Undoubtedly the chronograph has been one of the greatest hits of the mechanical watch revival of the 80s. It is the undisputed king of complications in term of market desirability and success and a little known fact that it is also extremely complicated to manufacture. Vacheron Constantin created its very first wrist chronograph in 1917 and since then the variety and diverse designs make these some of the most desirable ever made.
In 1776, Genevan watchmaker Jean Moïse Pouzait filed a description of a watch with independent seconds with the Society of Arts in Geneva. The seconds hand was driven by a separate gear train, meaning it could be stopped and started independently of the mechanism that drove the hour and minute hands. The big problem was that the seconds hand could not be returned to zero.
Fast forward 50 years to witness the creation of what would undoubtedly become one of the most popular of horological complications.
Paris, September 1, 1821. A nice summer breeze is blowing on the Champs de Mars race tracks (where the Eiffel Tower will be built 68 years later), but tension is in the air. The horses stamp their hooves ready to dart out, the heart rates of the riders are at a peak but it is watchmaker Nicholas Rieussec who is the most anxious as it is the first real situation test of his “seconds chronograph”.
It is a day that can bring him fame and fortune.
As the horses set off so does Rieussec’s device. This instrument was devised to measure the race’s lap times. Housed in a mahogany case its cylinder escapement mechanism drove a white enamel dial marked with sixty, one minute graduations which made one complete rotation per minute. The operator pressed a needle which deposited a droop of ink from a small cavity onto the dial at the start and finish of the measured event. The chronograph as you probably all know derives its name from the Greek word “chronos” (time) and “graph” (writing) which is exactly what his device did!
The Royal Academy of Science having granted its approval, on March 9, 1822 the Interior Ministry’s Consultative Committee for Arts and Manufacture granted Rieussec a 5 year patent for a “garde temps ou compteur de chemin parcouru” (timekeeper or measurer of distances covered).
One month earlier, the London based watchmaker Frederick Louis Fatton had applied for a non ratified patent for a similar inking chronograph soon followed in September 27, 1822 with a patent for a pocket chronograph with the same functions as Rieussec’s but with a fixed dial calibrated to 1/5 of a second. Rieussec retaliated soon after with a pocket chronograph whose needle was activated via a push piece on the side of the case.
These chronographs were remarkable but had one major drawback: the seconds hand could not be reset to zero. The answer came from Adolphe Nicole, a Swiss watchmaker based in England. He created a heart shaped cam which enabled the seconds hand to return to its original position, giving way to a patent registered in London on October 7, 1844. For the first time the seconds hand could be started, stopped and reset thus making it possible to combine the elapsed times of successive events.
Surprisingly no chronograph using this device seems to have been subsequently made until Henri Féréol Piguet from the company Nicole et Capt in the Vallée du Joux presented a chronograph with a return to zero function at the 1862 London Universal Fair. Again in London, on May 14, 1862 Adolphe Nicole filed a new patent for a chronograph with reset function followed by a second patent in Paris this time on November 13 of the same year.
Another modification needed to be made to reach the chronograph as we know today. The switching works of these chronographs were all placed under the dial; this facilitated their manufacture as little focus needed to be made on the geometry of the underlying movement but the whole watch needed to be dismantled in case of repair or regulation. In 1868 Auguste Baud made the first chronograph whose mechanism was no longer positioned dial side but on the bridge side. At this period the first minute counters also appeared (up to 30 minutes)
The chronograph being no different from time only models, its in the early years of the century that its position started shifting from the pocket to the wrist and documentation from the Swiss Intellectual Property Bureau shows application for patents of a wrist chronograph in 1909-1910. It was however in the post WWI years that the wrist chronograph became fashionable. These watches either in a round or cushion shape had only one button either elegantly placed in the crown (sometimes the crown also served as chronograph pusher) or at 2 o’clock, this pusher was used for the start/stop and reset functions.
It is only in 1933 that we saw the arrival of the 2 button chronograph, which we owe to Breitling. This enabled to stop timing an event without having to reset the seconds counter (called additive stopping). Surprisingly the first implementation was the opposite of today’s. The start and stop button were at 4 o’clock and the reset button at 2. In 1935 the brand modified its original patent to switch the functions to the position we know today.
The chronograph continued being bettered with the arrival of a counter enabling the timing of events exceeding 30 minutes. The first patents for an hour counter mechanism date from 1892 but no watch with such feature had seen the light of day until 1937 when Universal Geneve was granted a patent.
The same year saw the arrival of the cam lever. Until then, all chronographs functioned with what is still today considered as the sign of a high end chronograph: the column wheel. When a pusher is pressed the column wheel is propelled to a specified angle of rotation. The demand for a less costly mechanism prompted Dubois Depraz to develop, in 1937, a system of cams intended to replace the column wheel (both costly and time consuming to make) as these flat components could be stamped and easily replaced.
