Like Queen’s 1975 hit single Vacheron Constantin’s Quai de l’Ile uses complex construction elements, apparently non-related to each other and never merged before to create a perfect whole, and as the music video of Bohemian Rhapsody established the visual language of modern music video clips, the Quai de l’Ile will certainly establish what 21st century haute horlogerie will look like.
The Quai de l’Ile (QDI) is Vacheron Cosntantin’s first new collection in 8 years, since the launch of the Malte line in 2000…and what a collection! Definitely worth the wait: modern, dynamic, youthful, alternative and yet everything you could expect from the world’s oldest and one of the most prestigious manufactures.
A TRADITION IN AVANT GARDE DESIGNS
Many would consider the QDI as a very audacious step taken by a brand mostly known for its classical and conservative designs, but looking back Vacheron Constantin was never the austere Genevan brand certain would like to think, but very much to the contrary.
As soon as 1906 Vacheron Constantin played with see through dials with one of the 1st open dial watches: a perpetual calendar minute repeater as well as with alternative case designs such as a rather unusual rectangular model from 1917.
click on scand for larger view
However, experts and collectors agree that Vacheron Constantin’s big jump into the design word dates from the late 19th century and their collaboration with Parisian case makers Verger Frères. The mix of technical savoir faire and French design savvy and flair led to the creation of some astounding pieces such as the Constant Force Clock, Bras en L’air, Shutter watch, snuff box etc… Some say that Verger Frères’ blood still runs within the brand making it the most “Mediterranean” of Swiss watchmakers.
The 40s and 50s saw the brand play with lug shapes with some wild and audacious models; at the same time in the 50s the brand tested extra large pieces. At a time where men’s watches were in the 33-35mm range it launched a series of 38mm models as well as the iconic Cioccolatone (reintroduced in Vacheron’s collection in its triple date moonphase version as the Toledo 1952).
Of course, all these watches seem rather mainstream today but we need to put them in context and a bit like David Lynch's Eraserhead they have gone from avant garde when they were created to being classics of today.
The new millennium seems to have given a big boost design wise to Vacheron Constantin, first timidly with the open dial 247 launched in 2003, the open dial Malte perpetual Calendar retrograde from 2006 but even more with the audacious Malte Tourbillon Black Nickel of 2006, the amazing Sputnik or the Masks set both launched in 2007.
|247||Malte Retrograde Perpetual Calendar Openface|
|Malte Black Nickel Tourbillon (scan courtesy of Duncan Wang)||Sputnik||Mexico Mask -2008 set|
These watches as interesting and daring as they are were not destined for the mere mortal either due to their extremely high price or their extremely low production numbers (3 for the Malte Tourbillon Nickel or 10 for the Sputnik) or both!
I thus applaud even more the launch of the QDI as it is only a natural step back into the world of creative inspiration and haute horlogerie after the re-awakening of the brand and the only one today to have an offer for those who love contemporary design but want it to come with a great and historical name.
Vacheron Cosntantin’s 250the anniversary in 2005 was a form of catharsis, with the models presented the brand squeezed in 250 years of savoir faire and paid tribute to its past. It also freed its creative spirit and enabled it to focus no longer on its history but on what its future should look like.
The 250th anniversary also saw the arrival of Vacheron Constantin’s new inhouse automatic movements and the goal was to find a way to showcase the wonderful underdial finishing of these calibers in a modern manner.
Starting January 2006, the design team set to work with the following criteria in mind: non round and non tonneau case with powerful character, modern without being gimmicky, transparency and a strong identity. 150 sketches and a year and a half later the Quai de l’Ile was born!
|wax models of the case at different stages||brass prototype of case|
The new Quai de l’Ile line will be launched with two models: the Quai de l’Ile Date and the Quai de l’Ile Day-Date and Power-Reserve. Other models will subsequently be launched.
Both models use automatic manufacture calibres also stamped with the Geneva Seal. The movements (dial side) have circular Geneva wave decoration and are coated with rhodium or ruthenium and visible through the dial.
Cal.2460QH (Quai de l’Ile Date): Hours, minutes and central seconds, with an additional plate for the date disc. This date function has a rather funky feature: it is the disc that moves highlighting the numbers and not the contrary. The QH stands for Quantième Haute or raised date in reference to the date plate which has been raised to give more depth to this indication.
Cal. 2475SC/1 (Quai de l’Ile Day-Date and Power-Reserve): Hours, minutes and central seconds, with an additional plate displaying the power reserve, date, and day of the week with hands. The SC stands for Secondes au Centre or central seconds.
There has been a lot of talk about the superlative finish of Vacheron Constantin’s manufacture calibres including the underdial parts. The QDI models thanks to the semi transparent dials will allow the movement finish to be closely examined and enable the owner to make his own opinion on this. The finishing also has a special three-dimensional effect thanks to the unique interplay of transparencies created by the sapphire crystal.
To provide optimal legibility of the dial’s hour-circle, the two movements have a snailed exterior ring, rhodium - or ruthenium-finished depending on the version.
Finally, a new rotor has been developed, its design inspired by the back of the case, it is made in ruthenium-finished 22K gold enhanced by five embossed fillets.
