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.
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.
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.
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.