Amidst the economic turmoil and the incessant dull news, Vacheron Constantin lightens the year end by presenting not only a striking new model in the Historiques collection, but even more exciting it houses a brand new large manual wind movement fully developed inhouse by Vacheron Constantin and reviewed here by independent watchmaking genius: Kari Voutilainen
click on scans for larger view
Vacheron Constantin may be the oldest watch manufacture in existence but most important in my eyes is what the brand has achieved over its 253 year history, and when I look at certain Vacheron Constantin vintage pieces I’m at awe before such timeless design savvy. It would have been a shame not to take advantage of these past designs and it was only natural for the brand to pay tribute to these iconic models and as such the Historiques collection was launched in the 1990s. The saying de gustibus non est disputandum has never been so true but in my humble opinion the majority of the models from the 90s were less tributes to the past models than a tentative in replicating them. Rather than being a nod to the brand’s beautiful vintage watches they looked dated immediately upon release without the patina and attraction of the real vintage pieces.
In the late 90s the Historiques collection was abandoned and the last model, the beautiful Chronograph Historique went off catalogue in 2004. Meanwhile, Vacheron Constantin came back with the Historiques collection in 2005, a niche collection dedicated to horological purists and aficionados of the brand. The Toledo 1952 was the first to enter this collection followed in 2007 by the Chronometre Royal 1907 a tribute to Vacheron Constantin’s iconic chronometer models. The goal is each year to introduce a new reinterpretation of Vacheron Constantin’s historical timepieces. This year Vacheron Constantin comes with a bang with not only a fantastically beautiful zanzy model but which even better houses the brand’s new inhouse 12.5 lignes manual wind caliber 4400: the American 1921 to be pre-launched in the US end of this year and the rest of the world in Spring of 2009.
*Vacheron Constantin and the American market
Until about 1830 Vacheron Constantin’s main market was Europe but the less than stable political situation on the Old Continent pushed Vacheron Constantin to search for new markets and the New World was an obvious choice:
“Our Mr. Constantin has advised you of the dreadful state of our affairs during this latest campaign due to the losses we have endured and to the cessation of business since the July Revolution (note: this refers to the fall of Charles X and the installation of Louis Philippe on the throne of France in 1830). This has led to a surplus of merchandise that we must somehow reduce as soon as possible provided that political events and the onset of cholera do not hamper us. This year must make up for the preceding one. The funds that will be put at our disposal will enable us to get the most out of the situation. We must employ any means to boost our watch sales. As you must unfortunately have a lot of spare time on your hands at this sad point of time, you should use it to learn the English language as we want to set up business in New York.” J.B Vacheron wrote to H. Armand the brand’s agent in Modena.
Before this date the brand made watches for the American market but which were sold through travelling salesmen at the main Italian ports of the time: Genoa, Livorno or Venice. When American ships stopped at one of these ports the brand’s travelling salesmen were ready to offer a range of watches made for this market.
Business was set up in New York and the first pieces shipped were models decorated with enamel paintings including portraits of Byron and George Washington. Vacheron Constantin rapidly extended its business westward to Philadelphia and by 1839 New Orleans. By 1865 the whole country was more or less covered.
Other than special co-branded pieces made for retailers such as Bigelow Kennard & Co of Boston or J.E. Caldwell & Co of Philadelphia, the United States was also a testing ground. From 1888 Vacheron Constantin contributed funds to research carried out by the Swiss Syndicate into the use of antimagnetic metals, which promised to yield greater regularity in the watches’ mechanisms. The brand started using various anti magnetic balances and balance springs which it had patented but reserved these time pieces at first only for the US market since it was the only country which recognized these patents!
Special requests were answered and in 1904 Rockefeller bought several watches, the first being a split seconds chronograph rapidly followed by a minute repeater chronograph. Celebrated writers such and Henry and William James, King Kong scriptwriter Edgar Wallace and famed collector and patron Henry Graves Jr. were among Vacheron Constantin’s more notorious clients of the time.
|Graves watch from 1932||Graves Tourbillon|
Two models were specifically made for the American market in rather original metals. In May 1918 the purchasing office for the American Expeditionary Forces ordered several thousand chronographs graduated in fifths of a second with a seconds counter but no minute counter, fluorescent dial and hands in a silver case engraved with “Corps of Engineers”. In 1937 following a special request from the Canadian Aluminum Limited group of companies to mark the 25 years of service within the group a watch was to be created and “to have real value, originality and at the same time serve as a reminder of the great aluminum industry”. Original it definitely was, weighing a mere 19.61 grams not only were the case and dial made of aluminum but so was a good part of the movement!
