Tick Talk's Guide to Vacheron & Constantin

 

 

In 1751, Jean-Marc Vacheron (1731 - 1805) began his trade as a watchmaker in Geneva. In 1755, he opened his own workshop and engaged an apprentice. Thus, 1755 marks the founding date for the modern company of Vacheron Constantin; the oldest continuously-operating watch Manufacture.

From 1755 to 1785, Jean-Marc Vacheron manufactured watches under the name J.M. Vacheron. His sons, Louis André and Abraham, followed their father as watchmakers. Pieces signed Louis André Vacheron appeared briefly, however it was the younger son Abraham (1760 - 1843) who carried on the family legacy, commencing in 1785, with watches signed Abraham Vacheron.

That was to change only one year later, in 1786, with the introduction of a partner, Monsieur Girod, and a new signature; Abraham Vacheron Girod, also abbreviated A. Vacheron Girod and Abm. Vacheron Girod. Girod retired in 1816 and a new partner, Charles-François Chossat, took his place. Watches were now signed Vacheron-Chossat & Cie (Cie for Compagnie).

In 1819, Abraham’s heir Jacques-Bartélémy Vacheron (1787 - 1894) and Chossat took François Constantin (1788 - 1854) into the company. Constantin had experience with sales in Italy, an important market, under Bautte of Geneva. Chossat became a silent partner and the business was renamed Vacheron & Constantin. While Vacheron continued to supervise the manufactory, Constantin took on the role of travelling salesman.

With the change of name to Vacheron & Constantin, the tradename Abraham Vacheron Girod briefly went into hibernation, to be called back in 1822 for V&C's secondary quality watches where it remained in use until the 1880s. Care must be taken to distinguish the earlier timepieces from the secondary quality watches of 1822 onwards. While the later Abm. Vacheron Girod pieces may have fusée or cylinder movements, the serial numbers are of 2xxxx and 3xxxx series. Other second quality names used by V&C included Girod Colombey, Frères Desart, Isaac Soret, Astral and Trident.

Vacheron & Constantin became so well regarded that around 1830 timepieces began to appear spuriously marked "Vacheron" and "Vacheron Frères" of Geneva (à Genève). According to the Annales de la Maison d'Horlogerie Vacheron et Constantin, this problem so vexed the Manufacture that, in 1850, when two letters were received addressed to "Vacheron Frères à Genève", this sharp response was penned; There is no maker of horology by the name of Vacheron Frères. There are many watches with this name, but they are imitations of secondary quality. There are a great many people who, not wishing to give themselves the trouble of making a name, find it useful to use that of another. You may affirm without fear that it is a false name.

Legitimate pieces marked Vacheron à Genève are very rare and construction will be consistent with their pre-1785 period, while the spurious watches from the mid-19th century onward are most often Lepine-type with cylinder escapements. The copyists leave further clues; often incorrectly inscribing cuvettes with "Cylindre" rather than V&C's standard descriptor "Echappement Horizontal".

After a period of stability, the company name changed frequently, commencing in 1867 with the retirement of François Constantin's heir; Jean-François Constantin. Thus the company name and signature became César Vacheron & Cie, Ancienne Maison Vacheron & Constantin, after Jacques-Bartélémy's son and successor, Charles-César Vacheron (1812 - 1868).

In 1868, Charles-César died following a brief illness and the business passed to his son; Charles Vacheron (1846 - 1879). The name became Charles Vacheron & Cie. Unfortunately; Charles died 18 months later without leaving an heir. So, in 1870, the direct Vacheron family lineage ended with the widow of Charles-César and mother of Charles becoming managing director. Watches were now signed Vacheron & Constantin, Successuers Veuve César Vacheron & Cie. Veuve for widow, often abbreviated Vve. C. Vacheron & Cie.

1880 signified the registration of V&C's iconic symbol, the Maltese Cross. Other symbols used by Vacheron & Constantin over the years were Double Horseshoes (1883) and the Trident (1884); both secondary lines.
Following the death of Madame Vacheron in 1887, the Manufacture became a Limited Company registered again as Vacheron & Constantin, although it should be noted that Mme Vacheron had returned to using the historic Vacheron & Constantin trade name on their timepieces since 1880.

Foreign Agents for Vacheron & Constantin
Naturally, V&C commenced its earliest trade with other European countries. As early as 1812, the firm of Berguer & Cramer represented Vacheron Girod in Italy, until Francois Constantin joined the company and took on the role of salesman for that region in 1819. By 1820, Vacheron & Constantin were conducting business in Alexandria, Egypt. Cesar Vacheron visited Holland in 1848 and Valencia, Spain, in 1849 to explore those markets.

