Time Travel

A collector’s book about Vacheron Constantin celebrates 260 years of a pursuit of innovation while cherishing a storied tradition.

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A hardcover book dedicated to a watch becomes more than a page turner for timepiece connoisseurs. It’s a journey back in time with a storied history that is fascinating — even if the reader has no interest in legendary, mechanical time tellers. No other timepiece manufacturer can claim the pedigree of Vacheron Constantin — the oldest, continuously operating Swiss watch manufacturer. Uninterrupted history is the through line here. Founded in 1755, the brand celebrates 260 years from the Age of Enlightenment to the third millennium.

time-travel-2It all started in Geneva by the Rhone River. Jean Marc Vacheron — cultured, well read, and a respected member of the intelligentsia — hired his first apprentice. The first watch Vacheron ever signed was a 1760 gold pocket watch signed “J.M. Vacheron.” His craftsmanship was so refined that even the royal court of Europe took notice.

In 1785, his son, Abraham Vacheron, took over the company. Then in 1810, his grandson, Jacques Barthelemy Vacheron, inherited the business. Eight years later, Jacques entered into a partnership with Francois Constanin. More a salesman than a craftsman, Constantin coined Vacheron Constantin’s now-famous phrase: Faire Mieux si possible, ce qui est tourjours possible — Do better when possible, and it is always possible. They would create Vacheron & Constantin, and with their dual skill set, the manufacturer’s standards would become higher than ever. In 1828, an enameled, decorated pocket watch was one of the thinnest ever created. In 1889, Vacheron Constantin introduced its first lady’s wristwatch.

The latter part of the 19th century saw the company going through many changes, but always with a Vacheron and Constantin at the helm. Today, Vacheron Constantin is part of Richemont, a Swiss luxury-goods group that owns a portfolio of leading luxury houses — including Cartier and Van Cleef & Arpels — and watch brands — Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC Schaffhausen, Panerai, and Montblanc.

Top: Mercator wristwatch, 1994. The watch is fitted with a self-winding mechanical movement. Its dial reproduces the map of Europe in polychrome cloisonne enamel, using the grand feu technique. Left: Kallista wristwatch, 1979. A unique piece, it was for a time the most expensive watch in the world. Designed by Raymond Moretti, it is sculpted from a one-kilogram ingot of solid gold, from which 140 grams of its final weight are extracted. The Kallista is enhanced by 118 emerald-cut diamonds representing a total 130 carats.
Top: Mercator wristwatch, 1994. The watch is fitted with a self-winding mechanical movement. Its dial reproduces the map of Europe in polychrome cloisonne enamel, using the grand feu technique.
Left: Kallista wristwatch, 1979. A unique piece, it was for a time the most expensive watch in the world. Designed by Raymond Moretti, it is sculpted from a one-kilogram ingot of solid gold, from which 140 grams of its final weight are extracted. The Kallista is enhanced by 118 emerald-cut diamonds representing a total 130 carats.

While today’s Vacheron Constantin craftsmen clearly have an extensive design tradition from which to draw inspiration, they have hardly rested on their laurels — which may very well be the secret to the brand’s longevity. On the contrary, the watchmaker’s pursuit of innovation and dedication to furthering the industry’s technological advancements has made these timepieces some of the most prized by global connoisseurs.

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Pocket watch, 1923. Referred to as “The Arcadian Shepherds,” from the name of the painting by Nicolas Poussin that it reproduces.

The Swiss watch manufacturer persists in challenging itself to create, innovate, and refine its output, resulting in timepieces of extraordinary beauty and precision — watch dials ornamented with engraved motifs, guilloched, enameled, and handmade in their entirety — and the introduction in the 1950s and 60s of the world’s thinnest wristwatches. There was the Patrimony Traditionnelle World Time in 2011 — featuring a distinguishing feature, which allowed an indication of the world’s thirty-seven time zones, including those offset from Universal Coordinated Time by a half or quarter-hour — an exclusive mechanism patented by the watchmaker. And these are but a mere fraction of Vacheron Constantin’s horologic feats.

Highly collectible, Vacheron Constantin’s prestigious timepieces are conceived as much to seduce by their elegance as to provide precision timekeeping.

The 304-paged Vacheron Constantin: Artists of Time was written by Franco Cologni, who — for four decades — has become one of the most significant figures in the luxury watch market. He opened the first Cartier boutique in Italy in 1973, became chief executive of Cartier International in 1980, then chairman in 2000. An entrepreneur at heart, his business savvy elevated him to key roles within the Richemont Group. Founder of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, Cologni was made a commander of the Order of Arts and Letters by France’s minister of culture and communication in 2012. He has written a number of books on Cartier, Piaget, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Montblanc. Images in the book are by Bruno Ehrs, one of the most renowned artists of Swedish photography, whose work is represented at the National Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Sweden. The specially commissioned photographs showcase the story of Vacheron Constantin, revealing the secrets of a trade written in time, itself.

Vacheron Constantin: Artists of Time is published by Flammarion with a November 2015 release date. Price is $125.

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