The 41 mm cushion shaped case is extremely Art Deco inspired and yet very contemporary in its construction. It is made of 10 parts of which 7 make up the middle. All these parts are affixed to a titanium inner case. This inner case is like a classical movement ring used to fix the movement in the case and it also provides the water resistance of the watch. The crystal and back as well as their respective gaskets are screwed directly to the inner case. However, the watch provides only a 30m water resistance which is OK for a dress watch but not so for one which without being a sports watch is more of the active wear type.
The visit to Swiss artist Roger Pfund’s home was a revelation! Christian Selmoni (head of product development) was taken aback by a huge semi transparent glass pane in Pfund’s living room which had different ex Soviet bloc bank notes etched on it. It immediately gave him the idea of trying something similar on a dial.
These semi-transparent dials, which have two patents pending, are graphically innovative and use techniques never seen before in the watch industry, these advanced methods integrate secret texts, micro-printing, security inks and UV markings using invisible ink! The brand states that these “are safeguards against counterfeiting”. Whilst the battle against counterfeiting is a noble one I consider this more as literature in describing a dial made using cutting edge technology with a result which is nothing short of astounding!
Orell Füssli Security Printing Ltd, printers of bank notes and passports for various states, accepted for the first time to put its highly specialised savoir-faire at the service of the watch industry and help manufacture the dials.
To give a more artistic dimension to this very technical process, Vacheron Constantin called on the services of Roger Pfund - one of Switzerland’s most renowned contemporary artists (design/ graphic arts / painting) - who in a way was the inspirator of the dials! Pfund at the age of 27, had won the prestigious currency design contest, hosted by the Swiss National Bank for the design a new series of bank notes. He is also credited with the creation of the last version of the French Franc, as well as a series of the Euro, and the 2003 Swiss passport.
Technically, the Quai de l’Ile dials comprise two main elements:
- A sapphire crystal
- A security film
The sapphire crystal is an amalgam of cutting-edge techniques and refined processes, in particular those of:
Laser engraving without inking: used for the words “Swiss Made” and “Automatique”.
Laser engraving with inking: used for some of the numerals, the date and day of the week and “Vacheron Constantin Genève”.
Galvanic growth of nickel: used to create the numerals 3, 6, 9 and 12, and the Maltese cross. This process consists of “growing” a predefined shape on a sapphire crystal washed with ultrasounds and micro-sandblasted without abrasion. The result is almost the same as affixing an applique – impossible on a sapphire crystal – but more luxurious than the vacuum metallization method used on sapphire dials.
Galvanic growth process is both time consuming and complex, the sapphire crystal is first bathed in ultrasound, it is then covered with a layer of chrome and subsequently a fine layer of gold is deposited on top of the chrome layer using a vacuum metallisation method. It is then coated with UV lights sensitive varnish. The varnish is exposed to UV light through a mask with the desired motif (3,6,9,12 and the Maltese cross). The crystal is then placed in a nickel plating bath where it undergoes electroplating. Under the effect of an electric current between the tank and the crystal the nickel sulfamate is transformed into metallic nickel and deposited on the contact surfaces between the crystal and the bath. After 10 hours of treatment the layer attains a thickness of around 200 microns. The nickel plated surface is then polished and colored (rhodium or gold) according to the required finish.
Metallization: the act of covering a surface with a fine metallic deposit, in this case: sprayed white gold. The metallised micro-texts on the dial of the Quai de l’Ile Day-Date and Power-Reserve model – around the day and date counters – reproduce an extract, translated into English, of a letter written by Jaques-Barthélémy Vacheron to his associate François Constantin on 21 March 1829, complimenting him on the acquisition of new clients in Italy:
Geneva 21 March 1829, “ …we continually work to improve our quality so that you will often have this kind of rich news, you may rest assured that our watchmaking is worth more in quality if only by all the improvements that we have made, and we still have much more to do before reaching the goal we set ourselves.”
The Quai de l’Ile Date model bears a second extract, also translated into English of a letter sent from Italy by François Constantin in July 1819. This is right at the beginning of Vacheron and Constantin’s partnership and the unwavering confidence that François Constantin expresses in his letters for his friend and associate Jaques-Barthélémy Vacheron is already apparent here:
"With your able assistance, I promise you that we will make as much from watchmaking as all the commercial travellers together.... I assure you that we will be strong: our watchmaking is highly esteemed here, by continuing to do better if possible and that is always possible."
The dials on both models also feature a sun, also produced by the metallization process. It is inspired by the clock on the Tour de l’Ile in Place Bel-Air, in the Saint-Gervais district of Geneva.
This is a key security feature of the dial, the invisible ink disc affixed to the back of the security polymer (at the centre of the sun) can only be seen with a UV lamp and will create the most unusual effect when dancing under the UV lights in the Amnesia next summer in Ibiza!
This distinctive sign is also on the passport which comes with each watch.
Stuck under the sapphire crystal, the security transparent film – the same one used for printing on bank notes – is made from a special chemical compound.
On the movement side, the security transparent film has a pattern of hundreds of Maltese crosses and concentric circles. Depending on the version, it is printed with white or black ink.
