VACHERON ET CONSTANTIN HISTORY

 

To understand the glory that is Vacheron & Constantin, knowledge of their history and past achievements is necessary. Since their earliest days, the Vacheron name has been synonymous with fine watchmaking. The name has been well regarded by the cognoscenti and the industry insiders, always spoken with a degree of reverence and respect.

Set amidst the backdrop of the European Age of Enlightenment, Revolution, and the chaos of social and political upheaval, Vacheron & Constantin's story parallels that of the history of the modern Western World. It is an interesting and worthy history indeed.

Vacheron and Constantin's origins can be honestly traced back to 1755, when the 24 year old Jean-Marc Vacheron joined the ranks of the Cabinotier of Geneva. Cultured, well read, and a respected member of the intelligentsia of the time, young Jean-Marc quickly established a reputation for producing timepieces of the highest grade. Vacheron's reputation extended to the Royal Courts of Europe, where their creations impressed even the Court Timekeeper and Royal Watchmakers.

One of the great seeming contradictions of Haute Horlogerie is the worship of hand craftsmanship, the mystique of the human touch, in an endeavour that is often better served by mechanized production. In an ironic way, this same paradox partially accounts for the renaissance of the mechanical watch in the last two decades of the 20th century. In an age of virtual reality and digital paradigms, the sensual image of human hands polishing and adjusting a complicated movement, hearing the soft tic-tic-tic of the escapement, precise and reliable beyond all other complex mechanical systems, is somehow soothing and lends some degree of comfort to humans that are, after all, inherently part of the analog, physical world.

Georges-Auguste Leschot was one of the genius pioneers of the mechanization of serialized production, along with predecessor F. Japy in France (early 1800's), and contemporaries P.F. Ingold, Americans A.L. Dennison, the Pitkin brothers, E. Howard, and Custer. It is interesting to note that Ingold's attempts to mechanize production in the watchmaking industry were met with strong resistance in both France and England. Ingold himself was Swiss, and studied with Breguet in Paris, before attempting, unsuccessfully, to start machine assisted production lines in his own company.

Prior to Leschot's work at Vacheron, virtually all parts were rough cut, formed, and finished by hand. This lack of fine precision essentially forced the custom creation of every single piece, even if the design was fundamentally unchanged. There was no interchangeability of parts, even for the same model. Essentially, every finished piece was a one-off. This was a problem of production and execution, not of design.

Efforts had already started, a few decades before, to create machines that could produce, reliably and consistently, precision parts that could then be used in serial production. G-A. Leschot's breakthroughs were in designing machines that could produce parts that were of sufficient quality and precision that they were interchangeable in the same caliber. The production and cost efficiencies realized were such that Vacheron and Constantin quickly became a major supplier of components and ebauche to other watchmakers. They also remained a dominant manufacture due to the resulting cost efficiencies. That Leschot played a critical role in Vacheron and Constantin's survival and growth during those glory years cannot be over-emphasized. It can be reasonably argued that Leschot's machines was a key factor in the success of the Swiss bar movement design. No less a landmark work than Karl Marx' Das Kapital makes reference to Vacheron and Constantin for successfully introducing machine work into the watchmaking process. Suffice it to say that Leschot and Vacheron played pivotal roles in the industrialization of watchmaking, hitherto a cottage industry, and blazed the path for future watchmaking titans Omega and Longines.

During the latter part of the 19th century, Vacheron and Constantin underwent a number of name and individual ownership changes, but always with a Vacheron and a Constantin at the helm.

Vacheron & Constantin was a frequent participant in time trials and competitions, usually garnering top of class awards and prizes in these competitions. There is even the story of a consecutive series of 9 watches submitted to Kew Observatories in England, all of which won top honors. These awards and prizes further reinforced the image of VC as best in the world.

Vacheron Constantin Chronology

The preferred gift at the highest levels...

Since the company's earliest days, royalty and heads of state were avid customers, and even in their native Switzerland, Vacheron and Constantin were the preferred brand for important official gifts.

