Vacheron Constantin Watch History: Over 250 Years Of Exquisite Watchmaking Artistry

Vacheron Constantin Watch History: Over 250 Years Of Exquisite Watchmaking Artistry 2018-06-12T23:45:22+00:00

Vacheron Constantin Luxury WatchesVacheron Constantin is one of the best-known Swiss luxury watchmakers in the world.

It has the impressive distinction of being the oldest continuously-operating watchmaking firm, with roots tracing back to the mid-16th century.

The brand is particularly famed for breathtaking timepieces created with a wide variety of exquisite ornamental detailing techniques.

These include enameling, engraving, guilloché (intricate machined metalwork) and gem-setting.

Such techniques are essential elements of Geneva’s uniquely artisanal watchmaking heritage. Vacheron Constantin commonly incorporates them into movements as well as exterior watch components.

Lush-yet-elegant style is a Vacheron Constantin hallmark, and the company has long been a fashion trailblazer in the industry.

For example, it was among the first to venture away from traditional round watch cases. Its introduction of varied shapes, such as tonneau (barrel-shaped), square, and angled freeform cases, spearheaded many popular trends over the years.

Vacheron Constantin’s Early History

The company that would eventually become Vacheron Constantin was first established in Geneva, Switzerland by Jean-Marc Vacheron in 1755.

Geneva’s Watchmaking Tradition

During the 16th century, Geneva was building up its sterling reputation as a major watchmaking hub of Europe. The area was exceptionally rich in crafting talent and know-how, and one main reason for this was political.

After French theologian and pastor, John Calvin, settled in Geneva in 1541, the city became a haven for his followers and other Protestants. Consequently, Protestants fleeing from religious persecution learned that they could seek refuge in the Geneva area. In time, the city’s influence grew to the point were it was widely considered the “Protestant Rome.”

So, Protestant French, English, German, and Italian immigrants, as well as citizens from other parts of Switzerland, flocked to Geneva.  Many were skilled craftsmen who deeply enriched Geneva’s local culture and traditions.

One extraordinary establishment in Geneva culture was the “fabrique genevoise” – the Geneva watchmaking industry. Expertly-crafted watches were produced in individual workshops throughout the city, each lead by a Maître (“Master.”)

Vacheron Constantin Birthplace Saint Gervais Genva Switzerland

Sketch of Saint-Gervais in the 1700s; images courtesy of Vacheron Constantin

Many watchmakers and jewelers worked in the Saint-Gervais neighborhood of Geneva. Watch factories were generally located on the top floors of houses to provide optimal natural lighting for intricate watchmaking tasks.

The bright, sky-high rooms reserved for watch specialists were nicknamed “cabinets,” so craftsmen working in watchmaking were known as “cabinotiers.”

Those seeking a career in the industry generally either aimed to become etablissuers or Master Watchmakers (“maîtres horloger”).

Etablissuers purchased parts from workshops, assembled them into finished watches, and marketed them to the public. Master Watchmakers were specialists, devoting their lives to perfecting the craft of one or a few watch components.

Vacheron Family Workshop

Jean Marc Vacheron Founder Of Vacheron Constantin

Jean-Marc Vacheron

By his early twenties, Jean-Marc Vacheron was already an accomplished Master Watchmaker.

So, in 1755, at only 24 years old, Vacheron founded his own independent workshop.

Soon after, he took on his first apprentice, Esaïe Jean François Hetier.

Indeed, the apprenticeship contract between Vacheron and Hetier, signed September 17, 1755, is considered the company’s official “birth certificate.”

Like many pioneering watch companies, the Vacheron workshop started out producing mostly clocks and pocket watches.

Vacheron Constantin 1755 Silver Pocket Watch

Early Vacheron pocket watch

The earliest known timepiece created by Vacheron was a stylish silver pocket watch from 1755 signed with his name.

The workshop became well-known for developing pocket watches of exceptional beauty, from their dust-covers down to their very movements.