|Corps of Engineers|
But I am digressing, lets go back to 1919, Vacheron Constantin created a watch in a cushion case with a crown placed unconventionally at 11. The movement used was obviously from a pendant watch having the crown at 12, the crown being shifted slightly to the left the sub seconds counter was consequently moved from 6 to 5. The RA 11 lignes Nouveau Amérique (New America) movement was made specially for the US market starting 1916. This model was made in only 12 pieces and originally all were to be shipped to New York but finally it was also available to other markets who asked for this piece.
|Original drawing from 1919|
The model inspiring the American 1921 like its name suggests was first made in 1921. Also made in 12 pieces, this time it bore its crown at the 1 o’clock position, the first three pieces were sent to the US in 1921, the first owner being Rev S. Parkes Cadman, a prominent clergyman, newspaper writer and pioneer Christian radio broadcaster of the 1920s and 1930s. He was an early advocate of ecumenism and an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and racial intolerance. Two more were bought in 1928 by an American client. The 12 pieces were made over a 10 year period the last model being delivered in 1931.
This original piece with the crown on the right is now reborn and enters the Historiques collection as the American 1921.
The Historiques American 1921
To the question why this specific model was considered as representative enough of Vacheron Constantin’s past to see a modern interpretation Christian Selmoni, Head of Product Development replies “With Vincent Kaufmann (note: head of Vacheron Constantin’s Design Department) we had been eying this watch since 2006, it has an original typically 20s design and yet is far from being outdated. It’s neither masculine nor feminine and yet very sophisticated. A perfect dandy’s watch”.
"One of the main challenges was to keep the watch’s Art Deco essence and make a 21st century version without creating a replica “something like putting the watch in a time machine and going from 1921 to 2008” says Selmoni.
In fact nothing in the American 1921 looks vintage. The rose gold case is a prominent 40mm x 40mm and 8 mm thick but wears beautifully on the wrist. The dial is gorgeous, grainy cream colored with an off centered shiny seconds subdial (resulting from the crown being shifted from the habitual 3 o’clock to 1 o’clock). The dial may have looked even better had there been applied numerals instead of printed ones but the original model had printed numerals which can explain the choice. The whole look of the watch is extremely original and pleasant, take the classical cushion shape shift the crown up and you get a very funky watch, which just shows how advanced and yet timeless Art Deco designs were.
Speaking of the crown, winding the watch can be somewhat difficult since the crown is rather close to the lug and your fingers will undoubtedly rub against the later while winding.
Time reading also takes some getting used to as the dial is shifted to the left and where we are all used to reading time at a glance from the position of the hands, here you actually need to read the numerals the hands are pointing to.
The American 1921 is not just a pretty face; it also has some serious technical arguments under the hood in the form of the brand new manual wind caliber 4400.
Since 2001 and the launch of the manual wind caliber 1400 Vacheron Constantin has been on a roll in terms of caliber development and three base movements have seen the day: calibers 2450, 2455 and 2460 but all of them automatic. For purists like me for whom nothing is more pleasant than winding your watch manually there is a gap that Vacheron Constantin has filled. Not only is caliber 4400 a brand new manual wind movement (bearing the Geneva Hallmark) but also has a large 28mm diameter in line with today’s large sized watches. The icing on the cake comes with its 65 hours power reserve.
A dedicated team at Vacheron Constantin started research on the creation of a new manual wind manufacture movement end of 2004. By May 2005 the first stage of research to finalize the caliber’s specifications was completed: a large size, long power reserve, 28,800 vph (for even better accuracy) and something new and not only a beefed up version of caliber 1400. It took a bit over a year to draw plans and develop the mechanism and by 2007 the first prototypes were assembled. Over a year of testing and this new movement is ready to see the day.
The launch of a new movement is always an important event in the life of a brand but even more for the brand’s aficionados. Imagine my excitement when independent watchmaking genius and winner of the coveted Best Men’s Watch for his amazing Observatory watch at the Geneva Horological Grand prix in 2007, Kari Voutilainen accepted to test the caliber 4400!
|Kari Voutilainen in his workshop|
I asked Kari to be totally candid and frank and to openly say when he didn’t like something or considered it not to be on par with what could be expected from a high end manufacture.