A few years after the end of World War II, in 1955, when Allied leaders met at the Palace of Nations in Geneva for peace talks, Nikolai Bulganin (Soviet Union), Anthony Eden (Great Britain), Dwight D. Eisenhower (USA), Edgar Faure (France) were each presented with a Vacheron & Constantin as a commemorative gift from 20 Genevans, inscribed with, "May this watch always show happy hours - for you yourself, your people, and the peace of this world."

A model from Vacheron & Constantin was chosen as the official State gift by the Federal Swiss government in 1953 to be presented to Queen Elizabeth II upon her coronation.

King Chulalongkorn of Thailand was a patron of the House, ordering several pieces to add to his collection in the early 1900's.

The connection to Thailand continues to this day, resulting in a particularly embarrassing incident that is symptomatic of the recent dark cloud plaguing the noble House. It seems that an early Mercator, a very unique design that was to symbolize the re-awakening of Vacheron & Constantin as a global watch industry leader, was presented to King Bhumibol of Thailand. The piece had to be returned - it did not work.

Iconic designs - interesting, signature and important pieces from Vacheron & Constantin

As of 1997, Vacheron-Constantin's offerings were organized along 5 main "collections"

Overseas - Sport Line

Les Historiques - re-editions and re-releases of historical models from VC own history

Les Joailleries/Absolues - high jewelry line

Les Essentielles - basic line, Classic

Les Complications - high horology line

Back to the Future

Rare is the company that can stay at the top of its chosen industry for even one generation of management. Even rarer is the brand that can remain the ne plus ultra, becoming the very essence of the best that this world can offer, across centuries and generations.

From being the greatest watchmaking company in the world, to becoming the "Greatest watch of my grandfather's generation," spoken with veneration, but in the past tense, Vacheron has now almost come full circle. Company management took their eyes off the market, and almost disappeared into obscurity. Lost for awhile, floating without direction or focus, many had written them off, seeing them relevant only for reasons of nostalgia.

There were the styling and positioning missteps as well. It was fairly argued that Vacheron was the only major house that did not have a distinctive icon line, like the Royal Oak from Audemars or the Nautilus and Golden Ellipse from Patek. When Audemars Piguet found such success and created the whole new category of luxury sports watch in stainless steel, Patek Philippe quickly countered with the Nautilus. Vacheron fumbled around for two decades, misfiring with the 222, and then the Phidias. Only now, over 20 years later, is Vacheron even somewhat competitive in the category, with their Overseas line.

And then, there is the apocryphal story of the malfunctioning Mercator to King Bhumibol.

These points hopefully are remnants of the disarray in the dark days of transition from Investcorp to Vendome.

Some traditionalists and purists have bemoaned the acquisition of the brand by Vendome Group, seeing it's absorption into a large luxury brands conglomerate as a homogenizing thing. They fear the profit priority will sterilize innovation and destroy any remaining unique brand distinction.

This concern may be misplaced, as the consolidation of the Swiss Watch Industry may be an unavoidable trend. If losing its independence was an inevitability, then at least it is in the company of other world class brands.

With the acquisition by Vendome Luxury Group, whose brand jewels include Cartier, Baume & Mercier, Piaget, Panerai, Dunhill, and, in 2000, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre and A. Lange, Vacheron & Constantin now has the leadership and financial backing to survive and fight the good fight. The management of Vendome are experienced professional managers in the Luxury Goods Marketing, with a solid track record of success.

Vacheron & Constantin is widely considered to be the Crown Jewel in Vendome's holdings. That Compagnie Financière Richemont AG decided to completely merge Vendome into the parent holding company and consolidate the management structure clearly indicates Richemont's commitment to the Luxury Brands group. Certainly, the developments that have taken place so far are promising - consolidation of the distribution channels, and the re-acquisition of international representation rights from independent agencies, with the intended end of improving sales and after-sales service and making consistent market positioning world wide. That Vacheron Constantin had the ability and commitment to recently purchase an independent movement house for captive design and production work says volumes about the intended ascendency of the Grand House.

In the case of Vacheron & Constantin, I am confident that the correct ownership is in place to provide the proper stewardship and hands on management to lead them back to their rightful place, at the very pinnacle of the high grade watch brand hierarchy.

Second time round © 2017