The Decay of the Angel
by Carlos Perez
July 13, 2002
And that of him and all that his may be;
All things that move and breathe with toil and sound
Are born and die; revolve, subside, and swell.’
– P. B. Shelley Mont Blanc
In the final years of the second millennium CE, the entire watch industry of Europe was in upheaval: Swiss titan SMH, LVMH of France, Les Manufactures Horlogrs (LMH) of the German conglomerate Mannesman, two Italian luxury concerns Bulgari and Gucci, international player Richemont, and a number of significant independent players like industry giant Rolex, and industry leader Patek Philippe all drew about them the battle lines of a new great war, with new alliances forged, and trenches dug. A war of luxury in a time of unprecedented economic boom and consumption.
The Compagnie Financière Richemont AG had been created in 1988 at the height of the Apartheid political crisis, an international investments group based in Switzerland and controlled (though minority owned) by the Rupert Group of South Africa. The Compagnie Financière Rupert was established by self-made South African billionaire Anton Rupert as a family-owned holding company. Under the Rupert Group, Richemont holds the family’s offshore interests while other holding companies focus upon their domestic South African investments. A multi-billion dollar empire begun in the South African wine industry and built by the international tobacco trade, the financial and industrial might of the Rupert Group spreads throughout the world markets in a vast and complex web which centers around Stellenbosch.
The interest of the Ruperts in luxury goods appears to have begun with Dunhill cigarettes in the late 60s, and Cartier in the 1970s. Part of a select group of South African investors led by Robert Hocq, the three separate Cartier companies were acquired from 1972 to 1979, and re-unified into Cartier Monde SA. In 1988 Cartier Monde purchased 60% of the manufacture Piaget, which also gave it control over Baume et Mercier. Cartier Monde became the Vendôme Luxury Group in 1993 when it was merged with Dunhill’s non-tobacco division, and the minority shareholders of Piaget Holding SA were bought out. With that, the 70% Richemont-owned Vendôme began to collect old brands with a connoisseurs eye. The present listing of Richemont-owned luxury brands is thick with the dust of the 19th century.
Its eldest acquisition remains that one made in the thick of the horological war: Purchased for a meager $50 million (est.) in 1996, Vacheron Constantin had grown steadily under Claude-Daniel Proellochs’ leadership – a considerable 300%, but as part of Vendôme it would face not only high expectations, but a harsher, more competitive market. This was the time of my own reawakening to Vacheron Constantin, my own remembrance of things past. As I recall, its marketed image at the time was heavily dependent upon this detail from a Victorian-era painting by Christophe Ziegler, of 18th century watchmakers in a cabinet workshop. Yet unlike the mid-1980s when the genesis of the mechanical revival drew heavily upon “tradition” and “heritage” as its bywords, the mid-1990s established the wristwatch as a fetish object, an icon of glamour and a branded talisman. Much like the early watches of the 16th century, an object designed and intended to be seen by others. Watches had always been products of conspicuous consumption, but as a matter of degree, what had long been a whisper had become a shout.
The first watch introduced under Vendôme’s ownership in 1996 had of course been developed just prior to its purchase: Vacheron Constantin’s third attempt to break into the steel luxury sports watch market, the new “chronometre” named “Overseas” combined design elements taken from both the 222 and Phideas, owing more to the latter. Likely due to a dwindling supply of calibre 1126 from Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin elected to source the extra-flat automatic calibre 3100 from Girard Perregaux, a movement which by all reports within the enthusiast community was suffering from poor reliability and quality control. All credit to Vacheron Constantin, the base movement which would become their own calibre 1311 was massively reworked and fully-finished in the Genevois style, including a gold-rimmed rotor. All in all appearing much like the Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre which it was substituting for, Vacheron Constantin evidently made the movement reliable before Girard Perregaux did.
That same year Vendôme confirmed Claude-Daniel Proellochs in his position as President and CEO of Vacheron Constantin, where he had served since 1988. Backed with the greater capital resources of Vendôme cum Richemont, the house also faced a new mandate to re-invent itself according to the trends which ruled the modern market. The Overseas was accepted as a first step, and would prove to be a modest one relative to that which would come. The long term plans laid then were based in the problems of the day: Its most favoured ebauche supplier was a part of Mannesman’s LMH, and 40%-owned by rival Audemars Piguet. Frederic Piguet and Nouvelle Lemania belonged to the Swatch Group (formerly SMH), leaving Vacheron Constantin only the leftovers of Blancpain and Breguet. The days of traditional high-craft etablissage were numbered, and work behind the scenes was begun to make the house once more into a self-sufficient manufacture.
