Slim is In: A look at Vacheron Constantin's Ultra Thin calibers

In an epoch where « slim is in », where only 16 year old teenagers can slip into the ultra fitted $4000 Hedi Slimane suits, where we want our computers and TV screens to be paper thin (not to mention those having their midlife crisis who want the same to apply to their girlfriends) our watches are fed with growth hormones leaving one wondering if wearing them wouldn’t result in mad cow disease!

But let’s not forget that one of watchmakers' main goals, ever since the invention of the pocket watch, has been to make it as thin as possible for it to comfortably fit in said pocket!

It was between 1760 and 1770 that French watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lepine created a calibre which today bears his name. In this calibre he suppressed the fusee and replaced the top plate by bridges enabling the balance to be placed “in” and not on top of the mechanism leading to not only a much thinner caliber but also one which would be easier to disassemble for servicing.

Around 1840 Philippe-Samuel Meylan developed the “Bagnolet” with a cylinder escapement. This calibre was unique due to the fact that the gear train was placed underneath the dial instead of on the bottom plate (the latter gear train turning in the reverse direction) this made possible movements of just under 2mm thick!

There is no official definition or classification distinguishing thin calibres, each brand having its own terminology of extra/ultra thin/slim (no use of mega thin as of yet) but the industry more or less considers that a hand wound movement with less than a 3.5mm thickness can be considered ultra thin. According to Christian Selmoni the head of Product Development at Vacheron Constantin “a 3mm calibre is difficult to make but anything under 2mm – which functions – is a true feat which should be lauded.”

Even though the urge to flatten the watch movement seems to be a 20th century hobby, as early as 1812 Vacheron Constantin was looking to produced slimmer watches as testified in a correspondence from Jacques-Barthelemy Vacheron to Mr. Girod, the brand’s agent in Paris. In another letter from the same Jacques-Barthelemy Vacheron to François Constantin on January 27, 1829 he indicates “we have created slim timepieces and given them the utmost attention so they can be superior to those sold by our competitors.”

In 1825 and 1827 Vacheron Constantin created two gorgeous jump hour pocket watches in which the Breguet influence in terms of dial design is recognizable. Even though the calibres use a cylinder escapement they are considered to be rather thin for the time at 4.5 mm for the first and 5.20 for the second which also featured a date indication at 6 o’clock. 

click on scans for a larger view


 

 

 


 

  

 


In 1870 there is another example of a pocket watch with cylinder escapement with a 3.7mm thickness. 



 

 

 


However the war of the slim didn’t really start until the 20th century where each brand competed with the other in creating the thinnest possible movements and it’s during this century that Vacheron Constantin was not only most prolific but superior.

Vacheron Constantin’s historical records for 1911 mention 8,9 and 10 lignes calibres each measuring a mere 2.82mm thick. Followed were a 2.25mm calibre from 1917 (cased in 1920) and a 1.88mm calibre from 1924 within a rock crystal and platinum case. 




 

 
1920 1924

 



1927 merged slim with astounding with a superb pocket watch with a 16-14/12 rose gold skeletonized caliber measuring only 2.6mm thick and a rock crystal and white gold case. 



 

 

 


The same year a superb jump hour watch with day date was also presented with a calibre measuring 3.95mm including the jump hour and calendar module with a mere 3mm for the base movement. 



 

 

 


An impressively small 7 ligne calibre only 1.3mm thick was used in a surprise purse watch of 1928. 



 

 

 

A new frontier is reached in 1931 with a platinum pocket watch housing a calibre under 1mm (0.9mm) thick! As to keep the movement as thin as possible the later was not even rhodium plated as to save those precious microns! Only 3 pieces were made, and were more concept watches than destined for sale as the overall functioning remained problematic. 



 

 

 

 

 

 

 


In 1941/1942 Vacheron Constantin created another extra slim calibre but this time a minute repeater (in two diameters 12’’ and 13’’) with a mere 3.1mm thickness, a true achievement considering the fact that the gongs and hammers need to be of a certain thickness to produce a satisfactory chime.

The reference 4261 was made in only 36 examples. 



 

  

 

In 1946 the brand launched a stunning worldtime pocket watch designed by Louis Cottier with a movement measuring 2.8mm in height. 



 

 

 


In 1951 reference 4601 is launched using a calibre only 1.31mm thick. The same year calibre 1001 is launched having a 2.94mm thickness.

One year later, in 1952, Vacheron Constantin took a decision that would change the perception of the brand for future collectors and become its signature: to make the world’s slimmest wrist watch movement. It was launched during the Basel watch fair 3 years later for the brand’s bicentenary in 1955 under the name 1003. Its 9 lignes or 21.05mm diameter and 1.64mm thickness made it at the time the world’s thinnest manual winding movement on the market. It was housed in 3 watches launched specially for the occasion, three round and one form. 




