Georges-Auguste Leschot: born Geneva, March 24th, 1800; died February 4th, 1884
Psst…can you keep a secret? I found a little present for my wife but can’t resist sharing it with you first. For her, I dare to scheme, it marks the beginnings of a seduction into the world of “&”. For me, it is a wonderful opportunity to document one of the most significant movements in the history of the company. Not because it was of high complication or the gift of royalty, but rather because its virtues are simplicity itself; it was easier and cheaper to make yet more accurate and robust than any of its competitors. It was this so-called Vacheron caliber, or more rightly described as “Calibre Leschot”, which firmly and enduringly established Vacheron & Constantin on the world stage.
Franco Cologni, in his book Secrets of Vacheron Constantin, describes this most distinctive Vacheron & Constantin movement, produced roughly between 1844 and 1882, as characterized by “its radiating bridges, its draw lever escapement, and its compensating balance to accommodate extremes of temperature.” In appearance it continued the logical development of the Lépine style which superseded a previous generation of plate-and-pillar construction and has become familiar to us as the Swiss bar movement.
In addition to the virtues imparted upon the movement by Jean Antoine Lépine of being smaller and flatter, a new style of escapement contributed two more valuable characteristics; accuracy and durability. The earlier verge escapement was notorious for its continuous friction and resulting wear that meant constant, and expensive, service to keep time within tolerable limits. The next improvement was the horizontal or cylinder escapement; better but still not satisfactory for all. It was the detached lever (English) or anchor escapement (Swiss) that set the standard of future watch development, and in this matter Georges-Auguste Leschot played a significant part.
As a young man in 1825, Leschot’s first horological breakthrough occurred when he determined the precise angle of draw required on the pallets of an anchor escapement to prevent it from unlocking in response to sudden jolts. He then developed the tools for production of his shock-resistant design and by 1830 this improved Swiss anchor escapement was a commercial success and eventually went on to dominate the mechanical watch universe. This, and other remarkable inventions, attracted attention and led to the famous contract of 1839 which brought Leschot into the Vacheron & Constantin family for the rest of his working life.
The son of Jean Frédéric Leschot, a Genevan watchmaker and partner to the famous automaton-maker Pierre Jacquet-Droz, young Leschot undoubtedly learned concepts of pendulums, parallelograms and articulation which, history confirms, led to his development of a pantograph reduction milling machine. As described in The Art of Vacheron Constantin, Antiquorum auction catalog; “This innovation marked the beginning of the end of the artisanal era, and the dawn of industrial production in watch-making.”
Although not suited to high-volume production (this would occur with Waltham a few decades later), the pantograph allowed for precise duplication of standardized parts and thus interchangeability between movements of the same caliber. The resulting cost-efficiencies secured a competitive position for the factory which allowed it to weather the coming storm of American dollar watches.
The timepiece we are discussing here retailed in 1874. Outwardly, it seems unpretentious in the context of its weighty history. As a ladies watch for the English-speaking market it could be worn on a brooch, chatelaine or neck chain. Considered an object of jewellery, it was not subject to the wear and tear typical to pocket watches and so, not surprisingly, is in extraordinarily good condition. Measuring 3.45cm, it’s rather plain appearance belies the tremendous skill of the guillochér in applying a delicate à grains d’orge pattern to the spring-loaded front and back covers. The dial exhibits a flawless enamel finish with radial Roman numerals and sunken subsidiary seconds, upon which deep purple flame-treated Breguet hands mark the time.
The inner cuvette, engraved “Vacheron & Constantin Geneva Vve. C. Vacheron & Co. Successors”, tells a story of a tumultuous eight-year period in the long history of Vacheron & Constantin. The tale began in 1844 with the retirement of Jacques-Barthélémy Vacheron, grandson of the founder. His son, Charles César Vacheron, continued as partner to François Constantin. Coincidentally, this same year Georges-Auguste Leschot assumed full-time responsibilities at the manufacture to oversee the complete integration of his machinery into regular production.
Alas, Constantin was only to survive another ten years. However, his legacy was continued by nephew Jean François Constantin. It was upon this Constantin’s retirement in 1867 that a period of nomenclature alterations began with a new name; César Vacheron & Cie, ancienne maision Vacheron & Constantin. Two years later, César died of a sudden illness and his son, Charles César Vacheron, assumed leadership. While Jean François Constantin remained in the background as a silent partner, the company name changed again in 1869 to Charles Vacheron & Cie.
Continuing the tragedy opera theme, Charles died only 18 months later. A new company was formed in December of 1870 between Jean François Constantin and the widows of César Vacheron and Jacques-Barthélémy Vacheron under the name Veuve (widow) César Vacheron & Cie Successuers. While history tends to subordinate the contribution of directeur de la compagnie Madame Louise Vacheron-Pernessin to the very capable Weiss brothers, it must be acknowledged that under her reign the manufacture restored the original name of Vacheron & Constantin in 1875 and introduced the now-iconic Maltese Cross as company symbol in 1880.
This brings us, by a circuitous route, to my favorite aspect of this beautiful watch; the movement. Assembled in 1867, the 15 jewel, 13 ligne, key-winding and key-set movement represents one of the eight sizes of Calibre Leschot. The plates and bridges were manufactured from maillechort or German Silver, which in reality is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc. Decorated in fausses côtes and embellished with a gold gear train, its technical features include a cut-bimetallic balance wheel with adjustable gold poising screws, a hanging barrel, club-footed escape wheel, and a distinctive side-lever escapement with counterpoise. Indeed, the quality and accuracy of these calibres clearly foretold a golden period for Vacheron & Constantin.
Georges-Auguste Leschot was to retire in 1882, at the age of eighty-two. He passed away only two years later. Upon Madame Vacheron’s death in 1887, the manufacture was reorganized as a limited company under the name Ancienne Fabrique Vacheron & Constantin S.A. While we honor him for his horological brilliance, it’s worth remembering that Leschot’s most significant contribution to mankind may well be the diamond core drill, which he patented along with his son Rodolphe in 1862. This tool permitted the construction of huge tunnels through previously impervious rock, and was quickly adapted to mining and oil well drilling.
I trust you enjoyed our brief trip into the past. Please remember, this is our secret!
Tick Talk © 2012