Back to the Future: Interview of J. Marchenoir Heritage Director

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.
 

   
 
August Leschot Panthograph


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!
 

Back to the Future: Interview of J. Marchenoir Heritage Director

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.

KBS
04/16/2014 - 14:47
04/17/2014 - 00:36
04/17/2014 - 03:49
04/17/2014 - 17:16
04/17/2014 - 17:19
04/17/2014 - 12:23
04/17/2014 - 17:21
04/18/2014 - 14:09
04/22/2014 - 12:17
A super interview.
04/16/2014 - 14:47
Thanks to J. Marchenoir and to you, Alex for taking the time. Lots of things to think about and I'm so pleased with the general attitude from Vacheron Constantin towards being more open towards the public and auction houses. The article is very well presented and all the questions are answered very precisely by Mr. Machernoir.  yesyesyesyesyes   Cheers, Kent.
Thanks Kent, the answers are precise and to the point!
04/17/2014 - 17:11
e
I love the watches from Montres et Bijoux!!!
04/16/2014 - 16:06
They show off some of VC's flair and shrug off so much of what I hear about VC being too stodgy and not being innovative (ironically, these comments often come from people that do not like the 1921 or QDI, but like the Patrimony collection). Great interview.  I had no idea that CR PW values were increasing as well, considering they were also the highest volume collection ever produced by VC. Thanks Julien and Alex! BR, Dan
I really agree with you on your whole 1st paragraph!
04/17/2014 - 17:12
e
Re: Back to the Future: Interview of J. Marchenoir Heritage Director
04/16/2014 - 18:44
Alex and Julien, Thank you so much for that excellent and thought-provoking interview. I can see that there is quite a lot of work to be done, but the work done thus far has been extraordinary. It really is a big plus to collectors and VC aficionados to see the direction in which Vacheron is moving. The display of their vintage pieces throughout the world will only enhance the reputation of Vacheron and bring many more individuals to explore their history and become members of a world-wide club of VC owners. I think the dissemination of Vacheron's heritage and history is crucial and has been a bit overdue. Now in Julien's capable hands I'm sure we will see a flourishing of the Heritage Department and a bringing of Vacheron's past into the present for all to discover and enjoy. Merci mille fois à tous deux! Joseph
A collectors we often nag that VC isn't doing it as we want to but
04/17/2014 - 17:13
here we realise the tremendous amount of work that has been done...and that remains being done!
A very welcome discussion :-)
04/16/2014 - 19:21
Thanks so much for the astute questions and forthright answers.  I like the way the future is shaping up!  What comes to mind as a suitable area of study would be dedicated publication on the Chronometre Royal family.  Not only, as Julien mentions, is that name magical to collectors, but the variety is astonishing.  And, as discussed recently, the military history of V&C is an area deserving specific attention.
many of the questions came from the Loungers, no wonder they were good
04/17/2014 - 17:15
cool
What a nice report!
04/17/2014 - 00:36
I love vintage VCs, and I will welcome more reference books. These are badly needed as we often end up browsing old auction results for knowledge. Dedicated books to iconic models like the CR are probably the best way to start.   If they need help mining the archives, I surely can spare few days of holidays helping out wink   Thanks for this great interview, send my best to the entire heritage department.   Best,   Stan
glad you enjoyed it Stan :-)
04/17/2014 - 17:15
e
Fine interview, Alex.
04/17/2014 - 03:49
You posed excellent questions, and the answers were quite interesting. Thanks very much for your efforts. Regards, Tony C.
thank you Tony (nt)
04/17/2014 - 17:16
e
Re: Back to the Future: Interview of J. Marchenoir Heritage Director
04/17/2014 - 04:29
Fantastic! A rich heritage.
agree with you :-) (nt)
04/17/2014 - 17:18
e
So, on top of being a brilliant and dedicated individual
04/17/2014 - 07:30
Julien is one of the finest gentlemen I have ever met. Thanks for a great article, interview and challenging questions. I hope this thread is preserved so it can be read two hundred years from now when other collectors are bridging time to see what interested this group. Best to all, Tim
Words of wisdom Tim :-)
04/17/2014 - 17:18
e
You reveal my biggest fear, Tim!!
