ESSE, Featured, Haute Horlogerie, The Holy Trinity

The Fascinating Story of Vacheron Constantin

This article is part of ‘The Holy Trinity’ series where I explore the stories behind the three most significant Swiss watchmakers.

The story of Vacheron Constantin is one of innovation, resilience and pure determination. Discover how the Vacheron Constantin ethos was preserved and revered.

The Beginning

On September 17, 1755, a humble watchmaking workshop is inaugurated by a 24-year old seasoned watchmaker named Jean-Marc Vacheron in Geneva, Switzerland. The young man is already known among the French elite at the time (the likes of Rosseau & Voltaire) and he hires an apprentice by the name of Jean Francois Heiter.

The employment contract between Vacheron and Jean Francis is the birth document of Vacheron Constantin, establishing it as the oldest, continually operating watchmaker in existence. It marks the start of an uninterrupted history of 265 years. Astounding numbers would later become a Vacheron characteristic.

1755 also witnesses the conception of the earliest pocket watch designed by Jean-Marc Vacheron. The silver watch signed: J. M: Vacheron A GENEVE on the movement is the only known watch today featuring the first name of the company’s founder.

Abraham Vacheron, the son of Jean-Marc Vacheron takes over the company in 1785. He leads the Maison (watch workshop) through the turmoil of the French revolution and succeeds in creating the first known Lépine style watch. Following the footsteps of his father, Abraham teaches the trade to his son Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron.

Rise to the Zenith

– Laying the Groundwork

Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron takes over management in 1810. His ambitious and bold approach lays the foundation for Vacheron Constantin to grow into a truly world-class watchmaker.

Five major developments take place during Jacques’ reign.

  1. The workshop begins incorporating more complicated movements in its timepieces, cementing the technical expertise of the Maison.
  2. A partnership is formed with François Constantin, a successful businessman who would be responsible for the overseas expansion of the Maison. The partnership gives birth to ‘Vacheron et (French: and) Constantin’.
  3. The brand motto, “Do better if possible, and that is always possible” is inscribed by Francois in a letter he writes to Jacques on July 5, 1819 during his travels.
  4. The Maison is brought to the notice of Europe’s high society by Abraham Constantin, brother of François Constantin. He’s a famous painter of the time (read: The Romantic Period) who leverages his influence and talent to publicise the Maison.
  5. The invention of the Pantograph by Georges-Auguste Leschot, who’s hired in 1839 as Technical Director. The Pantograph revolutionises the entire Swiss watchmaking industry by enabling the production of movements that possess interchangeable parts.

In 1844, Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron relinquishes reign to his son, Charles-César Vacheron. The energetic and ambitious young leader accelerates research and development in manufacture and expands the Maison to markets such as China, India, Spain and Cuba. Borders are after all, meant to be crossed.

Jean-François Constantin, nephew of François Constantin and co-owner, unexpectedly leaves the company in 1867. With his departure, the Maison’s name is changed to ‘César Vacheron & Co.’ After César’s son Charles takes over the company in 1869, he changes the name to ‘Charles Vacheron & Cie.’ Unfortunately, he succumbs to a fatal illness the following year.

– Forging the Ethos

Charles César Vacheron’s widow Laure Vacheron-Pernessin takes over the business after her son’s death. Her mother-in-law, 88-year-old Cathérine-Etiennette Vacheron stands by her. This is a sensational event in the history of the Swiss watchmaking industry, which isn’t very supportive of women participating in business, especially in the revered art of watchmaking.

The female duo execute a series of intelligent initiatives, which act as the foundation for the further evolution of the Maison into the 20th century.

  1. The name of the company is changed to ‘Vve. César Vacheron & Cie.’.
  2. The ladies enroll the Maison into the precision competitions at Geneva Observatory, setting the stage for important awards to be won.
  3. A headhunt for an experienced manager is undertaken, which culminates with the appointing of Philippe-Auguste Weiss as director in 1875.
  4. Jean-François Constantin is brought back after extended negotiations. He is authorized to serve as the sole signatory for legally binding contracts and agreements.

