It was around the mid-to-late 1970s that the quartz watch crisis gradually became a real thing to fear in Switzerland. For the best part of the decade, the world’s finest watchmakers had near dismissed a need to embrace the tech, while other markets grabbed it and ran. Now, with more accurate and cheaper watches available, the market appeared primed for disruption.
As is often the case, a decades-old position of strength had led to a lack of imagination in the mechanical watchmaking industry in the ’70s. Brands such as Seiko and Casio were preparing to move in.
But out of darkness comes light, and when quartz went low, Vacheron Constantin – the world’s oldest watch manufacturer with uninterrupted activity – went high... high watchmaking, to be exact.
While the concept of Haute Horologerie (high watchmaking) might have come to life by way of crisis-marketing, the principles were sound. The art was a way out, emphasise the luxury, push the craftsmanship. Quartz might be cheaper, but cheaper is temporary, mechanical is for life. Here, Vacheron Constantin excelled, but then what do you expect from a brand whose credo reads, “Do better if possible, and that is always possible.”
But while better meant Haute Horologerie, it remains a term that many find tough to pin down. Fine watchmaking needs complications – that’s any function beyond the hours, minutes and seconds. Acoustic complications like alarms and repeaters, astronomical like perpetual calendars, and timing, like a dead-beat seconds, all count. Genuine high watchmaking will actually offer three, or the Grand Complication, as it’s known – that’s timing, chiming and calendars to you and me. Here, Vacheron Constantin has a philosophy of its own: Belle Haute Horologerie or beautiful fine watchmaking (remember, ‘better is always possible’). Need more? Here are three that fit the bill... or should that be belle?
The Great Escape
Overseas Tourbillon, price on request, Vacheron Constantin
Fine-watchmaking for the man on the move, with the first tourbillon model of the Overseas collection, powered by a self-winding movement. Featuring interchangeable straps – steel for a rooftop bar, rubber for when you’re rafting down the Amazon – the ultra-thin Calibre 2160 has a visible peripheral rotor and a dial lit by Super-LumiNova – because you’re going to need to see that thing when the fire goes out at your mountain base camp.
Watch of The Year
Métiers d’Art The Legend of The Chinese Zodiac, Year of The Rat, price on request, Vacheron Constantin
When it comes to a Zodiac move, January ushers us into the year of the rat, and this special edition Vacheron celebrates in Metiers d’Art style. With the foliage etched onto the dial based on Chinese iconography, and the rare art of Grand Feu enamelling used to create the intensity of colour, it’s a great reminder that high watchmaking needs more than just complications.
The Midnight Hour
Patrimony Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin, price on request, Vacheron Constantin
If you’re going for a perpetual calendar complication, it makes sense that you should grab one of the icons of the game. A 1120 QP calibre in-house movement, with a cal’ that will take a leap year in its stride, you’re set here until 2100. Add the fact that the outstanding miniaturisation process makes this ultra-thin piece a wear anywhere, with anything watch, and you begin to see why it’s so industry-beloved.