The term “classic” has been used (and over-used) to describe any number of objects, genres, etc., and like almost any other subjective attribute, it is mostly in the eye of the beholder. Yet there are some designs that have stood the test of time and remain as interesting and attractive as when they were first produced. In my opinion, the Vacheron Constantin Reference 43031 Perpetual Calendar is one of those.
The layout of the 43031 dial is virtually identical to some of the earliest perpetual calendar pocket watches such as this Louis Audemars watch from 1870, with the date at 3, the moon phase at 6, the day of the week at 9 and four years of months at 12. (There may be earlier examples, but this was the oldest I could find.)
It was such a successful design that between 1880 and 1900, many of the major names in horology created perpetual calendars with this layout. While other designs have come and gone, this dial layout is perhaps the purest expression of the perpetual calendar. What is lost in legibility by having four years of months in the top sub-dial is gained by not having a separate leap year indicator that would detract from the perfect symmetry of this “classic” design.
I have seen photos of several variations in the color/texture of the 43031 dial, including white, cream, gilt and a couple of different guilloche dials. The guilloche dials are gorgeous, but the dials of the original pocket watches with this layout were white, so one could say that this is the classic version. I have seen both French and English language versions, though there may be others. Personally, I love seeing the days of the week in French, as it reminds me where this watch was made. The gold baton hour and minute hands are elegantly simple and functional, and the blued sword hands used for the sub-dials add visual interest and legibility by standing out from the white background. The moon is a flat gold disc on a dark blue background, consistent with the overall design.
The case of the 43031 is a modest 36MM in diameter, and amazingly thin for a perpetual calendar at less than 8MM deep. Compared to many of today’s models it is small, but during the years that this watch was produced, 33-34MM watches were still quite common. With its slim profile, the 36MM case does not look small and it works just fine on my 175MM wrist.
I have never seen any case material other than YG, though I have heard that there was a Platinum and perhaps even a RG version. Much as I love Platinum, the YG harks back to the watches from which the 43031 was descended.
One nice feature of this case (and movement) is the four correctors for the perpetual calendar and moon phase functions, and their fine workmanship. The process of setting some perpetual calendars can be rather complex, but with an independent corrector for each dial, setting the 43031 is a breeze.
What can I say about the Cal. 1120 Movement that has not already been said in the 40+ years that it has been produced? Walt Odets wrote the definitive article on this movement, entitled: The Most Exclusive Automatic: The Vacheron Caliber 1120.
How many calibers have ever been so innovatively designed and engineered that they would be produced and widely used, without major modification, for over 40 years. If there is such a thing as a “classic” watch movement, the 1120 certainly qualifies by virtue of its long history. My watch was produced in 1986, so it will turn 25 this year, and after a recent routine service it is accurate to within 10 seconds a day.
The negatives of this watch are few and forgivable. The dial is beautiful to look at, but not as legible as it would be in a larger size and/or with luminous hands, and I do wish that the moon were as beautifully engraved as some other VC models. I suspect, however, that the very thin profile of this watch would have made a more elaborate moon difficult to execute. The 43031 lacks a sweep second hand, which would have been a nice addition. Finally, while it is nice to be able to remove the snap-on back to see the movement, this is not something that should be done on a regular basis, and it offers limited water resistance. A screw-on transparent back would have been ideal, but those were not common at the time these watches were produced.
To sum it all up, this is a watch that can be most appreciated by those who understand its lineage. It is not large or brash or ostentatious, and does not call out to those who do not appreciate its classic design or mechanical innovation. I am happy just to gaze at it frequently when it is on my wrist, and once in a while have it noticed by someone else who can appreciate its qualities - a fellow connoisseur of classic horology.
Thank you, Alex and my fellow Loungers, for allowing me to share these observations and opinions. Your additions and comments are welcome.