On September 17th, 1755 in the offices of the renowned notary Master Choisy, a young 24-year old master watchmaker Jean-Marc Vacheron hired his first apprentice, making Vacheron Constantin the oldest existing watchmaking Manufacture in the world with an uninterrupted production. However, it was the fruitful partnership of his grand-son Jacques Barthelemy and the highly skilled son of a prosperous grain and textile merchant – Francois Constantin that lead to this historic firm taking it’s name “Vacheron & Constantin” on April 1st 1819.
That being said Vacheron Constantin has been echoing it’s values in India since almost 1849. The first trace of the India association dated back to 1849 when their then agent for India wrote them a letter requesting for samples of fine watchmaking including watches that had guilloche decorations and music boxes, which were quite popular in those days. But it doesn’t end there. In 1869 Jacques Barthelemy Vacheron’s grandson John Roux, moved to Bombay (Mumbai) for further introspection and successfully returned in 1872 with several orders.
Karishma Karer, Founder, The Hour Markers (THM) caught up with the ever so dapper and humble Christian Selmoni, the Style and Heritage Director at Vacheron Constantin to delve deeper into this historic brand that is a part of the holy trinity of fine-watchmaking. Selmoni has been a part of the Vacheron Constantin family since 1990, however, within the Heritage department, his main responsibilities are to enrich and develop the Maison’s heritage, as well as to extract designs and design elements from the past to nurture Vacheron Constantin’s present and future creations.
Karishma Karer: Vacheron Constantin & India. Could you shed some light on this association?
Christian Selmoni: Towards the end of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th century, it was all about pocket watches and pendant watches for the ladies. Some of the key moments for us have been the visits of the Maharaja of Patiala at our workshop in 1921. He was a very famous watch collector and acquired some very interesting pieces from us. We have traces of some of the pieces he bought, well in particular a unique watch that was crafted in platinum, carved and shaped like a bracelet for women. The indication of time was on the side of the bracelet, hence a very discreet expression of time.
We also have traces of a beautiful pocket watch from the beginning of the 20th century with a chronometer, an astronomical calendar, a single pusher chronograph, an alarm clock and the moon phases. Interestingly we bought back that timepiece which is now a part of our private collection. Still talking of the Maharaja of Patiala, we also bought back for our private collection a 30-minute split second chronograph, which was also a chronometer.
Karishma Karer: Considering Vacheron Constantin is the oldest watch Manufacturer, your archives are steeped in heritage from correspondences to sketches and more. How do you pick and choose the watches you want to restore?
Christian Selmoni: I took over the heritage department in 2017 and at this time I was still unfolding the treasures of the heritage of Vacheron Constantin – the private collection. We have approximately 1500 watches in our private collection. But that aside, the biggest treasure that we do have in the company, from a heritage point of view are our archives. We have archives that are 420 linear meters along with all the production registers since the very early years of the company. This means that we can authenticate every single Vacheron Constantin that has been made since its very inception. Our archives are an endless source of stories and discoveries and quite an inspiration for our current designers. Every day we discover something new – a never ending journey through the heritage of Vacheron Constantin.
We are very grateful that we have managed to maintain these archives and registers because they are really helping us to pave the way for the future without losing track of our roots, history and heritage.
Karishma Karer: In a world driven by the digital age, how do maintain a balance of traditional watchmaking with an angle of modernity?
Christian Selmoni: This is an extremely narrow path that our designers have to walk on. In the sense that when you have such seniority of 266 years of existence, it is very important to remain faithful to your roots, especially when it comes to the aesthetics. From a design perspective we are a classic brand with a lot of elegance, sophistication and refinement, sometimes with a twist. The main job of our designers is to stay in touch with our roots incorporating it the reality of the 21st century. We pay great attention when we create new models to ensure that they respect the elegance and classic style of Vacheron Constantin.
Let’s take the example of the Historiques American 1921 unveiled this year in three variations to mark the 100th anniversary of an historic watch nicknamed the American 1921. A great timepiece which is part of the Historiques collection. In this collection we are reinterpreting iconic models from our heritage and the motto of the collection is to showcase the creativity and the boldness of Vacheron Constantin since decades now. The Historiques American 1921 is a super example of the Vacheron Constantin style mixing an elegant famous classic with a twist.
