created the Tour de l’Ile which was at the time the worlds most complicated wrist watch with 16 complications and this seemed to have opened Pandora’s box, ever since, each year we see the arrival of brands boasting more complications and we have reached a situation where there are so many complications that they could knock you stone dead with horological indigestion!
An article on Vacheron Constantin's Most Complicated Pieces
But that’s not it. Almost every brand and its grandmother wanted part of the cake and fashion houses and entry level brands were introducing tourbillons and minute repeaters hoping to sell to a gullible clientele.
A subject matter which is constantly discussed on the Lounge, what is the perfect size? To each his own but the larger watch size is no longer a trend but a fact which I don’t see changing. Up until the mid 1990s men’s dress watches were in the 33-36mm range with the odd 37-38mm pieces pushing up to 40-42mm for the more sporty watches. Comes the Panerai craze in 1997-1998 and 44mm becomes the standard for a sports watch.
However it is only in 2004 with the launch of the Patrimony Contemporaine with its 40mm case that Vacheron Constantin launched the trend towards larger sized dress watches. Many, including me were shocked by the sheer size of this piece but the market (both clients and other brands) rapidly picked this trend up and almost 10 years after its launch the Patrimony Contemporaine has become an icon.
|Malte Grand Classique 36mm||Patrimony Contemporaine 40mm|
|Chronograph Historique from 1990s: 36mm||Patrimony Traditionnelle Chronograpg from 2009: 42mm|
New Techniques and Materials
This is a really interesting subject as for hundreds of years watches were made of gold, silver, steel or platinum, in the 2000s the use of new materials for watch cases boomed and titanium went from a niche metal to one largely used, even Vacheron Constantin tipped its toe into this metal in 2007 with the launch of the Overseas Engine limited edition only available in Japan and which had a titanium bezel, followed in 2008 with a full titanium case available for the Quai de l’Ile and the new Overseas models in steel with titanium bezel.
|Overseas Engine||Overseas in steel with titanium bezzel|
Vacheron Constantin also used palladium along with palladium in a limited edition Quai de l'Ile, but tantalum being an extremely difficult to work with it seems that this was a one off for the brand.
|Palladium/Tantalum Quai de l'Ile made for Only Watch auction|
Titanium becoming mainstream many brands started testing even more original metals such as carbon fiber, zirconium, silicon or even a full sapphire case (the recent Richard Mille RM56).
But why stop on the exterior? The past years have seen a massive use of modern materials for the movement plates and components may it be carbon fiber, titanium, silicon, liga with all sorts of different surface treatments.
Vacheron Constantin hasn’t really jumped the wagon in terms of the use of these materials as no one really has any experience on how they will age, however different surface treatments have been tested such as black nickel on the Malte Tourbillon made in a limited series for Singapore, black diamond on the Malte Tourbillon made in a limited series for the US or ruthenium on the transparent dial Quai de l’Ile models.
|Malte Tourbillon Singapore||Malte tourbillon US|
Certainly the element that made the most noise in the past decade and surprisingly one of the few trends which started with small boutique brands upwards.
In 1998 Vianney Halter launched a perpetual calendar in a form never seen before: the Antiqua, a real UFO in the world of horology who had remained (other than a few tests in the 1970s) true to traditional forms.
|Vianney Halter Antiqua photo courtesy of Gary G|
In 2000 Richard Mille launched its first watch in what seemed like a classical tonneau case but featuring many novel design elements, 2003 saw the arrival of Harry Winston’s Opus 3 made by Vianney Halter and from there on the likes of MB&F and Urwerk hit the collective radars followed by many other brands, this time with no horological substance confusing avant garde designs with gimmicks!
|MB&F Horological Machine 2||Urwerk 103|
Vacheron Constantin may be close 260 years old but it has managed to survive so long because it has adapted to its era and without being completely disruptive some designs have been quite avant garde and bold. May it be the two limited edition Malte Tourbillons, the Sputnik made for the Russian market, the amazing Masks series or the Quai de l’ile model line which may seem traditional today but just 5 years ago at its launch in 2008 had taken the community aback with its modern look.
|Sputnik||Metiers d'Art Les Masques|
The major economic meltdown the world has been witnessing since 2008 has obviously had an impact on the watch industry. Clients seem to be looking for reassurance in their purchases turning to less complicated yet classical watches but is this a back to the roots and the pre 2000 situation or will we be seeing a mix? Only time will tell
I agree completly on the topics Manufacture, Finish , Complications, Size, Techniques and materials, great writing, very insightful ! On the size I see an important year: 1993 with Panerai and Royal Oak Offshore. Their success took a litlle time but one must admit that they were very successful in the end. I regret the new standard in 40/42mm for my small wrist but things evolve, I am confident to see more offer for smaller wrists in 36mm :) . 1993 is also important because of Lange came in.
On the design you are so right to talk about Vianney's amazing Antiqua, I would add that the whole new world of independant appeared: You quote Richard Mille which is imho a very important step for futuristic creations in 2001. In a more classical design, FP.Journe also made some marvellous creations and were success story. Even if the story is not such a good example, there were already Gerald Genta and Franck Müller in the 90s, Dubuis also contributed to high horology etc etc All these independant have an advantage, they are very free to create what they want when they start and that gave a huge boost to innovative watchmaking and creative design.
Communication have also evolved a lot too, not only the technical part, your presence and your appreciation among collector is a great proof :) , internet, new way to communicate, many things happened, and basically internet. Vacheron woke up after a quiet period in the eighties imho in the 90s Vacheron came back and really "exploded" with creativity in the 2000s. For me definitely the high ned brand that evolved the most, and in the best direction.