3 Incredible Vacheron Constantin Pocket Watches
You might have heard people talk about the ‘top three watchmakers’, a trifecta of the industry’s most influential and historical brands. There’s Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet of course, and there’s also Vacheron Constantin. If you’ve ever wondered what makes Vacheron Constantin a top three watchmaker—well, in this very special episode, you’re about to find out.
Vacheron Constantin James Ward Packard Pocket Watch
The first indicator of a top-three brand is provenance, history. Vacheron Constantin is the fifth oldest watchmaker still in business today, founder Jean-Marc Vacheron first setting up shop in 1755; that’s thirty-three years before the US Constitution was ratified. But age by itself isn’t really an indicator of historical importance; there are boulders several million years older that have done nothing but sit there.
Real provenance comes from weaving a thread of narrative through the fabric of time, one that’s both prominent and important, without which the whole tapestry would fall apart. How about this, then: a watch created for one of the greatest engineers the world has ever seen, James Ward Packard.
If the name ‘Packard’ elicits nothing more than a shrug and a frown, then check this out: Packard, a self-made engineer who found his fortune manufacturing light bulbs, turned his attention—and money—to the production of luxury cars. The Packard Motor Car Company was founded in 1893 and was responsible for putting the first steering wheel in an American production car, as well as the first V12 and even the first use of air-conditioning.
By the 1930s, Packard sold twice as many cars as any other luxury brand, beating out Rolls Royce, Mercedes and Bentley. If you want to know just how good Packard cars were, then the brand’s slogan tells all: ‘Ask the man who owns one.’ Packard’s engineering background established his car company as one of the most luxurious and reliable in the world, but it wasn’t just the internal combustion engine that intrigued him. The beating heart of a mechanical movement was also a personal pleasure of his, commissioning increasingly more complicated watches over the course of his life.
Legend has it that he was engaged in a competition with banker Henry Graves Jr. to acquire the world’s most complicated watch, culminating in Graves’ Patek Philippe Supercomplication, and this Vacheron Constantin pocket watch from 1918 is one of those actual watches. The ornate, hand-engraved case bears the man’s initials, but don’t be fooled by the ornamental nature of the design; this is a watch built for an engineer.
Rather than the typical silica-based mineral glass, this watch is fitted with rock crystal glass, a much harder material formed from quartz that was very unusual and innovative for the time. The balance wheel also features unique alloys that make the watch more resistant to temperature and magnetism. But the biggest surprise of this deceptively simple looking timepiece is what’s going on inside: this is the only known watch combining a grand and petite sonnerie striking mechanism with a half-quarter repeater and a chronograph. Just like Packard’s cars, it’s an unusual engineering gem that’s now an irrefutable part of history.
Vacheron Constantin Ultra-Thin Pocket Watch
The second thing a brand needs to enter the hallowed top three watchmakers club is technical prowess. This is highlighted by the invention and adoption of techniques that approach watchmaking in a new and unusual way to overcome and improve upon a problem. Rather than simply doing what everyone else is doing, a top three watchmaker should be forging its own path.
This Vacheron Constantin pocket watch from 1931 seems to be nothing of the sort. Two hands, plain dial, nothing special. At least, not from this perspective, because when viewed from a side-on angle, the innovation of this watch suddenly becomes quite apparent. At just 3.65mm across, it’s a pocket watch for the skinniest of pockets, manufactured as a demonstration of just how impressive the brand can be.
So, here’s a fact about this watch that takes a little digesting to really appreciate. The movement inside, handmade no less, is 0.94mm thick. Not even a millimetre. That’s mainspring barrel, centre wheel, third wheel, fourth wheel, escape wheel, pallet fork, balance and keyless works all squished into a space too small for a stack of paper ten sheets thick.
This was achieved only three years after the discovery of penicillin, yet the approach to making it bears the hallmarks of some rather modern engineering. For example, instead of manufacturing the case from gold, the watch is fashioned in platinum, a material that’s only really recently come into play in commercial jewellery. Favoured for its strength over gold, it allowed the watchmakers at Vacheron Constantin to make the case thinner but keep it strong.
Then there’s the mainspring barrel, configured in a flying arrangement—that is, supported just on one side—so as to require less depth. The balance bridge too gets the same treatment, fashioned from stainless steel—a material that was very difficult to work with to such precision in the 1930s, and one that was only discovered less than two decades prior—to enable a thinner profile without reducing strength. And to squeeze every last mote of thickness out of this incredible movement, even the balance spring was flattened to save space.
What’s most impressive is that even with the help of modern machining techniques, the thinnest wristwatch on sale today is still only 3.65mm—exactly the same as this incredible pocket watch from 1931.
Vacheron Constantin Grand Complication Ref. 6526 Pocket Watch
If you’re a watchmaker and you’ve ticked the first two boxes, you’d be feeling pretty pleased with yourself. Provenance and innovation are two key factors in the makings of an excellent watch company—but it’s not enough to make the top three. The last and perhaps hardest principle to achieve is one that’s a little less concrete: you need that wow-factor, that ability to floor an audience with just a single piece.
The Grand Complication reference 6526 from Vacheron Constantin is such a piece. It takes an abundance of challenges that would in isolation give a skilled master watchmaker a tough time—and then crams them all into one watch.
Firstly, we have a chronograph, and not just any chronograph, but a split-seconds chronograph. Your typical chronograph, usually around 200 to 300 components, gives a watch the ability to connect the continually running power train to an additional set of hands on demand, stop them again and reset them back to zero perfectly every time. It may be a common complication, but it’s still a hard one.
But this watch has a split -seconds chronograph, which adds the ability to stop, catch up and reset another second hand on top of the first. So that’s two levels of independently disassociated timing mechanisms to cater for within this watch, bringing the total number of parts up to that of your average perpetual calendar.
Speaking of which, there’s one of those in here as well. Day, date, month, moon phase, leap year—it’s all there, nestled in amongst the split-second chronograph, giving the watch the ability to maintain the correct time and date without ever needing to be reset. Or at least, probably not in our lifetimes. It’s an incredible array of analogue computing, calculated by hand, that allows this watch to keep in sync. And we’re only just getting started.
The last and most impressive feature of the reference 6526 is one you can’t even see. Even today with modern manufacturing techniques, it’s a mechanism that takes over 300 hours to assemble and is considered by watchmakers to be the hardest challenge in all of watchmaking. It is, of course, the minute repeater.
Never mind the chronograph, it’s the minute repeater’s on-demand interaction with the ticking movement that makes watchmakers’ heads hurt. For those of you who don’t know, a minute repeater requires the movement to ‘read’ the time at the slide of a lever and chime a response that corresponds to the hours, quarters and minutes. There are more parts required to do that than any of the other mechanisms in here, and each must be perfectly adjusted to not only make sure the minute repeater works, but also to prevent the rest of the movement getting jammed and broken. It’s no Lego kit; every piece must be fine-tuned not just in position, but size and shape to allow the hammers to ring clearly through the gongs.
The most mind-blowing fact about this watch is that it was made before computer design, before CNC machining, before MEMS technology; every single one of these near-1,000 pieces was fashioned and decorated by hand to a level that rivals the highest of watchmaking today—and it’s only 12mm thick, less than a Rolex Submariner!
If you weren’t sure about Vacheron Constantin before, you more than should be now. Thanks to this very special insight into the history of this legendary brand, we’ve seen exactly how the watchmaker earned its place in the hallowed top three. And that’s just scratching the surface …
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