Cicero wrote that, “History is the light of truth” – a belief in the wisdom of our forebears that watch brands share, and which Vacheron Constantin has taken to heart. The Manufacture, established in Geneva in 1755, embarked on an exciting, not to say daunting, project to identically recreate its American 1921 using the same tools and techniques as a century ago. This now iconic watch saw daylight at the same time as the Roaring Twenties, and wonderfully illustrates the company’s belief that classics should come with a twist: in this instance, a diagonal display and a relocating of the crown to a corner of the case. The honour of being first to admire this recreation, and compare it with the original, goes to Vacheron Constantin’s fans in the United States: both pieces are taking pride of place in an exhibition to mark the opening, mid-June, of a new flagship on East 57th Street in midtown Manhattan, New York. The brand has been present in the United States since 1831.
Very few watch companies today have the capacity to take on such a project, if only because of the timeframe involved. Think back to the magnificent Naissance d’une montre saga, spearheaded by Philippe Dufour, Robert Greubel and Stephen Forsey who chose Michel Boulanger to build a watch from start to finish using nothing but manual techniques and tools, as a means of preserving these traditional methods. It took Mr Boulanger six years to complete this mammoth undertaking and produce a prototype then ten watches. Like Rome, a hand-crafted watch isn’t built in a day. Fortunately, Vacheron Constantin could count on the support of its Heritage and Restoration departments to underpin a project that Christian Selmoni, Style and Heritage Director, describes as “a human and technical challenge” that gave those involved first-hand experience of long-forgotten techniques.
The Heritage department is Vacheron Constantin’s living memory with responsibility for managing the company’s archives. No other watch firm has amassed a comparable collection of documents in terms of scope or number. The department is also in charge of the Vacheron Constantin private collection which comprises 1,400 vintage timepieces and 800 historic tools and machines that would prove an invaluable resource for the American 1921 project – including an original American 1921 watch from the 24 that were made in 1921. Less well-known to the general public, the Restoration department’s 12 specialists are the “miracle workers” capable of servicing and repairing any Vacheron Constantin timepiece, regardless of when it was made. It is home to a treasure trove of hundreds of thousands of original components that have been patiently classed and stored, decade after decade.
At the same time as the archivists were identifying and categorising the relevant documents, the restorers were busy deconstructing the original watch, including the 115 components in the “Calibre 11 ligne Nouveau” movement which were then modelized. This sent them on a treasure hunt through the department’s inventory, sifting among countless tiny boxes in search of period components (mainly movement blanks) that could potentially be incorporated into the new movement (their patience was rewarded, as only the mainplate and the bridges had to be made from scratch). The next step was to finish and adjust each component on old machine-tools or using hand tools, ready for assembly – a process that brought its own challenges, such as setting the jewels or creating the “côte unique” decoration on the movement by reviving techniques that had fallen into disuse. Machines were adapted and when the appropriate tools were no longer available, they were made. It took the patience of a saint, as well as four of the five component kits put together for the project, to bring this American 1921 to fruition. The movement mainplate and bridges, yellow gold case, Grand Feu enamel dial, buckle and strap were identically recreated. Every other part is an authentic period component.
The entire process, from compiling research to the actual making of the watch, kept Vacheron Constantin’s teams occupied for a full 15 months and, despite the one hundred years that separate the two, the finished piece is virtually indistinguishable from its ancestor. Of course, the biggest beneficiary of this journey through time is watchmaking itself.