It should have been a fairly ordinary visit to the Manufacture to see the latest Vacheron Constantin Patrimony perpetual calendar ultra-thin with blue dial – a fairly predictable addition to the range given the wave of blue that has washed over the various models in the Patrimony line these past months. But the timing of the visit made it something else. The weekend prior to our rendezvous coincided with the Spring auction session in Geneva which included, at Phillips, none other than the Don Pancho, made by Vacheron Constantin in the 1930s and unanimously considered by collectors as a legend among watches. With a past that takes root in 1755, these dives into history invariably shed fascinating light on Vacheron Constantin’s contemporary approach to how we measure and tell the time. Perpetual calendars included.
For a long time, the only proof that the Don Pancho had ever existed was a black and white photograph in a catalogue, unremarkable to all but the most enlightened reader. No-one had ever seen the watch in the flesh and as for its whereabouts, impossible to say. It was as though it had dropped off the face of the Earth. History tells us that in December 1935, Vacheron Constantin received a letter from Brooking, a retailer in Madrid, Spain, requesting a one-off complicated wristwatch for a client, Francisco Martinez Llano, who lived in Chile. Communicating back and forth between the three countries was problematic, and so it was four years before Reference 3620 was delivered, in 1940. Now referred to as the “Don Pancho”, as the original owner was known to his friends, it has a tonneau-shaped case in yellow gold, a crown at 12 o’clock, a minute repeater sounding the lowest possible notes, days of the week on the small seconds subdial and a central retrograde date hand. In producing this unique watch, Vacheron Constantin worked with the finest craftsmen in the Vallée de Joux: Paul Nicole for the repeating mechanism and Victorin Piguet for the perpetual calendar – converted to a simple calendar at the client’s request so as not to “overload” the dial.
Collectors will remark that this Reference 3620 is one of just three known wristwatches made before the end of the 1940s to have both calendar indications and a repeater mechanism. Originally invoiced CHF 3,500, it sold under Aurel Bacs’ hammer for CHF 600,000 (excluding commissions), achieving the second-highest price for a Vacheron Constantin wristwatch. That the company had agreed to make a calendar wristwatch is a minor miracle, considering that for many years it maintained a staunchly classical approach to complications. While archive documents for 1884 record a first perpetual calendar, in a double-sided yellow gold pocket watch, it would be exactly one hundred years before the same complication appeared in a wristwatch, with an ultra-thin automatic movement. Throughout an entire century, Vacheron Constantin developed its expertise in calendar mechanisms and more generally grand complications in pocket watches, reaching an apogee in the 1920s and 1930s with creations such as the spectacular timepiece presented to King Fuad I of Egypt in 1929, comprising a chronograph, a perpetual calendar and a minute repeater with petite and grande sonnerie.
Calibres and calendars
This dichotomy between pocket watch and wristwatch can almost certainly be linked to Vacheron Constantin’s incorporation, between 1938 and 1965, into the Société Anonyme de Produits Industriels et Commerciaux (SAPIC) alongside Jaeger-LeCoultre, the majority stakeholder. For Vacheron Constantin, this meant less industrial autonomy as it was now obliged to use its partner’s base movements. They included Calibre 1120, an extra-thin movement (2.45mm) introduced in 1967. It would be the base, with an additional module, for the first perpetual calendar wristwatch, unveiled in 1984. “Since then,” the company notes, “the perpetual calendar has been part of the Patrimony, Traditionnelle and Overseas collections, and is also integrated into the grande complication mechanisms which remain a longstanding tradition at Vacheron Constantin. In recent years, the Manufacture has distinguished itself with watches whose complexity represents an art in its own right.”
Indeed, the days of depending on third-party movements are long gone. Since becoming a part of the Richemont group in 1996, the brand has had the means to fulfil its ambitions, namely a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility near Geneva, its historic home. This industrial tool is matched by product development, in particular within the renowned Atelier des Cabinotiers. Who could forget the Tour de l’Île with its 16 timekeeping and astronomical complications, including a perpetual calendar, for the firm’s 250th anniversary in 2005. That was also the year of the Saint-Gervais, driven by the new Calibre 2250 with perpetual calendar, tourbillon and a ten-day power reserve for another world’s-first. More recently, we can cite the monumental Reference 5720 and its 57 complications, a milestone in watchmaking history, or the Celestia Astronomical Grande Complication 3600, yet another prowess with its combined indications of civil, solar and sidereal time – naturally accompanied by a perpetual calendar. All that was lacking was a serial-production watch, another means for the Manufacture to confirm its expertise. Mission accomplished with the Traditionnelle Twin Beat, the first Vacheron Constantin watch with an integrated perpetual calendar. Its two balances vibrate at different frequencies, including a low frequency that extends power reserve to 65 days. The presentation of the new Patrimony that day opened a window on history. And did we mention it is powered by a certain Calibre 1120 QP?