Relations with South and Central America can be traced back to 1825 according to correspondence with agents in Rio-de-Janeiro. By 1839 they had established business ties with J.P. Mollet and Felix Favre in Brazil. In 1843, the firm of Bonnet in Havana placed an order with Vacheron & Constantin.

Vacheron & Constantin first officially appeared on the North American continent in 1832 through the auspices of New York agent Jean Magnin and soon expanded to New Orleans and Philidelphia, and later Montreal. The agency passed through several hands, including three successive members of the Abry family. In 1894, V&C appointed Edmond E. Robert of New York as their exclusive American agent. Watch cases supplied by Robert for V&C movements frequently bear his initials E.E.R.

Mention must also be made of the important role played by the numerous International Exhibitions of the mid-19th to early 20th centuries in marketing Swiss watches across the world. Additionally, the prestige of Vacheron & Constantin among European royalty spread from the Italian States, so much that they attained the envious position of being sought-out by persons of great wealth for exclusive purchases. While a litany of dates and locations would be tedious, it must be acknowledged that V&C was an early player on the world stage, where it remains to this day, unlike too many other names resuscitated from the past for marketing purposes.

VXN Myth
Following the demise of the Edmond E. Robert Company in 1937, Vacheron & Constantin's marketing in the United States was taken over by Longines-Wittnauer, who also distributed LeCoultre. To comply with U.S. tariff legislation, Longines-Wittnauer was required to mark imported Swiss movements with their identifying code. Thus, the letters VXN appear on both Vacheron & Constantin and LeCoultre movements until about 1965. This does not mean they are the same! Unfortunately, for a brief time this relationship was advanced by Longines-Wittnauer to enhance sales of LeCoultre and is now used by sellers for the same purpose. An examination of the movement caliber and finish is all that is required to highlight the differences.

Merimont Watch Co.
A partnership between V&C and the American Watch Case Company began in 1917 for the American market. V&C ebauches were provided in A.W.C.CO. gold cases under the brand name "Merimont". The partnership appears to have dissolved sometime before 1927. Some authenticated examples appear after this date with V&C cases and dials but Merimont-branded movements; likely a means of using the remaining Merimont stocks.

Fabriqué Pour Vacheron & Constantin
Beginning around 1906, V&C offered more affordable watches supplied by outside manufacturers and identified as Fabriqué Pour Vacheron & Constantin (Made For Vacheron & Constantin). This strategy was adopted because V&C did not wish to sell watches bearing other maker's names, yet needed to satisfy buyers who could not yet afford a V&C.

According to V&C archives, a partial list of suppliers included Brandt & Hoffmann of Biel/Bienne, Mathey Tissot of Ponts de Martel, Georges Jules Sandoz of La Chaux-de-Fonds, H. Moser of Le Locle, Kurth Frères and Schild Frères of Granges. Smaller quantities were provided by L. Tardy and G. Sordet of Geneva.

Demi-Chronomètre
Occasionally a V&C pocket watch will appear with the cuvette inscription "Demi-Chronomètre". The official position is reflected in this statement provided by VC to the horological auction house Antiquorum: The name "Demi-Chronomètre" is used by Vacheron Constantin to indicate that the movement was sent to the Observatory for chronometric control, but that for commercial reasons, it did not remain long enough to complete the entire course of testing.

Correspondence with the Observatoire de Genève has confirmed this term was not one granted by that institution, nor will it be found in the Dictionnaire professionnel illustré de l’horlogerie. While the implication is that such a watch was equal to the rigors of Observatory trials, more probably it signifies a piece which faltered at trials and, to maintain brand prestige (the aforementioned "commercial reasons"?), was withdrawn. Trials watches were purpose made and meticulously assembled; however, there was always an element of chance in the perfection of parts selected and, most significantly, the properties of alloys used in their escapements. In short, the term Demi-Chronomètre was likely created to enhance the salability of these still-exceptional watches in an attempt to recover the investment.

Maltese Cross

The Maltese Cross was first registered by V&C as their company trademark in 1880 at a time when, according to Charles Constantin, the Manufacture was in deep crisis and on the verge of closing.  A controversy arises with the official assertion that adoption of the Maltese Cross had no political or religious significance, but rather was a representation of the Geneva Stopworks mechanism which limited overwinding of the mainspring.  While the symbol does bear an inexact resemblance to the Stopworks, this explanation does not correspond with history.  V&C also registered three additional variations of cross shapes in 1881, 1884 and 1888. The first two were triangular and wedge-shaped iterations of the Iron Cross, itself a variation of the Maltese Cross, while the last was a Lozengy Cross.  More likely, the Maltese Cross was intended to ingratiate the Manufacture with Catholic nobility in Europe, in particular the House of Savoy, at a time when their patronage was critical to the brand's survival.