Right after World War II, in 1946, a first prototype of a self winding chronograph was created by Albert Piguet and Lemania but it never went into production. 33 years later in 1969 with the decline of the traditional hand wind chronographs saw the arrival of the first production automatic chronograph movement: the Cal 11 (AKA as the Chronomatic) a joint venture between Heuer, Breitling, Dubois-Depraz (expertise in switching works) and Büren (micro rotor) and Zenith’s El Primero.
VACHERON CONSTANTIN’S WRIST CHRONOGRAPHS 1917-1970
In the early 20th century, Vacheron Constantin published its first public catalogues. The watches presented were done so independently of the photo references and the numbers indicated next to each watch were solely used to enable foreign clients to order their watches.
Hereunder a page from a 1917 catalogue where number 165 indicates a chronograph (photo reference 1441).
However, starting 1904 Vacheron Constantin photographed certain pieces of their collection and attributed a photo reference number in increasing order from 1 to 3800. This system was used for the brand’s emblematic pieces from 1904 and 1937.
Starting Jan 1, 1938 Vacheron Constantin adopted reference numbers for its watches starting from 4000. Reference numbers starting with 5000, 8000 and 9000 were never used and it is in the mid 70s that the numbering system was modified going from 4 to 5 digits.
Between 1938 and 1950 the reference numbers were not inscribed in the case back, for post 1950 models the reference number is inscribed in the lower part of the inner case back.
|ref 4072 without ref number inscription||ref 4072 with ref number inscription|
Starting 1989 (and the relaunch of VC chronographs) all the brands chronograph reference numbers start with 47000 and 49000.
1916-1937 chronographs with photo references
1917 photo ref 1441: mono pusher (via crown) chronograph, 30 minute counter 34.5mm, Cal RA 13 lignes, white enamel dial. This is the very first known photograph of a VC chronograph (even though the very first chronograph dates from 1916. 3 were made in yellow gold.
1920: mono pusher (via crown) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal RA 15 lignes, white enamel dial. 3 pieces were made in yellow gold, the first in 1916 with a 38mm case (Paneraiesque for the time!), one in 1917 with a 37.75mm case and the last one in 1920 (photo hereunder) with a 37.8mm case.
1922: mono pusher (via crown) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal RA 13 lignes (from 1916), white enamel dial and tachymeter scale. Made in 6 pieces in a yellow gold 33.5mm case.
1926 photo ref 2554: mono pusher (via crown) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal RA 13 lignes in a cushion case. 3 pieces were made in 1926, 3 pieces in 1928 and 3 pieces in 1930 all in yellow gold. Among these 9 pieces only one came with a gold mesh bracelet.
1927 photo ref 3307: mono pusher (via crown) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal 13 lignes, white enamel dial. 2 pieces were made in a 36mm silver case in 1927, 18 pieces in a 33 mm yellow gold case between 1928-1930 and 2 in white gold the same year but in a 33.8mm case.
1928 photo ref 3306: mono pusher (push piece at 2) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal 13 lignes in a cushion case. This model existed with pusher at 2, with pusher in crown and with two push pieces. Made in a unique white gold case in 1928 (case made in 1923), another white gold case in 1929, 10 yellow gold pieces in 1929 and 3 other in 1931.
1930 photo ref 2990: mono pusher (via crown) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal 12 lignes (from 1906) in a cushion case. Unique piece in yellow gold (a similar unique piece in platinum was also made the same year)
1931 photo Ref 3410: mono pusher (push piece at 2) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal 13 lignes in a cushion case. Enamel dial with pulsometer scale. Made in 3 pieces in yellow gold.
1935 photo ref 3466: mono pusher (push piece at 2) chronograph, 30 minute counter Cal 13 lignes made in 3 pieces in a 33.5mm yellow gold case. Between 1935 and 1938 made other chronographs similar to the ref 3466 with slight modifications to the case or lugs. These were either mono or bi pushers and depending on the demand were made with tachymeter, telemeter, pulsometer or variations thereof. These models were made in 60 pieces in yellow gold and 7 in steel.
1936 photo ref 3564: two oval shaped push pieces, bevelled bezel and cal 13’ lignes made in an original 1N (pale) yellow gold case in 2 pieces.
1937 photo ref 3768: two push piece cushion shaped chronograph featuring a very original and rare 45 min counter. Cal 295, made in only 6 pieces in 1N yellow gold.
1938-1970 Chronographs with Reference numbers
|publicity from 1945|
1938 ref 4072: One of Vacheron Constantin’s more popular and well known chronograph models and was made until the early 70s. It existed with oval shaped pushers (rare) or more habitually with rectangular ones. The bezel was either bevelled or more rarely flat. The 34mm case came in the following:
Cal 13’VZ 295: 24 pieces
Cal 13’VZ 434: 285 pieces
Cal 13’VZ 492: 214 pieces
Cal 13’VZ 295: 3 pieces
Cal 13’VZ 434: 252 pieces
Cal 13’VZ 492: 108 pieces
Steel and Steel/gold
All steel: 213 pieces
Steel with yellow gold bezel: 24 pieces
Steel with rose gold bezel: 55 pieces
The 1968 Vacheron Catalogue mentions the reference 4072 in white gold but the production number is unknown.
|flat bezel||bevelled bezel|
1938 ref 4075: This model was first made in 1937 in 18 yellow gold pieces and only received a reference number in 1938. Production continued until 1939. The 33.7 mm case with mobile lugs was produced in 48 pieces in yellow gold, one piece in white gold from 1939 and two platinum pieces also made in 1939. This model uses the 13’ cal 295.
