THE CHRONOMETRE ROYAL 1907: 100 YEARS OF FLAMBOYANCE
Behind a delightfully dated name, the Chronomètre Royal (or Royal Chronometer) represents one of horology’s best know models as well as one of the first attempts at serial production of a precision timepiece.
You can click on the photos for a larger image
The Race for Precision
Today everyone takes for granted that a watch should keep precise time, but 100 years ago, in 1907 when the Chronomètre Royal was first launched this was far from being the case. The materials used were not as advanced as today’s and perfect regulation of a watch was almost equivalent to neurosurgery…well maybe not…but you do catch my drift! This is one reason why brands fiercely competed at observatory trials and always proudly announced prizes and results obtained at these contests.
Literally a chronometer is an object which measures time; however in practice it designates a precision timepiece. It seems that this term was first used in this sense by French watchmaker Pierre Le Roy in 1761 and came to generally designate precision timekeepers during the 19th century. In 1925, the Swiss Association for Chronometry defined a chronometer as being “a watch which has received a certificate from an astronomical observatory". Since 1973 the term chronometer designates a watch having successfully passed the Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) trials.
However, major brands did not wait until 1925 to set out and compete against one another at observatory trials. In Switzerland, chronometer competitions began in Neuchatel in 1866, and Geneva in 1873 (they ended in Neuchatel in 1975 and Geneva in 1967. For wristwatches, competitions ran from 1945 through 1967). Manufacturers would submit one or several specially prepared watches for competition. Interestingly, these watches were never meant for sale, the purpose of these trials being not only competition but also a testing ground for research on chronometry and of course a marketing and communications tool for the manufacturer in selling their “regular production” watches.
|Observatory rules||observatory rules||testing results|
Prior to being allowed to compete, entrants were tested, and those meeting the rigorous standards were eligible for actual competition. The watches were tested in 5 positions, 3 temperatures (4°C, 20°C and 30°C) and 8 periods for a period of 40 to 44 days. Each movement was graded on a performance scale and awarded a certificate with the final score and rating.
It is important to note that these movements did not have a particularly fine aesthetic finish but were technically the best of the best: the surfaces of pinions and wheels were highly polished with exceptionally even tolerances; springs were pre-tested and hand chosen, the dimensions of shafts and bearings perfectly executed…
To make an easy comparison, these competitions were to watch brands what Formula 1 racing is to car manufactures: a laboratory and a perfect display of their knowhow and mastery. It is interesting to note that these competitions were extremely prestigious and the name of the winners published in newspapers along with the identity of those responsible for regulation who, not unlike master watchmakers today, were put in the spotlight with great pride! One of the most famous at Vacheron Cosntantin being Mr. Batifolier whose movement received 1st prize at the Geneva observatory trial of 1898.
Birth of the Chronomètre Royal
Building on its experience and reputation gained via numerous prizes, Vacheron Constantin decided to take the jump and actually create a precision timekeeper not only destined for competition but for actual use, consequently in 1907 the Chronomètre Royal was born. The name was filed for trademark on May 28 of the same year and on May 8, 1908 trade mark protection was filed for its English translation of Royal Chronometer.
|original trademark filing||logos|
The idea was simple: a precision instrument robust enough for everyday use and extremely legible. The Chronomètre Royal was not adorned with any frills or superlative movement finish, it was a technical watch and as such the movement had no high grade aesthetic finish typical of the Genevan style but a more simple gilt finish (as in the movements used in competition), the dial was white enamel (chosen as it does not oxididate) and the a gold case (with some rare models in silver) with a sunray guillochage on the back cover.
One rare example of a Chronometer Royal with richly adorned case and enamel back exists dating from 1919, most probably made for a Turkish client.
The calibres went from 11 to 22 lignes and built on the same principle: the pivot of the centre wheel rests on a threaded gold bearing, that of the escapement wheel on a counter pivot and that of the balance on a sapphire. Regulation being made via micrometric screws.
With the push of fate this watch became an instant success and avidly sought after by the cognoscenti. The South American market was the first to pass orders. A letter dated April 17, 1907 from Campos in Rio de Janeiro shows the interest of this agent in a robust precision instrument. Campos had organised a lottery system in which subscribers would pay a monthly fee to take part in a series of draws (this seems to have been a successful way to sell watches in Brazil at the time and was tested by different agents for different brands). The winner would win a watch and the other subscribers would enter the next draw. This system was so successful that Campos delivered 3022 watches between 22 October 1907 and 31 December 1911, representing 80% of total production of the Chronomètre Royal!
