Calibre Leschot

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  In appearance it continued the logical development of the Lépine style which superseded a previous generation of plate-and-pillar construction and has become familiar to us as the Swiss bar movement.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
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You never cease to amaze
03/26/2012 - 19:58
thank you. and what a beautiful watch.
In truth those that interest and amaze
03/27/2012 - 17:23
are the nearly forgotten people that built the foundations of modern VC.  Leschot, along with Francois Constantin, Georges Ketterer, and many others need more profile IMHO.
I once was introduced to a very famous watch maker,
03/27/2012 - 03:44
in London about two years ago, in his little shop, in the very centre of London. He said to me:  "So you are the 'famous'  Doc, who knows everything about Vacheron&Constantin" ?, just a little, but I still felt it, ironically. I was a bit bewildered and answered: " Well , I know a bit more than many others", or something like that. He then immediately asked: "Then tell me what is the most important thing that's ever happened to Vacheron&Constantin"? I answered without hesitation, "When George-Auguste Leschot enterd the firm in 1839". He said, "So I see it's true, you know your Vacheron&Constantin"! He then at once asked me to follow him backstage in the boutique, and out of his big safe he briught out two big, old books, I couldn't see the titles, but they were about watches during 1900 century. We then started a long coversation and he showed me a lot about the pantograph in the book, among many other things fantastic illustrations of complicated mechanisms. My friend who had introduced us, did at that point leave us, with a big smile on his face, and came back after nearly an hour, when we still were discusing watch production, the pantograph and life:) Friends for life! My friend said he never experienced the watchmaker say so much altogether in all ten years he known him, and used his help, and my friend is a watch dealer  "on the fine street"! So important is Leschot! Thanks for a very fine articlesmiley Cheers Doc
Right on, my friend
03/27/2012 - 17:27
I think many other brands with shallow roots and purchased histories can only envy the real stories behind the name "Vacheron & Constantin".  Thank-you for sharing this story too yes.
An article of this calibre,
03/28/2012 - 14:23
can't just be unanswered! This is what I'm burning for...still Cheers Doc
Dean delivers another great part of V&C's history &...
03/27/2012 - 12:53
makes Doc respond to his outstanding post & become active againyes What a treat on both counts, Dean!!!
That alone was worth the scribbling...
03/27/2012 - 17:20
Having Doc back is a great treat and always strengthens our vintage discussions heart
Dean my friend,
03/28/2012 - 14:28
I never been away! Lurking, and as usual I can't have my mouth shut, when something touches my heart  Once again thanks for the utmost  article, and more, your always kind words ! Mats
Radek old friend,
03/28/2012 - 14:25
thanks for your kind words and more thoughts! Yes, you know I can't stand aside when it comes to history, especially when some personally coincidences are involved! Cheers Doc
Cheers, cheers Mats!
03/28/2012 - 19:43
Fascinating and Illuminating
03/27/2012 - 13:43
Thank you, Dean, for this great piece of history!
Thanks so much :-) nt
03/27/2012 - 17:28
Fascinating, Dean!
03/27/2012 - 19:14
Thank you so much for sharing this history.  I love reading this material!  Thank you! respo
Re: Fascinating, Dean!
03/28/2012 - 00:35
Thanks respo...I figure if I'm going to do this research for my own entertainment, might as well share with fellow Vachonistas yes
The 3 musketeers were 4 and Vacheron et Constantin were 3! Thank
03/27/2012 - 19:23
You once again for a brilliant piece of history (off to the Recommended Threads section it goes) Mme Tic Talk will certainly enjoy this fine gift
Isn't it true Alex
03/28/2012 - 00:36
History is full of ironies!  Next Madame Tick Talk will want a trip to Geneva surprise
Another informative read....
03/27/2012 - 23:39
thank you for putting together this concise snap shot of an important period in Vacheron Constantin's history. Leschot certainly deserves to be held in the same high regard as we hold Jean-Marc vacheron, Francois Constantin, and George Ketterer. I am impressed with the condition of the watch you found. Bill
Re: Another informative read....
03/28/2012 - 00:41
Thanks Bill, I do look for condition of the dial above all else.  My tricky pictures are hiding a couple of annoying pinhole dents in the cuvette that are now in the process of being removed, along with a good cleaning and regulation, by a trusted watchsmith.  As stated, I am really impressed with the guilloche work to the covers which is still very sharp after all this time.
