Manual wind movements are often the choice of the connoisseur. Without the automatic rotor, the owner of a timepiece is often treated to an uninterrupted view of the movement which really shows off the skills of watchmakers.
If you (like me), have an appreciation for these movements then you may find yourself looking into the plethora of vintage watches available on Chrono24 and wondering about the movements used. I made a little bit of journey down the rabbit hole, and found myself trying to answer some of the questions I posed myself when this site was first founded. There are no doubt many more movements than I could cover in one article, so we’ll cover the ones that interest me the most.
PRE-1930’S WATCHES AND IN HOUSE MOVEMENTS
One thing that happens occasionally on the Facebook group is that a Vacheron & Constantin pocket watch shows up and the movement presented is not finished as beautifully as one would expect from a watch produced in 2020. Do not automatically think this is a fake watch – if in question you should take you watch to a Vacheron Constantin to be authenticated. Decoration of movement was meant for functional, as well as aesthetic purposes.
Modern influences on watchmaking, especially around the “in-house debate”, create a bit of a strange impression for new collectors. The modern-day obsession with in-house movements casts an interesting picture over the history of watchmaking – but in no uncertain terms it must be realised that the use of externally made calibres has been commonplace, right up to the modern day. In short, the use of externally-made movements was generally a good thing, and if a modern day watch has an externally-made then this is no bad thing.
In truth it is better to frame the situation around some history. It may appear that Vacheron went from making in-house calibre by hand, to using externally-made items before finally progressing to in-house movements again. In reality, the manufacture of early movements would have consisted of many parts made by local labourers in the Canton of Geneva and assembled at the manufacture to create a whole product.
In one view there are several categories of watch makers today. Companies like Zenith (who made movements for many manufacturers but most notably for the Rolex Daytona) and Jaeger-LeCoultre were always at heart, movement manufacturers for other companies. These companies have sometimes struggled in the past, and no doubt spent many millions of Euros, to create watches that have their own identity. This is not so much the case in modern times where the Memovox or El-Primero models have very clear identities in a buyer’s mind.
Other companies have well defined designs for their watches over the years may have centred their operations around using the movements from these companies – Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet fall into this category. As it happens, these three manufacturers are seen as the top flight, or the “Holy Trinity”.
Nowadays there is an intersection where watchmakers such as JLC make very few movements for other companies as they strive to be their own identity – while manufacturers such as Vacheron invest in their own movement manufacture capabilities to reduce the dependencies on these companies.
Of course, there are many exceptions to these rules/categories but the key thing to remember is that the product as a whole is what matters. Modern car manufacturers such as Aston Martin are actually moving to use engines from Mercedes-Benz – in order to stay relevant and gain the advantages of technology. Watchmaking history has been no different.
JAEGER-LECOULTRE AND THE 453
In 1928 Vacheron & Constantin began a collaboration where even whole ebauches were made by Jaeger-LeCoultre and installed into watches (after perhaps being tweaked, and finished to the highest standards). The 453 movement was one such JLC derived ebauche (reportedly based on the JLC 449) that Vacheron used in many of their watches for many years – up to the 1950’s. Movements noted with a “P” would indicate the use of a shock absorbing mechanism to assist with the stability of the movement. The 453 movement was a thin 17 jewel movement, that was 28.8mm in diameter and beat at 2.5Hz. The movement was designed to have a sub seconds readout on the dial.
Such a strong calibre that it was, that it’s said that Philippe Dufour based his Simplicity movement on the original JLC ebauche.
The 453 movement was also expanded upon with the 485/495 for triple calendar watches.
If one were to check out some of Jaeger-LeCoultre’s modern watches such as the Master Control Ultra Thin 34mm, you will see more than a striking resemblance to this historical movement.
CALIBER 1001 AND DERIVATIVES
In 1952 the caliber 1001 (based on the JLC 818 – sub seconds) and 1002 (JLC 819 – centre seconds) were exclusively manufactured for use in Audemars Piguet and Vacheron Constantin timepieces. These ultra-thin movements cemented the reputation of Vacheron watches from the 1950’s onwards and combined with some striking designs means that picking up one of these vintage watches today would be a real boon to any collector.
The 1001/1002 movement is an 18 jewel movement, diameter of 20.9mm, and a height of just 2.94mm. The Vacheron variant of this movement utilised a Gyromax balance and had 42 hours of power reserve. An owner can expect absolutely impeccable finishing (Geneva Seal).
Later derivatives of the 1001 evolved into movements such as the 1014 (21.1mm, 21 jewels, 3Hz) and 1017 (a rectangular movement 17.2mm x 22.6mm with 18 jewels and 3Hz).
The most famous derivative of this movement is the 1003 (based on the JLC 803). It set the record in 1955 for being the thinnest watch movement in the world at the time and was released to commemorate 200 years of Vacheron Constantin (wow!).
This movement was reserved for the thinnest watches that Vacheron Constantin ever made and is the only 1001 derivative that you can still purchase today – the Historiques Ultra Fine 1955. In the picture below you can see this movement made in pretty much entirely 18k gold but most 1003 movements will be made in typical movement metals and coatings.
Also bear in mind that to work on one of these movements takes an extraordinary level of expertise to work due to it’s thinness, so expect a reasonable bill when it comes to service time.
MODERN VACHERON MOVEMENTS – 1400 & 4400
The 1400 movement is an in-house Vacheron Constantin movement released in 2001 and is one of the two main manual wind movements that Vacheron uses today. It serves as a base calibre for other complicated watches, but the 1400 base calibre tends to be used in time-only watches such as the Patrimony. It’s quite a small movement (and of course, thin) at 20.65mm, 2.6mm thickness, 20 jewels and a power reserve at 40 hours. It beats at a modern 4Hz. Watches manufactured today by Vacheron should be Poincoin de Geneve (Geneva seal certified).
The 4400 is hands down my favourite Vacheron Constantin movement. Chrono 24 is always full of watches that take my interest but they do tend to be on the smaller side – smaller than 35mm generally. As you probably realised, it would be easy to place a 1400 movement into a modern sized watch (such as 38mm and up for a dress watch) but if you want a display caseback then the movement is going to look far too small. You can also tell when a watch has a very small movement if the date window is nowhere near the edge of the dial.
The 4400 fits wonderfully into larger cases as it is 28.6mm in diameter. It features a thickness of 2.8mm, 21 jewels and a power reserve of 65 hours from a single barrel. It also features the halmark of Geneva and beats at a modern 4Hz.
Work commenced on the 4400 in 2005 and was released first in the American 1921 in 2009. Nowadays, it’s features in many of the product lines from Vacheron and serves as a base caliber (similar to the 1400) for more complicated watches such as the triple calendar 1942 (one of my favourite modern references).
I’m hoping to feature many watches in the future on this site and explore many of these movements in a little more detail.