Part I: The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.
Charles Dickens; A Tale of Two Cities
While Mr. Dickens penned those words about the French Revolution some 70 years after the fact, his sentiments could have been about many other pivotal periods in recorded history, before and since.
The Great Depression
Unlike the Great War of 1914, which was demoted to World War I once we were foolish enough to start another conflagration, there has only been one Great Depression. Commencing in October of 1929 and lasting for a decade more-or-less, this world-wide economic disaster saw an unprecedented drop in employment and productivity. Along with other purveyors of luxury items, the Swiss watch industry was deeply affected.
With a workforce reduced to a single technician and 65 workers, the Vacheron & Constantin factory only managed to assemble 1800 movements in 1930. By 1931, salaries were slashed and working hours reduced while luxury goods lay stagnant and unwanted in all markets. The picture worsened for 1932 when only 211 movements were produced; truly the nadir of despair! Production remained low through 1934 while workers were consigned to piece-work status. When the firm’s 150th anniversary was celebrated in 1935 with a special run of 300 Jubilee wristwatches, previously written-off Lépine-type movements were recovered from storage for the project, allowing low retail prices and some welcome financial success.
Swiss watch manufacturing was helped by the devaluation of the franc in 1936, resulting in a return to normal working hours for those still employed with Vacheron & Constantin. The firm’s creativity was not diminished as this year saw production of two unique Aviator’s Degree wrist watches on special order as well as two highly desirable World Time pocket watches of the Cottier system. Production increased to 3,000 watches of all types and by the end of 1937 the factory had over four hundred orders still on the books. In fact, they were unable to fill these orders and management realized they lacked the resources to meet the market’s impending recovery. A solution had to be found before buyers deserted the marque.
The solution turned out to be a merger with manufacturer Jaeger-LeCoultre in September of 1938. A holding company was formed which included Vacheron & Constantin, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s sales organization, and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s movement factory. Vacheron shareholders exchanged their shares for those of Jaeger-LeCoultre at the ratio of four to three and Georges Ketterer, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s marketing director, was appointed as commercial director for the new corporation named Société anonyme de produits industriels et commerciales or SAPIC. By 1965, Ketterer was the major shareholder and would shape the future of Vacheron & Constantin.
Up to this point we have reviewed the factors which qualified the period 1929 to 1938 as The Worst of Times. There were also many circumstances to commend the era as The Best of Times for horological aficionados.
Stay tuned for Part II tomorrow.