One of the reasons behind the Chronomètre Royal’s success in South America resides in the fact that it was one of the first watches able to resist the altitude, constant changes in temperature and high humidity of the continent and still keep perfect time.
Slightly over 10,000 Chronomètre Royal watches were made from 1907 to 1919 and even though production almost completely ceased starting the 1930s (a few interesting “helm watches” were produced during that time) Vacheron Constantin continued competing in the Geneva observatory contests and even set a record in 1934: 1st prize for a deck chronometer, 1st prize for a series of 5 and 1st prize for a single chronometer, record to be beaten only 13 years later by…Vacheron Constantin!! In 1948 for the Neuchatel Observatory’s centenary year Vacheron Constantin received 8 first prizes for 8 movements!
Between 1931 and 1961 Vacheron Constantin received 15 first prizes (basically a first prize every other year)
The Chronomètre Royal came back with a bang in 1953 with the launch of the Chronomètre Royal wrist watches housing the manual calibres 1007BS (sub seconds) and 1008BS (central seconds). The BS in the appellation stands for Balance Stop; Vacheron Constantin being one of the first (if not the first) to actually use a hacking seconds in a wrist watch made for civilian use.
|ref 4838||caliber 1007 BS|
Contrary to the original Chronomètre Royal pocket watches the movements of their modern
reinterpretation were finished (both functional and aesthetic finish) to the highest standards and a sight for sore eyes. These watches are considered by collectors and experts to be one of the finest wristwatches of the time in terms of technical advance, precision, movement finish and elegance.
Different references with different designs were successively launched all housing either the calibre 1007 or 1008.
(scan courtesy of Antiquorom)
(scan courtesy of Antiquorom)
(scan courtesy of Antiquorom)
These watches were accompanied with a “Bulletin d’Observatoire” certifying the superlative regulation of the watch.
In an ad from 1957 Vacheron Constantin states that the Chronomètre Royal is a watch with: “class, created for a demanding clientele by the same experts who, at Vacheron Constantin, have produced the victorious chronometers at the observatory trials.” In 1956 Vacheron Constantin had not only received first prize in categories A and B (categories depended on movement size) but had actually 8 movements placed within the first 10 in each category!!!
The observatory testings having been abandoned in the late 60s, the Control Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres took the baton in 1973 certifying the performance of individual watch movements. Upon the creation of this bureau only watches whose movements have been certified by this organism can be officially called chronometers. The COSC results provide a "photographic" image of the rate of a movement at a given moment. Nonetheless, due to their severity, these tests are highly selective and only extremely high-quality movements can hope to pass them.
This is therefore an examination based on excellence, even if the behaviour of the movements that are granted certification is still directly dependent on the wearers themselves. To earn chronometer certification, a movement must not only be made from the highest-quality components, but also the object of special care on the part of the watchmakers during assembly.
The movements are tested during 15 consecutive days, at 6 positions and 3 temperatures and to obtain chronometer certification the movement should, amongst other criteria, stay within a daily average rate of -4/+6 seconds per 24 hours.
In 1962 the manual calibres 1007 and 1008 were replaced by calibre 1072, making it Vacheron Constantin’s first automatic calibre with COSC certification. It is considered as one of the best automatic calibres of its time, with its ruby bearings to minimise friction. This calibre is found in one of my all time favorites: le ref 6694 which shows not only Vacheron Constantin’s technical expertise but also their thinking out of the box in terms of design; this is a wristwatch which definitely would look good on Batman’s belt!
(scan courtesy of Victor Kerboch)
Nevertheless, in the mid 70s the attraction for mechanical precision timepieces seemed to wan (especially with the arrival of the quartz movements) and other than a very original rectangular “sports” model from 1976 (housing the calibre 1096), the Chronomètre Royal line was more or less abandoned.
It was reborn in the early 1990s but not as a model range of its own but surprisingly in the “casual sports” Phidias collection (an evolution from the 222 models and a close cousin to the Overseas). In 1998 the ref 47022 was introduced with the automatic calibre 1126, integrating the dagger type hands found in the original models from the 50s. This model became an instant success and one of the rare non complicated models for which there was actually a waiting list!
The Chronomèter Royal Strikes Back
In 2007 the Chronomètre Royal, now dubbed Chronomètre Royal 1907, returns to join the newly reborn Historique model range.
