To say that Vacheron Constantin is a venerable figure in the contemporary watch industry would be an understatement. No other firm can match its 264 years of continuous production, or can boast endorsements of quality throughout modern history that range from U.S. presidents like Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, to members of the British Royal Family like Princess Diana of Wales and Queen Elizabeth II. It’s this longevity and status that makes appraising Vacheron Constantin’s eminence a simple affair and has affirmed its place among the “Holy Trinity” of watchmaking.
This horological triumvirate is completed by Patek Philippe and Audemars Piguet, two of watchmaking’s most lucrative and well-established firms. The connotation of greatness that these three brands share comes largely from two factors: All three have run in uninterrupted operation since their founding centuries ago (Vacheron is the oldest by 84 years), and all have consistently produced haute horlogerie timepieces without bowing to short-lived trends or fads. In other words, a watch produced by any of the three is backed by the assurance of superlative quality reached through hundreds of years of watchmaking expertise.
But how does a marque go about maintaining that reputation of pioneering excellence rather than relying on the privilege of name recognition? All three brands have taken different routes to reach their standing in the minds – and wallets – of 21st-century collectors and enthusiasts. For Vacheron Constantin, the path is partially based on a diverse selection of lines that includes the sporty and diverse Overseas, the formal and courtly Traditionelle and Patrimony, and the vintage-tinged Historiques. Today, there are 10 separate ranges that make up the core collection for Vacheron Constantin.
The vast number of timepieces that make up each of these lineups differ in all the expected ways: price, material, complication and, most importantly, their targeted audience. These 10 collections are how the end consumer currently recognizes a Vacheron Constantin timepiece compared to that of a different brand. The growth and development of these lines are critical to the brand’s market share and standing among collectors. However, these collections only showcase a part of the brand’s horological legacy. Due to its standing in the so-called “Big Three” of watchmaking, there remains an aspect of Vacheron that remains mostly unknown to the average collector, a department that attracts only the most affluent and esoteric of clients, and strives to achieve the highest levels of contemporary haute horlogerie while operating in a sub rosa fashion to the rest of the company.
This team of watchmakers and artisans is referred to as “Les Cabinotiers,” a reference to Geneva’s most gifted watchmakers of the 18th century who plied their trade in workshops, known as cabinets, placed in the cramped attics of the tallest buildings so that their workspace would be bathed in natural light for the longest portion of the day. These consummate craftsmen would receive orders from dignitaries across the European courts to build bespoke timekeepers for them that could convey their prestigious professional and social standing.
Today’s Les Cabinotiers department is directly influenced by what its Age of Enlightenment forebears were accomplishing. This is where Vacheron Constantin is able to operate to its full capacity and produce custom, one-of-a-kind timepieces that not only advance horology as a whole, but strengthen its relationships with its clients, who, by commissioning a watch, are taking part in a centuries-old tradition that very few modern brands are able to maintain in today’s fluctuating economic climate.
Les Cabinotiers Evolves
Although Vacheron Constantin has taken orders for custom timepieces throughout its history – James W. Packard and Henry Graves Jr. were both notable patrons of the service in the early 20th-century – Les Cabinotiers wasn’t established as its own division until 2006.
Having a dedicated department whose sole focus is the creation of custom timepieces allows Vacheron Constantin to segment its production and make the process of commissioning a watch much more efficient as it alleviates the stress on a brand’s core production team and allows for extensive personalization. Given the client-based nature of Les Cabinotiers, everything must be signed off by the collector to move forward. Every sketch, idea, or iteration must be approved of, so the lead time is much quicker than a regular product, but there are also more delays caused by the back and forth approval process. For a traditional manufacturing and fulfillment team, this variable set-up could be disastrous, but for Les Cabinotiers, it’s simply part of the job.
While Les Cabinotiers might not have the name recognition of the firm’s more marketable collections, most collectors in tune with the horological news cycle should be aware of the department’s crowning achievements. After all, this is the part of Vacheron Constantin that assisted in the birth of Ref. 57260, otherwise known as the world’s most complicated timepiece, boasting 57 total complications. The double-sided pocketwatch was the herculean accomplishment of three Les Cabinotiers watchmakers who dedicated eight years of their lives to the conceptualization and completion of Ref. 57260. Given the sobriquet “Grand Oeuvre” upon its release in 2015, the watch was one of the most-discussed topics of the year within the industry and was a defining moment for Les Cabinotiers, nine years after its official founding.
This moment was also a catalyst of change for Les Cabinotiers. When Louis Ferla was appointed CEO of Vacheron Constantin in April 2017, he evolved the department’s day-to-day approach. Identifying the growing desire for custom unique pieces in the marketplace and capitalizing on the department’s post-57260 renown, Ferla took a hands-on role with Les Cabinotiers and shifted its operational goals. No longer would the firm’s most talented watchmakers and artisans wait idly for a commission to arrive to start their work; now they would have the freedom to create unique pieces, of varying complexity, without a final client in mind. These watches could then be used as a testing ground for new ideas, as examples for potential clients, or to demonstrate Vacheron Constantin’s horological proficiency to a larger audience where previous client-commissioned timepieces would never be publicized. Under this approach, the name recognition of Les Cabinotiers has grown to new heights.