Vacheron also revolutionises the pocket chronometer around this time. Vacheron & Constantin is awarded revered distinctions for the same in the first chronometry competitions at the renowned Geneva Observatory, the first of many to come.

The Maison would go on to set new records across multiple centuries, ensued by extreme competence and impeccable craftsmanship.

Jean-François Constantin is promoted to partner in 1877 and the company name is registered as “Vacheron & Constantin, Fabricants, Geneve.”

In 1880, Vacheron Constantin registers the Maltese Cross as its official logo. The cross was first observed in the 16th century, where it was featured on the currency and equipment used by the Knights of Malta. In modern times, the symbol would go on to exist as a popular artistic component in prestigious royal orders of merit in Sweden, Portugal and the Netherlands, further strengthening Vacheron’s association with European aristocracy. 

The Maison is transformed into a joint-stock company with the name ‘Vacheron & Constantin, Ancienne Fabrique SA.’ in 1887, after the death of the lady leadership. The words “Ancienne Fabrique” are eliminated in 1896.

A New Era

The release of the first wristwatches by Vacheron & Constantin is received with much praise in 1888. This leads to doubling of the share capital to 600,000 Swiss Francs in 1911. Charles Constantin, the great grandnephew of François Constantin joins the Maison in 1914 post his studies at the École d’Horlogerie de Genève and remains there until his retirement.

During the early years of the 20th century, Vacheron Constantin’s popularity sees immense growth and the Maison receives orders from royalty all across the world. This leads Vacheron to inaugurate its first boutique on the 1st of August 1906 in the ground floor of the island building in Rhone. The first ever Vacheron Constantin boutique provides a setting appropriate to both the standard of the exemplary watches and its elite clientele.

Vacheron revolutionises the pocket watch once again in 1907 with the ‘Royal Chronometer’, A high precision pocket watch that is optimised for daily use. It’s an international hit, with praises and laurels pouring in from world over for its robustness, accuracy and resistance to harsh climates where watches can’t function optimally.

The political atmosphere from 1914 hinders the growth of the Maison, creating huge challenges in terms of labour and financial resources. Charles Constantin, alongside a lot of the Maison’s expert labour is conscripted and sent to the northern border as World War 1 breaks out. Upon his return, he writes the Vacheron Constantin memoirs in 1928.

Vacheron delivers perhaps the most complicated timepiece of the 20th century, ‘The Farouk’ to Prince Farouk of Egypt in 1935. The timepiece features a host of bespoke elements and unique movements. The integration of 820 distinct parts into 14 movements takes five years.

Charles Constantin takes over as director in 1936 and works towards recovering from the setbacks caused by World War 1. The devaluation of the Swiss Franc in 1936 opens a window for revival. Vacheron & Constantin makes the decisive choice to represent Jaeger-LeCoultre in Italy.

During these negotiations, the financial challenges faced by the company are openly discussed. Negotiations end in September 1938 with the Maison becoming a member of the S.A.P.I.C. Group (Société Anonyme de Produits Industriels et Commerciaux) a holding of which the other members were Jaeger-LeCoultre’s sales organization in Lausanne and the Jaeger-LeCoultre movement factory in Le Sentier. Vacheron & Constantin operate in full autonomy.

Vacheron begins manufacturing the Ref. 4072: chronograph in 1938, a wristwatch that would go on to become an iconic collector’s item. It remains in production for more than 30 years, up until the early 1970s. The 4072 design is simple yet iconic, familiar to every watch enthusiast. A total of 1,178 pieces are made. Many watchmakers would take inspiration from the 4072, even 265 years later, incorporating various aspects of it into their own models.

Vacheron’s S.A.P.I.C membership leads to a series of collaborations with Jaeger-LeCoultre, with LeCoultre opting to shift its sales team and repairs centre to Geneva. Jaeger-LeCoultre also makes ébauches (sketches) for Vacheron & Constantin, which are then assembled on the shores of the Rhône. In 1948, George Ketterer becomes president of Vacheron & Constantin, and 1965 onwards, he is the major shareholder.