Merger with Jaeger-LeCoultre and Beyond
Reduced in workforce and capital by the Great Depression, Vacheron & Constantin were unprepared for the flood of orders that followed a recovery in the world's economy. The solution turned out to be a merger with Manufacture Jaeger-LeCoultre in 1938 under the holding company, Société Anonyme de Produits Industriels et Commerciaux (SAPIC). The merger ended production of in-house movements which were henceforth based primarily on JLC ebauches. Another consequence was the end of their relationship with Paris jewelers Verger Frères. Charles Constantin, great grand-nephew of François Constantin, retired from the company in 1949, leaving his nephew Léon Constantin as the sole family representative. Léon remained on the board of the firm's charitable trust, the Jules Weiss Foundation, until 1995 and thus ended the Constantin lineage which, at 175 years, surpassed the Vacheron bloodline by some three generations.

By 1965, Managing Director Georges Ketterer had amassed almost 90% of the company shares and once again made Vacheron & Constantin an independent entity. Sadly, he passed away in 1969. His son, Jacques, took hold of the reins.

In 1968 the "et" of Vacheron et Constantin was dropped from the company's advertising and by 1970 it was removed from their registered trademark. This signaled a gradual process of excising the ampersand (&) from their watches. A clear separation from the past occurred in 1974 when the company officially changed its name to Vacheron Constantin S.A. During the transition, the Manufacture used up existing stocks of components and ephemera. Indeed, as late as 1977 VC catalogs featured timepieces with both names!

Gerald Genta 222 myth
A myth persists that Gerald Genta designed the Vacheron Constantin 222 sports watch from 1977, following his great success with the so-called "jumbo" family of Patek Philippe's Nautilus 3700, Audemars Piguet's Royal Oak 5402, and IWC's Ingenieur 1832. Unusually, this myth was initially propagated by Vacheron Constantin, who first credited Genta with the design. VC has since confirmed that their iconic 222 was, in fact, penned by a then 23-year old Jorg Hysek. Born in 1953, Hysek fled East German for Geneva at the age of seven and worked for Rolex before starting his own design company.

Modern Times
In 1986, Vacheron Constantin was sold to the former Saudi Oil Minister, Sheik Yamani.

In 1996 the brand was bought by Compagnie Financiere Richemont SA, a luxury goods holding Company. Their 2012 watch portfolio included Baume & Mercier, Cartier, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Roger Dubuis, Lange & Sohne, Montblanc, Panerai, Piaget, Vacheron Constantin, and Van Cleef & Arpels.

In 2002, Vacheron Constantin presented their first in-house movement since the 1930s; the manual caliber 1400. In 2006 they followed with an automatic caliber, the 2450. Today they are well on their way to achieving the stated goal of 100% Manufacture movements. The highlight of 2013 was their Calibre 1731 Minute Repeater; currently the thinnest available.

Vacheron Constantin stunned the watch world in 2015 when it revealed the Reference 57260 pocket watch; the most complicated mechanical watch ever made.  Completed over a period of eight years for an anonymous client, the name reveals all: 57 complications to celebrate the Manufacture's 260th anniversary.

Vacheron Constantin CEO Juan Carlos Torres revealed their annual production for 2013 was about 30,000 watches, retailed through 300 points of sale. In October of 2013, the Manufacture announced the opening of new component production facilities in Le Brassus, Vallée de Joux. This, in addition to the expansion of their assembly and administration site located in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates, suggests an increase of production to follow. They continue to maintain a research and prototype atelier in Le Sentier.

Tick Talk © 2016

Sources
1. Vacheron Constantin Heritage Department, Geneva. Information obtained by direct inquiry and from official sources as published on Vacheron Constantin's internet discussion forum; The Hour Lounge.
2. Secrets of Vacheron Constantin by Franco Cologni, Flammarion, 2005
3. Technique and History of the Swiss Watch by Jaquet and Chapuis, English ed. Hamlyn Publishing, 1970
4. The Quarter Millennium of Vacheron Constantin, Antiquorum, catalog for auction held 3 April 2005
5. Annales de la Maison de Horlogerie Vacheron et Constantin by Charles Constantin, privately published 1928/1944, Bibliotheque de Geneve. Aficionados of V&C owe a tremendous debt to this work. An excerpt from the Annales, translated in English, was published in the Antiquorum auction catalog; The Art of Vacheron Constantin (auction date 13 November 1994) under the title; The Saga of Vacheron Constantin – The heroic period. A timeline drawn from this work was published in 2000 on ThePuristS horological discussion forum by ThomasM, titled; The Once and Future King - a Chronology of The House of Vacheron Constantin.