The first post in the Historiques series is one of brevity. I have been researching a few topics of interest and thought it best to contribute a framework for further works because trying to encapsulate 265+ years of momentum in a small number of posts will not only bore one to death, but lack clarity. Most readers will be familiar with most of the important works of Vacheron but I felt it important to have a starting point from which to base this body of work. With so many years of history, this is where I feel the most overwhelmed. Whatever your reason for ending up at this corner of the Internet, I welcome you to follow along.
One thought that crystallized the start of this site was how under-appreciated Vacheron Constantin was. 265 years is big number; so big in fact that I don’t think that the vast majority of the #watchfam really pay attention to what’s really going on here. The anecdotes, the detail and the je ne sais quoi.
When was the last time that you considered that Vacheron Constantin has been continuously making watches since before America was independent from the British? It’s somewhat crazy to think that that happened in 1776 – 11 years after Jean-Marc set up shop. Two world wars; Spanish flu and CoVID pandemics, the pervasive use of electricity and the invention of the telephone all occurred while this company was building timepieces. In a world where most chase watches that follow fashion trends, or suffer impossible waitlists – I just prefer to strap on a timepiece that is built like it has the history and expertise to back it up.
1755 – JEAN-MARC VACHERON FORMS THE COMPANY
The company was formed in Geneva and at a time of enlightenment and Jean-Marc kept good company in Voltaire and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Watchmakers at this time were educated persons who participated in political, scientific and artistic debate who helped to shape not only the watchmaking industry but also the philosophical views of present day.
Becoming a master watchmaker at this time required a minimum of 5 years as an apprentice. Following that, a budding master watchmaker had to build (by hand) a small timepiece that must have an alarm function to be worn around the neck, and a small square table clock. Both of these timepieces would be submitted to a jury. Only after this was accomplished could a workshop be opened for producing watches. He will have only been in his 20’s when this accomplishment was made.
The above has to be framed in a wider context about what was happening in Europe around this time, however this will be a subject for expansion in later articles.
One thing that I would note is that during my research I found references to how the company created the world’s first horological complication in 1770. This information was found on Wikipedia however the source for this is a defunct link on the Vacheron-Constantin website. I’ll try to follow this up further as it would indeed be a great boon if true – however I would personally consider a clock featuring an alarm (as mentioned above) as a horological complication.
Timepieces made at this time much like contemporaries such as Abraham-Louis Breguet, would feature the watchmaker’s name – Jean-Marc Vacheron.
1785 – ABRAHAM VACHERON
In 1785 Jean-Marc’s son Abraham took over the family business. He managed to negotiate the company’s survival through the French Revolution where the turmoil would have restricted the sale of such precious items.
1810 – JACQUES-BARTHELEMY VACHERON & FRANCOIS CONSTANTIN
The grandson of the original founder was the first to push the company towards the big-name company we know today by exporting watches to France & Italy. As a skilled and talented watchmaker himself he felt the pressures of the increase in sales and brought in Francois Constantin as a “travelling salesperson” to deliver watches and build the business more globally. Such a success that this partnership was that in 1819 the company rebranded as Vacheron & Constantin.
This period of history is particularly interesting and warrants further research as there were many evolving changes across Europe that impacted watchmaking.
1819~1870 – EXPANSION & THE PANTOGRAPH
During these times it must be noted that the the process of products across the globe looked nothing like today.
Early transportation would consist of horse-drawn carriages, some rail travel and of course months at sea. Further compounding these challenges was the process of selling and marketing watches. With no World Wide Web, one would have to travel with products to far distant lands and present the products on their merit – and hope that they would be sold! Nevertheless, Vacheron & Constantin managed to sell watches to the Russian Court, China, Northern Europe and by the 1860’s the watches would be sold in Brazil and Uruguay.
One other particular important development was Lechot’s pantographic device. Like most companies that celebrate inventions (such as Breguet’s escapements or modern day developments like Kurt Klaus’ perpetual calendar movement); Georges-Auguste Lechot was an employee of the company who developed something that gave that company a head-start. Watches would often take months to make and this ability to manufacture watch parts at a much larger scale will have helped the expansion of the company with the increased demand for it’s products. While Lechot did not invent the pantograph itself (that falls to the ancient Greeks), he was the first to apply this technology to timepiece movements and establish a standard for watch movements as calibres. Using these machines, as many as 150 spring barrels could be manufactured per hour.
1854-1863 – HEIRS & SYMBOLS
After the deaths of Jacques-Barthelemy & Francois the company was taken over by a series of heirs, and the company continued to expand and build. During this time the company changed their name to Vacheron & Constantin, Fabricants and in 1880 started to use the Maltese-Cross as it’s symbol which was inspired by the mechanical component that limits the tension within a mainspring. Occasionally the Facebook group questions whether wearing a Vacheron Constantin watch due to religious symbolism but this happens to be coincidence, even though the symbol originated in the 16th century.
1900’s – BUYOUTS, SURVIVAL AND FRUITION
As with many periods of history, the 1900’s were not without change. The company managed to survive the Great Depression but only in 1940 did Vacheron & Constantin be formally run by someone who was not a representative of the Constantin family. Georges Ketterer acquired the majority portion of stock from Charles Constantin. In 1970, the company changed name again to Vacheron Constantin.
While the Ketterer family began to run the company with it’s own heirship this eventually ended during the Quartz crisis of the 1970’s and 80’s as Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani became the majority stakeholder of the company in 1987. Even though this heirship fell outside of the Constantin family, they still produced loveable watches – a particular favourite of mine was the 1972 asymmetric and i’m sure, I will discover many more across my journey.
Fortunately for us, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani was an avid collector of timepieces who had a love for Vacheron Constantin and helped it to continue supplying the market with top quality timepieces.
I wanted to remark at this point that many different watch companies did many different things to try and survive these times. Some approached outside designers to help them thrive/survive, many dived head first in quartz watch production and some liquidated before being revived years later. With a little bit of luck (and investment), Vacheron managed to pull through these times without closing their doors or ceasing production.
In 1996, the Vacheron Constantin we know today was purchased wholly by the Richemont Group.
In future articles I hope to dig into a number of topics. Topics I hope to cover are as follows:
– The political and geographical landscape as the company grew through the ages.
– A mechanical movement timeline. One can imagine that as a company making timepieces all this time, we have come full circle from in-house (hand crafted) movements, to calibres sourced by other manufacturers (such as Jaeger-LeCoultre and Frederique Piguet); and back to in-house movements again.
– A focus on the timepieces over these time periods.
– The use of Geneva Seal in their timepieces
– The history of the period between 1860 and 1936.
– Anywhere else that the journey takes me!
Reading this back, I think I may have lied about the brevity. Nevertheless if you reached the end of this article then I thank you, and hopefully you will look forward to many more.
References: Wikipedia. Treasures of Vacheron Constantin (Hazan). Vacheron-constantin.com
Image Credit: Wikipedia