In 1785, Vacheron gave leadership of the workshop to his son Abraham.

Abraham was talented in business and diplomacy as well as watchmaking. He deftly kept the workshop afloat despite considerable difficulties during the French Revolution.

Abraham also made sure to share his knowledge and expertise with his own son, Jacques-Barthélemy Vacheron, keeping the family watchmaking tradition strong.

By the late 1700s, Vacheron workshops were developing many keen innovations, including some of the first timekeeping complications.  In watchmaking, a complication is any additional function apart from the display of hours and minutes. You can learn more about various watch complications from our comprehensive Watch Parts Guide.

Vacheron Constantin Vintage Day Date Movement

Shown above is a wall clock movement built in 1790, signed “Vacheron à Genève” that features a day-date complication. Note the gorgeous ornamental “arabesque”  engravings, evidence that sophisticated detailing was typical in Vacheron movements even back then.

Venturing Beyond Swiss Borders

By 1810, Jacques-Barthélemy Vacheron assumed leadership of the family business. Under him, the company continued to explore new complications and other historic innovations.

For example, Vacheron workshops started offering watches that played music – even featuring two different melodies to choose from!

Jacques-Barthélemy also coordinated the very first imports from the Vacheron workshops. He supplied Vacheron watches and clocks to buyers in France and Italy.

Some of these buyers were incredibly influential, which helped boost the Vacheron name abroad. One particularly powerful Vacheron customer was Prince Charles-Albert of Carignano. Charles-Albert later became King of Sardinia, and his son, Victor Emmanuel II, was the first king of a united Italy.

Vacheron Constantin Name & Motto

Vacheron Constantin Company Head Francois Constantin

François Constantin

In 1819, Jacques-Barthélemy Vacheron decided that sharing leadership with a trusted partner would greatly benefit his family business.

He chose François Constantin, a shrewd businessman who also harbored a deep passion and appreciation for fine watches.

The company was then known as “Vacheron & Constantin” and later simply as “Vacheron Constantin.”

Thanks to Constantin’s knack for finding lucrative new markets, the brand’s sphere of influence steadily grew.

He worked tirelessly, continuously travelling for over three decades to locate new clients and marketing opportunities for Vacheron & Constantin.

Both Constantin’s and Vacheron’s diligent efforts to expand their brand’s customer base soon paid off handsomely. By the 1830s, Vacheron & Constantin was opening sales offices in the U.S., Brazil, and Cuba.

Just like Jacques-Barthélemy and his venerable Vacheron ancestors, Constantin deeply believed in striving for perfection and constant improvement. This high-principled philosophy was immediately apparent from an early business letter Constantin sent to Jacques-Barthélemy, dated July 5, 1819.

One particular sentiment from this letter perfectly captured the company’s spirit: “Do better if possible and that is always possible.” In fact, this would later become Vacheron Constantin’s official company motto.

Technical Breakthroughs Via Leschot’s Pantograph

Vacheron Constantin had long been known for unbeatable style and decorative artistry. However, through the 1800s, the brand was gaining recognition for the considerable technical merits of its watches as well.

In 1839, Vacheron Constantin hired engineer Georges-Auguste Leschot to help improve its production methods. Leschot developed groundbreaking instruments that revolutionized watchmaking, not just for Vacheron Constantin, but for the Swiss industry as a whole.

One of Leschot’s best-known inventions was the pantograph, a machine that enables watchmakers to precisely reproduce watch part designs.

Vacheron Constantin Leschot Invention Pantograph

Most importantly, the pantograph allowed for the standardization of base plates and other essential movement components. It was the first step to developing reliable methods of producing interchangeable watch parts, a true watershed moment in watchmaking.

Indeed, the pantograph was declared the invention of “most value to the Genevese industry” in 1844. It earned Leschot and Vacheron Constantin the prestigious De La Rive Prize for that year.

