Vacheron Constantin (Est. 1755- ) Originally known as Vacheron & Constantin, in 1970 the ampersand (“&”) was dropped from the name and the company became known as Vacheron Constantin. There remains some debate about the company’s actual founding date, however, in 2015, the company officially celebrated its 260th year of continuous operation without that claim being called into question.
However, there is no debate that Jean-Marc Vacheron, an independent. Geneva, Switzerland watchmaker, was the founder. This makes VC – with its uninterrupted history – one of the oldest watch manufacturers in the world.
It is also one of the great names in Swiss watchmaking and, along with Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet these companies comprise the revered Trinity of 20th century Swiss watch brands. VC’s customer list is practically a “World Who’s Who” of the last two and a half centuries. Past owners of Vacheron Constantin watches include Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Pius XI, the Duke of Windsor, and Harry Truman to name just a few.
Vacheron Constantin’s history dates to 1755 when the 24 year old Jean-Marc Vacheron (1731 – ????) joined the ranks of Geneva’s Cabinotier. Young Jean-Marc quickly established his reputation for producing timepieces of the highest grade. Vacheron’s reputation extended to the Royal Courts of Europe, where his creations impressed Court Timekeepers and Royal Watchmakers.
Besides being a young businessman, Vacheron was also a talented craftsman. In 1770 his company created its first complication and nine years later designed the first engine-turned dials.
In 1785, Jean-Marc’s son, Abraham, took over the business and kept it in operation even during the tumultuous years of the French Revolution (1789–1799). In 1810, Jacques-Barthélemy Vacheron, the founder’s grandson became the head of the company. He was the first to initiate the company’s exports to France and Italy.
Jacques-Barthélemy soon realized he could not operate his business alone. In order for him to travel plus sell the company’s products, he needed a partner. In 1819 François Constantin became an associate of Vacheron. The company then continued its activity under the name Vacheron & Constantin.
François Constantin traveled the world and sold VC’s watches helping the company open new markets. The primary market was North America.
In 1839 Vacheron and Constantin hired Georges-Auguste Leschot to supervise manufacturing operations. An inventor, Leschot became one of the genius pioneers of mechanized and serialized production. His inventions had a formidable impact on the watchmaking industry. He was the first person to standardize watch movements into Calibers.
Before Leschot’s work at VC, almost every watch part was rough cut, formed, and finished by hand. The lack of fine precision made it necessary to custom create 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 one-of-a-kind.
In “The Once And Future King,” watch historian, Thomas M. writes, “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. 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. They did, however, still require hand finishing to be usable on an interchangeable basis.
“The production and cost efficiencies realized were such that Vacheron and Constantin quickly became a major supplier of components and ebauche to other watchmakers. … Vacheron and Constantin’s survival and growth during those glory years cannot be over-emphasized. … 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.”
Leschot created other mechanical and machining breakthroughs including a process for drilling with a bit tipped with a crown of black diamonds.
In 1844, he received a gold medal from The Arts Society of Geneva for a device that could mechanically engrave small watch parts and dials. With the use of this instrument, certain watch components were repeatedly copied by machine and no longer hand-made as before. This propelled VC to the forefront of the industrial age as well as into the top echelon of watchmakers.
After Constantin’s death (1854) and Vacheron’s in 1863, the company was headed by a series of heirs including, at one point, by two women.
Over its long history, VC received awards, citations, and recognition for many innovations and breakthroughs in manufacturing and design. These include an 1872 first prize in a contest for timepiece precision.
In 1880, the company’s “Maltese Cross” logo first appeared. The motif comes from the shape of a component of the movement fixed to the barrel. Its use means that the number of wheels can be kept low.
The first Vacheron Constantin boutique opened in 1906 and remains in the same location today: the Quai de l’Ile, in Geneva.
In 1935, VC created one of the most complex pocket-watches ever sold. This masterpiece, commissioned by King Farouk of Egypt, took five years to make.
Two hundred years after its establishment, VC marked the start of its third century with its master watchmakers designing and building one of the thinnest watches ever made containing a calibre only 1.64 mm deep.
Between 1972 and 2006, notable creations include a 1972 wristwatch with an extremely daring design that won the coveted “Diplôme du Prestige de la France” for aesthetic accomplishment.
In 1979, VC made Kallista, one of the most expensive wristwatches ever offered. Its initial price was $5 million and is now valued at about $11 million. Kallista has 118 emerald-cut diamonds and took about 6,000 hours for watch masters to make and about 20 months for jewelers to enrich the watch.
Another important creation was the 1994 watch that saluted Gerhard Kremer (1512-1594) more familiarly known as Mercator, a highly regarded mathematician and geographer who invented the first navigational maps. VC saluted the 400th anniversary of Mercator’s death with a very limited production of a pair of watch designs. Their hand-enameled dials feature Mercator’s own maps of the hemispheres as well as a pair of compass-like watch hands invented and built specially for these timepieces.
In 1996, VC introduced “Overseas,” a highly successful sports line. The year 2003 saw the launch of ‘Egérie’, Vacheron Constantin’s first collection for women.
In 2005, to celebrate its two hundred fifty year uninterrupted history, VC created the Tour de l’Ile watch which was the most complicated double-faced wristwatch in the world. Boasting a unique combination of 16 complications and astronomical dials, its calibre of 834 components took VC’s designers, engineers, constructors and watchmakers more than 10,000 hours of research and development to create. It bears the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva and seven of these timepieces were produced.
In 2006, to celebrate 100 years of its first boutique, VC introduces the Saint Gervais that features a permanent calendar, a tourbillon, and more than 10 days of power reserve in the same timepiece. It, too, bears the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva and fifty-five of these timepieces were produced.
The onset of World War II was, to say the least, a difficult time for all Europeans including Swiss watch manufacturers. In 1940, George Ketterer, took a majority shares position in VC. Ketterer was Managing Director at the holding company for Le Coultre, Jaeger-Le Coultre, and a majority shareholder of VC. He was also a Manager at VC and from then on, a Ketterer was in charge at VC until George’s son Jacques, passed away in 1987.
After Jacques died, Vacheron Constantin changed hands. Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, former Oil Minister of Saudi Arabia and an avid watch collector, became majority shareholder and folded VC into his personal portfolio of holdings. In 1996, the company was bought by Richemont Group which also owned Vendome.
Vacheron Constantin is widely considered the Crown Jewel in Vendome’s holdings. Eventually, Richemont completely merged Vendome into the parent holding company to consolidate the management structure.
Not only masters of precision watchmaking, VC is also a specialist in engraving and enameling creating some of the most exquisite and startling watch cases available.
In “The Once and Future King,” Thomas M writes, “Rare is the company that can stay at the top of its chosen industry for even one generation of management [let alone] across centuries and generations.
“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. 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 that category with their, Overseas line.
“Some traditionalists and purists have bemoaned the acquisition of the brand by Vendome Group [however] Vacheron Constantin continues to be a Swiss manufacturer of prestige watches. It employs around 400 people worldwide, most of whom are based in the manufacturing plants in Geneva and Vallée de Joux.”
One of the great ironies of VC’s long history is the seeming contradiction that the world of watchmaking is worshipped for hand craftsmanship that is often better served by mechanized production.
As Thomas M. concludes, “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 … 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…”Sell Vacheron Constantin Watches