Vacheron Constantin is no stranger to vintage re-creation watches, and in the past few years has established its ability to produce some of the most interesting haute horology homage pieces on the market. Earlier this year we covered two of these releases from SIHH 2017, the Historiques Triple Calendrier 1942 and 1948 — two subtly different triple calendar watches with designs directly from the mid-century — and in 2016 we covered my personal favorite Vacheron timepiece, the Cornes de Vache 1955 modeled on the unique-lugged reference from its namesake year.
Alongside the Triple Calendriers, the Genevan manufacture last year released the American 1921 Mid-Size as a new addition to its Historiques collection, this watch coming as a slightly smaller edition of its original 40-mm “full size” American 1921 watch first released in 2008. Both of the pieces are based on an art deco-influenced watch from 1921 produced in limited quantities for American motorists, with its dial rotated forty-five degrees for easier viewing while driving, and a case construction providing it a distinctive style. In sum, only 12 pieces of the vintage watch were produced from 1921 to 1931, making the model extremely rare; the last example to go up for public sale was in 2012, through Sotheby’s: a right-handed model (pictured above), which sold for just below $80,000.
The newest version of the watch (Reference 1100S/000R-B430), like the 40-mm version before it, is a faithful homage to the original that keeps much of the vintage elements intact while further developing the modern luxury elements associated with Vacheron Constantin today. With its straight, wire-inspired lugs and an upper corner crown adding to the case, the watch hosts a distinguished border on its 36.5-mm, rose gold, cushion-shaped case. Its grained metal dial is angled to the right for a left-handed wearer, using an outer black railroad minute track, printed “Breguet” Arabic numerals, and subtle corporate script with an applied gold VC logo toward the 12 o’clock position. At the 3 o’clock mark is the running seconds subdial, conspicuously non-angled like the rest of the face, while two black pomme-style hands sweep over the whole dial.
Inside the reference is Vacheron Constantin’s Caliber 4400 AS manually wound movement, which has a 65-hour power reserve and is certified with the Hallmark of Geneva; the beautifully finished movement is visible through a sapphire caseback. Currently the watch is available on a non-limited basis at Vacheron Constantin boutiques, and is retailed by the brand at $30,300 on a red alligator strap.
Like each of the watches in Vacheron’s Historiques collection, the American 1921 Mid-Size clearly channels the prominent vintage stylings of the original while exercising its skill in contemporary luxury design and finishing. Note the similarities on the case — the square cushion shape, the placement of the crown, and the straight style of the lugs with what Monochrome’s Brice Goulard has described as “cabochon” tips for its pins. On the angled dial is the outer minute track, “Breguet” numerals, period-appropriate hands, and seconds subdial. Overall, both models present a tasteful design, downplaying their rarity and unique styling.
To address the modern changes, the case has gone from its historical “full size” of 31 by 31 mm, to a contemporary “mid-size” of 36.5-mm squared, with the general cushion design vastly improved from an adjusted “trench watch” design to something much more in line with Vacheron’s modern standards. Continuing along the case, the crown has been domed to accentuate the watch’s unique styling, and its modern movement (compared to the vintage Cal. R.A. 11”’62 Nouveau movement) is showcased via a sapphire caseback. The modern dial now uses a grained metal as its canvas, while the historical version opted for white enamel. Other features of note on the dial are the modern black hands compared to the historical model’s blued steel, and the 3 o’clock subdial placement compared to the original’s at 6 o’clock. In summary, considering its differences from its vintage predecessor, the contemporary model is much more balanced in its appeal and aptly features some of the best work from Vacheron Constantin’s over two-and-a-half centuries’ worth of watchmaking experience.
The rotated style of dial is somewhat of an aesthetic risk due its novelty; the design may well have served a purpose for historical racecar drivers and pilots, but it’s not that practical a feature anymore in everyday living as it might for one whose hands spend lots of time welded to a steering wheel. This is likely why the design has stayed within the bounds of vintage “homage” pieces, which except for rare exceptions tend to remain as novelties within the larger collection, most notably in the American 1921, but also in the Longines Avigation Watch Type A-7 1935. Both are priced above the general market (although the Longines watch retails significantly lower, around $3,500), and in turn are available only to the most avid of today’s vintage-watch enthusiasts in naturally limited quantities, in turn minimizing the risk of a commercial flop.
Of course, Vacheron has accepted this risk, and has bet that the influence of “new vintage” has likely expanded the appeal for these watches, and so at 36.5-mm by 36.5-mm, the rose gold cushion-shaped piece is being marketed as “mid-size,” and is a clear attempt to broaden the watch’s appeal deeper into the men’s luxury market and begin to move into the women’s. If the move is successful, there very well could be a 31-mm “small-size” American 1921 in the years to come.
For the most recent article in the “Vintage Eye” series, in which we compare the Tutima Grand Flieger Classic Chronograph to its historical counterpart, click here.
Caleb Anderson is a freelance writer with a primary focus on vintage watches. Since first discovering horology, he has garnered extensive knowledge in the field and spends much of his time sharing his opinions among other writers, collectors, and dealers. Currently located near New York City, he is a persistent student in all things historical, a writer on many topics, and a casual runner.