 

 


 

 
ref 6100 ref 4961

 

 

 
ref 6099 ref 4963

 

 

 

 

The thinness of the watch could possibly lead to it being bent if it was tied too tightly to the wrist and therefore to prevent such damage, 2 screws higher than the others acted as safety to prevent the case from coming into contact with the movement. At a later date the movement was placed in an inner titanium cage to avoid any tension and prevent any possibility of the movement being bent. 

It is interesting to note that with the original caliber 1003 of 1955 the engineers and watchmakers had decided to do without shock protection on the escape wheel as to maintain the thinnest execution possible; however in the early 90s watchmaking techniques enabled the addition of shock protection without increasing the calibers height. 

To maintain limited thickness the pallet lever is on a lower level than the fork horn and as such the pivots and jewels are also on a lower level. 

One surprising feature of the caliber 1003 is its large sized balance. Surprising, because a large balance uses more energy and slim calibers with the size of their mainspring barrels have shorter lasting power reserves and it would have been logical to have a smaller balance which uses less power however considering the difficulties of regulation of such a slim caliber the larger balance provides better accuracy. 

Another modification as to keep the slimness of the caliber relates to the lack of impulse roller, the impulse jewel is placed directly into the balance arms. 

Extra thin watches became not only a signature of Vacheron Constantin but almost a curse! The brand was only associated with round classical extra thin watches for decades. Imagine between 1955 and 2010 there were over 850 different references (pocket and wrist watches) using this calibre! 



 

 



 

 
ref 63454 from 1959 ref 6395 from 1959

 

 

 
ref 6115 from 1960 ref 6115

 

 

 

 

                   ref 6627 from 1962                                                  ref 6687 from 1962




 

 
ref 6290 from 1963 ref 6510 from 1964

 


 

 
ref 7079 from 1967 ref 7079

 


 

 
ref 7373 from 1967 ref 6290 from 1968

 

 

ref 7323 from 1970

 



 

 
ref 33060 from 1977 ref 33060

 

 

 
ref 33203 from 1978 ref 33203

 

 

 
no ref n°, Arlequin mosaic dial from 1978  

 


 

 
ref 13012 from 1983 ref 33058 from 1989

 


In 1958 Vacheron Constantin launched a rectangular ultra thin 1050/52 cal with a 2.36mm thickness. 



 

cal 1050 - scan courtesy of Patrice

 



In 1965/1966 the calibre 1003 is presented for the first time in a skeletonised version (1003SQ) in reference 7066. 



 

ref 7066

 


Where it has succeeded in creating the utmost slimness in its manual winds, Vacheron Constantin had more difficulty in giving a major diet to its automatic calibres which were all above the 5mm thickness line. However, in 1966 they started work on creating an ultra thin automatic and in 1967 the 2.45mm thick calibre 1120 was launched, with the particularity of having the rotor placed on a “rail” with the mass turning around the movement and not on top of it. That year 3 references were launche, Ref 7398 (launched in Sept 1967) ref 7399 (launched Oct 1967) and ref 7400 (launched Dec 1967). A year later a date is added to calibre 1120, renamed cal 1121 for this version. 



 

 


 

 

 


 

  
ref 7398 ref 7399 ref 7400

 

 

 
ref 44203 from 1974, diamond, onyx and aventurin mosaic dial  

 

In 1969 the brand concentrates once more on manual wind movements with calibre 1430 with a thickness of 2.9mm and with the particularity of having its crown placed on the back of the watch. 



 

 



In 1976 in the midst of the Punk rage Vacheron Constantin added its own brick to the rebellion by beefing up the extra thin and launches the calibre 1123-4 - called “demi-plat” (half slim!) in the brand’s jargon - with a 3.25mm thickness. 



 

 



In 1981 the calibre 1003 is turned “sunny side up” and what was visible only from the back side of the watch could now be seen form the dial side, rechristened cal 1006 the gears turn in the reverse direction for the hands to turn clockwise. Cal 1006 was available in a collection called “Structrura” which existed in round and octagonal watches and part of the Vacheron Constantin catalogue until 1990. Less than 500 pieces using the cal 1006 were ever made. 



 

ref 36004 from 1989

 



 

 
ref 36002 from 1990  

 



A year later in 1982 the Cal 1120 is presented in a skeleton version. 



 

 


 

ref 43030 from 1990

 


In the mid 70s Jean Lassale, a Swiss watchmaker, created 2 calibers which were at the time the slimmest of their kind, the manual wind cal 1200 with an amazing 1.2mm thickness obtained by suppression of the bridges and each wheel fixed to an axel driven in a micro ball bearing itself fitted to the plate and an automatic calibre 2000 only 2.08mm thick. The brand went out of business in the late 70s and was bought by Seiko but the technical rights to these calibres were bought by Nouvelle Lemania.

