The Decay of the Angel

Part I

by Carlos Perez

July 13, 2002


‘And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

– P. B. Shelley Ozymandias

In the roughly five hundred year history of watchmaking there have been many great names, many notable horologers, many families which passed the skills of this fine art from father to son. But for the greatest innovators and inventors, most are forgotten to us. Their visions, their traditions, remembered only in those precious artifacts from the
golden age of watchmaking which have been passed down to us over the centuries. Yet there are a few names, depending upon whom you argue with, still young in the ages of horology, which have descended to us from the anciene regime of the 18th century. Arguably the greatest of these is the House of Vacheron & Constantin, whose lineage extends unbroken to the Genevan cabinotier Jean-Marc Vacheron (1731-1805). While his younger contemporary Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) was undoubtedly the greater horologer and celebrity, the watchmaking House of Breguet which survived him never rivaled the house that the Vacherons built.

In this ostensibly traditional art of mechanical watchmaking, we instinctively feel that heritage, an ancient heritage (that trails off into a vast aeon before the rise of quartz), is one of the things that authenticates an inherently anachronistic product. When a watch bears the name of and old (and probably extinct) watchmaking family, we expect that this watch represents the watchmaking values and aesthetic sensibilities of their long tradition – their soul if you will. For those of a senior generation, and for those of us who have inherited their memory and sentiment, there yet remains the lingering phantom of the horological kingship of Vacheron & Constantin. But for most who partake in today’s feast of mechanical revivalism Vacheron Constantin is little thought of, and thought little of.

How could it be that with such value placed upon heritage, that the house which bears the strongest claim to the tradition of watchmaking is so little regarded relative to youthful upstarts like the much celebrated 19th century houses of Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Sohne? We must ask, “Where have they gone astray?” For it is surely it could be no accident for it to slip into obscurity. What, we wonder, after nearly 250 years gives any wristwatch the right to bear the marque “Vacheron Constantin,” the right to be branded with the Maltese Cross? In quest of answers and understanding we must trek back over those centuries in which that identity developed. We must return to the
old city-state of Geneva. We must seek the house of Vacheron.

It was a time when watches were still a rare product made for aristocrats and gentlemen. In watchmaking it was a time of transition and experimentation, the twilight of the ancient pair-cased verge and the breaking dawn of the neoclassical waistcoat pocket watch. It was here that Jean-Marc Vacheron began his work as an independent watchmaker, a cabinotier working alone or with a single assistant in a small workshop in Geneva. The “1755” now quoted as the birth date of the house of Vacheron is an approximate one, based on the earliest extant evidence for Jean-Marc’s watchmaking business. Beyond the mere fact of its existence, little is known.

Through the political turmoil of France in revolution and war to be found at every turn, the Vacherons held the small cabinet shop together, passing the business down from father to son: From Jean-Marc to Abraham, from Abraham to Jaques-Barthelemy. As was the custom, the name of the family business altered with each successive generation, from J.M. Vacheron to Vacheron Girod, to Vacheron-Chossat & Cie, which brings us to the next era of the company’s development. In 1819, five years after Geneva joined the Swiss Federation, the Vacheron family business found a new partner in Francois Constantin (1788-1854), bringing “Vacheron & Constantin” proper into being.

Though the house owed much to Francois Constantin for his tireless world travel to promote and sell the company’s fine watches, it was the hiring of Georges-Auguste Leschot in 1839 which thrust the small family concern into national greatness and a position of horological leadership. Contracted specifically to develop machine tooling for the precision serial manufacture of ebauches, Leschot would spend the rest of his life as an important part of Vacheron & Constantin. Before joining the house, Leschot had already spent years working on the development not only of a more practical lever escapement, but one that would be amenable to being manufactured by machines. Through his position as technical director of Vacheron & Constantin, he effectively turned the company into Switzerland’s first modern industrial watch manufacture beginning in 1842. By 1845 Vacheron Constantin was not only producing its own calibres, but supplying other manufacturers with ebauches and escapements.

