I was going through my watch library a few weeks ago and came across a small monograph wedged between some VC catalogues. It was published by Vacheron in 1955 in honour of their 200th anniversary. It was full of interesting details and yet brief enough to provide a quick review of Vacheron’s first two hundred years. The lovely illustrations peculiar to the graphic art of the 1950's highlights the text.
There is a wonderful dedication by the CEO at that time, Georges Ketterer.
There is also a concluding summary which encapsulates the attitude and ethos of Vacheron-Constantin which it still maintains for an additional 60 years.
The brief monograph presents a concise yet in some respects detailed history of Vacheron-Constantin in the first 200 years.
Under various headings the history and difficulties of Vacheron are traced.
One of the first sections is “Dawn of a Dynasty”.
In it, the author describes a Geneva watchmaker:
"Cabinotier" is not a word you will find in the dictionary. The word was used locally in Geneva to describe an unusual species of watchmaker, combination of craftsman, scholar, artist and winebibber, a man who may not always have been a genius but sometimes was, and usually behaved like one.”
A watch maker of Paris said Jean-Jacques Rousseau can do nothing to speak of clocks; a watchmaker of Geneva is a man who can be introduced into society. Rousseau of course did not speak without bias, being himself the son of a Geneva cabinotier.
We tend to think of event happening in relative isolation, but this monograph points out the political and economic events of the times and the profound effects they had on Vacheron.
Sometimes we also forgot that watchmaking besides being a craft and art is also a business.
In the section: “The Sorrows of a Salesman, the author outlines the difficulties as follows:
“Exporting could be a frustrating exasperating affair in the early 19th century. Closing the sale was often just the beginning of the trouble call drafts and letters of credit or return for lack of funds, or the banks on which they were drawn disappeared overnight; I know woman who had ordered the watch was libel to change his mind by the time The piece was ready for delivery; customs formalities or arbitrary, tariffs were exorbitant. In Turin, where the customs love you duty by weight, Vacheron stood by one day while his precious watches and clocks were thrown pell-mell into a scale, whereupon he had to gather them up and his handkerchief. "I carried them back to the hotel like chestnuts", he wrote. Fines, confiscations and warehouse fires meant losses, delays and bickering with the insurance companies.”
In the early 1830s, Vacheron decided to expand into markets overseas including America.
In this section, entitled, “Watches for Overseas”, the author describes the difficulties in shipping watches across the oceans.
This adventure was fraught with in enormous risks but overall worth the significant undertaking.
Shipping anything by sea in those days, which was basically shipping by sailing vessels, entailed risks of sunken cargo, theft piracy and even disease.
For Vacheron the enterprise turned out to be a great success and in 1864 they appointed their first permanent agent in New York City.
Other markets followed soon after including Rio de Janeiro (1840), the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) in 1847 and Calcutta in 1850.
In “Pioneers of the Industrial Revolution” the monograph outlines Vacheron's agreement with Leschot to semi-industrialize the manufacturing of watches.
It was a small step in improving the quantity and quality of their watches.
(However as I have outlined in the previous posting on Frederick Ingold true industrialization did not come to Swiss watch manufacturing until almost the end of the 19th century.
Ingold was himself a pioneer but his processes and machines were rejected in Switzerland France and England because it would interfere with the cottage industry of watch manufacturing which was predominant until they're almost the end of the 19 century. His ideas and machinery were accepted initially in America.
It wasn't until the Swiss saw the vast increase in quantity of high-quality watches that were being produced across the Atlantic that they felt they needed to adopt industrial manufacturing techniques.)
The Western world was changing from an agrarian economy to an industrial one and watch making had to go along or become irrelevant.
The unknown author of the monograph also describes the political turmoil in the mid-19th century in Italy and in Switzerland and indeed throughout Europe regarding the concept of unification of small states into larger countries.
There is discussion of the influence of fashion on watch design and the production of watches for celebrities, royalty artists and musicians.
Technological developments are mentioned including the production of the thinnest watch in the world.
Vacheron even had a type of Atelier Cabinotier production long before the more recent introduction of this concept. Distinguished clients received watches which were designed, styled and customized especially for them.
The author concludes with a description of a "youthful" 200-year-old company:
“When the Geneva observatory sponsored it's first precision contest for watches in 1872, Vacheron and Constantin entries emerged with high honors, starting a long succession of Vacheron and Constantin precision records which extends to the present day. At the Yale observatory at New Haven, Connecticut, a Vacheron and Constantin watch had won an accuracy award as early as 1881. Year after year, the Geneva contests brought new honours for Vacheron and Constantin watches, and with the observatory records came gold metals, grand prix at international exhibitions and decorations and commendations from royalty.
These and many other honours bestowed on Vacheron and Constantin during the last two centuries are proud symbols of past success. However their real value lies in the fact that they provide inspiration to meet the present and future challenges of scientific development and social and economic change. For it is with the future that Vacheron & Constantin have always been more most concerned, and it is to this forward-looking attitude more than any other single factor that Vacheron & Constantin owe the distinction of having become the world’s oldest watch manufacturers.
(A big thanks to the anonymous author(S) and illustrator)