History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication

On Sept 19 the Swiss Society for Chronometry held a conference on "Complicated Watches: Technical and Aesthetical Challenges". Christian Selmoni (head of Product Development) and Vincent Kauffmann (head of Design) presented the history of the creation of the Tour del'Ile, Vacheron Constantin's most complicated wrist watch.

Here is a free translation of their presentation whic gives us an insight in the creation of this amazing watch.

History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


The celebration of the brand’s 250th anniversary in 2005 was a strategic event in terms of products and communication and starting 1999 a team in charge of conception and development of special commemorative timepieces was set up.

To celebrate this exceptional anniversary the Vacheron Constantin team worked on the conception of a commemorative collection of 5 creations all referring in a way or another to the brand’s historical patrimony. These timepieces were to showcase 250 years of know how, technical mastery and creativity.

A unique clock – the Esprit des Cabinotiers – and 4 wrist watch models each at a different level of horological sophistication were presented in 2005 going from a medium complication (Jubilee 1755) to the most complicated wrist watch made by the brand (Tour de l’Ile).

Made in 7 pieces between 2005 and 2007, a special unique black dial version was sold by Antiquorum at the VC 250th anniversary auction on April 3 2005 for CHF 1,876,250 making it the most expensive modern wrist watch to be auctioned! 


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


Creating a timepiece with indications on both sides of the case was no easy feat, especially since the team wanted to maintain legibility and wearability. 


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


Caliber 2750

It took 4 years (2000-2004) for the constructors at VC to develop this calibre (834 parts) requesting over 10,000 hours of R&D. The Cal 2750 features 16 complications:

- minute repeater
- tourbillon
- power reserve indication
- 2nd time zone
- moonphase
- age of the moon
- Sonnerie level indication
- Perpetual calendar
- Day
- Date
- Month
- Leap year
- Equation of time
- Sunrise
- Sunset
- Celestial chart

The caliber measures 36mm and is 11.25 thick 


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


A Shared Challenge

As to guarantee the success of the collection all those involved in the design and development of these anniversary pieces (designs, packaging etc…) were put to date at the same time as the engineers in charge of the movement developments.

Looking back, this sharing of the key elements of the project (objectives, stakes, expectations…) from the start of the project enabled the two teams in two locations (Geneva and Vallée du Joux, where the VC R&D team is based) to start working each keeping in mind the challenges the other team would probably encounter.

Even though the development of the Tour de l’Ile project took a few years, the systematic sharing of information and experiences all along enabled a fast and efficient coordination of the actions to be undertaken.


Design and the making of the case

How do you create a super complicated watch that can remain elegant, refined and which can be worn comfortably on the wrist? This was the first obstacle the case designers confronted.

The creative process started on 2 axis, the first directly via CAD in 3D as to be able to assess as soon as possible an evaluation of the minimal dimensions of the case keeping in mind the size of the movement: 36mm x 11.25mm. 

History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication

The second axis was sketches and drawings, especially everything that was related to the lugs and their particular shape. The lugs were then integrated into the 3D design.

The fact that the movement was 36mm in diameter was not an issue. However the 11.25mm thickness and the fact that the watch was to have indications on both sides almost made Vincent Kaufmann, the head designer, to pull out his last hairs in frustration.

The first satisfying volume of the case in terms of equilibrium would have been largely over 50mm, and this is without counting the lugs! But this was impossible as we wanted a watch that was wearable. The team created different models using stereo lithography to finally reach a compromise considered as optimal: 47mm diameter and 17.8mm thickness. 


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication

This type of size can be found in modern watches which are either targeting the sports watch segment or those wanting to make a spectacular impression. For the Tour de l’Ile, Vacheron Constantin was to create a classical watch which – as much as possible – was to remain discreet!!!!

To reduce the impression of thickness, the designers came up with a curved case as to prevent the “tuna can” effect. The case is also divided in three distinctive parts: the knurled bezel and case back plus the main centrepiece. 

History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication

The second difficulty was the implementation and form of the lugs. To have equilibrium they needed to occupy the major part of the case side without having straight lines which would have given an impression of weight. Soldered to the case and representing 1/4th of a Maltese cross and being both concave with ingoing angles they were particularly difficult to make and could only be hand finished. 


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication

Thanks to its construction which integrates all elements –movement and case – the watch does not look like a cake with different stacked layers. It is comfortable to wear and its proportions are harmonious. The Tour de l’Ile was the first watch from the anniversary pieces to be designed and all the others were directly inspired from it and integrated its aesthetic codes.

The Repeater Slide

Other than the case construction another challenge had to be met: placing 7 corrector pushers, a crown as well as the repeater slide! The classical position on the case side was impossible due to the correctors. That’s why it was decided on placing the repeater slide on the bezel which needs to be turned to activate the repeater. 


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication

History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication

Two dials for 16 complications

The WIS is often fascinated by the technological prowess of grand complication; the dial is a natural prolongation of this as well as being the “face” of the watch.