When in 2006 the team at VC decided to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Chronomètre Royal they were sure of only two things: it had to have an enamel dial as a tribute to the original 1907 model and house a manufacture automatic calibre.
Different paths were explored, for the choice of the case, what the design team wanted to avoid was a wrist watch which looked like a recased pocket watch. A first direction led the team to that of the newly launched Patrimony Traditionnelle model range, but the aesthetic codes of this model did not marry well with the enamel dial, neither did the other interesting path which lead to the daring ref 6694.
The Chronomètre Royal wrist watches not having any identifiable characteristics case wise the team decided to use the same case as the last Chronomètre Royal wrist watch ref 47022 (1988-2006) but enlarged to a more contemporary 39mm case diameter. It is currently available only in rose gold.
If you look at the enamel dial you’ll fail to see something you will probably see elsewhere: bubbles! Yes that’s right the dial is perfectly flat.
Immense effort has been put in the creation of the dial. First the white gold base (Vacheron Constantin decided on using a white gold base which is less prone to deformations than the more widely used yellow gold base) which has its periphery and centre engraved using the champlevé method as to prevent any type of burn on these areas and is covered with enamel (front and back to equilibrate tensions) and cooked 5-7 times in an oven heated to 800°C (each cooking can take anywhere from a few seconds to a minute depending on the enameller’s gut feeling!).
The numerals and inscriptions on the dial are also enamel. Most enamel dials have lacquered numerals stamped on them whereas in the case of the Chronomètre Royal the numerals are not lacquered but are in fact enamel stamped on the dial and then recooked. The extra difficulty residing in the fact that the dial having 2 different colors (black Arabic numerals and a Burgundy red 12) which do not require the same period in the oven, necessitating an extra cooking process which increases the risk of the dial cracking.
Questioned on the lack of bubbles on the dial the enameller tells us that it all resides in the quality not only of the enamel but also the preparation of the dial which is very time consuming, add the quality control process (about 10%-15% of the production is refused) and you can better understand why only about 1-2 dials can be made a day!
|different dial designs were tested|
The overall tribute ‘look” is completed with pear hands similar to the original 1907 pocket watch.
A beautiful case, a lovely dial and an iconic name may make a great watch but not a fantastic one. The icing on the cake comes in form of calibre 2460 SCC, which is of the latest generation of inhouse automatic movements (bearing the Geneva Hallmark and COSC certified) having left the manufactory. It beats to the rhythm of 28’800 VPH, has a 43 hour power reserve and a rotor placed on ceramic ball bearings doing without any lubrication. Other than its flawless finish (both on the visible and non visible parts) this calibre features a hacking seconds hand to enable precise time setting and a beautifully sculpted rotor.
The calibre before being sent of to the COSC to undergo the 15 days of tests is carefully regulated and tested under strenuous conditions as to be certain it will obtain COSC certification. When the movement comes back, it is cased and once again undergoes a 30 day test period to make sure it is keeping time within the stringent chronometric criteria. The watch will be delivered to the final client with not only the COSC results but also with the Vacheron Cosntantin’s internal test results.
As 2007 will be celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the Chronomètre Royal the first 100 pieces will have a Burgundy red 12 whereas thereafter the 12 will be black like the rest of the numerals. Vacheron Constantin hopes to deliver about 100 pieces the first year and hike production to about 150 the subsequent years.
This new Chronomètre Royal 1907 model from Vacheron Constantin is what many aficionados have been waiting for: the iconic Chronomètre Royal with an inhouse calibre. This watch is a pure concentrate of Vacheron Constantin elements: sotto voce elegance with a number of subtle details which the wearer will gradually discover and appreciate. It is a perfect watch for those who seek not only a classical dress watch with a calm air of luxury but also a high performance precision timekeeper offering more than meets the eye.
My greatest hope would be to see the Chronomètre Royal models develop into a range which would become the testing ground for chronometer and technical R&D, making these models a showcase of Vacheron Constanin’s mechanical know how and achievements... it would be history rewriting itself.
Addendum March 2011
A platinum version of the Chronometre Royal 1907 is also available only in Vacheron Constantin boutiques
In memory of Duncan Wang, an avid watch collector and charitable businessman, Vacheron Constantin presented a one-of-a-kind Historiques Chronomètre Royal 1907, with blue enamelled dial using the Grand Feu technique, encased in platinum - for the Kidz Horizon Charity Ball held in Singapore in August 2013. The charity’s mission is to raise funds for children requiring special medical attention for chronic or terminal illnesses such as cancer and AIDS