There was Reference 57260, the world’s most complicated watch, presented on the occasion of Vacheron Constantin’s 260th anniversary. And there will probably be this Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer, a single-piece edition, also a pocket watch and also crafted by Vacheron’s Les Cabinotiers department. It carries on a tradition of timepieces produced at the specific request of the most discerning collectors. The likes of the American automobile manufacturer James Ward Packard or King Fuad I of Egypt. This Westminster Sonnerie is a worthy successor, distinguished by the remarkable talent of the craftswomen who helped bring it to fruition. It is a thing of unbelievable beauty both to contemplate and to hear. A full eight years were necessary to fulfil the request of a collector for whom “passion consists in always seeking that which is theoretically impossible to obtain.” This Westminster Sonnerie is proof that nothing is truly impossible.
The commissioning customer was clear as to his expectations: “I had long dreamed of having a real Westminster chime pocket watch in my collection striking five gongs with five hammers, featuring a grande and petite sonnerie and adorned with miniature enamel.” Vacheron Constantin’s role was to transform this dream into reality. The watchmakers in the Les Cabinotiers department took the movement in Reference 57260 as their starting point to build a new movement, Calibre 3761, that incorporates a grande and a petite sonnerie, a minute repeater and a tourbillon escapement. It measures 71mm in diameter and 17mm high. As Vacheron Constantin explains, “the Westminster chime of the movement is one of the most complicated striking mechanisms to build, as it requires a sequence of five gongs struck in perfect harmony by their respective hammers controlled by four racks.”
This solution of four racks and snails, with three racks for the hour and quarter chimes and one rack for the minute repeater, allows for perfect sequencing of the melodies and, as an added subtlety, enables the four notes, B, E, F and G, of the four-bar Westminster melody to be played in a different order for the passing quarters. As a reminder, a grande sonnerie chimes the quarters in passing, sounding one bar of the melody for each elapsed quarter, and repeats the hour at each quarter. In petite sonnerie mode, the quarters are chimed in passing and the complete melody is played at the change of hour. Two barrels provide a power reserve of approximately 16 hours for the chiming mechanism in grande sonnerie mode and 80 hours for the time indications, with the guarantee that torque will remain stable until the end of the power reserve.
The miniature enamel on the officer-type caseback is by Anita Porchet who, at the customer’s request, has reproduced Johannes Vermeer’s painting (c. 1665) Girl with a Pearl Earring. Beyond the challenge inherent to recreating the work of a master, the large 98mm diameter required exceptional dexterity as the slightest irregularity would immediately jump out. “A single layer of enamel on the young girl’s oriental turban required at least two weeks of work,” notes Vacheron Constantin. “The colour palette is similarly complex, notably including a composition of seven shades to obtain black, as well as twenty or so firings in the kiln to stabilise the colours. In all, seven months of intermittent work were necessary to bring this portrait to life. The research and development work – notably relating to the pigments and enamels to be used – began in 2018 and the final result was completed in 2020.”
The engraving on the case and bow is similarly impressive. The master engraver has embellished the sides of the case with a stunning champlevé frieze of acanthus leaves and tulips, then point by point hand-chased the background. The frieze around both bezels is completed by a delicate double “pearl” border in reference to Vermeer’s painting. The bow is a work of art in its own right. Executed in ronde-bosse, two roaring lion heads are carved from a block of gold. Vacheron Constantin explains how “the engraver first used a milling cutter to rough out the material and then several burins for increasingly fine and accurate work. The details of the satin-brushed, matt and polished textures were obtained using specific tools, some created for the occasion.” It took a confident hand and a master’s precision to sculpt the lions and render a lifelike expression that a single error would have marred. In all, five months were spent engraving and sculpting the various elements. For the customer and owner of this pocket watch, patience is a virtue well rewarded.