Agenda_Need To Know

After a quarter of a millennium, watchmaker Vacheron Constantin is still going strong

Renowned alongside Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Breguet, Vacheron Constantin is regarded by collectors and enthusiasts as representing the very pinnacle of watchmaking. This reputation has been achieved through a combination of creativity and technical development. The company has pushed the boundaries ofwhat's possible with a timepiece, for example with the ultra-slim minute repeater (a watch with a built-in chime which sounds on the hour, quarter, minute),considered by many to be the most perfect ever produced.

This year, to commemorate 250 years of continuous production, Vacheron Constantin has created five special pieces, including a double-faced watch, the Tour deL'Ile, which lays claim to being the mostcomplicated watch ever produced. (Acomplication is literally an added function, from a date display at its most simple through to minute repeaters at themost complicated -- known as super complications.) The pièce de résistance, however, is L'Esprit des Cabinotiers, in the shape of a golden sphere, which opens in the manner of a lotus flower to reveal a clock featuring 14 different complications.

Claude-Daniel Proellochs, the present CEO, is passionate about his product. "Picasso's work has a value not because they're just beautiful paintings but because he was a spirit of creativity, and so it's the same with our watches," he says. "Our products are beautiful not because we love our customers but because we have passion."

The price reflects the design, technical excellence and hand-finishing. "You hear from a lot of luxury brands that everything is hand-made; this is absolute nonsense as we use the top technology," observes Proellochs. "We design by hand, transfer to computer and produce our components by sophisticated machinery. Afterwards we polish every part by hand because it belongs to our tradition."

Three men helped to establish the company and steer it towards this success. The first was Jean Marc Vacheron, who founded the company in 1755. He was influenced by the libertarian ideas of Rousseau and Voltaire; as well as being a watchmaker, he was also a mathematician, philosopher and engineer who wanted to test his theories of micro-mechanics. The second was Francois Constantin, who joinedthe company in 1819, "a traveller with a spirit of adventure", who established new markets in Italy and France. The third was Georges Auguste Leschlot, who joined in 1839 and standardised production, introducing machinery that allowed the company to produce interchangeable and identical partsfor the first time.

Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, Vacheron Constantin issued a stream of trademarks and patents. Probably the most famous was the world's thinnest watch, first produced in 1955 and still made today. With a case only 1.64mm thick and containing 100 parts, it's unlikely that this feat of engineering will ever be bettered.

The company has invested in three centres. The historic workshop, Maison Vacheron Constantin in downtown Geneva, now houses a new boutique, museum and restoration workshop. In the Vallée des Joux is the research and development factory for movement components, and in Plan les Oates, just outside Geneva, a purpose-built contemporary home houses the watch construction department and head office. All of the parts have to be assembled, set and finished there in order to meet the strict Geneva quality hallmark.

"My watches aren't just for rich people," says Proellochs. "My best customer was a Milanese man who had to have our thinnest watch. He couldn't afford the watch but he had to have it. He struck a deal with the jeweller whereby he paid towards the watch each week and in return was allowed to touch it, until he had paid for the watch in full." While this level of passion continues from both consumer and manufacturer, Vacheron Constantin will remain in excellent health for the next 250 years. Enquiries:

By Ian Thorley

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