Vacheron Constantin. A name that needs no introduction. 261 years of history – a history so illustrious and impressive that for me, personally, every January is almost a shock.
Why so? Because I fail to understand how a watchmaking house with over a quarter of a century of uninterrupted activity manages to maintain its amazing creativity and come with more and more beautiful and technical novelties at every SIHH.
Most brands have their own winding road, it’s virtually impossible to be at the pinnacle of innovation throughout your existence as a company. Vacheron Constantin is, however, a notable exception, managing to combine the extraordinary beauty of the watches with an absolutely impressive execution.
One thing that I really admire about this brand is that they choose and assume the full-length use of the human talent – during my visit at the Vacheron Constantin manufacture in Plan les Ouates, which I’m about to recount, I saw very few computers – most operations are carried out by human hand, in all its beauty and uniqueness.
The visit was an exception, in that it was guided not by a member of the PR department, but by the leader of a watchmakers’ department, perfectly familiar with both the place and the brand, and who gave us an extremely sincere and interesting tour, without metaphoric embroidery, but full of the newest information. If I had to summarize this few-hour tour in two words, they would be: craftsmanship and minutious checking.
All the decorations – and, believe me, there are plenty of them, even though most are invisible, as they decorate the inner parts of the movement – are made by hand. Whether we talk about engraving or polishing the movement or about works of art such as the case of a future model that I am not allowed to talk about, but which has left me bouche bée – everything, absolutely everything, without exception, is made by hand.
In the decoration workshop, a lady of a certain age handles the technique known as perlage: piece by piece, movement by movement – 627 “pearls” for each movement. Everything is done manually. As I am told, there are no machines here, only human artistry. Also here they do the service for old timepieces – Vacheron Constantin „fixes” the brand’s pieces, regardless of their age, some of them even requiring the use of really old tools, contemporaneous with the respective watches.
The manufacture is a huge building, with large, generous windows, which let light come into the workshops and the souls of the watchmakers, most of them young people devoting their passion to a centuries-old trade.
Most areas are called ZAC, zones à atmosphere contrôlée – controlled atmosphere areas. Strict procedures are implemented here, to avoid dust and humidity, which may cause serious damage to a watchmaking mechanism.
Vacheron Constantin implements very long and thorough inspections, checking absolutely everything, from tightness to power reserve, chronometry, the position of the hands, the chimes of the minute repeater, the chronograph and perpetual calendar functions, the tourbillon’s operation etc. Many weeks pass until the final inspection, and if the experts detect even a minor irregularity, the watch is sent back to the department responsible with the respective error and then the long series of inspections starts again. To get an idea – one second’s lag is enough to reject the piece. Very few watches go through this cycle, perhaps precisely because all these drastic procedures lead to perfection.
The watchmakers in the Chrono & Tourbillon workshop can assemble any model, from A to Z, being able to handle any aspect in the anatomy of these components.
In Atelier fondamentaux, the watchmakers deal with the most popular movements, the most frequently used in the Vacheron Constantin production. Here, people have the ability to work on several pieces at once, also from the first step to completion.
The only department where computers play a critical part is the réglage (fine adjustment), department, where the precision of the machines helps control the precision of the watches. Also, for the alarm watches, each sound is recorded on a computer, thus receiving its own sound file, so that the owner can enjoy the same sonic signature at any time throughout the piece’s lifespan. In the complications workshop, there is a small grey machine that helps perform a simulation of four years of standard operation of the watch in 90 minutes. After that, since we are talking about Vacheron Constantin, a master watchmaker performs a manual check of the timepiece.
The Grandes Complications workshop is the most fascinating in my opinion, together with the one dedicated to Métiers d’Art. Together they are an important part of the “soul” and personality of Vacheron Constantin, a brand that values both engineering (not many brands have this ability to create true equations of time, perpetual calendars or rattrapante chronographs) and beauty (Vacheron makes the most beautiful engraved pieces I have ever seen, and their haute joaillerie models, paved with hundreds of diamonds, are simply breathtaking). Last but not least, besides the three engravers who work in the Métiers d’Art workshop, and the gentleman with 41 years’ experience of working with precious stones, the enamel artists are, in turn, very well represented. Translucent or opaque enamel, enamelling techniques dating from the Middle Ages, miniature painting… Every time I come to this workshop, I feel that Art, in the true sense of the word – the very art that elevates the soul and brings tears of joy to our eyes, and which I can contemplate for hours on end without getting bored – still exists, even in this age of speed and disconnection from our human nature.
After this visit, I could understand better, if I needed it, why Vacheron Constantin is at the top of the watchmaking elite – because nothing, absolutely nothing can equal inspiration, talent and yes – literally – human genius. Machines do have their importance and make our lives easier in some cases. But the real luxury, the real masterpiece will always bear the signature of the human hand. And Vacheron Constantin does just that.