The Decay of the Angel

Part II

by Carlos Perez

July 13, 2002

‘The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark — now glittering — now reflecting gloom —

Now lending splendour, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings’

– P. B. Shelley Mont Blanc

The grand watchmaking house of Vacheron Constantin was already 241 years old when it passed from the hands of Sheik Yamani into the Vendôme Luxury Group, then a 70%-owned subsidiary of the Richemont Group. It bore a heritage unbroken, though not unscathed by time, and a tradition yet living, but neither safe nor wholly upheld. Richemont, through Vendôme, was already owner of a number of other prestige brands like Cartier and Piaget, but Vacheron Constantin would undoubtedly be the crown jewel of its collection – easily equal to Cartier in gentlemen’s wristwatches, superior even to Piaget in ultrathins, and a past master of haute horlogerie untouched by either.

However, the Vacheron Constantin inherited by Richemont was the product of nearly thirty years of meager survival, conceptual stagnation, and in certain cases a decline in the craft. This change in ownership was a thing of both hope and fear, and could prove to be either the salvation or destruction of the great name – for it would be unlikely to stagnate under the aggressive vision of its new ultimate owner, Johann Rupert. Change was coming, like a storm on the horizon, and change was needed, for Vacheron Constantin had “fallen into shadow” – its formerly unmistakable aesthetic sensibility obscured, its high-craft watchmaking slowly cheapened by inches. I probably make it sound more dramatic than it was, and it is not my intent to vilify the House. What happened to Vacheron Constantin had occurred for many reasons – reasons which I hope to explore to my best ability, and from imperfect knowledge. It begins of course, with the rise of quartz.

The tale of the quartz revolution has been too often told, but suffice it to say that Jacques Ketterer inherited the leadership of the House of Vacheron & Constantin in 1969, a scant year before the release of the Beta 21 quartz calibre by the Swiss research consortium CEH. He had joined the House under his father in 1955 at the height of the golden age of wristwatches, and would see the House through what might be considered its darkest time. History supposes that dark ages must necessarily follow golden ones, as night does day. From a vantage point thirty-odd years in the future, it seems that the House struggled to maintain the tradition of mechanical watchmaking despite the rapid evaporation of the mechanical wristwatch market as the ’70s wore on.

In the midst of the growing twilight another member of the Great Three created a new genre of wristwatch design that abides to this day. Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak inspired generations of clones, some of which were designed by hired gun Gerald Genta – the designer of the original “jumbo” Royal Oak of 1972. It is not surprising that in that increasingly difficult market that Vacheron Constantin also followed the luxury “sports” watch trend sometime in the late ’70s with the creation of its “me too” Royal Oak, the model 222. One can – and does – question the entire concept of a sports watch from Vacheron Constantin, but if we must accept their presence in this niche then the 222 was, I think, the best that could have been done without trampling upon the spirit and name of the House. For all this, it failed.

In 1974, Vacheron & Constantin officially dropped the ampersand (“&”) from the company name, reflecting a change in the way their watches had been signed since sometime in the late 1950s, and thus has been styled Vacheron Constantin S.A. ever since. Perhaps this reflects permanently the change from the conjoined names of two families working together in partnership, to the brand name of the corporate entity descended from them.

As a premier maker of gentlemen’s wristwatches, the foundation of its line has ever been the simple hand-wind, typically with subsidiary seconds, and it is here where I think the saddest decline occurred. Since the 1930s at least, most Vacheron & Constantin wristwatch calibres were essentially more refined variants of movements used by Jaeger-LeCoultre for its own watches. The gap in quality grew over time, until the raw ebauches supplied to Vacheron & Constantin could be seen to have only a little in common with their Jaeger-LeCoultre counterparts, and with the finished movements being a world apart. Such a case were the calibres 1001 and 1002, which were provided exclusively to Vacheron & Constantin and Audemars Piguet. Other high-grade calibres like the 1003, 1171, and 1120, had no in-house counterparts at Jaeger-LeCoultre, which served only as a supplier of the raw ebauches.

