WatchTime continues its “America Week” with a test of Vacheron Constantin’s Historiques American 1921, originally published in our print edition, with photos by Nik Schölzel. The watch is an updated version of a classic timepiece from the heyday of Art Deco that was made exclusively for the North American market.
The Roaring Twenties bridged the gap between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression. As the United States economy boomed, a prosperous citizenry sought new pleasures and pastimes. It was an era of cultural breakthroughs and upheavals: jazz emerged on the music scene, Europe’s Bauhaus and Art Deco movements influenced art and architecture, “talkies” replaced silent films on movie screens and more and more Americans owned automobiles. The U.S. had firmly established itself as the world’s leading economic and social power.
The decade’s luxurious excess was also reflected in its watches. Only a few years before, timepieces first migrated from vest pockets to wrists. Wristwatches had barely arrived on the scene when they experienced their first stylistic flourishes: cases shaped like rectangles, cushions, barrels, trapezoids and other geometric shapes became popular, expressing the mood of an optimistic era. During this time, Vacheron Constantin produced a small edition of eccentric wristwatches exclusively for the North American market. The movement inside each pillow-shaped case was turned 45 degrees so that the crown was at the top corner of the case, and the subdial for the seconds was positioned along the extension of this axis. Vacheron made two versions of this watch in the early 1920s: the movement was turned counterclockwise in one and clockwise in the other. Both of these models influenced the design of the Historiques American 1921 model, launched at the end of 2008. Its dial design comes from the first model, while the positioning of the crown (and thus also of the movement) comes from the second. Both vintage models were manufactured in extremely small numbers — according to Vacheron’s archives, only 12 units of each — and the few surviving pieces are avidly sought collectors’ items that appear only very rarely at auctions. One was on the block at an Antiquorum thematic auction in 2005, Vacheron Constantin’s 250th anniversary year. When the hammer fell, this exclusive timepiece changed hands for more than 70,000 Swiss francs (at the time, about $58,300).
The American 1921 is part of Vacheron Constantin’s Historiques collection, which presents modern versions of distinctive watches from the firm’s 254-year history. The line was established in the 1990s, discontinued in 1998, and then relaunched in 2005. In each year since, Vacheron has added a new watch to the collection. The American 1921 is the third in the series, following on the heels of the Toledo 1952 and the Chronomètre Royal 1907.
The small-seconds subdial on the American 1921 is positioned at 3 o’clock, which would correspond to 4:30 on a traditional dial. Unlike its predecessors, which used a Lépine movement with the small seconds and crown co-linear, this model contains a hunter caliber with the small seconds and the crown forming a 90-degree angle with the center of the dial. At first glance, this seems to be the most striking difference between the new edition and its predecessors. (Click on watch photos for larger images.)
On closer inspection, greater differences become apparent, some of which are obvious improvements. The new Breguet hands of black oxidized gold with half-moon eyes are even more finely crafted than were their 1920s counterparts. The numerals applied to the dial’s surface are somewhat bolder. As for the dial itself, whether the modern version’s sandblasted, silver-plated metal one is an improvement over the vintage model’s enamel one is strictly a matter of taste. The new version surely boasts greater longevity and is much less delicate. All of this underscores the self-confidence of the watch’s designers, who opted not to slavishly reproduce the face of the original watch.
Giving the movement a 45-degree clockwise twist significantly improves the dial’s legibility for people who wear their watches on their left wrist. In this modern computer era, most of us sit with our forearms resting straight across the desktop or with the left elbow slightly bent. When you glance at this watch while in this position, the “12” will be very nearly vertical, which makes reading the time easier. It does, however, take some time to get accustomed to this dial arrangement. One reason is that the seconds subdial is shifted from its usual position at 6 o’clock to a more eccentric position perpendicular to the axis of the repositioned crown. This made it more difficult to read the dial in the testing phase.
Apart from the positioning of the seconds subdial, there is very little to criticize about the dial. Its daytime legibility is excellent thanks to the clear contrast between the dark numerals and white dial. The rich layer of lacquer on the surface gives it an attractive appearance and ideally suits the watch’s overall proportions. Also appealing are the railroad-style calibrated circles that surround the hour numerals and the seconds subdial. None of these beautiful details is visible in the dark, but this was the right decision: Super-LumiNova or similar luminous substances would have taken away from this watch’s vintage-style charm. In any case, the contrast is clear enough that you can still read the time in weak light.
The lightweight, pillow-shaped case feels very comfortable as soon as you put the watch on. Its 87 grams are forgotten moments after you close the pronged buckle with its halved Maltese cross. Well-balanced proportions encounter excellent craftsmanship here. The edges, angles and planes fit so well together that you almost think the case grew naturally into this shape, and was plucked from some horological stem before skillful hands gave its rose-gold body a gentle polishing to smooth its surfaces. The watch is also thin enough to disappear discreetly under the cuff of a shirt and suit jacket — that is, if you’d really wish to hide such a beautiful timepiece.
Not even the oddly placed crown detracts from the superlative wearing comfort. It conforms closely to the corner of the case, where it’s far enough from the back of the wrist that it doesn’t press into the skin. However, don’t try to wind and set the watch while it’s strapped to the wrist: the flat crown is extremely difficult to grasp in this position. It is much easier, though still a bit challenging, to operate once the watch has been slipped off.
We were pleased to find that Vacheron Constantin animates the beautiful exterior of the American 1921 with an attractive and reliable movement. Caliber VC 4400, which debuts in this model, is a recent addition to the firm’s growing portfolio of manufacture calibers.