1942 Vacheron & Constantin Kriegsmarine Observatory Chronometer
If there was a prize for closest to the mark, it would have to be awarded to Dan .
This is as much about the hunt as it is about the watch. I had been on the look-out for a V&C deck watch for some time. Eventually I came across a few fuzzy internet pictures offering a rather large and plain silver-cased pocket watch.
The dial displayed the required noms de famille of Vacheron and Constantin surrounded by distinctive Breguet numerals. On the back were faint traces of an engraved serial number. Blued spade hands and an oversized subsidiary seconds dial added to the clues…perhaps this was an elusive deck watch!
The back engravings provided further encouragement. “M4929” surmounting “I Kl.” signified a rare veteran of the Kriegsmarine from WWII. The categories of chronometer-rated watches used by the German Navy at that time were:
1. Seechronometer (Marine Chronometer)
2. B-Chronometer (Ship’s Chronometer)
3. B-Uhren 1. Klasse (Class 1 Navigation Chronometer)
4. B-Uhren 2. Klass (Class 2 Navigation Chronometer)
This piece was thus marked as a Beobachtungsuhr der Kriegsmarine 1. Klasse or Class 1 Navigation Chronometer.
Typically a German Eagle and Swastika were poised above the numbers; however, denazification laws passed after the war required that such symbols be obliterated. As the watch was located in Germany it was acceptable, indeed preferable, that this act of purification had occurred.
Through the services of dear Alex, I learned the case and movement were legitimately mated in 1942. But I was puzzled; the movement was significantly older – circa 1925. It also appeared somewhat familiar.
Previous research on V&C Observatory Chronometers had acquainted me with its distinctive micrometric regulator. Patented by Vacheron & Constantin in 1923, this highly precise mechanism was used in both chronometer and high-complication watches like the fabled King Fouad and Farouk timepieces. The subtle but distinctive components of the revolutionary Guillaume integral balance were also present.
Observatory movements often stayed in the manufacturer’s inventory for years before being offered for sale. The hairs were beginning to stand up on the back of my neck! Was this such a watch?
Once again I ran to Alex, but he returned with disappointing news…there was no record of the movement having been sent for chronometry trials. Despite this, I chose to trust my instincts and made the purchase There had to be a reason why this valuable movement was kept for nearly twenty years before being cased, and Observatory competition was the most credible answer.
There were precedents after all. In March of this year Antiquorum offered at auction a Patek Philippe silver-cased deck watch. The Guillaume “Extra” movement was manufactured in 1921 to compete in Observatory trials, attaining an Honorable Mention at Geneva in 1927 with 636 points. It then laid moribund until cased and sold in 1942 to the self-same Kriegsmarine.
Further support for my hypothesis was provided at Dr. Crott’s most recent auction where a 1923 V&C Observatory deck chronometer with power reserve indicator was featured along with supporting documents.
The movement was a virtual twin to my Kriegsmarine watch, with the added distinction of displaying its chronometer awards on the inner cuvette; a 1er Prix at the Concours de Genève (earned with 807 points) and Class A Kew Certificate (rated “especially good” with 96.2 out of a possible 100 points).
Another email was fired off; this time directed to the Observatoire de Genève. A few days later the happy reply was received. Indeed the movement appeared in their registers and a Bulletin de Marche was available.
The bulletin revealed more than I’d hoped for. In addition to chronometer status, it confirmed the movement participated in Observatory trials in 1927 and was awarded a IIIeme Prix for Vacheron & Constantin with 742 points. Moreover, the régleur was the famed Edmond Olivier!
I was especially pleased to realize this watch bested the aforementioned Patek Philippe in direct competition and was left to wonder if they also crossed paths at sea.
The newsletter of La Fédération Horlogère Suisse for March 24th, 1928, dutifully reported on the 1927 Observatoire de Genève Concours de Chronomètres. The published results were specific only for the Premier and Deuxièmes Prix chronomètres de poche winners, while briefly mentioning “5 troisièmes prix des 739 à 720 points”.
Overall it was a good year for Vacheron & Constantin and Olivier; capturing the Premier Prix and top score for ship’s chronometers with an impressive 819 points. V&C clearly excelled with their chronomètres de bord.
Information provided to the previous owner by Vacheron & Constantin revealed that some fifteen years following its Observatory appearance the competition movement was cased according to the required specifications of the Kriegsmarine and delivered to the German purchasing agent in Berne.
From the collection of Dr. Knirim
Military watch expert Dr. Konrad Knirim was kind enough to respond to my enquiries. He disclosed that the Deutsche Seewarte in Hamburg tested chronometers for the Kriegsmarine. Beside the German-made watches of Lange & Söhne, Wempe, Laco, Stowa and others, there were those of Swiss origin from IWC, Ulysse Nardin and Vacheron & Constantin.
Vacheron & Constantin supplied mainly I Klasse chronometers, which could be off by no more than 1/2 second per day when tested at different temperatures and positions.
As the records of the Deutsche Seewarte were destroyed during a bombing raid in 1943, that avenue of investigation was closed.
By this time the watch had arrived in the mail, frustratingly delayed by a national postal strike. The last source of anxiety was removed along with the wrapping paper.
An instrument watch leads an active life so scuffs, scrapes and dents are expected. I consider these marks of honor and loathe polishing them out. This piece, however, only exhibited the superficial patina of an honest working watch. A few turns of the crown started the machinery running effortlessly and accurately. If the German eagle had been present, it was so expertly removed that no trace exists.
It was a most gratifying conclusion to this horological adventure and, I hope, a fitting subject for post number 1755.
Best Regards, Tick Talk © 2011
Case: 0.925 silver plain polished four-body bassine-style, case maker’s mark for Federation des Fabricants de Boites Argent (FFBA). Three repair marks scratched on inner cover. Plain polished inner cuvette, case back engraved with “M4929 I Kl.” Kriegsmarine acceptance marks. Completed in 1942. Diameter 59mm.
Dial: white enamel with bold Breguet numerals, outer minute track, sunk subsidiary seconds with Arabic numerals in 10 second intervals. Blued spade hands.
Movement: R.A. 22’’’ 224 caliber, 21 jewels, gilt brass, Guillaume balance with gold poising screws, patented V&C micrometric fine regulator, sapphire endstone, blued Breguet balance spring.
Case, dial and movement signed Vacheron & Constantin.
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