La Maison Vacheron Constantin (literally the House of Vacheron Constantin) is not just a fancy name to designate the boutique, located in the heart of Geneva’s historic area called l’Ile (which by the way celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2006) but a novel concept presenting the world of Vacheron Constantin to collectors, aficionados and the general public alike.
Of course, there is the boutique where current collection models are displayed, but also the Heritage department where the brand’s archives are stored as well as an exhibition area located on the 1st floor where certain of the brand’s vintage pieces (referred to internally as the Heritage watch collection) are on display. Even though the heritage collection is composed of over 1000 pieces, about 100 are on display at a time as to allow the visitor to see different timepieces, exhibited according to a specific and different theme, each time he visits the Maison.
However, where Vacheron Constantin proves that a 252 year old marque can still innovate, be creative and think out of the box is via the 4 original departments which will be housed (pun intended) in the Maison: Les Métiers d’Art, Les Collectionneurs and the Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order and the Boutique.
To talk about these departments who better than Dominique Bernaz, Directeur of the Maison Vacheron Constantin and a watch industry old timer who abandoned his career as an accountant to run the world, first working in diamonds then in Bulgari New York, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Antiquorum as Deputy CEO before returning to Vacheron Constantin in the summer of 2006 ?
Alex Ghotbi: Can you tell me about the Metiers d’Art workshops?
Dominique Bernaz: Our intention with the Metiers d’Art is to showcase the different artistic crafts which are linked to watchmaking and which we, at Vacheron Constantin, use in our timepieces. Therefore, in the Maison on the 1st floor we will have an engraver, an enameller, a gem setter and a engine turner. Visitors can drop by and see how they work and ask questions to familiarise themselves with these crafts. They can for example see our experimented enameller supervising the work of a young lady who has joined us a couple of years ago. It is important to note that these craftsmen, based in the Maison, are not only present for a show but will be working on pieces either for our regular production or our Special Order service.
AG: Surely you will not have enough space on the 1st floor for the machines and tools.
DB: We shall be getting an extra floor in the following months. We shall also have two watchmakers dedicated solely to the restoration of our vintage timepieces join us. We have undertaken to repair all the watches we have produced in the past quarter millennium so I can tell you this will definitely not be a profit centre for us!! (laughs)
AG: Speaking of vintage watches, you have decided to offer for sale vintage timepieces at the Maison; this is a first for any brand. Why such a move?
DB: I have been in the business for over 30 years and I can say that this is an excellent move. The fraction of people who are interested in vintage watches and who really know what they are getting, the ones who go to auctions and open the watches is quite small. What we offer is for those who don’t go to auctions or who are not vintage watch experts, those who want a museum quality timepiece, restored and guaranteed and that they can see and hold. At the Maison we try to have a vast choice from time only to the most complicated.
AG: Aren’t you afraid that the auction houses will cease supporting the brand by competing with them?
DB: Auction houses do not support brands.
AG: Yes, but they can put the spotlight on them or not.
DB: True, but I don’t believe that we are competing with them, because there is a great chance that we buy our watches from one of the major auction houses.
AG: Then why should a collector buy from you at a higher price when he can get the watch directly at auction?
DB: The hammer price is not the final price of the watch. The buyer will also have to pay the auction fees, VAT, shipping, servicing etc… and at the end the final price may be much higher than what he expected. With us, the watch is of museum quality…therefore rare, it has been serviced, comes with a guarantee, a box, a strap, a buckle and a certificate of authenticity. All these details add up and in the end, the watch will not necessarily be more expensive than one bought at an auction which you would have wanted to come complete with these elements.
AG: Why is Vacheron Constantin the only brand (excluding certain independent watchmakers) to propose bespoke watches via the Ateliers Cabinotiers Special Order?
DB: There is nothing new in what we are proposing, up until the Second World War most major houses offered a special orders service. It’s these special orders that pulled the brands to a higher level, made them outdo themselves and move from watchmaking to Haute Horlogerie. Industrialisation started with the after war era and brands were less inclined to dedicate resources to special orders. This of course came to a complete end during the quartz crisis. Demand for special orders was reignited in the 90s but brands were working in full flow and selling everything they produced, they neither had the capacity nor the need to respond to such demand. Of course, if you were rich and powerful and in a situation where you could call Mr. Torres (CEO of Vacheron Constantin), or any other CEO of a high end brand, you could ask for a timepiece made especially for you but that situation was the exception and still is, other than for Vacheron Constantin.
You have to understand that a special order piece is a headache, it’s difficult and expensive. You need to actually find a space in the production cycle to integrate this one-off piece. There is a whole logistics and organisation process to put in place and most manufactures did not want to go that route and it is what will require the most effort on our side.
With our Ateliers Cabinotiers Special Order department we have decided to institutionalise bespoke timepieces and even open up to a wider audience since the client can ask for a regular production piece with for example a different dial which would cost much less than having a watch made for you from A to Z.