Les Cabinotiers in 2019
Vacheron Constantin used SIHH 2019 as the launching point for a vast new collection of timepieces. Leaning heavily on bestial motifs, Mécaniques Sauvages consists of over 20 unique pieces that range from grand complications to watches entirely focused on displaying the skills of the Les Cabinotiers artisans. Mécaniques Sauvages also reveals that the highly limited and small-scale approach of Les Cabinotiers can allow for the injection of overarching thematic elements that provide a shared stage for experimentation while differing in execution.
The number of grand complications included in Mécaniques Sauvages is highlighted by the Caliber 2755 Eagle, a watch that combines a perpetual calendar, minute repeater and tourbillon with a slightly off-center blue dial enhanced by intricate guilloché. On both sides of the 45-mm, 18K 5N pink-gold case is a hand-engraved eagle soaring in mid-flight. Month, day and date are handled by the subdials in the upper half of the dial, while the leap year is indicated by a small aperture placed between 1 and 2 o’clock. The minute repeater is equipped with a rare centripetal system that enables further sound diffusion for a more melodious striking sound. Hour and minutes are, of course, represented by the matching pink-gold dauphine hands, and small seconds can be found on the tourbillon carriage. The watch has a 55-hour power reserve with an indicator that is visible on the backside of the movement.
While the watches within the Mécaniques Sauvages collection are all one-of-a-kind, there is a small series of unique pieces within the greater collection that feature the art of grisaille enamel on their dials to display a variety of wild animals such as a falcon, a lynx, an elephant, and a rhinoceros. Grisaille enamel is a centuries-old technique that allows for dramatic portraits of these animals in monochromatic, gray-scale light. Although these are the least complicated of the Mécaniques Sauvages timepieces – with only hours, minutes and central seconds to complement the 40-mm cases – the depth and detail seen in these miniature paintings are the results of a month’s work for a single artisan. Finally, an officer-style caseback protects the movement and allows for further personalization like an engraving.
Vacheron continued the unique timekeeping display seen in last year’s Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers collection with a number of watches highlighted by the Mysterious Animals Monkey. The dials of these watches combine hand-engraved, micro-sculpted gold depictions of animals concealed by the jungle. The Mysterious Animals Monkey depicts an ape swinging through the jungle to reach a cluster of bananas. The monkey is presented in 18K white gold while the surrounding leaves and fruit are sculpted from 18K yellow gold to complement the platinum case. As with the Métiers d’Art Les Aérostiers collection, the time indication is separated between four apertures found around the dial’s periphery, allowing for the focus to be put on the brand’s handcraft. Vacheron says that the technique of fine-line engraving seen on these models – which includes other jungle beasts such as a tiger and a parrot – requires at least five years of experience to master the intaglio-type sculpting able to showcase detail in startling realism.
One of the most impressive releases in Mécaniques Sauvages is a stunning Minute Repeater Tourbillon Perpetual Calendar. Encased within a 44.5 mm, 18K pink-gold case, the watch separates its complications into two faces on the front and back of the watch. The front view of the slate gray dial showcases the tourbillon and is segmented by the off-center minutes track and hour indexes that lead to partial skeletonization on its upper right half side to expose the chiming mechanism. A flip of the watch reveals the perpetual calendar on its translucent caseback. Also on display is a moon-phase indicator and the age of the moon.
In addition to the Mécaniques Sauvages collection, Les Cabinotiers quietly released a pair of Minute Repeating Perpetual Calendars with a movement that fans of ultra-thin watchmaking should remember. In 2013 – before Bulgari and Piaget began their ultra-thin tug-of-war – Vacheron released the Patrimony Contemporaine Minute Repeater, then the thinnest minute repeater to come to market thanks to Caliber 1731 that boasted thinness of 3.9 mm. That hand-wound movement makes a triumphant return inside this run of two unique pieces with the addition of a perpetual calendar complication. The addition of a QP increases the height of the caliber from 3.9 mm to only 5.7 mm, for a total thickness of 10.44 mm. The two watches come in white gold with an opaline blue dial or pink gold with a brown dial.
After 13 years, it’s become abundantly clear that Les Cabinotiers not only carries on the legacy of those 18th-century Genevoise cabinotiers but also continues to expand the capabilities of Vacheron in the current day. Watches by Les Cabinotiers are available to anyone that has the time, the financial standing, and the desire to create something truly one-of-a-kind. After all, Les Cabinotiers doesn’t stand for simply changing the dial color of an Overseas Chronograph or changing the case dimensions of a FiftySix Complete Calendar, it’s for those individuals who have fantasized about breaking the boundaries of contemporary haute horlogerie and working with one of the very few brands with the capability – and desire – to go along with it.