On the dial side, the security transparent film has a pattern of concentric lines serving as a seconds track. These lines – or rays – are printed alternately with light-grey and sepia ink or with light-grey and white ink.
Personalization and Design
What makes a good tune? One that makes a part of your body unconsciously beat to the rhythm and once the song is over you continue humming it. Same with a great design, it’s one that gives you an emotional shock and to which you keep wanting to come back and as such the QDI design hits a homerun: not only is it a success design wise but also immediately recognizable and in my opinion will enter watch history as one of the iconic designs of watchmaking.
Other than being a great design it is possible to completely personalize your QDI!
|rose gold / titanium||rose gold / titanium|
As a Lounger recently wrote: “Vacheron Constantin should be lauded for offering personalization because until now the only choice a customer had was that of the color of the strap!”
Vacheron Constantin’s personalization concept is based on the case, dial and movement finish combinations.
For the case Vacheron Constantin has defined three sections which can be personalised:
- Heart of the case (lugs + inter-lug pieces + back)
- Lateral flanks and support plate
|Legend||rose gold /titanium|
The crown can also be personalized, but it has to be made of the material chosen for one of the other three groups (meaning for example that a rose gold crown can’t be chosen if rose gold has not been used for any other case part).
The owner has the choice between 3 metals for the case: titanium, palladium (a platinum group metal) and rose gold in any combination. This is the first time Vacheron Constantin has ever used titanium and palladium in one of its standard collections.
The possibility to personalize this model continues with dial/movement finish choices which are offered in three different choices:
- Grey – dark dial with a rhodium-plated movement
- White – light dial with a rhodium-plated movement
- Black – dark dial with a ruthenium-plated movement
Unfortunately the personalization is only available for the Day-Date and Power-Reserve model and not yet for the Date model but the brand assures us that this option will be available in the future.
|palladium / titanium||palladium /titanium|
At the same time the watches can take so many different forms that each variation has only a slight resemblance to the other. The automatic with date with its flat top plate reflects light in a way that the day/date with power reserve which has relief does not. The QdI models go from the rather classic if you choose an all rose gold with light dial to the stealth with a dark almost menacing look with the all titanium with dark dial and ruthenium movement.
To enable the potential client to have a better view of what his watch would look like the brand has created a presentation case displaying among others a model of the watch case, the different metals which can be used, the straps and a tactile screen configurator where he can choose each element and see what the final result would look like.
Besides the Quai de l’Ile watches that can be personalized in almost 400 combinations, Vacheron Constantin decided to offer a standard Quai de l’Ile automatic and day date with power reserve in the following combinations:
- palladium case – grey dial – rhodium-plated movement
- pink gold case – light dial – rhodium-plated movement
- titanium case – dark dial – ruthenium movement
|rose gold||rose gold|
Mix the classicism of a Timothy Everest suit, the complexity of a Portishead song, the intriguing aesthetics of Jackson Pollock and the emotional impact of a view over Tokyo from a high rise by night and you get what makes the singularity of the QdI!
On the Wrist
I had the great pleasure of trying out a day/date model in titanium with rose gold flanks, ruthenium plated movement and light dial for over a week. Contrary to what one would come to think the legibility of the dial was excellent even for the day and date indicators. However you need to put the watch at a certain angle to see the power reserve indication. I really had to pick my brain to find something that I disliked about the QDI and basically all I found were the hands. There is nothing wrong with them per se but they do look a bit pedestrian used in the cutting edge design of the watch. Oh and one thing I don’t like either is its name which even though it refers to Vacheron Constantin’s historical location in the heart of Geneva, doesn’t fit such a contemporary piece, but then again maybe its so decalé that it is avant garde?
I am totally biased to the QDI because it is everything I like in contemporary watchmaking: beautiful modern design, cutting edge technology merged with good old watchmaking! Vacheron Constantin proves here that traditional watchmaking is still alive and that to be modern you don’t have to cross out what makes a high end watch stand out: a perfect mix of design and technique and impeccable movement finish. No use of weird dental hygiene metals, PVD overkill or organic design gimmicks in this baby!
Some with a rather conservative mind will certainly be put off by Vacheron Constantin’s new approach via the Quai de l’Ile but it is easy to not to take risks and to give the public exactly what it is waiting for. It is leagues away from “pre-marketed” over designed watches which are bizarre for the sake of being bizarre that too many brands have been bombarding us with lately. The Quai de l’Ile is not a concept watch nor a conversation piece but a real watch part of a whole new collection which the owner can build as his own and meant to be worn.
Kudos should be given to the brand for daring to be where it was not expected!
With the Quai de l’Ile Vacheron Constantin proves that a brand can have a foot firmly set in its historical past while having another in 21st century watchmaking and like Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody which ranked 163 on Rolling Stone magazine’s of the 500 greatest songs of all time, the Quai de l’Ile will no doubt be considered rapidly as a modern icon and one which will certainly inspire the look of what we will see in the coming years.
my end of year bonus is starting to melt like snow in the Sahara I'm still looking forward in getting a personalised version RG/titanium or go for an all stealth palladium/titanium