Through this time of continual technical achievement the manufacture remained a family business, passed down again to the succeeding generations of Vacherons and Constantins. In the late 1860s the name of the company was changed three times with changes in family leadership, due sadly to the subsequent passing of the last members of the Vacheron family. With the death of the last Vacheron in 1887 the manufacture was incorporated, its name fixed by legal charter as “Vacheron & Constantin.” Three years later the company registered the “Maltese Cross” symbol which would in time become their trademark, based in concept upon Maltese cross

The 132-year legacy left by the Vacherons of Geneva was not inconsiderable. In the era of handmade watches they had produced fine watches of the highest grade under its varied family names. First serving the doomed nobility of France, the house is even documented to have produced finished watches for A.L. Breguet (1813) of Paris. Their house style encompassed the continual change in mode and sensibility, from classic enamel dials to the brief vogue for gold dials and back again, the timeless beauty of silvered guilloche dials in the Breguet fashion (shown above), painted enamel casework, and much more.

Francois Constantin’s exhortation, “Do better if possible, which is always possible,” rings down to us to today. A simple but fundamental philosophy which had great ramification in the continued evolution of the house. Through its vision and faith in Leschot, Vacheron & Constantin initiated the industrial revolution in Swiss watchmaking, a revolution which would push the watchmaking of France and England into extinction and lead ultimately to Swiss horological hegemony worldwide. If not for this, the Swiss cottage industry could itself have fallen before the rising industrial might of America.

After 132 years of growth and maturing technical prowess, it was only natural that the great house which they built survived them, carrying on their vision and passion, continuing to excel as an industry leader in the development and production of pocket watches. However, the age of pocket watches was coming to an end, and while Vacheron & Constantin greatest works of the early 20th century remained in this elder form, it quickly adapted – introducing its own wristwatches as early as 1911. While an increased production of grand complications and more frequent participation in chronometer competitions were an inherent part of Vacheron & Constantin’s continued rise to international prominence, it never lost its core identity as a manufacturer of gentlemen’s watches, once for the pocket and now for the wrist.

In 1938 Vacheron Constantin became a part of the Jaeger-LeCoultre family under the aegis of the SAPIC holding company, and Georges Ketterer joined its board of directors. Ketterer would become much more by 1940 wherein he purchased a majority stake in Vacheron & Constantin from Charles Constantin, who had been the last Constantin to head the house (1936), bringing the 119-year legacy of the Constantins to a close. Despite the difficult economics of the Great Depression, the wristwatches produced by Vacheron & Constantin were not cheapened in any way, and along with Patek Philippe were the standard bearers of the wristwatch industry. The impeccable craftsmanship that Vacheron & Constantin was able to maintain must be in part credited to its relationship with Jaeger-LeCoultre. A fine example of the fruit borne of this partnership can be seen in the article Vintage Vacheron by Walt Odets.

If there can be said to have been a golden age for wristwatches, I think it must be that period between the end of the second World War and the rise of quartz. It is here that we see the ascension and reign of the fabled “Great Three,” comprised of Vacheron & Constantin under Georges Ketterer, Patek Philippe under Jean Pfister and Henri Stern, and of course the princeling Audemars Piguet. It is the era of the finest mechanical movements and the most timeless aesthetic development (example above). Though in competition, cooperation of the Great Three – centered around Jaeger-LeCoultre – would lead to still unparalleled developments in mechanical watchmaking. This included the fabled
calibre 1120 shared by all three (1967), and the calibre 1003 shared by Vacheron & Constantin and Audemars Piguet (1955 and 1946 respectively).