Precision Contests & VC’s Maltese Cross Logo

The popularity of observatory precision competitions in the 1800s drove watchmakers to achieve increasingly-higher levels of timekeeping precision and reliability.

Innovations from Leschot and other talented engineers made Vacheron Constantin well-equipped to excel in this highly-competitive pursuit.

Vacheron Constantin Precision Vintage Pocket Watch

An award-winning vintage Vacheron Constantin pocket watch

Starting in 1872, the company began winning coveted chronometry awards from the Geneva Observatory, proving its impressive technical brilliance.

In fact, Vacheron Constantin chose its famous Maltese cross logo, registered in 1880, to symbolize its everlasting “quest for precision.”

The Maltese cross symbol is an ancient insignia, used most prominently on coats of arms for various knightly orders.

Vacheron Constantin Maltese Cross Origin
However,  the brand logo was actually based on a vintage watch part. Shown above at left, it’s a a rate-stabilizing movement component bearing a similar shape.

Noteworthy Company Distinctions

Through the 20th century and beyond, Vacheron Constantin continued to impress watch connoisseurs worldwide with technical expertise and cutting-edge style.

The company also branched out with its product lines and developed new specialties, such as ultra-thin calibres and watches.

Vacheron Constantin Watchmaker At Dunhill NY

Vacheron Constantin watchmaker at an Alfred Dunhill boutique

In 2015, Vacheron Constantin celebrated its 260th anniversary. Today, under the enormously successful Swiss-based luxury goods conglomerate Richemont, it continues to dominate the global high-end watch market.

How does the firm manage to hold its solid standing among other fiercely-competitive premier watch brands? Let’s look at some of Vacheron Constantin’s most enduring distinctions and achievements.

Trend-Setting Case Shapes

Vacheron Constantin prides itself on being among the first watch manufacturers to break away from the tradition of round cases:

Tonneau

The first non-round watch Vacheron Constantin debuted was a 1912 model with a tonneau (barrel-shaped) case, shown at left below.

Vacheron Constantin Tonneau Shaped Watches

Since then, tonneau cases became a celebrated element of the brand’s signature style, housing many of its most sophisticated complications.

Rounded Squares

Vacheron Constantin 1921 Vintage Angle WatchVacheron Constantin has developed some very handsome square watches in its history, particularly for its elegant ultra-thin watch lines.

However, the firm has also further pushed fashion boundaries by introducing square cases with softly-curved sides.

In 1921, Vacheron Constantin introduced a rounded square watch specifically for the American market, shown at left.

In addition to its unusual case shape, it was uniquely designed to be easily read even with a quick glance.

That is, the watch’s entire face was rotated 45 degrees clockwise on the dial, with the crown in the corner.

This avant-garde design fit in perfectly with the thrill-seeking spirit of the “Roaring Twenties” and the Americans readily embraced it.

Vacheron Constantin’s rounded square triple date moonphase watch, below at left, was also wildly popular after its 1952 debut.

Vacheron Constantin Vintage Rounded Square Watches

As always, the brand took its unique styling a step further with the 1954 Aronde wristwatch, shown at right. The double curves on each side were designed to echo delicate bird wings (aronde means “swallow” in Old French.)

Asymmetrical Shapes

The idea of an asymmetrical watch case may seem to clash with Vacheron Constantin’s signature elegance. However, the brand manages to make asymmetric shapes seem chic and tasteful rather than bizarrely chaotic.

Vacheron Constantin 1972 Prestige Asymmetrical Watch
The above watch is a contemporary re-release of a 1972 classic. The unusual shape, balancing out the watch’s clean-cut minimalist design, was ideal for stylish trendsetters of the 1970s.

Holding The Hallmark of Geneva

The Hallmark of Geneva or Poinçon de Genève (“Geneva Seal”) is a highly-respected watch and movement certification. Only genuine Geneva-made watches of superior quality are granted the right to bear the Seal.

