My First Pocket Watch

Vacheron & Constantin Ref. 4348 Aluminum Pocket Watch
The acquisition of a new watch is always an exciting moment, and this one is all the more so for several reasons. Firstly, it is a Vacheron & Constantin (of course) and my first pocket watch. Secondly, it has a very special Canadian connection betweem a mining resource company, a historic Montreal jeweller, and a deserving gentleman named Armand Lefevbre. Lastly, it involves a mystery…and I love a good mystery. Before introducing the piece, let me first share some history.

The Vacheron & Constantin aluminum watch was conceived in 1937 upon request by Henry Banks of Montreal, a Vacheron Constantin agent, on behalf of the Canadian Aluminum Limited group of companies. This watch was to mark 25 years of continuous service within the Aluminum group. The watch was intended to “have real value, originality and at the same time, serve as a reminder of the great aluminum industry”.

Numerous experiments were carried out to find a suitable alloy that could be machined to tolerances of 1/100mm, which are required in the manufacture of watches. Upon producing a prototype, the case, dial hands, bridges and plates of which were made of aluminum, and the balance, springs, wheels and pivots of traditional materials, Vacheron & Constantin submitted the watch for testing. These tests showed that the new watch was comparable to other watches in its category which utilized traditional materials throughout the movement, in so far as precision was concerned. In 1938 Vacheron & Constantin delivered the first of its aluminum watches. The watch weighed a total of 19.61 grams (0.69oz) – somehow appropriate for a quarter-century watch – it weighed approximately a quarter as much as a similar sized gold watch. By April of 1950 Vacheron & Constantin had delivered only 271 examples of these watches.

The purpose of this exercise was not, at the time, to show aluminum as a new watchmaking material. However, in recent years aluminum had to become a mainstay of the watchmaking industry; its non-ferrous, antimagnetic qualities are strong advantages in the field of horology, as is its lightness.
(Antiquorum ‘The Quarter Millennium of Vacheron Constantin’, 2005, pg.76)

Further examples were completed unadorned or as presentation pieces at least until 1955 (lot 131, Antiquorum’s 1994 Art of Vacheron Constantin sale, case No. 347833).

By way of comparison with another special order, Vacheron & Constantin delivered a total of 3,287 pocket watches to the U.S. Army Corps. of Engineers during 1918-1919.

This Watch:
Vacheron & Constantin No. 482128, case No. 307875, Reference 4348 keyless aluminum dress watch, made for the Aluminum Company of Canada Ltd. and presented to Armand Lefebvre in 1950.
• Three-piece, “bassine”, polished and matted 45mm case with presentation engraving on the back.
• Matte aluminum dial with applied polished aluminum Breguet numerals, outer minute track, subsidiary seconds. Polished gilt aluminum Breguet hands.
• Calibre V439 aluminum movement, “fausses cotes” decoration, 17 jewels, straight line lever escapement, cut bimetallic compensation balance adjusted to temperature, Breguet balance-spring, swan-neck micrometer regulator.

My First Pocket Watch

Antiquorum’s ‘The Art of Vacheron Constantin’ 1994 auction catalogue lists two examples of “anticorodal” aluminum watches under lots 130 and 131. The description states;

Production of a limited series of aluminium dress watches, as a study to anticipate the shortage of strategic material which could have occurred during World War II. The choice of aluminium was an alternative to other metals such as stainless steel, brass, copper, nickel or precious metals.

While Antiquorum refutes this statement in their later 2005 Vacheron auction catalogue, there must have been some benefit derived from the research conducted to produce an alloy capable of fine-machining. When this work was commissioned in 1937, the Spanish Civil War was raging and the Japanese had invaded China. The fascists were on the rise in Europe and war was looking inevitable. The Germans had developed Duralumin and the allies had nothing like it. In 1939, the president of Reynolds Metals travelled to Germany and saw first-hand the build-up for war. Upon his return to the U.S. he testified before a Senate committee which led to a tremendous increase in aluminum production as a strategic material. One can only wonder if this little project contributed in some manner. 

My First Pocket Watch

Franco Cologni’s book, Secrets of Vacheron Constantin, states the following on pg. 152;

With the return of peace came new opportunities for Vacheron Constantin. Georges Ketterer, who had replaced Paul Lebet on the board following his death in July (1945), seized every opportunity and gave full encouragement to creativity and imagination on the part of the firm’s watchmakers. Thus the post-war years saw the appearance of a number of watches of breathtaking audacity, born of this newly rediscovered freedom. An aluminum watch, for example, formed an extraordinary tribute to this new era. Yet it was simply a response to a bizarre request from the biggest manufacturer of this common component of weapons who, abruptly deprived of outlets, sought new uses that were at once peaceful and more prestigious. Vacheron Constantin was the only watchmaker to rise to the challenge, creating one of the lightest pocket watches every made, weighing a mere 19.61 grams (0.69 ounces), or less than half the weight of its equivalent in gold or silver. Case, dial, and virtually the entire movement were in aluminum (ill. p.148-149 shows Aluminum Company of Canada 25 year presentation watch).