03/28/2012 - 13:46
thank you for the your relentless research and telling. i believe yr misses will appreciate this piece of beautiful work. btw, i wonder how do u reserach on the provenance of each watch you acquire.yes
a three-part process
03/28/2012 - 19:58
Aaron, no secrets there...its a three-part process for me which involves firstly answering the question, Is it authentic?  For this I almost always run to Alex and the factory archives to confirm the case and movement numbers are legit and the overall appearance corresponds with the date of manufacture.  Next question; Is it original?  This can be the tricky part and depends on how original you wish to be.  Some, for instance, do not mind re-dials or polished cases, or engraved each his own.  Finally, having survived the first two questions, I return to the key subject which likely attracted me in the first place; Is it interesting?  Please note that regardless of how fascinated I am by the "concept" of a particular watch, it MUST conform to authenticity and originality do otherwise I have learned through hard experience is a sure path to frustration, expense, and disappointment!  On the quest for intersting timepieces, the research is based on my own books, forums, historical materials available on the internet, and personal contacts I have made.  Google Books is a great source of period literature, only handicapped by my terrible French blush.  They have digitized, for example, copies of La Fédération Horlogère Suisse weekly trade papers from the 19th and early 20th century.  Fascinating reading for sure. Hope this answers your question.
an example
03/29/2012 - 00:46
The Calibre Leschot featured an interesting straight-line lever escapement that was in use before the now-familiar Swiss anchor escapement superceded it in popularity.  Although, at the time they were referred to as either straight or right-angle lever escapements, and expert opinion was that the right-angle design offered only theoretical benefits in terms of friction-reduction but more obvious benefits with space useage.  The term "anchor escapement" was applied later in reference to the nautical shape of the right-angle lever escapement. Where I'm leading is to the newly published book on the wonderful VC Calibre 2755 tourbillon movement.  If you check page 46, you will find a parts breakdown of the tourbillon escapement itself.  Tucked away in the upper right corner is it's straight-line lever escapement!
V&C & L! :-)
03/28/2012 - 18:13
Great research Dean...then what else does one expect when they know you are doing some fact finding.  wink I've seen some of the old machines and designs by Leschot, and others, before at some of the VC Boutiques...but never took the time to really understand how they worked. Welcome to the club of Mr. & Mrs. V&C ownership!  A small, subset, of THL & THC  yescheeky BR, Dan
So many names Dan
03/28/2012 - 20:09
There are so many key, yet unknown, people in the annals of V&C that I'd love to discover more about.  In "modern" times, I've already mentioned Georges Ketterer, but then there is Charles Constantin - the last of the founding names involved with the company.  I also have a feeling that Rudy Bull may be a character worth knowning more about.  Its not just CEOs and celebrities that deserve our attention, after all enlightened
Leschot takes Dean underground in a quest for the truth...
03/29/2012 - 23:23
Another accolade, Dean, for a first-class piece of research including the diamond drilling patent. We are blessed on THL to have somebody like yourself that chisels away at the truth and produces such interesting and readable issues. How you manage to carry out this work with all your other interests remains a complete puzzle? Keep up the good work! With grateful thanks Tony
Speaking of tunnels...
03/30/2012 - 04:30
Tony, this is an excerpt from Leschot's obituary as published in the February  1884 Jewelers' Circular and Horological Review, an American publication:"In 1833 he discovered various marks of tools on a very hard piece of antique Egyptian porphyry, and knowing that they could not have been made by a steel tool, he was led to infer that diamond tools must have been used by the ancient Egyptians.  His attention was re-directed to the subject in 1862, in answer to an inquiry as to what tools would be suited best for cutting the extremely hard rocks in tunnels, and he then invented and perfected the diamond drill which has been used so successfully in boring tunnels both in America, and, in fact, all over the world." According to Wikipedia, porphyry is a variety of igneous rock consisting of large-grained crystals such as feldspar or quartz, dispersed in a fine-grained matrix.  The word is from the Greek and means "purple", the color of royalty.  The remains of Napoleon are entombed in a porphyry sarcophagus under the dome at Les Invalides.
Nothing left unturned...
03/30/2012 - 13:44
Dean, thank you for the additional information. I'm intrigued! Most interesting. Tony
always amazed by Dean posts - my favorite readings on the Lounge :)
03/30/2012 - 00:10
Thanks my Russian friend :-)
03/30/2012 - 18:18
Some day it is my intention to visit the family village near Saratov smiley