Here is an ultra rate ref 4075 with black dial and 45min counter.
1939 ref 4111: two push piece cushion chronograph with cal RA 13’ made in only 3 pieces in yellow gold.
1940 ref 4082: mobile lugs, using cal 295 and a 32.6mm yellow gold case made in 9 pieces.
1940 ref 4083: mobile scroll lugs, using cal 295 and a 33mm case made in 12 rose gold pieces and 6 in yellow gold.
|rose gold silver dial||rose gold salmon dial|
|yellow gold||yellow gold|
1940 ref 4177: The forerunner for the famous ref 4178, the lugs may look similar but are more tear drop shaped. This model housing cal 434 was made in 28 pieces in yellow gold and 24 in rose gold and had a 34.5mm case.
1940 ref 4178: THE Vacheron Constantin chronograph, the one that aficionados think of when they think of an iconic VC model. This reference was made until 1964.
Made in the following:
Cal 434: 231 pieces in yellow gold and 280 pieces in rose gold
Cal 492: 114 pieces in yellow gold and 108 pieces in rose gold
The number of pieces in steel and steel/gold is not certain the archives state 191 pieces but with a 20% error margin.
1943 ref 4305: Vacheron Constantin’s first water resistant chronograph with a very military look. Made in a unique piece in a steel 35mm case.
1945 ref 4367: based on ref 4178, Vacheron Constantin made two pieces in rose gold on rose gold mesh bracelet. This ref uses cal 434 and has a 36mm diameter. The dial has a very interesting red tachymeter counter.
1950 ref 4639: A unique model with a 35mm yellow gold case and an amazing yellow gold bracelet. Houses cal 434.
1954 ref 6026: This is a rare bird with a gorgeous case which certainly inspired the ref 49002 of the 90s. Housing cal 492 in a 36mm case it was made for only one year in 19 pieces in yellow gold and 6 pieces in rose gold.
1956 ref 6087: One of my all time favourite chronographs, with stunning cow horn lugs, round pushers and a water resistant case. This ref was made until the mid 60s but two platinum pieces with the same movement (cal 492) but different cases were made in the 90s. Ref 6087 was made in 28 yellow gold pieces and 6 rose gold pieces. The case having a 35mm diameter. It was also Vacheron Constantin’s last chronograph model until 1989!
|ref 6087 from the 90s|
1915-1946 Chronograph Calibers
Cal 15’ used starting 1915, base ebauche from Reymond Frères SA in Les Bioux
Cal 13’ used starting 1916, base ebauche from Reymond Frères SA in Les Bioux
Cal 13’ used starting 1927, base ebauche from Reymond Frères SA in Les Bioux
Cal 295 used starting 1937, with either a 30 minute or 45 minute counter, base ebauche from Martel Watch Co in Les Ponts de Martel
Cal 434 used starting 1940, base ebauche Valjoux 22
492 Cal 492 used starting 1943, base ebauche Valjoux 23
And I still think the Ref 6087 is one of the greatest designs ever created. The Ref 4178 is not very far from it...such timeless classics! Well done!
Firts of all, thank you Alex for an utmost article, both in words and not least in beautiful photos. More is, that the article is so full of facts, here we have all the references and production years. It's amazing to see how few that were made Rember the one I had the opportunity to buy? Mr Vuilliomenet, than chief of the Museum, had it examined and concluded : " It's a V&C case and movement, but they were not born together". A good lesson for all who perhaps get the 'opportunity' to buy a vintage monopusher. Don't buy it until the Maison had examined it. Now in this very fine article we really can see how few they were, and how few there are on the market is only a guess.... Once again, thanks for this fantastic article, dear Alex Doc
name on it
Thank you for this very informative article Alex. It really whets the appetite for classic chronographs! I am attracted to pieces with the features found in the 4177 (teardrop lugs), 4178, and 90's 6087 (with regular lugs instead of cow horns). I just love the balance and spacing between the subdials although most of the case sizes are definitely too small for modern standards. I only wish that in coming out with chronographs with contemporary case sizes, VC (and most of the other brands) would not cut corners by continuing to use the same (and therefore undersized) movements...On second thought, since I do find the Lemania movement breathtaking and since my wrists are small, I wish VC would just simply make 40mm chronos..
Looking forward to part two of your report (and VC's future manufacture chronograph movement). Best regards, Kazumi
Alex, thank you for a wonderful, insightful read! The detailed information makes this a seminal piece for chronograph lovers, not just VC chrono lovers. I'm more appreciative now of single button pieces, and the history behind the beautiful VC chronos including the Medicis.
Waiting eagerly for Part II (and the new VC chrono manual wound movement)!