Father Time: Swiss Watches

With 243 Years of Experience, Swiss Watchmaker Vacheron Constantin Continues to Push the Horology Envelope
| By Nancy Wolfson | From 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.

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."

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 http://www.antiquorum.com

The definitive book on Vacheron Constantin: The World of Vacheron Constantin Genève, by Carole Lambelet and Lorette Coen, $225, Editions Scriptar SA/Vacheron Constantin, Genève, 1992. Contact: Vacheron Constantin, 20 West 55th Street, New York, NY 10019. Another source is Watches Volume 3: A Comprehensive Buyer's Guide, by World Watch Publishing and Ben Flammang, $24.95. But don't look here for Vacheron prices; the company wouldn't reveal them. To order, call (800) 928-2494 or (212) 339-9743, or go to http://www.whichwatch.com

National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors
514 Poplar Street, Columbia, PA 17512
Phone (717) 684-8261; fax (717) 684-0878; http://www.nawcc.org

Check out http://www.horology.com, an index listing about 3,000 Web sites concerned with horology, and the Watches of Switzerland Web site at http://www.w-o-s.com.

Time Will Tell Unlimited Inc.
962 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021
Phone (212) 861-2663; fax (212) 288-4069
e-mail: twttime\@AOL.com; Web site http://www.timewilltell.com

Tourneau Mega-Store and Museum
12 E. 57th Street, New York, NY 10022 Phone (800) 348-3332
Other Tourneau stores are located in Palm Beach and Costa Mesa, California; Bal Harbour, Florida; and Houston.