Unlike many other industries, when it comes to how old you are, every watch brand wants to stake its wrinkles on being the oldest. While the likes of Blancpain can claim to be the name that’s been around the longest, when it comes to the impressive feat of never having ceased production you can’t beat Vacheron Constantin.
Founded in 1755, by Jean-Marc Vacheron, he had the audacity to call his shop a factory from the very beginning, simply because he had an apprentice working for him.
However, what stood him in even better stead as a watchmaker than his chutzpah was his love of micromechanics; something he passed on to his son, Abraham, and grandson Jacques- Barthélemy – bit of a bonus for the continuation of the family business.
It was Jacques-Barthélemy who became the stalwart of the company, helping it survive the French Revolution, the Napoleonic War and even the annexation of Geneva by France, which happened in 1798 as part of the French Revolution. It survived by diversifying its output to include textiles and cherry brandy; whatever gets you by, one supposes.
It was also Jacques-Barthélemy who, in 1819, brought a salesman called François Constantin on board; a pair of young legs to help expand the business into new markets.
20 years later the watch world was to find itself in crisis (and you thought the Quartz Crisis of the 1970s was the only time it was in trouble).
Machines that were capable of making watch-movement parts in series, which only needed minor manual adjustments to be as good as those made by hand were taking over. Vacheron Constatin employed one of the kickstarters of this revolution, Georges-Auguste Leschot, but, rather than bring him on board to cheapen their product, it resisted the temptation to mass produce and instead used his expertise to reduce the cost of movement by upping the price of everything else that surrounds it via the medium of jewellery watches.
Being based in Geneva, rather than being hidden up in the Jura, meant that Vacheron Constantin had a passing clientele of aesthetically minded, well-heeled people who were willing to spend handsomely on watches that combined technical skill with beautiful aesthetics.
It wasn’t just the glitterati of Geneva that recognised Vacheron Constantin’s prowess. In 1935, it made one of the most complex pocket watches ever for King Farouk of Egypt and in 1972 it became the first watchmaking company to receive the highly coveted hallmark of superlative craftsmanship the Diplôme Prestige de la France.
Vacheron Constantin survived most of the 1970s thanks to its Middle East clients, however, a drop in oil prices wiped it out and the brand was bought by the Saudi Sheik Yamani, a minister in the Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for 25 years.
This led to a rethinking of Vacheron’s portfolio – fancy and exorbitantly expensive designs such as the $5m diamond-encrusted Kallista were out and pared-back, but exquisitely made, designs were in. It is this aesthetic that prioritises superior mechanical prowess over exterior flair that has defined the present-day Vacheron, now owned by luxury conglomerate Richemont.
That’s not to say that it’s all tasteful three-handers, in 2007 Vacheron Constantin kick-started the current resurgence in decorative dials, with its Masks collection launched at that year’s SIHH. The four limited-edition designs featured laser-cut and hand-rendered masks, representing Oceania, China, Mexico and Africa, that were replicas of those found in the Barbier-Muller Museum in Geneva, as well as hidden poems engraved on the dial using a process called vacuum metallisation – a technological process that sprays the gold letters on the sapphire so they can only be read when the light hits them at a certain angle. Since then, in under its Metier d’Arts umbrella, it has experimented with enamelling, engraving and even Japanese Maki-e lacquer.
Through its 10 collections, it covers every watch base from the sporty vibe of the Overseas to the sophisticated simplicity of the Patrimony.
Recently with the FiftySix, Vacheron has made a bid for the younger, but still discerning watch connoisseur; the type of person who eschews a Rolex for being a little too obvious, but is maybe a touch too classic in their tastes for a Roger Dubuis.
The kind of person who likes to know that not even a revolution could stop Vacheron Constantin making watches.
Although Patek Philippe tends to get the trailblazer points, Vacheron Constantin has been equally progressive when it comes to its women’s watches, as this pioneering Harmony Dual Time proves
For ages, the Swiss seemed to be under the impression that women didn’t leave the house and therefore had no need for a dual time, Vacheron dispelled that notion in 2015 with this gorgeous example of the complication. Ideal for either business or pleasure.