The first faltering step of the great house in this time lay not in action, but inaction. As the standard of quality is often relative, that one great house raises the bar so must the others match it or be thought the lesser. And in the 1950s it was Patek Philippe which raised that bar, introducing its patented monometallic Gyromax balance in 1952, and the patented automatic calibre 12-600AT in 1953. Strangely, the first generation of Patek Philippe wristwatches to carry the Gyromax balance did not fully utilize its adjustable-mass capability, pairing it with swan’s neck regulation. Not until the late ’50s and early ’60s did Patek Philippe slowly undertake the unprecedented challenge of freespringing its entire wristwatch production. Vacheron & Constantin evidently chose to license the Gyromax only for a few select calibres like its magnificent 1002/2. It otherwise remained a technical generation behind – as did most of the industry.

While Vacheron & Constantin had probably been the first of the Great Three into the growing market for automatics, none of the various bumper and rotor-wind automatic ebauches provided by Jaeger-LeCoultre were equal to Patek Philippe’s initial foray into automatic movements. Not, at least, until the spectacular Vacheron & Constantin center-seconds calibres 1071 and 1072 introduced in the late 1950s (the latter with date guichet). They were obviously intended ab initio to match, quality for quality, Patek Philippe’s subsidiary seconds 12-600 AT and the formidable calibre 27-460 which succeeded it. Like the 12-600AT the 1071’s heavily gold-rimmed rotor was decorated with guillochage, but uniquely its rotor was borne by ruby-rollers rather than by ball bearings – foreshadowing the development of calibre 1120 a decade later. Also like the contemporary 12-600AT, the 1071 typically (though not always) featured an overcoil hairspring, swan’s neck regulation, and proudly bore the Geneva hallmark. The finest iteration of the movement was the 1072/1, which exchanged the screwed monometallic balance and swan’s neck regulator for a freesprung Gyromax balance – maintaining parity with Patek Philippe’s later usage in the 27-460.

Vacheron & Constantin’s inconsistent usage of the Geneva hallmark is another element wherein the house would begin to falter relative to its chief rival. While Patek Philippe had not yet introduced its policy of stamping every mechanical movement it produced with the Seal of Geneva, its nearly complete control of its own ebauche production inevitably lead to its almost universal usage of the special origin mark upon its movements. While the relationship between the workshops in the Vallee de Joux and the assemblers of Geneva goes back centuries, Vacheron & Constantin had perhaps given too much of itself outside of the Republic, slowly losing it seemed the identity of being Genevese as something special and apart.

While it cannot be denied that the kingship slowly passed from Vacheron & Constantin to Patek Philippe in those days, it also cannot be denied that Vacheron & Constantin remained one of the greatest, second as it was only to Patek Philippe by the slenderest of margins, due only to some relative inconsistencies in its watchmaking. As a crafter of the simple and beautiful gentleman’s wristwatch taken as a whole, Vacheron & Constantin remained a master second to none. Its timeless and unique style upheld classicism without the stodgy formality of Patek Philippe, shining lyrically without the sometimes alienating flamboyance of Audemars Piguet. Though not always perfect (relatively speaking), they were true heirs to the spirit of the House of Jean-Marc Vacheron.

This golden time for Vacheron & Constantin was brought to a close as Georges Ketterer died, perhaps prophetically, in 1969. His son Jacques assumed control, and managed to keep the house afloat through the darkest time in the quartz revolution. His death in 1987 would come at the daybreak of an impending industry renaissance. Wristwatch aficionado Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani became the new majority shareholder as Vacheron Constantin became a part of Investcorp until 1996, when the ownership of Vacheron Constantin again changed hands – purchased by its present owner the Richemont Group. It is with these events that follow the quartz revolution that we will investigate in Part 2 of The Decay of the Angel.


Image credits

Drawing of the face of the angel by Leonardo da Vinci

Atelier d’Horlogers au XVIII sicles by Christophe Ziegler

Vacheron & Constantin Clockwatch (1826) and wristwatch (1959) courtesy of Antiquorum Online

Copyright © Carlos A. Perez 2002

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