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The History of Vacheron Constantin

December 19, 2022

The world of watchmaking is rife with amazing stories of various people, inventions and models. Most of the brands you see today have been around for well over a century. While watches aren't relied upon as accurate timekeepers (thanks to microchips), they are still pleasing artefacts. The fact that mechanical watchmakers can now focus solely on their art means they can go mad without worrying if the watch can withstand being shaken to pieces in daily wear.

This has paid dividends for older names with an illustrious past in making fancy watches, and we don't mean Rolex in this instance because, well, they're pretty young in the watch world, and they've been around since 1905. The watchmaker we're about to talk about is older, much older. 

To go back to its beginning, we need to go beyond the 19th century, back to 1755. Vacheron Constantin is the oldest watchmaker that has been running continuously since it started. It's survived wars, pandemics, revolutions and Justin Bieber without faltering. It has inspired numerous other watchmakers in one way or another. Yes, there are older watchmakers, but they come with provisos. Blancpain, for example, has been around since 1735, and Graham Watches claim they've been around since 1695. However, the former disappeared amid the Quartz Crisis along with so many other watchmakers, and the latter is utterly unrelated to its namesake apart from the name on its watches. Only Vacheron Constantin can claim to have been around for so long whilst remaining at least somewhat true to their roots.

This historical name started in 1755 with Jean-Marc Vacheron, who worked tirelessly in Geneva to make high-grade pocket watches. We don't know a tremendous amount of information about the company's watches and activities back then. As you'd expect, record keeping from around this time is patchy at best. 

We know that Jean-Marc Vacheron's watches were of high quality and that the firm was owned by the Vacheron family at least until 1819. We know this because it was in 1819 when Jean-Marc Vacheron's grandson, Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron, met businessman François Constantin and Vacheron became Vacheron et Constantin (the 'et' and the ampersand would remain in the name on some watches until the 1980s).

Various production innovations and additions of sales teams in the American continent would occur, but in 1875 Vacheron et Constantin moved buildings. The original workshop in Geneva is now a boutique and a part of Vacheron Constantin's Heritage Department, it's just around the corner from Patek Philippe's building, too, and a Bucherer dealership. In 1880, Vacheron et Constantin adopted the Maltese Cross as its logo. Supposedly, it's inspired by a component of the barrel of their watches which happens to look like a Maltese Cross. These days, you can see it being used as decoration on the top of the column wheel in their chronograph watches, as well as on their dials.

1901 saw Vacheron et Constantin's watches receive a 'Geneva Seal' mark, which was a new way of ensuring quality and reducing the ability of counterfeiters to produce such convincing copies. Today, the Geneva Seal guarantees a watch is produced in the Geneva area and is made to the highest possible quality; even parts you will likely never see have to be as well finished as those that you can see.

We know that Vacheron et Constantin's watches have been highly regarded since their beginning, having been owned by many royal families and other members of nobility. But, did you know that the American Expeditionary Force ordered some Vacheron et Constantin's pocket watches? Indeed, in 1918, Vacheron et Constantin delivered over 3000 60-second chronograph pocket watches for use in keeping the train system in France running efficiently to deliver supplies wherever they needed to go. It's easy to forget that trains in the early 20th century relied on mechanical timepieces to keep accurate schedules, especially as nowadays they're controlled by much more efficient computer systems.

Vacheron Constantin also expanded its reach into the domestic American market with special watches, such as its curious cushion-shaped watches which had their dials slanted to 45 degrees. These watches are currently in production as the Historiques American 1921 models and are quite a rarity in the watch circles.

By the time the 1950s rolled around, the clientele of watchmakers like Vacheron et Constantin had changed dramatically. Wristwatches were commonplace now, but as most of Europe struggled through the aftermath of the Second World War, the taste in fashion had changed significantly. Wristwatches didn't need to be enormous and luminescent, so they can be worn by fighter pilots, so their dimensions changed. Gentlemen's wristwatches were incredibly small and thin, even by today's standards. 33mm was a common diameter for a gent's dress watch, and Vacheron et Constantin made some of the thinnest watches. Vacheron et Constantin's 1003 calibre became the world's thinnest at just 1.64mm thick in 1955, the 200th anniversary of the manufacturer.

The 1970s saw tastes change again, with Lamborghinis and stainless steel sports watches such as the Royal Oak and the Nautilus becoming highly desirable. Vacheron et Constantin wished to have in on this popularity and hired the same man, Gérald Genta, to design a steel luxury watch. The result, the 222, was the maison's 222nd anniversary present to itself, but it was never as successful as the others. Luckily, Vacheron et Constantin still made luxury gold watches, such as the reference 7336, which has a bracelet that looks to be woven from the stuff. If you’re wondering, the 222 came back as a historical re-edition and is a highly sought-after piece today, although it still has its 1970s looks, which are just as divisive now as they were then.

By the time the hard-nosed nineties rolled around, Vacheron Constantin, as it was now known, was facing the same dilemma that all luxury mechanical watchmakers faced: the ever-growing presence of computers. It was clear that digital timekeeping was to be in the homes of everyone, but under the guidance of its new owner, Compagnie Financière Richemont SA (known as the Richemont Group), Vacheron Constantin unveiled the replacement to the 222. Known as the Overseas, this watch heralded a new age for the brand. The Overseas range is in its third generation now, and while it may still not be as famous as the Nautilus or Royal Oak, it's in a class league all of its own.

In the following years, Vacheron Constantin would continue to excel in the horology world and embrace its position as a maker of haute horlogerie timepieces. On its 250th and 260th anniversaries in 2005 and 2015, Vacheron Constantin would create two of the most complex timepieces ever: the Tour de I'île wristwatch and the Reference 57260 pocket watch, which has 57 complications inside, more than any other.

Perhaps more than any other brand, Vacheron Constantin has demonstrated in recent years why it has lasted so long. It's easy to say that a watch is timeless in design, but it's hard for the person saying it to find something to compare that design to. Vacheron Constantin will likely never have that problem, as it'll be too busy drawing on its illustrious history to ever need to worry about whether its watches are timeless. Given how long they've been around, we'd say it's a given.

We don't always stock Vacheron Constantin watches, but when we do, we choose the best ones that you're sure to love. Why not make an appointment to come on down to our showroom and see our latest watches?

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