A brand with almost 260 years of existence has obviously a lot to say but it seems that Vacheron Constantin has shied away from this and can even seem secretive on its archives. Julien Marchenoir the Director of the Heritage department talks about the weight of this heritage and opens the doors for us and explains where this department is coming from and where he would like to take it.
What is the Heritage Department and what is your role as its director?
That’s a vast question! However to sum it up the Heritage department is the guardian of several collections. First a collection of timepieces from mid 18th century until now, which are witnesses of the Maison's history and creations. We also have a collection of over 600 machines and tools used by our watchmakers during the centuries as well as a collection of “furniture” such as work benches, watchmaker drawers and cupboards, frames and paintings which have been acquired by Vacheron Constantin during the years.
The most important and valuable part is nevertheless our archives which consist of hundreds of books and registers, millions of letters of correspondence between the brand owners, the brand and its agents or final clients. We have actually worked on rediscovering the archives when we started preparing our 250th anniversary in 2005 as these archives and documents had been locked away since the mid-20th century without anyone actually delving into them!
How far back do these archives go?
We have documents from late 18th century but documents with accurate information start at 1810. That’s when Jacques-Barthelemy Vacheron implemented the archive system.
Have you finished exploring the archives?
I think we still need at least another 10 years! It is a long task because once we start digging a subject; we need to contextualize the information and link to other information. For example if you take a production ledger and link to a specific country it is like pulling on a thread which leads you to something else. It can take months or years to study just one specific topic! But we are learning every day which is fascinating.
How many people work in the heritage department?
We are 6. Two people in charge of the archives - one in charge of the paper archives and the other the media assets (photos, films, sound recordings…) - one person in charge of the collections in general, 2 assistants and one expert watchmaker.
How many watches are part of the collection today?
A bit over 1300 timepieces.
What is the policy for buying back vintage Vacheron Constantin timepieces for the collection?
A collection, as you certainly know, is never complete, there is always a way to complement it with the addition of pieces which fill a gap or are of significance. We are constantly on the look out to see how we can complement our collection either by a technical point of view or aesthetical point of view or even by provenance. We buy our watches either at fairs, auctions or dealers specialized in vintage pieces.
Are there pieces you know that exist and that you are specifically looking for?
Yes – But I will not tell you, otherwise the price would obviously go up!
The collection can be seen during thematic exhibitions at the Maison Vacheron Constantin in Geneva. Any projects of bringing this collection outside of Geneva as you did for the “Treasures of Vacheron Constantin” exhibition held at the Singapore national Museum in 2011?
We organize two thematic exhibitions per year in Geneva. But we also lend some pieces to museums for their exhibitions. Today we are in discussion with different museums who would like us to either lend them some pieces or organize a larger exhibition on Genevan haute horlogerie throughout the prism of Vacheron Constantin.
We have recently been contacted by the Art and History Museum of Geneva to lend them a certain number of timepieces for an exhibition to be held at the Capital museum of Beijing called Geneva: The Art of Time (note: exact date to be set but will be by year end). This exhibition is to highlight the specificities of Geneva watchmaking, the elements that explain why Geneva was the first city in Switzerland where watchmaking appeared and what are the elements and reasons which made Geneva watchmaking synonymous of fine watchmaking.
But this is not a Vacheron Constantin only exhibition…
Correct, the exhibition will be featuring about 400 timepieces of which a bit over 100 are from Vacheron Constantin.
When can we see a Vacheron Constantin only exhibition outside of Asia?
It takes 2-3 years to set up an exhibition similar to the Treasures of Vacheron Constantin. We’re looking at different locations so I would say at the earliest in 2 years.
To make the bi-annual Geneva exhibitions at the Maison Vacheron Constantin more visible to those unable to attend, why not create an online catalogue?
We are discussing with our digital team on something like this but we encourage people to come and see the exhibitions as it is a different experience from just seeing photos and reading descriptions on a screen.
Vacheron Constantin is very good in communicating on its past and age but not on what it has actually done for close to 260 years. How can the Heritage department change this?
With its 250th anniversary celebrations Vacheron Constantin started a whole new communication policy: its heritage. First we needed to master the content of our archives to be able to answer the requests which we receive every day. We have been working with journalists and writers who have been doing research on Vacheron Constantin or the history of watchmaking and communicating with them in bettering the knowledge on our brand. We cooperate with auction houses to date the watches in their catalogues and giving information. And by this I think we can bring better knowledge of our watches and achievements.
How do you work with the auction houses? As we often see Vacheron Constantin watches for sale but with no relevant information on them.
We have offered all auction houses to work with them and date the watches and provide information but we obviously do not know of the pieces they have when they prepare their catalogues so it is for them to contact us and request the information.
Many collectors underline the lack of documentation on vintage Vacheron Constantins and compare to the numerous books available on vintage Patek Philippe. How can Vacheron Constantin cater to these collectors by providing more readily available information?
Vacheron Constantin’s policy until 2002 was to provide zero information! So for the past 12 years we have been communicating the information found in our archives but I think that what is missing are reference books dedicated to one subject, so maybe we can encourage writers or journalists to choose a specific topic and write about it?
Do you have any plans in the near future in providing something of the sorts?
