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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 2)

Another oft-repeated feature is a concealed dial. Dials were covered with coins or monogrammed pieces that popped up at the push of a button. In 1930, Vacheron introduced a men's wristwatch with an intricate system of yellow-gold shutters covering the face that could be opened and closed with a small slide piece. The louvered swivel shutter protected the watch crystal from breakage and scratches. In 1997, Vacheron Constantin reissued the Shutter watch, renaming it Jalousie and pricing it at $28,900. The company produced 125 Jalousies; at the time of publication, only 25 were still available.

"[The Jalousie] is miniaturization taken to the highest level," says Bertram Kalisher, curator of exhibitions at the American Clock and Watch Museum in Bristol, Connecticut, and author of the self-published The Art of the Watch (Kalbé Press, Hewlett, New York, 1996, 200 pages, $50). Concealed dials were just one of many novel variations and whimsical plays on the standard wristwatch design. It was Vacheron's way of pushing the envelope to the max. With royals for customers, it had to push, for competition was, and is, stiff among top watchmakers such as Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Blancpain and Rolex.

In a constant game of one-upmanship with its competitors, Vacheron Constantin has always sought to solve the most challenging technical problems of the time. Beginning around 1930, there was a race to turn out the thinnest wristwatch possible. In 1955, Vacheron celebrated its bicentennial by issuing the world's slimmest mechanical movement at 1.64 millimeters (.06 of an inch). Introduced in 1996, the Skeleton Minute Repeater, which chimes the hours, quarters and minutes at the press of a button, is 3.28 millimeters (.13 of an inch) thick, the thinnest of its kind made today. Kalisher notes, "The vanity of companies like Vacheron Constantin is the challenge of trying to do the impossible. And they often accomplish it."

"We can make anything tick," says Herman Plotnik. Indeed they have. They have made timepieces that double as match safes, music boxes, snuffboxes, cuff links, rings, pendants, brooches, bracelets, chatelaines, opera glasses and thermometers.

In 1938 a competitor, Jaeger-LeCoutre, acquired a controlling interest in Vacheron Constantin. Each firm retained independent operations. From 1948 on, the sales manager of Vacheron Constantin, Georges Ketterer, gradually purchased a controlling interest.

When Ketterer died in 1969, his son, Jacques, took over management of the company until his death in 1987. That year, Vacheron Constantin was bought by Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, who had served for 24 years as oil minister for Saudi Arabia, the world's largest oil producer. A watch lover who also teaches law at Harvard and funds the Centre for Global Energy Studies in London, Yamani sold the company in 1996 to the Vendôme Luxury Group, a 70-percent South African-owned giant with 11 luxury brands, including Cartier, Baume & Mercier, Piaget and Dunhill. During Yamani's ownership, Vacheron's production increased from 3,614 watches in 1987 to 11,091 in 1996. The pieces range in price from $6,900 to $9 million, and seem to sell faster than the company can make them.

However, the $9 million Kallista is not for sale. And its top-secret owner? It just may be Sheik Yamani.

Nancy Wolfson is a New York-based writer.


Antiquorum Fifth Avenue
609 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10017
Phone (212) 750-1103; fax (212) 750-6127

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