However there are two different kind of watches I would like to focus on here. There is the American 1921 which is part of the Historiques collection since 2008. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of this legendary design, the Maison has reinterpreted this historic watch in three variations, in white gold on the small and large versions and in a platinum limited version. We took also this opportunity of the 100th anniversary to create a special project that was led by both the heritage team and the restoration workshop. The idea was to recreate a part of history with some lost know-how in the field of movement decoration and finishings. We used the American 1921 as a platform to rediscover these lost skills.
We actually took an original 1921 that we have in our private collection and decided to recreate another one using the exact same tools and same means, the exact same way that is was made in 1921. This timepiece was made at 100% in our restoration workshop and our watchmakers went through various iteration to rediscover how Vacheron Constantin achieved this level of finishing and some watchmaking aspects such as setting the jewels on the main plate and the bridges during the 1920’s, a know-how that has been lost for decades now. After making this particular watch, we at Vacheron Constantin can not only service such watches that are a hundred years old but are also now able to redo, if necessary, the bridges of the movements from 80 or 100 years ago.
Karishma Karer: Any interesting buybacks and additions to the Vacheron Constantin private collection?
Christian Selmoni: Certainly! We created our private collection in 1906 and we are always monitoring auction houses, brick and mortar merchants and of course the internet to find some unique and exclusive Vacheron Constantin watches from the past. When we do have the possibility to buy them we do and add it to our private collection. This is important because our private collection is used for exhibitions, to support today’s creativity and are also a testimony of Vacheron Constantin’s know-how of fine watchmaking from techniques to finishings and decorative craftsmanship. So yes, we are very active on the secondary market and we have partnerships with a few auction houses too. We are always seeking for rare Vacheron Constantin timepieces.
One of these super rare and attractive watches, was recently auctioned by Phillips Auction House in Geneva this November. They have found one model from the late forty’s, a large square timepiece, a piece much sought after by collectors. We knew we made a few of these in white gold but Phillips found one in platinum. After delving into our archives to verify this information, we discovered that this platinum so-called Cioccolatone is the only one existing. An interesting and rare watch from Vacheron Constantin history.
Karishma Karer: The Vintage Vacheron Constantin’s
Christian Selmoni: In the recent years we have seen a growing interest amongst collectors for vintage watches which is also a very interesting door into the world of Vacheron Constantin. In fact we have developed an offer that is dedicated to vintage watches which is called “Les Collectionneurs”. Through this we buy back Vacheron Constantin watches from the past, restore them in our workshops and resell them with a two year guarantee and a certificate of authenticity. This is a great addition to the Manufacture’s line up, we are addressing the demands of seasoned collectors who are looking for modern timepieces but we are also offering guaranteed vintage watches and, we do have some fabulous watches there. These days the interest for fine watchmaking is very high and through our collections we are addressing a vast potential clientele.
Karishma Karer: Coming to the Les Cabinotiers. Since every watch is bespoke, if I ordered a unique piece how long would it take? Could you shed some light on a few watches from Les Cabinotiers that were produced but haven’t been given the spotlight?
Christian Selmoni: It really depends on the kind of watch requested, the complexity of the timepiece from a technical angle and decorative craftsmanship. So depending on what you want it could take anything from two to eight years. This may seem like a long time but our clients are always ready to wait as they respect the fact that a Vacheron Constantin is a piece of art and not an industrialized product. Talking about very unique and special timepieces, the one that comes to mind is the unique timepiece from Les Cabinotiers which was made for a customer around the theme of Lord Ganesha.
Vacheron Constantin has been here since 1755 and through the years we have manufactured various kinds of watches from petite feminine watches to the Grand Sonnerie for the ladies in the 19th century, sports watches, professional watches and astronomical watches. So even if the Manufacture has a lot of different designs catering to an entire genre of watch lovers and collectors alike, there is a consistent classic style within all the collections. One of the greatest strengths of a Vacheron Constantin timepiece is to be able to express itself through various diverse expressions. No matter the style of the watch you choose, you will always find the best expression of fine watchmaking from movements designs to finishings. Owning a Vacheron Constantin is owning a timepiece which is one the best examples of high watchmaking authenticity.