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Father Time: Swiss Watches

With 243 Years of Experience, Swiss Watchmaker Vacheron Constantin Continues to Push the Horology Envelope
Nancy Wolfson
From the Print Edition:
Sylvester Stallone, Mar/Apr 98

Tucked away in a vault at Vacheron Constantin's Geneva headquarters is a $9 million watch. Snug in its safe, it ticks, appreciating in value $4,000 each day. The one-of-a-kind diamond watch, called Kallista (Greek for "the most magnificent"), was designed by the artist Raymond Moretti in 1979 for Vacheron Constantin. Made of 118 flawless emerald-cut diamonds, the 2.2-pound timepiece must be blindingly brilliant to behold, yet it is rarely seen.

The world's most expensive watch is almost never worn, for its owner --rumored to be an Arab sheik--has entrusted it to Vacheron Constantin for safekeeping. Although the company claims the diamond pièce de résistance has changed hands more than once, its owners' identities are as mysterious and carefully guarded as the watch itself. "Things of that magnitude in the watch world have a way of being secretive," says Herman Plotnik, president of Vacheron Constantin.

A native Cuban who is fond of Punch Churchills, Plotnik is very secretive when asked who, besides Itzak Perlman, Larry King and Charlie Sheen, wears a Vacheron Constantin watch. He speaks more openly about past Vacheron owners such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Pius XI, the Duke of Windsor and Harry Truman, not to mention a scroll of Egyptian kings and Arab sheiks.

The Kallista inspired a spin-off series of limited-edition diamond watches called the Kalla collection. Presented in 1981, the collection consisted of about 10 models, with royal-sounding titles like Queen Kalla, Regent Kalla and Earl Kalla. Ironically, the most common of these--as many as 10 were produced--is called the King Kalla. It has 50 carats of diamonds, as compared with the Kallista's 130, and is worth between $2 million and $3 million. The single-edition Lady Kalla was designed for Diana, Princess of Wales, and given to her as a wedding gift from a--secret--Arab sheik. Carved from 18-carat white gold, the watch was made of 108 emerald-cut, perfectly matched diamonds, with 26 more on the dial, adding up to 30 carats of diamonds with 3,172 facets. It cost $500,000, and it is obviously worth a lot more now. When asked whether Prince Charles was given a kindred Kalla on the same day, Herman Plotnik becomes silent.

"It is the goods that speak; the traveler [salesman] has almost to be silent," François Constantin wrote in 1821 to his partner, Jacques Barthélémy Vacheron. Perhaps he was affirming that great products sell themselves, but it may also suggest that even in the early nineteenth century, the watches of Vacheron & Constantin (as it was then known) were anything but quiet.

The oldest watch manufacturer in the world, Vacheron & Constantin was founded in 1755 by Jean-Marc Vacheron, a 24-year-old Geneva cabinotier, or watch craftsman, who dared to venture out and open his own workshop. Vacheron made pocket watches for the likes of the kings of Rome and Naples, but he also peddled cloth and even seven-year-old cherry acqua vita to augment sales.

Vacheron Constantin is a favorite brand among watchmakers, and apparently, always was. In 1816 Jean-Marc's grandson, 29-year-old Jacques Barthélémy Vacheron, traveled to Italy with his wares. The travel-weary Genevese watchmaker arrived at the Italian king's court in Turin, hoping to make a sale. The king's watchmaker was so impressed with the young Vacheron's best piece--a Marie-Louise clock-watch--that he was curious to see what made it tick. He took it apart, and broke it.

Discouraged with traveling, in 1819 Jacques Barthélémy formed a partnership with 31-year-old François Constantin, a Geneva-born traveling salesman who had sold seeds and watches all over Europe. Constantin was so renowned for his remarkable energy, business acumen and refusal to accept failure on any terms, that a eulogy after his death in 1854 at the age of 66 likened him to Christopher Columbus.

From 1819 to 1849, while Constantin was active in the firm, the watchmaker established an international reputation for turning out timepieces of the highest quality--technically, artistically and commercially. Constantin was a driving force, espousing the motto, "Do better if possible, which always is possible."

One of the best possible moves Vacheron and Constantin made was in 1839, when they contracted Georges-Auguste Leschot, a local watchmaker's son, to develop and construct machine tools exclusively for Vacheron & Constantin. Leschot became the company's Thomas Edison.

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