Sales evidence confirms that the production of Vacheron’s aluminum watches pre-dates Cologni’s version (lot 130, 1994 Art of Vacheron Constantin sale, case No. 265188, completed in December 1939) while supporting Antiquorum’s 2005 catalogue description. Furthermore, Cologni’s suggestion that the Aluminum Company of Canada was seeking a “prestigous” application for their product fails to account for the influence of the Montreal dealer that arranged this amazing partnership.

Founded in 1879, Henry Birks & Sons of Montreal (note error in Antiquorum’s text) has often been referred to as the Tiffany of the North. They had a long association with Vacheron & Constantin, retailing the Swiss brand and also casing Vacheron movements under the Birks label. When commissioned by the Aluminum Company of Canada, it would have been completely understandable that Vacheron & Constantin came to mind as their manufacture of choice. Birks was acquired by the Italian Regaluxe Investment group in 1993 and took a controlling interest in the U.S. jewellery chain Mayors in 2002.

Some mention of the Aluminum Company of Canada is also appropriate. Founded in 1902 as a subsidiary of the Aluminum Company of America, the company was first chartered as the Northern Aluminum Company then renamed the Aluminum Company of Canada in 1925. The company became independent in 1928 and registered is current trade name, Alcan, in 1945. Today, Alcan is a multinational company headquartered in Montreal while operating in 41 countries with 53,000 employees.

My First Pocket Watch
12/10/2008 - 02:15
Calibre V439
12/10/2008 - 03:18
This was the standard version: While this was the extra-flat version: It is interesting to note that the aluminum pocket watch project was undertaken by Vacheron & Constantin just prior to their merger with Jaeger-LeCoultre in August of 1938, while production didn't occur until afterwards.  Therefore it is not surprising that there was a LeCoultre base ebauche for the standard V439: The manufacture of the aluminum movement for so few pieces surely represented a tremendous cost in both research and production resources.  I wonder if Mr. Lefebvre and his fellow long-serving employees appreciated the real value of these mementos?
Thank you Dean for this nice "retrospective"
12/10/2008 - 14:19
Well detailed review; congrats! Patrice
You're very welcome Patrice....
12/10/2008 - 16:59
I really enjoyed the research and hope to correspond with both Birks and Alcan for more details.  For a change, being in Canada may be an advantage in chasing down this story!
Bravo! (nt)
12/11/2008 - 13:53
All the parts that are aluminum....
12/20/2008 - 01:14

A surprise package arrived today, following Alex's cryptic request for my address.  A lovely book titled, High Society - The History of America's Upper Class by Nick Foulkes (published for Vacheron by Assouline for the introduction of the American 1921 watch), contained pictures of the aluminum pocket watch in the forward. Here are two pictures showing all the aluminum components of the watch.  Thank-you so very much Alex

