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Davide Beacco
Watch Advisor
November 2022

Vacheron Constantin, history of the world’s oldest watchmaker

The most fruitful way to approach the history of Vacheron Constantin is to consider the Maison as a unique example of artistic creativity and technical savoir-faire capable of innovating while maintaining the general characters always imprinted in the aesthetics of its products.
It is the world’s longest-lived watchmaker, in business since 1755, the date of its founding, certified in a document describing the hiring of an apprentice by founder Jean Marc Vacheron on September 17 of that year in his Geneva atelier. The first timepiece that has come down to us bearing the signature of “J.M Vacheron à Geneve” is from those same years, and already from this piece we can see the technical and decorative savoir-faire in step with the era.

The maison's beginnings in Geneva

In the Geneva atelier on the Tour de l’Ile, the young apprentice watchmaker had to aim, at the end of his apprenticeship, for the construction of “a small alarm clock to be worn around the neck and a square double-height table clock”. This practical examination involved the many new watchmakers housed in the Saint Gervais neighbourhood of Geneva, where master watchmakers were concentrated in the bright attics of buildings, far from the hustle and bustle of the alleyways below. An elevated space where the so-called cabinotiers worked to build ever more accurate clocks; the master craftsmen themselves were not just simple artisans in one of the many guilds of the time, but constituted a society with strong intellectual and professional qualities. The cabinotier of the time was a man with greater civil liberties and participated in political life with an exclusive right to vote. Confirming the prestige of the figure of the watchmaker of the time, the Genevan Jean Jacques Rousseau describes his watchmaker father by stating that “he lives by the work of his hands and feeds his soul on the most sublime truths: I still seem to see Tacitus, Plutarch and Grotius mixed up with the tools of his trade”.

The persecution of many Christian-Calvinist craftsmen found safe harbor in the city of Geneva. The Swiss city of the mid-eighteenth century thus presented itself as very cosmopolitan with new wealthy and well-to-do families, characterized by a pervasive Calvinist morality capable of influencing production qualities in the field of precious metals; from highly ornate jewelry and ornaments there was a shift to greater production of timepieces, considered to be of less opulent taste, far removed from the decorativism that recalled the aesthetic tastes of the neighboring and enemy Roman Church.
This concentration of new precious metal technicians and craftsmen enabled Geneva to become the new benchmark of watch production, ousting Paris, the then capital of timepiece production at the time.
Among the maison’s earliest and most successful creations were fancy or shaped watches, produced in the so-called Fabrique, the Geneva industry of excellence where expert engravers, case assemblers, and makers of hands and springs were flanked. For movements, Vacheron relies on Lépine calibres, a well-known watchmaker at the time, thus improving technical innovations focused on the production of increasingly flat and light pocket watch calibres, useful for not unmold the jackets of the gentlemen of the time.

The brand's commercial expansion

In the late eighteenth century the uniqueness of the brand was defined after a period where relatives with the same surname Vacheron came to market along with the already present production led by Abraham Vacheron, second son of founder Jean Marc. With the third generation led by Abraham’s enterprising son Jacques Barthélémi, watches became increasingly complicated and were also equipped with chimes.

From the correspondence preserved in the ‘maison’s archives, one can trace Vacheron’s commercial expansion into southern Europe, where Abraham himself in 1816 speaks with his partner and brother-in-law about the first Italian customers in Milan and the sale of a watch to Prince Charles Albert of Carignano, who would become the first king of Italy Victor Emmanuel. It was also on these trips that a partner specializing in the commercial field named François Constantin was hired. The partnership will form famous name of the maison. The duo will be able to expand the precious offerings with a line of jewelry useful for attracting customers reluctant to buy watches. Their creations will have greater visibility among European nobility. In the technical field they will produce increasingly thinner and repeater watches, for women, on the other hand, miniaturized movements and jewel-watches made of chiseled, enameled gold and stones.