There is a dedicated team with a project leader, a computer graphics designer, a technician etc… The task is enormous because the work load is the same when creating one single watch or a series. We are creating a whole manufacture for a unique timepiece!
With the Special Orders we shall also be in direct contact with the final client, the one who will be strapping the watch on his wrist and it is the perfect way to take the pulse of the market and reflect these desires in our regular production pieces.
AG: What is the process to follow to order such a watch?
DB: The client can either contact us directly or via one of our exclusive boutiques or ambassadors worldwide. We then meet up and try to understand his tastes and desires. We then launch the project with a designer and a computer graphics designer and take down the aesthetic and technical elements. We then present the project before a special committee which will decide if the watch is Vacheron Constantin or not. The goal of our Special Orders department is not to make watches already made by others but with Vacheron Constantin on the dial! The timepiece should be in line with Vacheron’s philosophy and tradition.
Once the green light obtained, we set up a technical file with price and delivery timing. If it suits the client then we sign an agreement and launch production. The client will also receive an access code to an internet site where he can follow the work in progress of his watch. It will be an active site with photos and videos enabling the client to follow step by step the creation of his timepiece. It will also enable the client to have a better vision of the project and even modify certain elements as things go forward.
AG: What if the client can’t come to Geneva?
DB: It is important to specify that our Special Orders department is physically based in Geneva but not limited to the historic boutique in Geneva. If a client can’t come over or wishes to order via his retailer then we will go see him and take the necessary specialists with us (ie: enameller , engraver…). It is important to meet and discuss face to face to perfectly understand the client’s wishes. Of course this may not be necessary if the order concerns a change of dial or a small modification to be made to an existing model.
AG: You mentioned retailers, they will need to be trained to know how to deal with these requests.
DB: When we decided to launch the Special Orders department we met a bit of reluctance internally because it represents a lot of work and we are at a period in time where we sell everything we produce, so why complicate things for ourselves? But at Vacheron we have decided to offer this service to our clients, regardless of the extra workload, even if with certain complicated pieces we won’t make money as we cannot pass on to the client the real development costs of the final product. To come back to your question yes we have started and will continue training our subsidiaries, agents and retailers as for them to be able to answer requests from clients.
AG: How are you going to organise production and what are delivery times?
DB: We have identified 3 categories for Special Orders:
1. Customisation: where we take a regular production watch and modify certain elements to the client’s desires: dial, hands, making it into a wrist watch for left handers, engraving etc… We will make a watch but will not modify a watch that the client already owns. We do bespoke not transformations. All Vacheron Constantin aficionados are not millionaires and this first level of service will offer them a personalised watch at a correct price range. Recently, a client ordered a Patrimony Contemporaine with a blue lacquered dial and his family’s coat of arms engraved on it. For this 1st category we will give a quote and present a project to the client within a month and delivery will be within 6 months.
2. Made to Measure: Here we use pre existing movements and modules and work on the aesthetics of the watch: case, lugs, dial, hands etc… The project and quote will take maximum 2 months for a delivery within a year.
3. 100% Custom Made: In this third category we start from scratch. Everything from the movement to the aesthetic details of the watch shall be made to the client’s specifications. We are cautious and have not fixed any time limits but our commitment is to keep the client updated from the very beginning and at least once a month, from the start of research and development onwards.
AG: Would you modify for example the case size of an existing model or produce one in a metal not made in regular production?
DB: Everything is possible. For small aesthetic modifications we will discuss on a case by case basis with the client as to maintain as much as possible a unique character to his watch in case other clients have asked for something similar.
AG: How can you guaranty that a watch will be unique? If someone has a fantastic idea and that you find the final result brilliant will you nevertheless warrantee that the design will not be reproduced?
DB: There are 2 possibilities if we find the final product superb and wish to replicate it. We will offer the client to bear the development costs and therefore divide the price of the watch by 2 or more and assure the client that the watch shall not be replicated identically and consequently use the design for regular production pieces. If he accepts, good for us and if he refuses then too bad. It is something we have already taken under consideration.
AG: Do you have the capacity to produce watches which you do not have on catalogue, such as split seconds chronographs or grande sonnerie ?
DB: Yes we have the capacity and expertise; it’s just a matter of time and costs.
AG: Would you accept to replicate a vintage movement?
DB: Yes, we can do anything the client desires.
AG: Would you re-case a vintage pocket watch movement to make it into a wrist watch?
DB: No. During my time at Antiquorum I saw many re-cased watches and the final result was rarely of top quality. The first thing to do when re-casing a pocket watch would be to add an anti-shock protection which is not always possible and when it is, it is very expensive. The goal of our Special Orders department is to make something special for a client not to modify or transform existing products.
AG: Do you have watchmakers who are dedicated to the Special Orders department?
DB: For the categories 1 and 2 the work will be split between the Metiers d’Art (engraving, enamelling, gem setting etc...) and the manufacture in Geneva. For dials, we can even go with the client to our dial maker and see how we can do things. For the third category, where a new movement would need to be developed we will work with our high complications engineers and watchmakers.