In the Tour de l’Ile 12 hands indicate the majority of the functions. The aesthetics needed to make these indications legible and uncluttered.

The top dial features the hours and minutes, the tourbillon cage, the power reserve indicator, the 2nd time zone, and the sonnerie indicator as well as the moonphase. The bottom dial features the calendar functions as well as the sun rise / sun set indications as well as the equation of time. 6 hands are necessary for these indications. The celestial chart representing the Northern Hemisphere is placed on the bottom part of the dial.

One of the first objectives of the team in charge of the dial was to create a sober aesthetics especially with regards to the tints and varnish used. Only 2 colors are present on the dial: silver of the dial and blue underlining the different complications. The hands are also blued steal. The time telling hands are in pink gold like the case.

In parallel to the creation of the final dials, the team created “replacement” dials as to test the functions which were complicated to adjust due to the little space available on the dial, especially the indications relating to the equation of time as well as sunset and sunrise. As such each Tour de l’Ile could be assembled, tested, dis-assembled and re-assembled with the final dials. 

The replacement dials:

History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


The guillocheur responsible for each dial actually refused to show the dials to VC before delivery and the creative team did have a stressful moment there! The interesting point is that each dial on the back of the Tour de l’Ile has a different guilloche motif.

The Sky Chart
The sky chart representing the sky as seen from the Northern Hemisphere featured on the back dial was added far down the movement development and was included...6 months before the unveiling of the watch!! 

History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication


Initially, the tourbillon was to be visible from the back, however considering the thickness of the movement and the additional mechanisms the aesthetics were not satisfying. The engineers and constructors submitted the idea of filling the “hole” with a sky chart and they managed in a few weeks – in collaboration with the Geneva Observatory – to create this new complication.

The Heritage of the Tour de l’Ile
The experience of the creation of the Tour de l’Ile was extremely rich and lead the VC management to rethink its product development process as to create synergies between the R&D team in the Vallée du Joux and the Product Development team in Geneva. One example being the Patrimony Traditionnelle Cal 2755 featuring a perpetual calendar, tourbillon and minute repeater being until now Vacheron Constantin’s most complicated “regular production” piece. 

History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication
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Re: History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication
10/05/2009 - 16:16
Maybe what I love the most in this very interesting post is the hand sketch box lugs. Great. Thank you for these informations. Allways a watch I'd like to shoot of course ! Deniz
One of the best posts of the year!
10/05/2009 - 17:17
Thank you Alex (and Christian and Vincent!) for this very interesting article! I absolutely love to learn about, and I am completely fascinated by the whole creative processus to get to the final product, it makes me appreciate the watches so much more - I found the QdI presentation in London last November so interesting and mesmerizing, and same goes for this article.  Please make this a recommended thread! Thanks again for posting, you guys really made my day! Cheers,  Francois
Great post! Thanks for the information Alex. (nt)
10/05/2009 - 18:33
vc
It sounds like a great conference to have attended....
10/05/2009 - 21:18
I wish I could go to something like that as I enjoy learning about the process of making thing (or drafts when it comes to writing). It would also be interesting to see some early drafts, ugly dogs that they may be, to get a sense of how much work goes into making a watch. Seeing some of the early case mock-ups of the Jubile 1755 was one of the highlights of the trip you organized for TP's back in 2005. I am impressed by just how readable/usable the Tour de l'Ile is, despite all the complications. Bill
some of the other subjects were: the use of non round wheels(!), the
10/06/2009 - 11:23
development of Breitling's inhouse chrono movement, women's complicated watches throughout time etc...
Fascinating read on a greatest of timepieces! BTW, is that a..
10/06/2009 - 00:15
Malte Tourbie on Vincent's wrist? Thanks for the write-up, Alex!
good eye buddy! (nt)
10/06/2009 - 11:20
e
Re: History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication
10/06/2009 - 01:14
Great article, Alex! Thank you so much. What a fantastic watch! VC should put together a little booklet on this watch, including production pics, drawings final pics etc. That would be a very nice item indeed! Regards, Joseph
the process of putting so much in so little is amazing .......
10/06/2009 - 12:57
a beautiful and powerful watch which shows technical and craftsman finesse. this is the superiority VC stands for, in my opinion. the more pragmatic Patrimony Traditionnelle Cal 2755 is equally attractive 
A Very Grand Complication!
10/06/2009 - 17:56
The presentation certainly illustrated the influence of design on the gestation process of a new watch.  I would love to hear about the challenges that were encountered with the design and engineering of the actual movement!  Are there any issues with patents or confidentiality that prevent this?
thanks for the look behind the scenes. This watch is a true milestone
10/06/2009 - 20:57
in VC history
Re: History of the development of the Tour de l'Ile grand complication
10/06/2009 - 20:57
Thanks Alex, A wonderful example.....worthy of full praise! Tony.