Vacheron Constantin earned its first Hallmark of Geneva label for a top-quality movement released in 1901. Many of the firm’s watch collections released since have also received this considerable honor.

Hallmark Of Geneva Watch Label

The Hallmark was created to protect consumers as well as the livelihood of Genevese watchmakers.

By the 19th century, Geneva’s reputation for top-tier watchmaking was reaching legendary proportions.

As a result, counterfeiting of Geneva-made watches became a serious problem.

To combat this, Geneva officials established the Hallmark in 1886. Geneva’s premier watchmaking school, the École d’Horlogerie, was originally entrusted to inspect watches seeking the label.

To be considered for the Hallmark of Geneva, candidates must pass three strict criteria:

  1. Provenance.  The company must be registered in the Canton of Geneva. It must perform the assembly, adjustment, and casing of the proposed movements/modules, and an inspection of the finished watch.
  2. Technical Excellence. The movement, modules, and exterior portions of the watch must obtain approval from the Hallmark of Geneva’s technical committee. After approval, Hallmark of Geneva auditors will perform routine inspections to ensure continued adherence to technical requirements.
  3. Final Durability & Functioning.  Cased watches must meet the committee’s standards for water resistance, rate, functions, and power reserve.

Qualified watches are permitted to use the official Geneva Seal on their casings and/or movements. Furthermore, they hold this honor as long as they continue to pass subsequent inspections.

Sophisticated Artisanal Techniques

Advanced decorative elements are a major defining characteristic of Vacheron Constantin timepieces.  Indeed, traditional Genevese ornamenetal techniques are a specialty the brand has excelled in from its very beginnings.

Earlier, we saw an example of the brand’s exquisite arabesque movement engravings.  Here are a few more types of decorative techniques Vacheron Constantin is renowned for:

Enameling

Enameling is a decorative glass-working technique where glass is fused via firing to metal, stone, ceramics, or other heat-resistant materials. Enameled watches often exhibit vibrant, breathtaking colors and unique visual textures.

The enameler introduces color either by using colored glass or by adding pigments to the glass prior to firing. After the glass melts and flows, it cools into a hard, smooth coating over the substrate.

Vacheron Constantin produces many fine pieces via Grand Feu (“great fire”) enameling, a technique deeply rooted in Genevese tradition. Here, images are produced through careful applications of color and repeated firings rather than direct painting.

However, the brand also has a long history of expertise in other enameling methods. For example, among Vacheron Constantin’s first famous timepieces was its “Map of Italy” pocket watch with a champlevé enamel cover.

Vacheron Constantin Italy Map Champlevé Enamel Watch

Left: Champlevé enamel process; Right: “Map of Italy” pocket watch cover

Champlevé enamel is created by carving patterns into metal, filling / painting them with enamel mixture, and firing. Vacheron Constantin’s unmistakable artistry is clearly seen in the extremely intricate “Map of Italy” watch.

Subsequently, Vacheron Constantin won the Grand Prix at the 1906 Milan International Exhibition for a stunning cloisonné pocket watch.

Vacheron Constantin Vintage Cloisonné Enamel Watch

In cloisonné, the enameler shapes fine strips of metal to make “cloisons” (“compartments” in French) for the enamel mixture. This type of enameling can be used to create delicate inlays, as seen in the beautiful thistle pattern above.

Guilloché.

Guilloché is a type of machine-aided metal engraving that creates exceptionally fine, symmetric patterning.

Vacheron Constantin Guilloché Engraving Process

It’s performed with the help of a vintage machine called a rose engine, a special type of lathe that’s shown above at left. At right is a gorgeous finished guilloché flower motif from Vacheron Constantin.