AG: Have you installed quotas on the number of Special Order pieces you shall be making per year?
DB: We don’t have a specific limit but following the market’s reaction to this new service we offer, we may have to limit the number of special orders. Our goal is not to congest the manufacture or for the special orders to have a negative impact on the regular production.
AG: Have you already received orders?
DB: Yes we have about 35 projects we are currently working on. In particular in the 3rd category, which is the 100% bespoke, we have a request for a double faced Grande Complication which will be nevertheless quite different to the Tour de l’Ile. Ethically we cannot redo Tour de l’Ile so we are starting anew. Needless to say that we are facing many problems in developing this timepiece but I can’t tell you more…(big grin)
AG: Who is the person to contact if a client wants to have a special watch made?
DB: You can send me an email and we’ll take it from there: email@example.com
Thank tou Alex for this very instructive interview, Vacheron Constantin is a very fascinating Maison!!
From special order time piece to restoration of vintage movment!!
I am fooled!!
Thank you, Alex.
That was a great article and a wonderful interview.
Ahh, to have an unlimited surce of money :-)
Thanks Alex for the very interesting and informative interview.
During my recent visit to the Maison VC during SIHH, I noticed quite a number of the vintage chronographs. But I was told that they were not for sale. May I know when VC has decided to sell their musuem pieces and how should one go about it? Would appreciate your information.
I think that the watches you refer to are the ones on exhibition which are part of VC's private collection and therefore not for sale.
The vintages watches for sale are showcased on the ground floor (there are about 30 pieces on sale at all times)
If you are looking for a spacial piece or would like to have some information you can either call Salvatore Laforta or Dominique Bernaz at the Maison: Phone : +41 22 316 1740 Fax : +41 22 316 1751
I think you are right. The pieces that I saw were displayed on the 1st floor. However, the impression that i had was that all pieces displayed on the ground floor were current/modren modals. It could have been my oversight. What a waste of the opportunity.
economy of funds :-)
Maybe you can order a bespoke piece with the cash you didn't spend on a vintage piece :-)
Hopefully, i have enough cash to do that.
you take the jump!
Thank you Alex for this great report.
Next time Im in Geneva I sure will make VC a visit!
The sky seems to be the limit for VC these days. It would be wonderfull to see what VC can achieve when a aficionados imagination runs wild but I dont think we gonna see those 1/1 pieces in public. Very interesting to hear about the special commitee that will judge the projects (can, or will, they turn down a multi $$$ client for the wrong shape of the lugs?).
of a design detail but rather a project where someone would want to have for example a copy of a watch from another brand but with VC on the dial.
Perhaps VC would be kind enough to reveal some of the unique pieces that they have undertaken to produce.
you'll first see it here :-)
my compliments to you and to Vacheron for this high quality revealing interview
as I said before :only more good news to come
Very interesting interview.
stranger :-) (nt)
Thanks Alex for this very nice report!
But of course it's to Dom. my thanks mostly goes.
First for being really on "my" side now,
not on the other, as the auction connoisseur and seller at Antiquorum,
as it used to be, no,
now at last you are back home,
in the very heart of Vacheron&Constantin :-)
Dom. makes a very important and true statement,
which we, who have bought some vintage V&C's,
through the years, if anyone know,
hammer price is one thing,
the bottom line price,
is often rather far from it the most times :-)
The whole idea is absolute brilliant, and Mr Torres and Dom.,
will make it a success story!
Just back from Paris chatting VC with Alex for some days,
I see I need to visit La Maison soon :-)
So, messieurs Dominique and Alexandre, once again,
a big thank you both !
I think that VC's idea to offer customized and besoke timepieces is an excellent one and is sure to be a big success.
I just hope that a few of the clients are not too sky and are happy to share their project with a wider audience, e.g. us :-)
Exactly my thoughts!
But that is a mission for Alex to persuade VC,
to give some hints to these customers,
that we would appreciate it the utmost !
You also remeber from our conversation with Dominique Bernaz,
that he said, that if a watch was so perfect, that VC could think of doing several of that model,
they would ask the customer if they could find a solution !
So, there is hope for us out here, to perhaps enjoy one or two :-)
interview and as well the splendid business plans!
I think both the idea of offering properly authenticated and restored vintage watches, and that of customization at several price levels but always at V&C quality...these are great news to all watch appreciators!
This is the exact opposite of what Patek is doing. Patek used to do one-off special orders, but now with all their success they do not (apparently) do so any more - the customer buys whatever Patek wants to sell. I think the atelier is a great move by VC, since the high end market is full of expensive watches that are essentially off-the-rack items, and people who spend six figures definitely want something special.
I hope that even though the watches produced at the atelier are on client's orders, VC will still release photos and information on interesting creations, rather than have them disappear forever into a private collection.