04/17/2014 - 19:16
This electronic forum WILL NOT be preserved 200 years from now, that is a given.  Thankfully, the information in the archives, as printed on paper, WILL still be around after all these electrons have faded to obscurity.  We need real tangible touchable sources to keep for posterity.  Indeed, a publication titled, The Best of The Hour Lounge, including all of Alex's articles plus favorites and recommended threads would be a tremendous asset to the brand, its collectors and enthusiasts. Alex and Julien, is there something in the works?
Thanks a lot Alex for this very interesting interview !
04/17/2014 - 10:51
And I'm sorry about my questions, I missed the point that it was an interview blush cheers François /Who is in to start a book on the Chronomètre Royal? :D (no time at the moment blush)
thanks Cisco :-)
04/17/2014 - 17:19
e
It's another very interesting document
04/17/2014 - 11:17
Hi Alex, thanks for this very interesting interview which contributes a bit more to a better knowlegde of our favorite watch brand. Besides, how beautiful is the historical Toledo 1951, it's such a jewel !
the 1951 is pure joy! Love it too
04/17/2014 - 17:19
e
Fantastic reading
04/17/2014 - 12:23
thank you Alex!!
glad you enjoyed it Rolando
04/17/2014 - 17:19
e
Looking back moves ahead slowly...
04/17/2014 - 16:41
A very encouraging and reassuring interview highlighting the formidable task being faced by Julien and his team of researchers. An excellent set of questions hatched a set of answers which has provided us with a better understanding and greater transparency of what is involved in their work. It would be nice to think that we shall hear more of the work and findings of the Heritage Department as the work progresses. Tony
I think it was important for us to hear about the immense
04/17/2014 - 17:20
amount of work that goes into the Heritage dept
That was the big takeaway I got from the article.....
04/18/2014 - 01:01
Just how much work they have to do, and the care with which they have to do it. I imagine we will keep getting new revelations about the brand as they learn more about its heritage. Bill
Excellent interview. Thanks Alex.
04/17/2014 - 16:50
...
Thank you KK (nt)
04/17/2014 - 17:21
e
It is really great to get these insights from Heritage
04/17/2014 - 17:40
This interview lifts some of the mystery surrounding the Heritage Department.  It is really good to get some insights as to where the department is going and the work ahead.  I really hope to meet Mr. Marchenoir some day. I cannot tell you just how helpful the Heritage Department has been to me personally (through the mediation of the unfailingly patient and supportive VC Concierge) on a number of occasions.  I think the photo of Mr. Marchenoir is an older one, but I believe I have seen several photos of him with the gray dial platinum Patrimony Contemporaine, so I assume this is his personal watch, which I think is an interesting and lovely choice for the man in charge of VC's Heritage.  I have ardently admired that very watch since it was launched in that sublime version in  2010.  cheeky Thank you for sharing this great interview with us. Best, Robert
Robert, you know that I actually chose the photo of Julien with you
04/17/2014 - 17:52
in mind because of his wrsit wear! devil
So cruel, Alex!
04/17/2014 - 17:56
So very cruel. wink
Re: Back to the Future: Interview of J. Marchenoir Heritage Director
04/18/2014 - 01:31
Good interview. A lot of emphsis on the extensive background the team has too go through. Just wish there was better record keeping in a more functional manner.10 years is a long time to expect success and it will probably take longer if it really can be done at all. I have (5) vintage VC watches and each one is a little different. Godspeed and good luck to the team.   Joe
The main problems they have to face is that all information is not all
04/18/2014 - 14:08
in one place!
Re: Back to the Future: Interview of J. Marchenoir Heritage Director
04/18/2014 - 13:09
An excellent Easter read. Thanks a lot, Alex. JK
Glad you enjoyed it!
04/18/2014 - 14:09
M
Re: Back to the Future: Interview of J. Marchenoir Heritage Director
04/19/2014 - 18:59
Really thanks for this, will be nice to know what the gentlemen at VC are pursuing ;p
Happy you enjoyed the read :-)
04/20/2014 - 11:44
.
Thanks for sharing. It was a pleasure reading this interesting article
04/21/2014 - 16:07
Thanks for sharing. It was a pleasure reading this interesting article.
glad you liked it :-)
04/22/2014 - 12:17
e