Gem-Setting

Gem-setting is a painstaking art, requiring vast experience and skill in:

  • Choosing top-quality stones of appropriate hardness and shape
  • Employing the proper gem-setting method for complete, even coverage of a surface
  • Arranging stones to maximize their beauty and light-reflective properties
  • Using a wide array of tools to perform the setting without damaging the gems

Many early Vacheron Constantin pocket watches and wristwatches were designed to function as dazzling fine jewelry as well as timepieces. To fit in with the opulent fashion trends of high society, the brand daringly ornamented its watches with priceless gems.

In 1979, Vacheron Constantin created a truly extravagant masterpiece, the Kallista (Greek for “most beautiful”), shown below at left. The Kallista’s base was carved from a single one-kilo piece of solid gold and set with 118 emerald-cut diamonds.

Vacheron Constantin Kallista And Kallania Jewelry Watches

Left: 1979 Kallista; Top right: Gem-setting process; Bottom right: 2009 Kallania

The company’s artisans worked well over 600 hours to create this masterpiece. However, before work had even started, it took five years just to find all the right diamonds for the job!

And yet, in 2009, Vacheron Constantin topped itself again by creating the Kallania, which showcases a record-breaking 186 diamonds.

Jaw-Dropping Bespoke Watches

Many early breakthrough pieces from Vacheron Constantin were commissioned by royalty or other influential figures, such as:

  • An engraved bracelet watch with a miniature baguette movement for the Maharaja of Patiala (1916)
  • An elaborate chiming pocket watch for pioneering auto manufacturer James Ward Packard (1918)
  • A 14-complication jeweled pocket watch for King Farouk of Egypt (1946)
Vacheron Constantin Vintage Special Order Watches

Maharaja of Patiala (left) and King Farouk of Egypt (right) with their commissioned VC watches

Today, Vacheron Constantin still proudly upholds the Genevese tradition of offering customers the singular experience of ordering entirely custom-made watches.

Through its “Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order” department, the company allows clients to collaborate closely with master watchmakers for individual commissions.  Customers are invited to share their stories, passions, and dreams as they describe their ideal watch. Nothing is considered too ambitious, outrageous, or grandiose a desire in a Vacheron Constantin special order.

These commission projects are typically kept strictly confidential, respecting client privacy for orders that are often quite personal in nature.

However, some Vacheron Constantin customers, taking immense pride in their one-of-a-kind purchase, have elected to make their finished commissions public.

Vacheron Constantin Atelier Cabinotiers Special Order Vladimir

For example, the contemporary custom-built watch above, dubbed “Vladimir” by its owner, is a truly a horological tour de force.  Miraculously, the double-sided watch houses 17 complications, rendering it one of the most complex timepieces in the world.

In addition to its astounding technical brilliance, every element of the watch was also designed with aesthetics in mind. In fact, all 891 components of its movement were finished and decorated by hand.

Over 20 watch experts and craftsmen collaborated to develop this legendary masterpiece, a testament to Vacheron Constantin’s virtually-limitless watchmaking finesse.

Standout Vacheron Constantin Watch Collections

Vacheron Constantin’s centuries-old watchmaking expertise translates seamlessly into the modern day. To observe how, we can look to five of the brand’s most in-demand watch lines:

Historiques

The Historiques collection commemorates landmark vintage Vacheron Constantin models. Its daring selection of redesigns include improved features yet carefully preserve the essence of the classic pieces.

Earlier, we saw the updated Historiques version of the 1972 asymmetrical watch. Below is another popular Historiques offering—the Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955.

Vacheron Constantin Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955

This elegant dress watch is a modern take on a 1950s-era manual-wound chronograph. In addition to looking fetching on the wrist, in true Vacheron Constantin fashion, the watch is also beautiful on the inside. The open case back clearly showcases the immaculately-finished column-wheel chronograph movement.

Vacheron Constantin Historiques Triple Calendrier 1942

Above is another much-loved Historiques model, the 1942 Triple Calendrier. This triple calendar watch references Vacheron Constantin’s 1940s-era wristwatches. Its complications include day and month windows,  a seconds subdial, and a third hand to indicate the date on the outer ring. Other notable features include a stepped bezel as well as stepped case edges and an attractive visible movement.