“My first impression just looking through the case back is that it is a nice clean movement, the balance is not too small which is a good thing. Vacheron Constantin has opted for a classical design and it is obvious that servicing of the movement was in mind, you can see it in the construction”
After removing the caliber 4400 from is case and taking the dial off Kari commented on construction and finish:
“The movement has a classical construction and has been conceived with servicing in mind, all components are easy to access, you don’t need to take the whole movement apart to service or replace the necessary parts. Top quality materials have been used, from the metal of the components to the jewels. I personally would have preferred having not one large bridge but smaller ones. This is however a question of taste and maybe not possible due to certain areas which are too thin to have separate bridges. A large bridge can also be a bit trickier to place correctly as visibility is lower and gears can be damaged if not placed correctly. The bridges are screwed in and not placed on pegs which is the sign of high a quality movement".
"Vacheron Constantin has decided to jewel many parts, even those which are not traditionally jeweled, this shows great concern for a lasting movement as the less friction there is the longer lasting the parts will be.
Vacheron has opted for a large mainspring barrel and it is a smart move as I’m not for stacked barrels in models having a long power reserves which have long thin springs. There is a lot of friction in the latter and tear and wear is rapid. Here Vacheron has devised a special solution where the mainspring is a regular one but by placing a reverser it has managed to largely increase the power reserve. In the long term this could create some friction on some gears, I prefer a direct contact between the mainspring and the gears but if you want to have a long power reserve I prefer Vacheron’s solution to the stacked barrels one.
The keyless works are very well executed and have a good grip that I like."
"I appreciate the regulating system as well, it is well executed, by turning the screw of the balance spring stud you can easily and precisely regulate the watch without any friction.”
Kari then proceeded to regulate the watch and tested its rate on a Vibrograph testing machine.
“It’s easy to regulate and we can rapidly reach a +1/+2 seconds a day rate result, they’re not selling the watch as a chronometer? They should! The tolerances are low and the rate difference between all positions is null, the caliber shows a very stable rate in all positions and this is an excellent surprise.
This regulating system is also very sturdy and in case of a shock the index regulator will not move.”
“Come and take a look at this” Kari called out to one of his watchmakers once he took the caliber out of the case and took the dial off. “Nice huh?” If this isn’t a compliment from a watchmaker known for his superlative finish then I don’t know what is!
“The Geneva waves are very well done, often the end of the stroke is less than satisfactory but here they are perfect. I particularly like the interior angles which are seen less and less and I’m impressed that Vacheron Constantin uses this method since it is quite a difficult finish execution. The interior angles are a bit too inward but it shows that they are made by hand."
The bevels are very very well done, they are consistent and regular which is a proof of good craftsmanship. I personally would have liked to see more visible thicker angles but that’s just a matter of taste.
"The perlage on the top plate under the dial is also very nice even though they are not of the same size in the centre, this could just be a design choice. Vacheron Constantin has given high aesthetic finish to parts no one other than a watchmaker who will take the watch apart can see. I’m impressed.
The sunburst finish of the barrel is really well done and the screws seem to have inward angled heads which is great!”
The American 1921 shows that a real tribute to the past isn’t just replicating it but reinterpreting it with stamina and style without betraying its original essence and as such Vacheron Constantin has created a truly remarkable Art Deco watch of the 21st century. I will however leave the conclusion to Kari Voutilainen:
“I’m very impressed with the movement construction and finish. The movement is easy and logical to assemble, all parts fit in perfectly. You tell me this is a base movement? Then what a base movement! Finishing a movement to be used in very small quantities is something, having a movement with this type of finish in what will be made in large amounts is something thoroughly different! The quality of this movement is much higher than what we see in other high end brands (Kari did in fact give some names that I prefer not to give out but you can imagine who he was referring to). This is the first modern caliber I see finished so well”
Kudos should first and foremost be given to the team of engineers, watchmakers and designers behind this caliber which I’m sure will see its way into another very exciting piece to be presented at SIHH 2009…
I would also like to thank Kari Voutilainen who took time from his busy schedule and granted me almost a full day to talk about this watch.
*Please refer to Nick Foulkes’ research on this matter which is more thoroughly detailed in his book “High Society” published by Assouline (Dec 2008).
Addendum Dec 21 2010
In 2008 Vacheron Constantin also released an American 1921 perpetual calendar in platinum housing the automatic cal 1120. Limited to 20 pieces made for the Vacheron Constantin boutiques of Geneva, Moscow, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
In 2010 two collectors commissioned Vacheron Constantin's bespoke Atelier Cabinotiers department for a platinum American 1921 perpetual calendar (with cal 1120) with a blue dial and a platinum hand engraved moon face.