Another vintage Vacheron has joined formation in the display case. This is a true instrument watch, having an utmost utilitarian purpose in support of war. As always, the story behind the piece is very interesting. With only a handful of veterans of the War to End All Wars remaining, other tangible reminders of the best and worst of mankind become ever more precious. Please enjoy the story.
Description Case: four-body bassine case of polished 0.900 silver, hinged inner cuvette engraved ‘VACHERON & CONSTANTIN GENÈVE’, back engraved ‘CORPS OF ENGINEERS U.S.A. No. 2407’. Diameter 52 mm. Case no. 240449. Manufactured circa 1920.
Dial: white enamel with luminescent Arabic numerals, outer minute and chronograph ring with red Arabic numerals at 5 second intervals, and subsidiary seconds at 6 o’clock with black Arabic numerals at 10 second intervals. Blued steel luminescent cathedral style hour and minute hands, blued steel chronograph and subsidiary seconds hand.
Movement: caliber R.A. 19’’’ 73 Chrono, gilt brass, 20 jewels, straight line lever escapement, cut bimetallic balance, blued steel Breguet balance spring with swan neck micrometer regulator, one minute chronograph with button on winding crown. Movement no. 384440.
The United States Army Corps of Engineers had its beginnings during the American Revolutionary War of 1775 when General George Washington appointed the first Chief Engineer who went on to organize an official Corps of Engineers in 1779.
With the outbreak of the Great War on the European continent in August of 1914, the United States was determined to stay neutral. However, several events conspired to change that sentiment. The German campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare followed by the discovery of secret negotiations between the German and Mexican governments led President Wilson to change his position and urge Congress to declare war on Germany, which they did on April 6, 1917. By July of that year, American soldiers were marching in the streets of Paris and by October were fighting at the front.
These troops were organized as the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) under General “Black Jack” Pershing. By 1918 the Americans had mustered 420,000 troops and by the time armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, Pershing had almost 1.2 million soldiers in Europe and had suffered 117,000 casualties. Final peace came with the Treaty of Versailles in June of 1919, at least for another twenty years…
As their first war fought on foreign soil in defence of foreign territory, World War I was an immense learning experience for the Corps of Engineers. Initially, American engineers formed railway regiments, then combat engineers were used to construct bridges and roadways, and forestry troops produced the required supplies of lumber. Other engineer units built port facilities and storage yards. Technical engineers organized the earliest tank units and began chemical warfare operations.
While marine chronometers had been used for accurate navigation by the world’s navies since John Harrison’s breakthrough watch design of 1761, military-specific watches only began to appear in the late nineteenth century for such martial functions as timing artillery rounds to target and even ringing out a marching cadence. Models with integrated compass and map scale graduations made an appearance in 1914.
At the beginning of the Great War, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers used American-made Hamilton pocket watches for timekeeping duties. Having adopted the General Railroad Timepiece Standards of 1893, the Corps required that each watch incorporate several technical features to ensure easy winding, legibility and accuracy to within 30 seconds a week.
Upon arriving in Europe, the Corps of Engineers brought with them 1,000 such Hamilton watches for the supervision of railroad operations in France. In an effort to reduce their reliance on the vulnerable trans-Atlantic shipping routes, the AEF Quartermaster Corps decided to procure as much of its supplies as possible from Europe. Within a few months of landing, purchasing agents were active wherever supplies might be available.
Both the American Signal Corps and Corps of Engineers required an ongoing supply of high-quality timepieces. Key Swiss manufacturers were contracted by the AEF; Zenith and Ulysse Nardin for time-only watches and Vacheron & Constantin for chronograph and non-chronograph watches. These manufacturers, in turn, sub-contracted with others to meet their large orders. Ulysse Nardin engaged IWC, Moser and Movado. In total, contracts for over 10,000 pocket watches were tendered to Swiss factories, including an order for chronographs to Vacheron & Constantin. Similar activities occurred on the British side, with Rolex and Cortebert filling production contracts for pocket watches and “wristlets”. The Germans too had orders for Swiss watches of very similar specifications, the most significant difference being the German requirement for screw-down case backs.
The AEF order for Vacheron & Constantin was signed in May of 1918 for 5,000 pieces to be delivered in lots of at least 100 per month and 150-200 whenever possible. By the time deliveries concluded in 1920, a total of 3,289 Vacheron & Constantin timepieces had been received by the Corps. The great majority of these watches were single-button chronographs in sturdy silver cases, while a few time-only watches are also known. The general pattern for the Vacheron & Constantin U.S. Army Corps of Engineers watches was as follows:
Chronograph Case: four-body bassine case of polished 0.900 silver, inner cuvette engraved with maker’s name, back engraved with Corps of Engineers number. Diameter: 52 mm. Some examples with plain polished backs are known. Very rare gold-cased examples are known.
Dial: white enamel dial with luminescent Arabic numerals, outer chronograph track with black or red Arabic numerals at 5 second intervals, sunk subsidiary seconds at 6 o’clock. Blued steel cathedral or skeleton style luminescent hour and minute hands, blued steel central chronograph and subsidiary seconds hands.
Movement: 19 lignes gilt or nickel-plated brass, 20 jewels, straight line lever escapement, cut bimetallic balance, blued steel Breguet balance spring with swan neck fine regulator, visible chronograph works in steel.
Details: chronograph with button on the winding crown. Signed on dial, case and movement. Vacheron Constantin archive photo reference 1524, 1525.
Case: four-body bassine case of polished 0.900 silver, inner cuvette engraved with maker’s name, back engraved with Corps of Engineers number. Diameter: 52 mm.
Dial: white enamel dial with luminescent Arabic numerals, outer minute track and sunk subsidiary seconds at 6 o’clock. Blued steel cathedral or skeleton style luminescent hour and minute hands, blued steel subsidiary seconds hand.
Movement: 19 lignes, gilt or nickel-plated brass, 15 jewels, straight line lever escapement, cut bimetallic balance, blued steel Breguet balance spring.
Details: signed on dial, case and movement.
• Antiquorum website
• The Hour Lounge; Vacheron Constantin website
• The World of Vacheron Constantin Genève by Carole Lambelet & Lorette Coen
• US Army Corps of Engineers Historical Vignette: WWI Corps of Engineers Special Watch to Keep Accurate Time
• Wikipedia website
• Early Wristwatches and Coming of Age in World War I by Michael Friedberg
• SIHH 2006 Exhibition Booklet: Fine Watches For Land, Air and Sea
• Military Timepieces by Konrad Knirim