As you know there are quite a few number of articles published on The Hour Lounge about the history of specific watches such as the Chronometre Royal or complications such as calendar watches or minute repeaters with quite a lot of information on our historical pieces. We also have published books on modern complicated calibres with sections that feature some history.
In 2005 we published the Secrets of VC which probably is the most comprehensive book on the history of the brand and now 10 years later we are looking at updating it with a new version. We have also been contacted for a book with a different approach on the history of VC but I can’t say too much on this right now.
Last year we worked with Stacy Perman who was writing a book on the great collectors called A Grand Complication.
Why does Vacheron Constantin systematically refuse to give production numbers for vintage watches?
I know that there has been quite some talk about this but the problem is that the numbers we have are limited to our current knowledge. It can happen that the production of a certain reference was stopped than restarted years later and as long as we have not fully mastered our archives we rather not give numbers rather than give wrong ones. Imagine we say that a reference in a specific combination was made in 20 pieces but years later we realize we made 200 pieces, the person having bought one would be upset and rightly so. We need to be responsible and only provide correct information even if this means creating frustration from our collectors, buyers and auction houses for the moment.
Omega today has an online catalogue of its vintage production. Could this be possible for Vacheron Constantin?
Today there are unfortunately people with bad intentions. If we open our archives and give all the information on the different elements on a vintage watch we would be giving open power to people who could decide on creating counterfeit vintage watches! That’s why we don’t want to be fully transparent on all our little secrets.
You said you would be open in having journalists/writers contact you to write on a specific topic. Would you be open in accepting a senior member of The Hour Lounge do research on a specific topic and share results with the community?
Access to our archives is restricted only to members of the Heritage department, just because they are so delicate to handle. But of course if a Lounger has a specific topic he/she would like to write about we would need to know in advance as to work with the archivists to prepare the material and work with the Lounger.
Today Vacheron Constantin is considered as a part of the most prestigious watch brands. What was the situation 200 years ago?
Beginning of 19th century Vacheron Constantin already had a prominent situation but for me the period it really forged its reputation as one of the great houses was from 1810 onwards, when Jacques-Barthelemy Vacheron took the reins of the company and his shared vision with François Constantin on how to develop his grandfather’s company.
|Jacques-Barthelemy Vacheron||François Constantin|
1839 was also a critical date in the history of watchmaking as it is then that Georges-August Leschot developed the pantograph for VC and which gave the brand a technological advance for a number years where we moved from a crafted watchmaking, where all components were made differently and precision was approximate, to creating a standardized way of creating components which were identical and thus increased the reliability and accuracy of watches.
What is for you the most controversial vintage watch launched by Vacheron Constantin?
Tough question! We’ve never made any erotic watch! In the past 50 years In Geneva there was a fair called Montres et Bijoux and the watchmakers exhibiting used to present quite unusual prototypes which often would never actually go into regular production. If you look at some of our creations presented at this fair you can see some very futuristic watches which were quite controversial internally.
|Prototype from 1970||Winner of Montres et Bijoux Prize 1985|
The other watch which was controversial at the time was the Kallista. It was valued at $5 million in 1979 and each day the price was going up by $1000 due to the increase in the price of diamonds!
As a specialist in Vacheron Constantin history, which is your favorite vintage movement?
With such a history the problem is to choose as there are a number of options. The way VC was manufacturing its movements in the second half of the 19th century with these specific Leschot calibres was at the time particularly interesting. VC was requested by the Swiss government to exhibit these movements at the different Swiss or Universal ehibitions as to showcase Swiss craftsmanship.
Late 19th century we go into miniaturization and early 20th century I like the work done on the movement for the watch made for the Maharaja of Patyala, it is a tiny movement and very interesting.
I like the work done also in creating thinner minute repeater calibres during the late 19th century. Speaking of repeaters I like the caliber made for the ref 4261 which is still relevant today as we revisited it in the 1990s as caliber 1755 and today with cal 1731.
In more recent history I would say cal 1007BS and 1008BS used in the Chronometre Royal wrist watches with an amazing level of finish and execution and that created a reference within the watchmaking industry. In fact the Chronometre Royal models are watches which do quite well at auction. The Chronometre Royal PWs have increased by almost 50% in the past 4 years!
Would Vacheron Constantin accept to give a photocopy of the actual ledger entries with a Certificate of Authenticity?
We don’t always have something interesting to show; sometimes the information is divided in different books or ledgers or is just some figures on a sheet of paper. It would be complicated and extremely long to standardize this.
How do the Heritage and Design departments work together are there any links?
The two departments work together on an almost daily basis. But what is important for us is not to look for a bridge in terms of creation but more on the continuity of a certain approach including on an aesthetical point of view. Our design team is always looking at what was done in the past, it is important that the young designers who have joined the team to feel and breath our history and what has been the style of VC but at the same time we don’t want to just have copies of the past. It’s always a reinvention even if we pay tribute to watches of the past within the Historiques collection, these watches it is never exactly the same but the style is contemporary. If not the whole creative process would be completely restrictive and counterproductive.
|Historiques Toledo 1951|
Where do you want to take the heritage department? What does the perfect heritage department look like?
We would love to know all the details of what have been part of VC history. You cannot imagine how long it takes to dig into the archives, find the accurate information, double check, figure out the weight of this information in the historical context. What we would love is to have a larger space of expression for the Heritage department in order to be able to share more about the contents, the archives, the collections in Geneva and elsewhere.