In the early 90s Vacheron Constantin used these movements renaming them cal 1160 (manual) and cal 1170 (automatic) used in the references 34070 and 34170. The brand rapidly stopped production due to the functioning and servicing issues: the case back could not be opened without damaging the movement meaning that when a watch was sent for servicing the movement had to be changed! 



 

 
cal 1160 - scan courtesy of www.horlogerie-suisse.com cal 1160 - scan courtesy of www.horlogerie-suisse.com

 


 

ref 34070

 


 

 
cal 1170 - scan courtesy of www.horlogerie-suisse.com cal 1170 - scan courtesy of www.horlogerie-suisse.com

 


 

ref 34170

 


In the early 40s Vacheron Constantin had created one of the world’s thinnest minute repeating movements; in the late 80s in the wake of the mechanical watch revival the brand decided that it was time to recreate such a movement. One of the original movements was found, stripped apart and studied, plans were drawn, teams were set up and with the help of Duboiz Depraz (movement constructors) a new extra flat minute repeating cal 1755 saw the light of day in 1992 with a mere 3.28 mm thickness and found in the achingly gorgeous ref 30010. Only 200 of these movements were made and housed in both simple repeaters or with an added perpetual calendar module. A superb skeleton version in rose gold and platinum was also offered. 




 

 
Malte Perpetual Calendar Minute Repeater Cabimotiers Skeleton Minute Repeater

 



Also in late 80s ealy 90s Vacheron launched cal 1132 (based on Piguet 8.10) only 2mm thick but used in very few models (for ex Les Historiques 1912).



 

 





Vacheron Constantin with its first modern era manufacture calibre decided to preserve its slim heritage by launching the slim cal 1400 with its 2.6mm thickness. Followed in 2008 with the launch of its larger and slightly thicker 2.8mm brother, the cal 4400. Both manual. 



 

 
cal 1400 cal 4400

 


The new millennium and its hypertrophied watches cast a shadow on the ultra thin calibres, the 1120 was available only either in the Mercator (which is far from being a simple time only watch) or in its skeletonized version (time only or as base for perpetual calendar watches) and the cal 1003 was available only in its skeletonised version for ladies watches (with the exception of the skeletonized $20 Gold Coin watch) and in the ref 33093 which at 31.5mm no longer could be considered as a man’s size (this watch received the best men’s watch award in the “slim” category at the Geneva Watchmaking Grand Prix in 2002 ). 



 

ref 33093

 


 

Patrimony Traditionnelle Skeleton

 



The prayers of those wanting to see the spotlight shining once again on these calibres in non skeletonised versions and/or in a larger sized case (not that the 36mm case of the new Historiques 1955 can be considered large but its still 4.5mm larger than the ref 33093) have been answered by the gods ruling Vacheron Constantin. 

2010 sees the rebirth of these two icons: cal 1120 now comes with a very cool redesigned rotor and housed in the wonderful square case of the Historiques 1968 (inspired by a model from 1968). Looking at the case side you realise just how slim this automatic calibre is. 



 

 

 

 

 



Caliber 1003 is housed in the Historiques 1955 and is now made 100% inhouse and the icing on the cake is that the plates are made in 18k 4N rose gold. The case is only 4.1mm thick case which has the particularity of being slimmer than the original watch while having a screwed back and a sapphire crystal and still remaining water resistant to 30m. 



 

 

 

 

 

 



                                      ******************************************** 

A ultra thin calibre is not a complication per se as is does not feature any additional function other than those destined to give the hours and minutes (sometimes the seconds) but considering the tolerances, the sheer thinness and size of the components which request quasi-surgical dexterity to assemble, where each micron counts and the complexity of regulation (Vacheron Constantin has a dedicated team for the regulation of calibres 1003 and 1120) it would be an understatement to call these calibres complicated!

But technical complexity of the movement and relative classism of the watches does not entail lack of design.
What do the Apple iPod (2001), the Toblerone chocolate bar (1908), Sparkman & Stephens' Swann 36 yacht (1966), Corradino d’Ascanio's Vespa scooter (1945), Le Corbusier's LC4 chaise longue (1928), the DB5 Aston Martin (1963), Vacheron Constantin's Patrimony Extra-Plate (1955), and Rubik’s Cube (1974) have in common? They all belong to a list of “999 Design Classics” published by Phaidon in 2006 as representing the 999 most symbolic objects in the history of 20th century design (Selected by a panel of experts - internationally-recognised designers, historians, architects, academics and critics – this work deals not only with the objects themselves but with their technical development, manufacturing procedures and evolution).

In Vacheron Constantin’s case it just shows that a subtle and potent mix of design and technique can make a winning combination of a timeless classic.

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