An elegant calibre in five bridges, the sub-seconds 1001 and the center-seconds 1002 had formed the basis of Vacheron & Constantin’s reputation in the 1950s and 60s. They were matched only by the peak 10 and 12 ligne handwinds of Patek Philippe, and I would not hesitate to classify the 1002/2 as one of the very finest indirect center-seconds handwinds ever produced. The contemporary counterparts to these movements used by Jaeger-LeCoultre and LeCoultre were the calibres 818 and 819. Sharing the same basic “footprint” as the 1001, the 818 was a simplified economy design never intended for use in fine watches. It might be most appropriately compared to the present ETA calibre 7001, a solid and reliable extra-flat hand-wind used in inexpensive watches. The elegant curve and sweep of five bridges in the 1001 as largely destroyed by the crude joining of the center and third-wheel bridges in the 818. With the addition of a freesprung Gyromax balance in the 1001/1 and 1002/2, full Genevois finishing, adjustments, and the Geneva hallmark, there could really be no comparison.

Alas it appears that in the late 1970s (or early ’80s) that Vacheron Constantin either elected, or was forced to give up the 1001 and 1002, and take up the inferior 818 which it redubbed calibre 1014. This movement did not feature the option of a freesprung escapement, and it does not appear that Vacheron Constantin would often elect to brand it with the Geneva hallmark, if ever. It was of course finished to the high Genevois standard in all other regards. Calibre 1014 has formed the backbone of Vacheron Constantin’s production of handwound wristwatches (as shown above) for nigh on a quarter-century, a movement which in recent years it has had to share with Chopard, Breguet, and perhaps others, though Jaeger-LeCoultre itself elected to stop using it several years ago. The shift from the 1001 to the 1014 is akin to the technical and aesthetic decline of Patek Philippe’s 23-300 PM to their present 215 PS, if only steeper.

The final insult to the great name wrought in the 1970s was the monstrous jewelry watch, Kallista. Alas, merely the last of an unfortunately long line of monstrous jewelry watches inflicted upon the fairer sex. We will try to forget.

On the whole, Jacques Ketterer must be credited with bringing the house through the darkness of the valley of the shadow of death. Its wristwatch production had been reduced to a few thousand units per year, but it was still alive. When he passed away in 1987 the house was easy pickings for acquisition, and in that year both the 17th century houses of Vacheron Constantin and Breguet would have their first – but not final – experience with foreign ownership. Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, Minister of Petroleum and Mineral Resources for Saudi Arabia from 1962 to 1985 and a founding shareholder of Investcorp, became the new majority shareholder of Vacheron Constantin. Investcorp became the new home of Breguet.

In 1988 Claude-Daniel Proellochs was appointed directeur gnral of Vacheron Constantin. Having served as head of Eterna from 1982, it was his first time at the helm of a prestige brand. The new climate of growth in mechanical watchmaking in the late ’80s presented the house with new opportunity to regain its former stature, to take up its rightful place as a princely house of watchmaking. Patek Philippe would blitz the market in 1989 with the splash of its Calibre ’89 and a host of high complicated limited editions. And through a fictional heritage, Blancpain had successfully marketed itself as the oldest and most traditional, and its small but undeniably fine collection of classical gentlemen’s wristwatches and complications were credited with the being the vanguard which reopened the market for this traditional craft.

Under Proellochs, Vacheron Constantin reorganized its production into four collections: The “Historiques” collection was a group of designs which are either replicas of designs from the pre-quartz golden age of wristwatches, or new adaptations from old pocket watch designs. The “Essentielles” collection featured watches of generally classic design (as shown above), but without specific forebears. The other two collections were devoted to women’s quartz watches – an inescapable economic necessity.

