The 1970s were trying times for the world of mechanical watchmaking. With the Quartz Crisis in full swing, sales declining, and many brands closing up shop, one of Switzerland’s most cherished industries was facing down a bleak and tenuous future. And while the changes of the times were disastrous for many, others fought back and faced down uncertainty by responding with greatness. This is what brought the market the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak; and Gérald Genta’s other classic, the Patek Philippe Nautilus,; and Genta’s other other classic, the IWC Ingenieur. And in these trying times, some brands followed Genta’s brilliance and produced their own take on the luxury steel sports watch, one of which was the Vacheron Constantin.
In 1977 Vacheron released a watch for the 222nd anniversary of the brand aptly named the “222.” This piece, similar to the Genta designs that preceded it, featured a steel monobloc case with an integrated bracelet, but differentiated itself with a toothed, screwed-in outer bezel, a unique hexagonal bracelet, and a little Maltese cross on the bottom right corner of the case. Produced in relatively small quantities- — 500 in steel, 120 in steel and gold, and 100 in gold — the 222 did not stay in production for very long, but in 1996 Vacheron looked back to the integrated design and brought the world the first models in the Overseas collection (pictured below). Since that point, the brand has revamped the collection on several occasions, with the latest coming last year at SIHH 2016. This release was one of the most popular of 2016, and today the Vacheron Constantin name can hardly be mentioned without thinking of its now famous Overseas collection.
The flagship of this collection, known simply as the Overseas (Reference 4500V/110A-B128), is in some ways similar to the original 222, but in many others has claimed for itself a distinct spot in the contemporary luxury sports watch market. With a polished, 41-mm steel or gold case and integrated bracelet, the watch features an almost ovular, tonneau shape that helps separate it from some of its other 1970s-derived competitors. Inside the Maltese cross-inspired bezel sits the simple and sophisticated sunburst dial. Available in either blue, silver or brown, the dial has an outer banked minute track, applied hour markers with trapezoid-shaped marks at the quarter hours, and a date indicator at the 3 o’clock position.
Powering the simple, sword-style hand configuration is the automatic Caliber 5100, an in-house movement developed specifically by Vacheron for the new Overseas model, and one that can maintain up to a 60-hour power reserve. This beautifully finished movement is visible through a sapphire caseback, and is certified with the Hallmark of Geneva, a Swiss haute horology-specific certification. This piece has been priced by the brand at $19,900.
As I mentioned above, the Overseas was not produced as a direct sequel to the 222 collection, but rather drew many of its initial inspirations from that piece upon its conception. Of those elements still in evidence on the modern watch, you’ll notice the overall shape of the case and its integrated bracelet, the attention paid to crafting a unique outer bezel, the simple signed crown without crown guards, and the metal, outlined date indicator. However, even these similarities have changed over time: the case is less rigid today than in 1977, the bezel now draws its inspiration from the Maltese cross rather than a porthole, and the crown and date indicator seem more refined.
Of the changes, these are more obvious to the casual viewer. The dial is now sunburst rather than vintage matte; it features a variety of different decorations, like a banked outer minute ring and a non-uniform shape to the hour markers; and the hands take on a contemporary sword style rather than the baton shapes of the past. Notable on the case — besides the better overall finishing practices and obvious changes to the bezel and case shape — is the absence of the Maltese cross in the lower right corner, and the sapphire caseback to show off its wonderfully finished movement. The bracelet’s new design contrasts with the hexagonal style of the past. The bracelet of the most modern Overseas is actually quite interesting, as it can detach from the watch and be replaced for a leather or rubber strap simply by the click of a button on its underside. Besides being incredibly useful for those who like to change straps often, this is a very modern invention in watchmaking. Finally, the movement of the modern piece, the Caliber 5100, is certainly different than the VC1120 caliber (based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre Caliber 920) used in the 222 that was also seen in the first Royal Oaks and Nautiluses of the era.
Taken as a whole, it’s clear that the modern Overseas was by no means developed as an homage to any specifc steel sports watch from Vacheron Constantin’s long history. Nevertheless, the brand did take some definitive steps to evoke models from the past. From 1996 until today, the brand could have gone in a very different direction with a luxury steel piece, yet it has continued to stay mostly with time-tested designs first seen in the 1970s, with each new iteration becoming more historically inspired. In the end it’s seemed to pay off: the new Overseas collection is one of Vacheron’s most popular modern collections and, for many, earns a top spot in the conversation right alongside its 1970 counterparts, the Royal Oak and the Nautilus. While the overall collection is still young, and only time will determine its longevity in the market, I can’t help but feel that this watch will have some staying power in the horological world — maybe even until the 333rd anniversary of the brand.
For our most recent article, in which I look at the historical inspiration for the Tudor Pelagos, click here.
Caleb Anderson is a freelance writer with a primary focus on vintage watches. Since first learning about 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.