Re: My First Pocket Watch
12/10/2008 - 04:17
Congrats, Dean. That's quite a unique piece, with a fascinating history to boot. Now you have to find an aluminum chain or fob Wear it in good health, or should I say "carry it". BTW: I did locate a reference to an Armand Lefebvre in a gazette from 1922. I don't know if its the same person but the dates seem right: "06-02-1922 Sophie Claire Queeneville, married Armand Lefebvre, of Montreal PQ, son of Fred Lefebvre, of Huntingdon PQ. At St. Agnes Church, by Rev. J. O. Lacerte." Remakable what one can find on the internet! Regards, Joseph
Too many Lefebvre's....
12/10/2008 - 17:04
My wife even has Lefebvre's in her extended family from Quebec.  Thank-you for doing this research and hopefully Alcan might also have some records so I can update this important part of the watch's story.  Unfortunately, the dealer did not have any info to share .
a wonderfully detailed and indepth review. Thank you and enjoy your
12/10/2008 - 11:07
amazing watch
Calibre 439/7 ?
12/10/2008 - 17:06
Thank-you Alex!  Perhaps you can help with a question I have regarding the difference between the V439 movement in this piece and the 439/7 calibre that appears in most other versions that I've come across?  Cheers, Dean
Congrats to your first VC pocket !
12/10/2008 - 15:58
Thanks for amazing post! Wellcome to the pocket division of HL What I especially likes is the inscription    , which I read about, but never seen. And isn't it faschinating to be able to really see the movement ? I bought my first two VC pockets at the same time, because I couldn't make up my mind, which I wanted most. Now I'm glad for both The first is in it's original box and has, as it seems, never been used. From 1919. That one I loved most first, but now this is my favourite. From 1920. Cheers and congrats Doc
Need a box!
12/10/2008 - 17:13
Beautiful pictures Doc.  I'm very envious of the box too...where can I look for one?  I must say the feel of a pocket watch in the hand is very intimate...more so than a wristwatch which you tend to forget about unless needed.  The aluminum itself tends to stay cool while being held unlike gold, which quickly warms to the touch, but still feels soft like gold. As far as future PW's go, there may be more
One is only the start!
12/10/2008 - 19:20
A dear friend to mine, who knows more about watches, than anyone else I know, told me once, that he made his outstanding best business in just pw's Of course we never sell, but sometimes we have to anyhow... Doc
Re: Need a box!
12/10/2008 - 21:25
Hi Dean, You probably know this already, but occasionally vintage boxes do pop up on ebay. There is a significant demand for them and the quality varies. One sees the PW boxes less frequently than the wrist watch boxes. JB
Yes, great source....
12/10/2008 - 22:54
this one came from Mexico and belongs to the 1950's era but makes a very nice home for a contemporary Patrimony too 
Re: Yes, great source....
12/11/2008 - 04:19
Very nice, Dean! I like the the leather-suede combination. It looks to be in excellent condition, a great find. Joseph
You are right again Joseph,
12/11/2008 - 18:38
one could even say, it's more difficult to find a VC box, either PW or wristwatch box, especially vintage, than a watch  Cheers Doc
Aluminum (aluminium) watch
12/10/2008 - 16:25
Here's a link to another one of these watches. This one was located in the UK (its sold, not to me), but the photos are quite nice. Its interesting that the inscription, to someone in english Canada, is not nearly as effusive as the French one (??) Joseph
Nice watch!
12/10/2008 - 17:18
Hi Joseph.  I emailed this dealer about selling just the box but he had a deal pending and I see it is now sold!  I also had to decide which spelling to use and eventually followed the Americanized "aluminum" as being the version inscribed on the watch itself (perhaps the Alcoa influcence). Now this is a watch box
Re: Nice watch!
12/10/2008 - 18:48
Yes it is. I thought about enquiring to purchase the watch, but then saw that it was sold. All of the vendors interesting VC stuff has been sold. THe box...its one of the nicest designs I've seen. Turns itself into a nice presentation display and makes the watch a desk clock too. Regards, Joseph
It's a suspect dealer. Warning!
12/13/2008 - 00:28
He has a "Vacheron Constantin marine chronometer", for sale!! I checked with Maison and it's a fake. He has had it on the site for over a year, still I have corrected him. I have told him about VC's statement, that it's NOT a VC, and the seller promised me, in a mail to take it away, but as you see, under marine chronometers, it is still there Doc
Great Watch Dean, welcome to the Pocket Watch Club! :-) (nt)
12/11/2008 - 02:45
But what to do on Wrist Shot Friday's?
12/11/2008 - 05:32
Maybe we can also include a new category...."Fob Shot Friday"
More information coming....
12/12/2008 - 01:53

I have contacted both Birks and Alcan (now Rio Tinto Alcan) with a request for archival information and hope to hear back soon.  The young woman at Birks Jewelry knew of Vacheron and was very interested in the story. I also received further details from the dealer that sold the piece.  Seems her husband is an avid flea market shopper and found the watch a couple of years ago while browsing the tables!  It remained off the market until recently. Cheers, Dean

1933 Newspaper Ad
12/13/2008 - 04:06
Amazing what you can find with a library card!  The online database for the Globe & Mail newspaper goes back to 1844 and a search of Vacheron revealed this 1933 ad for Birks-Ellis-Ryrie Jewellers, before Henry Birks went independent.  Unfortunately, my telephone call to their head office returned the information that they have no archives . For your interest, here is a 1922 Vacheron ad from Ellis Brothers before their merger. More to come from Rio Tinto Alcan who actually telephoned to say they were mailing some records!
I'd be much more interested to see...
12/13/2008 - 20:36
if they will still honour that price. I don't see "for a limited time only" anywhere.
Re: I'd be much more interested to see...
12/14/2008 - 18:02
That's very good! I'm still looking for that 5 cent hot-dog and  Coke! I believe Birks was in that same location for a long time. I remember it when I was a kid. Then they moved up to the Eaton Centre when it opened. They're still there (as well as other locations) Regards, Joseph
Re: More information coming....
12/28/2009 - 05:46
Dean,         I hope to known the result in this mater with the Birks and Alcan office went you will receive the data. I have a interest about the "historical" side of this watch. Thanks Hugo