The mechanical basis for these collections remained ebauches from Jaeger-LeCoultre. The inestimable calibre 1120 and its variants provided a vital cornerstone, used extensively in simple time-only pieces and as a basis for complications. The 1003 received less fanfare in what was turning out to be an age of automatic winding. The calibre 1126 based on Jeager-LeCoultre’s calibre 889 was used as the basis for a number of quantieme complications, and while not as high-grade a movement as the discontinued 1071 or the more expensive 1120, it was a serviceably “fine” movement. Tonneau calibre 1017, based on the 822, was used for a handful of form wristwatches.

No longer under sharing close ties with Jaeger-LeCoultre, movement supply apparently became a constant limiting factor in what the house was able to do. A problem which would no doubt be exacerbated by the explosive growth in watches made under Jaeger-LeCoultre’s own brand. As Jean-Claude Biver of Blancpain said at this time, “Any watch company without its own movement company is going to find the next decades very, very tough.”

Into the early 1990s Vacheron Constantin sought expansion relative to its ever-multiplying competition. Once again it attempted entry into the luxury sports watch market, this time with the ill-fated Phideas. The Phideas almost succeeded in being elegant, carrying some of the poise and understatement of a true Vacheron Constantin, yet self-conflicted between the sleekness of an ultramodern bracelet watch and the antiquarian classicism of a round case and guilloche on its face. Its bent signature only exaggerated its heterogeneous queerness and the confusion of its identity and purpose.

The early ’90s also marked an increased usage of ebauches from Frederic Piguet, which provided it the automatic calibre 9.51, the ultrathin handwind calibre 8.10, and limited numbers of the automatic chronograph calibre 11.85. The likely motivation for adopting the 9.51 and 8.10 would have been inadequate supplies of the 1126 and 1003 to meet need of the house’s rapidly growing wristwatch production. The F. Piguet 11.85 on the other hand, was and remains the finest automatic chronograph ebauche available. The 9.51 had been largely phased out by Blancpain in favour of the much more advanced calibre 11.50, leaving it available for adoption by Vacheron Constantin for the Phideas and other simple automatic wristwatches.

Its growing presence in haute horlogerie was largely supported by chronograph and tourbillon ebauches available from Nouvelle Lemania, an Investcorp property under Group Horloger Breguet. An important vestige of the house’s identity, Vacheron Constantin’s 13 ligne minute repeater calibre was a unique item manufactured in-house. Aside from this, I feel its most important contributions to the higher level of the watchmaking craft beginning in this period undoubtedly came through its unparalleled accomplishments in the rare and delicate art of skeletonization. From the relatively simple 1120 SQ to elaborately pierced and chased complications, all bowed before Vacheron Constantin’s accomplishments.

On the whole it was a mixed era in the history of the house. Growth, failure, an unfortunate degree of conceptual stasis, and the struggle with the limits imposed by etablissage in an age that would celebrate only the manufacture. Over the 11 years of his ownership, Shiek Yamani had invested some $30 million dollars in new capital into the house, and sales had increased from 3,500 watches in 1987 to 11,000 in 1996. An amazing turnaround from the slide into obscurity and perhaps extinction, but the house had slipped in other ways relative to its traditional rivals, even soon to find itself being matched by the
up market ascendance its old supplier Jaeger-LeCoultre.

The late 1990s was a time marked in horological history by the growth and clash of large corporate luxury groups, seeking consolidation and ultimate hegemony within the watch industry. The sale of Vacheron Constantin to Vendôme in 1996 would prove to be the first step in the retreat of Middle Eastern wealth from the European luxury watch business. Investcorp divested itself of all of its watch properties by 1999. In Part 3 of The Decay of the Angel we will explore further the results of Vendme’s quest for horological acquisition, and its effects upon the noble house of Vacheron Constantin.


Image credits

Head of a young woman by Leonardo da Vinci

Vacheron & Constantin wristwatches courtesy of Antiquorum Online

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2002

All Rights Reserved