Vacheron Constantin’s traditional field of mechanical gentlemen’s watches had been previously organized into two collections: Les Historiques and Les Essentielles. Watches with anything more complicated that a date function were later segregated into a separate Les Complications line, and the Essentielles have now been merged with the Historiques – also becoming the repository for previously unassociated simple designs like the Chronometre Royal. I feel that this has only highlighted the confusion of identity and disparate aesthetic ideas and feelings that have been inherited and sewn throughout its collections. A lack of cohesive vision for a quarter century is not easily cured.
The formerly “historical” models are intentionally replicas of proven designs from the past. Often possessing a haunting beauty, they seem to me just as often to be lacking in vitality and a presence of authenticity – dated by their very newness. Much like looking at a print rather than at an original (read: “real”) painting. The now catch-all essential and complications collections are comprised of formulaic “classic” designs, sometimes beautiful but often blandly elegant, lacking some of the expected flair and spirit, perhaps reflecting inoffensive design by committee. All are still recognizably Vacheron Constantin to my eye and nothing I wouldn’t wear, but nothing I would break the bank to buy. Even so, within the context of a modern watch shop they float ethereally as a product apart – perhaps too apart for this era. As Oscar Wilde once said, “I don’t have any solution, but I certainly admire the problem.”
The high-grade calibre 1120 which had formed the strongest cornerstone of these various collections and special pieces was undermined at Vacheron Constantin in the last years of Sheik Yamani’s ownership, when the standard freesprung Gyromax balance had begun to be set aside. The earliest instance of this that I am aware of was the engraved-dial Mercator first released in 1994, an instance which was confirmed as a trend under Vendme in 1997 with the introduction of the Historiques “Poinçon de Geneve,” followed by the entire Historiques “Audubon” series, the recent limited edition Saltarello, and I believe the last generation of 1120SQ skeletonized ultrathins. As far as I have been able to discover, the extremely rare cloisonne-dial Mercators are the only Vacheron Constantin 1120s equipped with freesprung balances in the last dozen years, but I hope that I am mistaken.
For a movement designed ab initio to utilize a freesprung adjustable-mass balance this omission is a serious degradation of the craft: In the 1120, the extremely tight clearances of a 2.45mm-high movement with full rotor appears to preclude the option of even a standard micrometric regulator, which left it to be fitted with an extremely flat and simple regulator lacking even a fine adjustment index arm – something that was deemed by a well-regarded watchmaker as “inappropriate for a fine watch.” I can’t comment upon whether solid-backed 112x models have freesprung balances or not, but the omission of a Gyromax might explain some complaints in recent years of unusually fragile regulation in some recent Essentielles.
As distressing as this mistreatment of the 1120 is, its real significance lies in its representation of Vacheron Constantin’s present and future watchmaking philosophy under its current administration. In all fairness, the use of the cheapened x120 is something which Audemars Piguet had also been guilty of from time to time (calibre 2120/1) in the past. Yet at Vacheron Constantin this is proving to be a path taken away from the high road of the craft. A high road which Audemars Piguet has begun to establish as its baseline as Patek Philippe has since the 1960s. Freesprung balances have been a definitive dividing line between “fine” watchmaking and truly “high-grade” watchmaking for centuries. One notes that mass-market brands like Rolex and Omega produce freesprung watches in vast quantities, using balances of their own design (and therefore not relying on Patek Philippe’s Gyromax), and one thinks that if the very small manufacture F. P. Journe can freespring all of its watch production (using a long established adjustable-mass balance design), then there can be no excuse for the great and ancient house of Vacheron Constantin not to do as well.
So it is with some disappointment, if not surprise, that we greeted the new in-house manual wind calibre 1400 last year. Obviously intended to replace the unworthy 1014, it is a small calibre in 9 lignes and 20 jewels. On the face of it, it is the prettiest simple hand-wind introduced by any manufacture in the present era. Alas pretty but vapid, with a beauty that is only display-back deep. Rather than the 4 or 5 bridge curved bar or revolver style which had been characteristic of Vacheron & Constantin handwinds since the mid-19th century, it elected to adopt a “half-plate” design which brings to mind some movements of Audemars Piguet’s in the 1940s, and was perhaps inspired by the 1120’s half-plate architecture. However unlike the contemporary Audemars Piguet calibre 3090, calibre 1400 is a high-beat movement featuring a smooth balance and micrometric regulator. And while it meets the minimum standards of the Geneva hallmark, the movement is not authentically finished in the high Genevois style, but rather in something more akin to the dualistic Saxon style: finished more simply underneath a highly decorated top-plate. The absence of a freesprung balance and the abandonment of the full Genevois finishing style which it can probably be credited with creating is troubling, boding ill for a new generation of in-house base movements yet to come from Vacheron Constantin. Of course, finch c’ vita, c’ speranza, so we will yearn yet for a 1400/1 properly fitted and finished.
