THE QUEST FOR THE PERSONAL WATCH
There were rumours even before I left on the TimeZone tour in the spring of 2007 that Vacheron would soon be introducing the design-it-yourself or “bespoke” watch. I had already emailed Dominique (Bernaz) to introduce myself and enquiry about such a project.
I thought: “Wow! A chance to get the watch I always wanted! All I had to do was submit a design and everything would fall into place. How easy could this be?”
The idea had piqued my curiosity and the opportunity to have such a prestigious Manufacture as Vacheron & Constantin build a watch to my specifications and one which would be a unique timepiece certainly got my heart beating faster. Ins fact, I found myself having to wipe the drool from the corner of my mouth every time I heard the word “Vacheron”.
Fortunately the TimeZone tour that year concentrated on the Geneva area and soon I found myself at the new headquarters of Vacheron in Plan - les - Ouatres. Dominique was one of our hosts and after a wonderful tour and a fabulous luncheon, the two of us discussed the possibilities of the Atelier Cabinotier watch. I promised to send him my ideas when I returned home and he would let me know the cost and approximate duration for the project. Little did I know what was coming.
When I returned to Toronto, some spare time, as much as I could muster, was devoted to putting my design on paper. After about a month of “playing around” with different concepts, I finally had a submission to send to Geneva. It was the perpetual calendar that I had always wanted.
As you can see from the sketch below it had some interesting concepts. I had always thought that the year indicator for the leap year was stuck arbitrarily on the dial and tended to destroy the symmetry of the face. And it was usually a mundane counter, 1-2-3-4 to indicate the 4 year cycle.
What I was proposing was that the VC Maltese cross be the indicator. There would be four of these, each in a different metal or ceramic under the dial, that would rotate 90 degrees every year and click into place. The colour would the identify the year of the cycle. For example: year 1 = YG, 2 = WG, 3 = blued steel, 4 = white ceramic; or something like that.
The windows for the date information would be a little larger for older eyes. But most interesting would be the power reserve indicator which would be an arc over the moon-phase and would show a sky changing from a yellow sun and its rays to a night sky with a moon and stars as the power reserve declined.
Some weeks after sending the design, I received a reply. I can only say that I was glad I was sitting down when I saw the price. Furthermore some of the ideas could not be done easily and would require development from scratch. The time frame would also be about three years. Since I was unfortunately not a lottery winner, I would have to forgo that particular dream watch.
Around that time I saw a photo of one of Alex’s vintage pieces, a 4627 which I felt was a really beautiful design, restrained, elegant, refined and a wonderful statement of Vacheron’s abilities.
I fell in love with the design. But alas, it was not for sale. However, much to my delight, one became available sometime thereafter and I pounced. But after owning it for a short while I thought that if Vacheron were ever to update one of their vintage pieces, that would be the one for me.
I contacted Dominique again with this idea who agreed it would be an excellent choice, but he would have to get back to me with specifics after discussing it with the design and production staff. Several weeks later, I received an email with some preliminary specs, cost and further ideas to consider. The case would have to be completely redesigned and the face would have to be redone somewhat while maintaining the original appearance. This aspect would be up to Vincent Kaufmann and his team. When I heard that, I knew the watch was I good hands.
I would have to decide on a movement type (manual or automatic) and then on the specific movement. There options with respect to the dial itself: a date window, a subdial second hand or a sweep second hand, a peripheral track, the hands themselves, etc. etc. (I looked high and low for the photos Vacheron sent me with the different design but I have misplaced them. I know they're somewhere in the house )
I received a contract to sign with the proviso that if I changed my mind, I would forfeit 5000CHF. Well, fair enough. But believe me, my mind swung back and forth on this project from the time of inception to almost the time of completion. I thought:
“This is not an inexpensive watch!”
“Am I crazy? Just think of all the watches I could buy with this money I’m spending”
“But its so unique. You know you always wanted something like this. It’s a real heirloom. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
“You’ll regret it if you don’t do it. You’ll regret it if you do do it!”
“Its only money, after all”
Back and forth and forth and back until I decided not to think about it anymore.
Since VC was extremely generous in their payment terms, I just took a deep breath and carried on.
Nothing seemed to happen for many months and then emails started to arrive about design and production issues that would delay things for a while. I received colour sketches of the design variants so that I could choose exactly how I wanted the watch to look.
But I finally settled on the simple concept of a time only watch. I had also admired the movement in the Jubilee 1755 and so therefore chose a variant of that. Had the manual 1440 been available I might have opted for that movement. But I was pleased with the overall design.
I received periodic updates from Dominique and then one day an email with news of a “secret” website for those who were having Atelier watches made. There was your own special page with all the design concepts shown; that status of completion of the watch and a mechanism to ask questions and make comments. But by that time, all my questions had been answered, and the necessary decisions made. There was very little to do but await the completion. So I checked back periodically, watching the progress and hoping the real thing would at least fulfill my expectations.
Then about 3 weeks or so before the SIHH, I received an email from Dominique that the watch was completed and would soon be arriving at the Boutique. I would be able to pick it up on my visit. Dominique seemed very pleased with the results and left the rest as a surprise.
I had hoped to receive it the evening of the dinner so that I would be able to share the experience with everyone there. But their vault was on a time lock and could not be opened until the following day. I was a bit disappointed at that but waiting one more day would not be all that bad. The time it had taken from start to finish had been almost 18 months.
And of course the Loungers who were still there on Tuesday would see it as well as a few others in Paris.
Late Monday afternoon rolled around cloudy, drizzling and cold, and I walked over to the Boutique to get my little treasure.
Salvatore Latrofa was there waiting for me. After greetings and pleasantries he brought me the Vacheron box. I’m not sure if his hands were shaking, but mine were.
Then when he opened it both our eyes (all four of them) lit up! Wow, wow, and wow again!
The watch went way past my expectations. What I was looking at was for me the ideal timepiece. It had all the attributes of the original but in an updated setting. I thought (with a bit of egotism): “This is what the Patrimony should have been. The new case kept the spirit of the vintage watch and the lugs especially while on first inspection seemed modern also had some subtle curves which harked back to a previous era. The dial was absolutely beautiful. I didn’t think the original could be improved; yet here it was modern and vintage together. The movement too, was a work of art applied to science.
Was I pleased? You bet!
The final compliment came in an email from Dominique in which he quoted one of the production team who said that this watch should not be a production model. It deserves to be in our museum.
One of my colleagues saw the watch, and he’s seen many of my watches. He said that of all the ones I had shown him, he found this one by far the most attractive. It was spectacular and brought together the art and science of watchmaking in one unique piece. Who am I to argue?
Now there are some people who can drop a many hundreds of thousand of dollars on a watch, put in a safe and never wear it. I’m not one of those people. For me, even though the price was considerable, the result was outstanding, a watch to admire on the wrist and on the winder... and a watch that will endure and be admired on the wrists of other generations to come.
PS: This is also an opportunity to thank Dominique for all his help and consideration and to thank every member of the Vacheron team who helped build this unique piece. They have made me a very happy individual.