Overseas

First introduced in 1996, the Overseas is Vacheron Constantin’s durable-yet-sleek sports / travelling watch. It has stood the test of time, remaining one of the company’s most popular watch families today.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Luxury Sports Watches

Over the years, the Overseas has been steadily updated with the latest must-have features for sportsmen and travelers, such as water resistance and anti-magnetic protection. Style-wise, Overseas models can be identified by the distinctive fluted bezel, a tasteful reference to the brand’s Maltese cross logo.

As seen above, the Overseas line offers various color / material choices as well as gem-studded bezels and other decorative elements.

Traditionnelle

The Traditionnelle collection was designed to honor Vacheron’s Constantin’s heritage of Genevan haute horlogerie. Appropriately, Traditionnelle watches offer a wide selection of elaborate complications, from perpetual calendars to minute repeaters to specialty tourbillons.

The stylistic features also vary quite widely in this collection, with everything from high jewelry opulence to sleek classic minimalism. However, the featured complications are always allowed to take center stage in Traditionnelle designs.

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle World Time Watch

Shown above is an immensely popular model, the Traditionnelle World Time, first released in 2011. The perfect watch for sophisticated globe trotters, its artfully-arranged dial can read time from all 37 full and partial time zones! The globe at the center of the dial also visually indicates zones of day and night.

Harmony

Vacheron Constantin Harmony Dual Time WatchThe Harmony collection, introduced in 2015, is relatively new, but it’s already a favorite among Vacheron Constantin fans.

The collection was launched in celebration of the company’s 260th anniversary and pays tribute to its early chronograph wristwatches.

Harmony models please the eye with the brand’s classic “cushion” case and offer a number of useful complications.

Shown at right is the Harmony Dual Time in posh 18-carat pink gold with brown alligator straps. This model allows wearers to keep track of two time zones with a handy subdial and day/night indicator.

Métiers d’Art

The Métiers d’Art collection is a grand showcase for Vacheron Constantin’s legendary decorative artists. Each and every model is, without question, a wearable work of fine art. Many individual pieces are crafted using two or more of the sophisticated ornamental techniques we touched on earlier.

Métiers d’Art has many sub-collections within it, all of them stunningly novel and exquisitely beautiful. One of the first sub-collections released was the 2007 Métiers d’Art Les Masques line.

Vacheron Constantin Métiers dArt Les Masques Watches

Les Masques took inspiration from the awe-inspiring tribal masks housed in the Barbier-Mueller Museum. The collection, developed over three years, contained 25 models showcasing 12 different breathtaking miniature sculpted dial-centered masks.

One of the newer Métiers d’Art projects is Elégance Sartoriale, a superbly stylish sub-collection designed specifically for men in 2016. It celebrates the subtle artistry of the well-dressed man with a series of dials decorated with classic fabric patterns.

Vacheron Constantin Métiers dArt Elégance Sartoriale Watches

Métiers d’Art Elégance Sartoriale windowpane (left), Prince of Wales (center) and tennis stripes (right)

The unique textures of the fabrics are adeptly recreated with guilloché and colored with lush Grand Feu enameling. Even the sub-dials are decorated with intricate Paisley, floral, or geometric engravings inspired by tie and pocket square patterns.

For More Info On Vacheron Constantin

Did you enjoy our guide to Vacheron Constantin’s company history, defining characteristics, and famous watch families?

If so, you can read more about the brand’s historical timeline, landmark events, and artistic crafting methods on the official website.

As always feel free to comment below, and / or review the rest of our watch pages.

Vacheron Constantin Watches
Reviewed by Paul Anthony, on .
"A rich heritage of fine horology. Celebrated for its breathtaking timepieces, Vacheron Constantin are renowned for their exquisite ornamental detailing techniques and mechanical mastery."
Rating: 5.0 ★★★★★

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