Perhaps the most disheartening example of an apparently growing disregard for the spirit of craft came recently with the limited edition Medicus chronograph announced in 2000, and sold in 2001. Vacheron Constantin had proudly declaimed the use of “new” chronograph movement, which many of us in the enthusiast community were shocked to find was only the Lemania calibre 1872. A serviceable and robust coulisse-lever movement, it is appropriately used in the Omega Speedmaster “Moonwatch” as an economical alternative to the much more expensive column-wheel calibre 2320 which Vacheron Constantin has long used as the basis for its chronographs and chronograph-based complications. Granting that I am not a watchmaker, display-back examination of the movement as used in the $19,900 Medicus revealed no evidence of technical modification or enhancement, and its finishing and decoration appeared identical to the Lemania-finished Omega calibre “1863” as featured in a $3,050 Speedmaster Professional. Again, merely a single example of the direction and transformation being wrought at the house of Vacheron Constantin over the last few years of the last century.
In 1998 Richemont bought out the minority shareholders of the Vendôme Group, allowing it to merge with Vendôme properties in 1999. The concurrent transfer and sale of its tobacco holdings has left Richemont with a 21% stake in BAT as the last vestige of its tie to the tobacco trade. Otherwise Richemont has become a pure luxury group trading in jewelry, fashionable clothes, wristwatches, and even the aristocratic traditional firearms of James Purdey. To further enhance and clarify its Swiss-French luxury image, Richemont is now moving its headquarters from Zurich to Geneva. After the expensive purchase of LMH and the Stern Group in 2000, Richemont segregated its fine watchmaking properties into a specialist watchmaking division, “Richemont Haute Horlogerie,” first headed by Gunter Blumlien, and now led by Henry-John Belmont. Even though once more a sister company to Jaeger-LeCoultre, the transmogrification of Vacheron Constantin into an autonomous manufacture continues.
A process first begun with the acquisition of the Manufacture HDG atelier in 1998, Vacheron Constantin has recently announced plans to move all watch production from its various ateliers in Geneva and the Valle de Joux to a new centralized manufactory based in the Genevan commune of Plan-les-Ouates. This complete restructuring of the house seems to indicate that it has decided to emulate much of the post-quartz strategy of Patek Philippe, aiming to produce a much larger volume of watches per year, mainly at a commercial grade a step or two below its best historical standard and achievement. Of course I must concede that even this lower, or compromised standard will still place it in elite company among most of its competitors and sister brands, though a solid step below the high water mark of its former equals in the now sundered “Great Three.” While it seems likely that in the near future all mechanical Vacheron Constantins will bear the Geneva hallmark (like the watches of Roger Dubuis and Patek Philippe), it is unclear what this will really signify as it now appears to be following the letter only, and not the spirit of this historic symbol.
Vacheron Constantin’s sister company Cartier exemplifies the modern art of commodifying an established brand. Once a small jeweler to the world elite, Cartier has become the “Rolex” of gentlemen’s and jewelry watches – popular high volume luxury. Evidently on the path to becoming another branded good, Vacheron Constantin’s transformation from watchmaker to widget maker has begun with two new collections introduced in the last year or so. Following in the foamy wake of the oversized wristwatch trend with the Malte (2001) and Royal Eagle (2002), Vacheron Constantin has distorted and mutated its ancient sensibility into something grotesque – sad caricatures that are certainly distinct and easy to recognize as bearers of the brand. Put somewhat less emotionally, when seen next to the still elegant, phantom-like remainders of Les Essentielles and Les Complications, the new lines appear to be watches from a different company, a new company.
While not quite 250 years old, Vacheron Constantin has stepped across four centuries of human history – from the heart of the 18th to now face the 21st. Under Richemont it has grown an additional 45%, from 11,000 watches in 1996 to some 16,000 in 2001. It remains a maker of fine watches, but fewer and fewer high-grade ones, depending upon how one splits one’s hairs, and its new direction is seemingly a defacto abdication of any claim to its former throne – offering less watchmaking at higher prices. Upholding its cabinotier origins as a marketing banner, it appears to be abandoning cabinotier values, ethics, and vision. I fear, abandoning the soul of the House of Jean-Marc Vacheron.