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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

(continued from page 1)

One of the greatest watchmaking problems of the time was to devise mechanical procedures to make all the internal watch parts interchangeable; Leschot solved it. Within two years he developed a hand-operated machine-tool facility that enabled quick, cheap and consistent production of all watch components. Thanks to the machines Leschot designed, Vacheron & Constantin became the first company to produce standardized interchangeable watch parts. This gave the company a huge technical assist that boosted its competitive edge for decades.

Leschot's work over the next 40-odd years, until his death in 1884, included improvements to the free-lever escapement, invention of the diamond bit and invention of pantographic drills and cutters for watches. These advancements enabled the production of standardized movement parts, which was instrumental in the industrialization of watchmaking.

But why, one might ask, would a company such as Vacheron, which had built its reputation on unique customized watches and commitment to excellence at any price, be interested in mass-producing watch pieces? Because standardization brought the craft one step closer to perfection. And perfect timing is the ultimate horological challenge.

The key to the success of Vacheron & Constantin then and now was its dedication to both the science and the art of time. Osvaldo Patrizzi, chairman of Antiquorum, the Geneva-based auctioneers that specialize in horology, characterizes the Vacheron Constantin style as "the taste of the French combined with the technology of the Swiss."

Patrizzi praises the creative spirit of Jacques Barthélémy Vacheron and François Constantin. "These men, besides being ingenious mechanics, clever businessmen and refined vendors, had artistic minds and eclectic culture," he wrote in the catalog accompanying Antiquorum's 1994 sale that was devoted exclusively to Vacheron Constantin's timepieces.

When the last member of the founding Vacheron family died in 1887, the firm became a joint stock company. By 1911, the company's capital had doubled, and it had won numerous prizes for excellence.

Patrizzi credits Vacheron Constantin with creating what might be the first wristwatch made in the modern concept and spirit of wristwatches: an 1889 18-carat gold-and-diamond lady's gold bangle. It sold in Antiquorum's 1994 auction for $19,531. (Actually, Josephine Bonaparte "invented" the wristwatch in 1809, when she asked that a pocket watch be attached to a bracelet so she could wear it on her arm.)

"A great watch is beautifully made and also pleasing to look at," says Jonathan Snellenburg, a New York antiques dealer who specializes in watches. "You're going to look at your watch 25 to 30 times a day, so, however wonderful the mechanism is, if it's not beautifully done, then don't buy it. Most collectors look at the case and the dial, not the movement."

Buying a well-known brand name is a virtual guarantee of good quality. Along with Rolex's five-pronged crown, the Vacheron Maltese cross, registered in 1880, is one of the most recognizable emblems found on watch faces.

Other distinctive design features of Vacheron Constantin wristwatches in the first half of the twentieth century, which Patrizzi calls the company's "golden years," are the use of pink gold and platinum, separately or in combination; dials in the shape known as tonneau (a rectangle that bulges in the middle); and a wide variety of unusual lugs, or pushpins, such as teardrop, triangular, pyramidal, rounded, ribbon, hooded, pillar and shell shaped. Patrizzi says, "Vacheron Constantin's wristwatch designs of the 1920s and '30s were as innovative at the time as Cartier's jewelry."

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