In Part I of this article last week, we looked at the three limited edition watches Vacheron Constantin created to celebrate the opening of their first U. S. boutique in New York City. This week we journey by helicopter to the brand’s manufacturing facility in Le Sentier in the Vallée de Joux to see where the pieces begin their lives, and we visit the headquarters where they are assembled. Our tour includes 35 images and 15 minutes of video.
Most Vacheron Constantin movements begin life at the brand’s manufacturing facility in Le Sentier, north of Geneva in the Vallée de Joux. This is where steel and brass blanks become plates, bridges, springs, and other movement components. By car from Geneva, the trip takes some time. Not so much that you need your perpetual calendar, but enough to be inconvenient. To our delight, Vacheron Constantin arranged helicopter transport from Geneva Airport to the Vallée, and indeed to their very doorstep.
All images and videos may be enlarged with a click.
Flying over Switzerland, like Davos attendees.
After landing, Vacheron Constantin North America President Hugues de Pins (center) talks with the ground crew.
Share the trip with this video of the flight (4:32). Enlarge the video to full screen by clicking the icon in the lower right corner.
The Le Sentier facility, or VCVJ as it is known internally, is where Vacheron Constantin develops new calibers and manufactures movement components. Steel and brass stock are milled or cut using electro-erosion. Depending on which caliber they form, parts are finished entirely by hand using age-old techniques, or by hand with the aid of electric grinders and polishers.
Milling machines are far more precise than hand-held tools could ever be, and the best machines produce the best components. Below, a machine drills holes in a main plate.
Unfinished plates and other parts after milling.
Fine parts such as springs are created using spark erosion or EDM (electric discharge machining). Desired shapes are obtained by removing material from the workpiece with a series of rapid current discharges between two electrodes separated by a dielectric liquid. This technique can also be used to skeletonize components. Below, a spark erosion machine.
A milled main plate before spark erosion. Most of the material remains.
The same plate after spark erosion has removed much of the material, or “skeletonized” the plate.
Fabricated parts are next hardened in an oven set to 800 degrees Celsius. A second heating at a lower temperature completes the process.
Hardened parts are then finished. As noted, finishing can be entirely by hand, often using ancient tools such as pegwoods and files, or it can be by hand assisted with modern tools such as electric benchtop and hand-held motors. The former is applied to parts destined for Vacheron Constantin’s finest timepieces, while the latter is employed for pieces at lower price points. Hand finishing makes up a significant portion of the cost of each watch. Some of the techniques, such as black polishing, can take years to master, and individual components can take days to finish.
The finishers, or finnesseurs in French, are trained in-house. Vacheron is one of the few brands that applies the same level of finishing throughout the movement – including parts and surfaces that are not visible.
Hand finishing: beveling an edge with a file.
Hand finishing parts with pegwood.
Parts for lower-priced timepieces are still finished by hand, but with the help of electric machines, in this case a lathe fitted with polishing disks.
Sample parts in unfinished and finished states were available to be examined under a microscope. These parts were entirely hand finished. The small part on the lower right – a simple bridge – takes two days to complete. Every part created in the hand-finishing atelier must pass an examination by the department head before it is passed on to the assemblers.
Tour Vacheron Constantin’s Le Sentier manufacturing facility in this video (5:13).