In the middle of the spring auction season, when Geneva got loud from the emotionally fuelled conversations between auctioneers and buying audiences, I looked for a relaxed corner for a quality sales room break. Vacheron Constantin’s Quai de l’Île boutique, which has been turned into a permanent exhibition space recently, offered just what I was hunting for: a super-interesting walkthrough of VC’s travelling timepieces with a partner who lives and breathes with heritage watches, Jérôme Meier Collection & Expertise Manager of the Maison.
Vacheron Constantin has always embedded the cultures and patterns of the different continents in his designs. Just think of the Métiers d’Arts Fabuleux Ornaments collection inspired by Ottoman architecture, Chinese embroidery, Indian manuscripts and French lacework. In its recent history, the company introduced the highly successful Overseas line, praising the beauty of never-ending exploration. To capture the unrepeatable moments of this trip, Vacheron entrusted the great photographer Steve McCurry to let his lenses be the eyes of Vacheron Constantin. On the occasion of the 20th birthday of the Overseas, they showcased the amazing stills he froze forever in a travelling exhibition.
By the time Vacheron Constantin commenced operation in 1755, much of the great land masses had been discovered. Explorations in the 18th and 19th centuries focused on the South Pacific and Alaska, not to mention the inlands of Africa and North America. Explorations and navigation required reliable timekeepers such that can withstand extreme conditions, like intense humidity. And of course, when the use of space is vital, the smaller the timepiece, the better. All these pushed mechanical developments even further.
The “Elegance in Motion” exhibition at Quai de l’Île showcased the technical progress and the evolution of “travelling timepieces” by Vacheron Constantin from the mid-19th century to the late 20th century. At Vacheron Constantin the technical developments have never happened at the expense of aesthetics. The advanced and elegant historic models presented in the windows have paved the road for the Overseas line.
Mr Meier opened with a 1916 marine chronometer, which has stood out with its extreme accuracy. As the “forerunner” of the late watches, the navigating instruments were designed to measure the reference time, for example on long sea voyages.
The development of chronometers was largely fuelled by the naval race among European empires competing for land and resources. Although the latitude had been calculated reasonably accurately by observing the angle of the sun and stars, up until the 1750s the reference was missing the ability to judge the ships’ East-West position on open waters. And although since 1530 this reference was suggested by the Dutch scientist Gemma Frisius to be the time on a known fixed location, which compared to that in the ship’s actual position enables the determination of the exact longitude, no one before the British John Harrison was able to build a chronometer reliable on the sea to measure the reference time. So Harrison’s H4 “Sea Watch” had an extreme importance, although he had to walk through the mill to receive the prize announced by the Board of Longitude for the invention.
For travelling timepieces there are certain attributes to achieve: portability, reliability in cold or hot weather and protection against magnetism, humidity and dust.
In the 19th century carriage clocks were popular – these were small, spring-driven clocks, designed with a carrying handle for travelling. They were originally developed in France in different versions from the simple, functional pieces to the decorative creations with enamel or porcelain panels.
Later the “portable” options included the wallet watches, purse watches or pocket watches. These watches were of course not just a necessity, but a certain status symbol too. Therefore, they often received fine leather cases or were richly decorated with different artistic techniques, such as enamelling, engraving or applying mother-of-pearl inlays. Besides chronometric performance Vacheron Constantin excelled also in these. Fantastic examples from the early 20th century appeared in the windows.
As aviation took off in the first decades of the 20th century, aeroplanes quickly got utilised for exploration, intelligence and also commercial services such as airmail (have you read Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Night Flight? – you should!). The special needs of pilots induced many improvements in watchmaking, which have become critical at the onset of aviation. Vacheron Constantin introduced the imposing aviator’s watch in 1903, which was strapped to a pilot’s thigh. During WWI they made pocket watches for the order of the “US Corps of Engineers” with luminous numerals and large hands to ensure great legibility. (A “US Corps of Engineers” silver and enamel dial chronograph from 1918 was also included at a previous exhibition here.)
Cars appeared simultaneously enabling quick overland travelling. By the ‘30s there were many family, luxury and sports car options, some of them with brutal engines. Instead of new lands, adventurers aimed to explore the new boundaries of speed. Speed records broke almost every year from the late 1920s to the 40s, reaching up to the 600 km/h range by 1939. Automobiles have gained tremendous popularity and driving watches naturally followed.
The distinctively styled Driver watches – like the Reference 4031 – are also from this era. The tightly curved pieces were intended to be worn on the side of the wrist in order to allow the driver to peep at the time without unleashing the steering wheel. Another solution to the same challenge was to turn the watch by 45 degrees, which is what Vacheron Constantin did with the “American 21”. The first such timepiece was made in 1919, with the crown on the left of the lugs. It was specially created for the American market and the original model was intended to be worn on the right wrist. Subsequent pieces (from 1921) and the re-launched versions (in 2008 the brand presented the “Historiques American 21”) have both left and right crown versions.
Not only the movement, the case or the design advanced, but also the materials. The “casual”, “sports” watch truly emerged with the late 19th century boom in steel production. The first steel watches appeared from the brand in 1884, followed by a “hermetically sealed” steel piece from around 1895. New alloys were made, such as the Staybrite – a highly reflective quality steel. Vacheron Constantin had models featuring ratcheted bezels and metal bracelets, such as the “Jubilé” in 1935, or the Reference 4190 in 1941. In 1977 VC celebrated its 222nd anniversary with the model called “222”, which became the forerunner of the aforementioned Overseas collection. (One example from 1981 was sold last November by Phillips at the GWA4.)
The last window presented the Overseas from the first generation issued in 1996, the Overseas II launched in 2004 and the new models from 2016.
Time flies when you are in great company – it’s time to go back to the auction. However, I suggest you check what goes on at Vacheron Constantin’s newly converted exhibition space at Quai de l’Île, when you are in town. You might find rare treasures that talk about not just how watchmaking evolved, but also the age they were born in.
Photo credits: Loupiosity.com.
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