Vacheron Constantin is the oldest watch manufacturer in the world, having been founded in 1755. This giant of watchmaking has been designing and producing incredible watches for hundreds of years and continues to be recognised as one of the best.
The history of Vacheron Constantin is a long and interesting one that has brought the brand to where it is today.
The Founding of the Company
In 1755, master watchmaker Jean-Marc Vacheron took on his first apprentice in Geneva. This, claims the company, was the start of his business, showing the 24-year-old’s intention to pass down his skills to another. The contract between Vacheron and the apprentice is evidence of the birth of the company, making it the oldest watchmaking business still operating today.
Also in 1755, Jean-Marc Vacheron made a silver pocket watch, the earliest example in existence of a pocket watch signed with his name. The watch, which is signed ‘J. M. Vacheron a Geneve’ features gold hands and high-quality workmanship in the technical elements of the design.
Handed Down Through the Generations
As time went on, the business stayed in the family. Jean-Marc Vacheron’s son would first take over the company in 1785, at the age of 25. Despite difficulties caused by the French Revolution and the occupation of Geneva, he kept the business going. He, in turn, taught the watch trade to his own son, Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron.
Jean-Marc Vacheron’s grandson took charge of the company in 1810. Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron moved the business forwards in several ways. Under his leadership, they made more complicated timepieces, including musical watches that could play two different tunes. He was also the first to begin exporting their products from Switzerland to France and Italy.
The workshops showed an expertise in designing and manufacturing watches with complications, features in addition to the indication of hours and minutes. One early example from 1812 is a quarter repeater watch, which also indicates each quarter hour.
Partnership with François Constantin
In 1819, the business became Vacheron et Constantin. Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron formed a partnership with François Constantin, an experienced businessman. Constantin was the son of a merchant who had spent time developing his business skills while travelling, when he met Jacques Barthélémi, discovering their shared interest in stylish, complicated watches.
An Early Producer of Wristwatches
When Vacheron Constantin first came into being, the pocket watch was the only option for a portable timepiece. However, in the 19th century, the wristwatch started to give it some competition. One example from Vacheron Constantin is a lady’s wristwatch that dates to 1889 and is one of the first series-produced wristwatches. Instead of having a crown to wind the watch, it was given a clever device that allowed the bezel to be turned to set the time.
The First Shop Opens
In 1906, the first Vacheron Constantin shop opened its doors. Watches were displayed on the ground floor of the building where clients were previously served in the salons on the upper floors. At this time, the company was receiving orders from royalty, nobility, and notable people in society.
Just a year after the shop opened, Vacheron Constantin produced its first Royal Chronometer and registered the name of the model. This pocket watch became popular around the world thanks to its durability, reliability, and accuracy which made it functional even in more difficult climates.
Increasing Fame Around the World
Vacheron Constantin continued to enjoy international success throughout the first half of the 20th century. In the 1920s, wristwatches were a modern accessory that saw the company have particular success in the USA. There was even a special finish reserved for the American market to provide for its discerning customers.
In 1932, Vacheron Constantin released the first world time watch that featured 24 time zones. The watch was made in collaboration with Louis Cottier, with a unique mechanical movement. It featured 24 time zones with a disk that rotated around the dial while 31 international cities were written on the outer bezel.
Continued Development in the 20th Century
Mid-century, Vacheron Constantin continued to develop its wristwatch offerings. In 1955, the company turned 200 years old and released the thinnest ever manually wound movement for its bicentennial. At just 1.64mm, the movement is as thin as a Swiss 20 cent coin. This very thin movement naturally allowed for the creation of ultra thin wristwatches.
Also in 1955, the company released a wrist chronograph featuring a tachometer scale. With a water-resistant case and protection from magnetic fields, this watch has a 30-minute counter and a small seconds counter.
Several other iconic styles made their first appearance in the second half of the 20th century. The Great Adventure 222 was released in 1977 for the 222nd anniversary of the company, and would become one of the most recognizable designs from Vacheron Constantin. It also inspired the Overseas collection, which launched almost 20 years later in 1996. This collection offers technical, sporty watches that are designed for travel.
Vacheron Constantin in the 21st Century
The international headquarters for Vacheron Constantin opened in 2004 in Plans-les-Ouates, Switzerland. The new building, which was designed by Bernard Tschumi, unites every aspect of the company, including the workshops.
On the 250th anniversary, a collection of five incredible watches was launched to recognise the crafts used to make Vacheron Constantin watches. These included the award-winning Tour de l’Île watch, which picked up the Aiguille d’Or Grand Prize from The Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. This was the most complicated watch ever made until the 260th anniversary in 2015. Reference 57260 was developed over 8 years and features an impressive 57 complications. It was another award-winning watch, given the Jury’s Prize at The Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
A number of other outstanding watches from Vacheron Constantin have been released in the last decade. The Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, for example, is a 2017 design with 23 complications and three times that are each powered by their own gear trains. It features a three-week power reserve, is made of over 500 components, and measures only 8.7mm in thickness.
The Fiftysix collection is another notable example from recent years. This modern collection was released in 2018, combining a classic dial with a more contemporary case, which takes inspiration from the Maltese cross emblem used by the company. The Égérie collection, launched in 2020, is a women’s collection that brings together Haute Horlogerie and Haute Couture.
Iconic Vacheron Constantin Collections and Pieces
Vacheron Constantin has an impressive collection of iconic watches, ranging from early examples to more modern designs. The first known watch by Jean-Marc Vacheron dates back to the conception of the business in 1755. It’s the only watch held by the company that bears his signature and is an example of the technical standards that would inform all other Vacheron Constantin watches.
Other examples in the collection include a 19th-century pocket watch with a map of Italy engraved and enamelled, the first Chronomètre Royal from 1907, and a wristwatch featuring the iconic cushion shape that was so popular with American clientele in the 1920s.
Today, the collections sold by Vacheron Constantin include Patrimony, Traditionelle, Fiftysix, Overseas, Égérie, Malte, Historiques, Metiers d’Art, and Heures Creatives. Each collection has a distinct style, from the minimalism of Patrimony to the feminine elegance of Heures Creatives.
Some of the most popular collections today are the Overseas, Historiques, and Fiftysix collections. The Overseas collection was reinvented in 2016 and both the chronograph and self-winding designs are highly collectible. Inspired by the spirit of travel, they are elegant and comfortable, with interchangeable straps. The Historiques line reinterprets iconic watches from the past, including the American and Cornes de Vache 1955. Fiftysix watches are “modern, elegant and relaxed”, contrasting both classic and modern style.
Vacheron Constantin Today
Vacheron Constantin continues to play an important role in the world of horology. Their watches are highly collectible, including both older watches and new ones.
The most expensive Vacheron Constantin watches sold have reached millions. In 2005, the King Fouad, given to King Fouad I of Egypt in 1929, was auctioned for CHF 3,306,250 (£2,958,000). In 2011, a James W. Packard Minute Repeater from 1918 sold at Christie’s in New York for $1,762,500 (approximately £1,395,000). A diamond-encrusted Kalista created in 1979 is estimated to now be worth at least $11 million.
Vacheron Constantin watches are worn by the likes of Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, and Michael B. Jordan. The Historiques 222, which debuted in 2022, has proved to be particularly popular. As a reissue of a 1970s design, the sporty gold watch has received a lot of praise from watch enthusiasts and collectors. Vintage versions of the same watch have also been popular with collectors, but the rerelease has reignited the love for this particular design.
Vacheron Constantin continues to innovate, including making updates to their most iconic collections. Every watch enthusiast should keep up with what they’re doing next and how they continue to have a profound impact on the industry.