Vacheron Constantin's entry into the U.S. market

The American market opened up to the maison by importing watches useful to the new bourgeois and entrepreneurial class to exhibit their successful status and to measure the time essential to the smooth running of local business. In those same years, the industrial revolution induced Vacheron Constantin to develop machine-made parts to achieve greater interchangeability thus speeding up assembly and restoration processes. It is at the end of the nineteenth century that the most important innovation milestones are recorded; they are recognized by the technical body, the Geneva Observatory, with the highest honors. Laboratories create the first watches with antimagnetic balance springs, and waterproof pocket watches are introduced. Despite these innovations, the American market still remains very aggressive with production ten times greater than in Switzerland with competition based on serial production of watches with gradually lower costs due to new industrial serial processes.
In 1880, at the height of the Swiss watchmaking crisis, the company then called Vacheron & Constantin fabricants, Geneve, adopted the logo of a mortar cross, a shape inspired by a precision toothed metal component that guaranteed the reliability of the spring. Almost as an auspicious sign, the new symbol will accompany the maison toward a rebirth with renewed public appreciation thanks to the growing number of patents in Switzerland and the United States. The awards at various European shows for continuous technical improvements, from chronography to the ever-thinner thickness of the calibres.

Changes in the 20th century

The twentieth century opened with the dissolution of the Vacheron and Constantin heirs as managers of the maison, and a season of watches of complicated making began, as in the case of a 1901 model with a chronograph, full calendar, and yellow gold soap alarm clock. The watch is all about complication! This watch will serve as the backdrop for other milestones for important clients as in the case of King Farouk of Egypt, after whom the iconic Farouk model will be named, which has fourteen complications and thirteen watch An aesthetic trait the latter also distinguishes the character of today’s complicated timepieces.

The Chronomètre Royal in 1907, with its precision, reliability and endurance enshrines a worldwide success by becoming a model in demand in those parts of the world where the climate was not clement toward the good running of watches. This icon is reproduced for the maison’s centenary in 2007 validated by the Geneva Hallmark and COSC certified.

Not only does the house excel in productions of refined and decorative taste, with the collaboration of engravers, enamellers and miniaturists, but it creates more durable and functional models useful for crowning the daring challenges of the modern era. Such is the case with the 1904 pilot’s watchconceived and designed for the Wright aviator brothers. The model is equipped with a Vacheron Constantin chronometer movement and was worn by strapping a long strap to the leg, which was useful for checking timings during piloting maneuvers.

Along these nearly three centuries of history, the brand has been careful to consider technological progress to timeless beauty, evolutions in the arts and stylistic trends to forge unique artifacts capable of maintaining the transmission the production skills of master watchmakers and those of art for centuries. Taking a quick review of some of the icons produced in the last century one can see in each creation a syncretism between aesthetic and technological research and is expressed in the shapes of the icons, some of which are still produced today.
The Roaring Twenties opened with the American 1921 model, a wristwatch unusual for the position of the winding crown at 1 o’clock. It became an object expression of aesthetic modernity, although the mechanism was finished with gold-plated bridges and plates, in continuity with the tradition of wristwatches. It was initially designed for a left-handed and right-handed audience but in time became known for its appreciation by automobile drivers, who, with their hands on the steering wheel, could always display the twelve o’clock position perpendicularly.

Vacheron Costantin watches today

In today’s collection, the house’s challenge is to offer contemporary models enriched by the aesthetic-formal suggestions of models from the past.
Timepieces such as Patrimony or Traditionelle represent the continuity of the manufacturing tradition, with a design close to the demands of the contemporary market with larger dials without, however, enlarging them out of proportion as the latest trends demand.
The simple lines and harmonious compositions of the dials harken back to the formal and aesthetic characters of the models of the past.

In 1977 a model with a sporty character was presented to honor the brand’s 222nd anniversary. To this day it is a recognizable and highly sought-after model, again reproduced in the 2022 collection with the typical case integrated with the bracelet and the bezel attached with screws. It is an expression of a quest for greater resistance toward more extreme uses of timepieces. It can be considered the father of today’s Overseas models thanks to the unmistakable bezel that has modified its characteristic serrations over time.
To ‘today, the maison continues to pursue a production philosophy that keeps fixed the objectives of product uniqueness, with a path of constant growth and success of the that seem to follow, almost like a mantra, the indications said from the beginning of its founder Jean Marc Vacheron “do better if possible, and it is always possible.”

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