1955 sees the manifestation of two more Vacheron Constantin icons: ‘Cornes de Vache’, the only anti-magnetic water resistance chronograph of the era produced by Vacheron and the famous Vacheron Constantin ‘Ultra-Thin Wristwatch’.

The iconic Cornes de Vache has a limited production run of just 36 pieces, making these mid-century models one of the rarest and most desirable Vacherons. The 1.64 mm ultra-thin watch featuring a calibre 1003 movement confirms Vacheron Contantin’s commitment towards creating only the most elegant watches.

George Ketterer dies in 1969 and his son, Jacques Ketterer, succeeds as the head of Vacheron & Constantin. In 1970, the company officially changes its name to Vacheron Constantin.

Setting Expectations

Coming into the modern era, Vacheron Contanstin releases the 222 in 1977 as an answer to the Royal Oak and Nautilus. The steel sports watch marks the first divergence from Vacheron’s contemporary design language. The modern design elements and unique characteristics of the 222 go on to inspire the brand’s best-selling line-up till date, the Overseas Collection.

Despite immense popularity, production numbers are kept low, with just 500 made in steel, 120 in two-tone gold & steel and 100 in solid gold. 222s remain highly sought after by Vacheron loyalists.

The late 20th century is another period of great transformation for Vicheron Constantin, catalysed by the Quartz Crisis. The search for a strong financial partner to survive through ends at Sheikh Yamani, Saudi Arabia’s former oil minister, who takes over 85% of Vacheron Constantin in 1987. Yamani however, wasn’t allowed to own the Tour de l’Ile in Geneva.

A bright future for Vacheron Constantin is inscribed in 1996 with the acquisition of the Vacheron Constantin House by the Vendôme Group (now Richemont International SA), led by the South African Rupert family.

In what is considered as a brand defining move, Vacheron undertakes a consolidation in 1998 by merging two of its workshops in the Vallée de Joux. Together, the Haut de Gamme Sàrl and Cellule Technique facilities become known as ‘Ateliers Vacheron Constantin.’

And on August 9, 2004, Vacheron Constantin brings its entire operation under one roof at the new International Headquarters in Plan-Les-Ouates, Switzerland. The contemporary building, designed by famous architect Bernard Tschumi incorporates Vacheron’s management, administration and workshops under the same roof.

In 2005, Vacheron Constantin launches a series of five complicated clocks and watches to celebrate a quarter millennium of fine watchmaking. A truly special event even for the Swiss watchmaking industry. Each watch is produced in miniscule numbers. One of them, the ‘Tour de l’Île’ is the result of more than 10000 hours of R&D and is the most complicated wristwatch serially produced, until Vacheron Constantin outdo themselves in 2020.

Vacheron Constantin launches its ‘Les Collectionneurs’ program in 2012 wherein a dedicated wing is setup to procure rare and important timepieces that shaped the history of Vacheron (mostly 1910-1970). These timepieces are fully restored and put up for sale at thematic events around the planet. Each piece that passes through this program comes with a certificate of authenticity issued by Vacheron Constantin and a two-year warranty.

Epilogue

Today, Vacheron Constantin is among the three elite Swiss watchmakers in the world, alongside Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet. They operate under Compagnie Financière Richemont SA, who own other luxury goods Maisons such as Cartier, Montblanc, Jaeger-LeCoultre, A. Lange & Söhne etc.

All things considered, Vacheron Constantin is perhaps the only watchmaker who can look back upon 250 years of uninterrupted operation decorated by superlative achievements. Vacheron’s contribution to haute horology is understated and the brand itself is underrated.

The fact that the brand held a quarter millennium anniversary is quite fascinating by itself. When you take into the account the amalgamation of character, heritage and expertise, it’s quite unbelievable. Vacheron Constantin have always succeeded in doing distinct justice to their name. And loyalists hope they continue to do so, for centuries to come.

Featured Image shot by Haoming Wang
Follow him on Instagram @h.m.uhren