While across the horological landscape, watchmakers look to China to translate dreams of expansion into hard sales, Vacheron Constantin indulges in more than wishful thinking. “If we listened to some, we could deliver every single watch we produce to China,” comments Juan Carlos Torres, CEO of Vacheron Constantin. “We are indeed the leading brand in the Chinese market. Take the example of Hong Kong, where demand at our new boutique is such that we are making several sales a day. Multiply this figure by our twenty-five points of sale in China and you easily reach the figure of a hundred watches a day. This far exceeds our industrial and human capacities.” Even so, Vacheron Constantin clearly won’t allow itself to be sucked into the Celestial Empire at the expense of its traditional distribution network.
“This phenomenon continues beyond China’s borders,” Juan Carlos Torres goes on to explain. “Now that Chinese nationals have discovered travel, they are also buying Vacheron Constantin in the countries they visit, to the extent that we are receiving more and more requests from retailers to represent the brand in this or that market. Not that we have any intention of encroaching on the points of sales with which we have a longstanding relationship, any more than we will be opening new outlets left, right and centre. With some 17,000 to 18,000 watches a year, we must cultivate the inherently exclusive nature of the brand.”
La Symbolique des Laques
The success of Vacheron Constantin in the Middle Kingdom owes nothing to chance. The company sold its first timepieces in China in 1829 and has made its presence there felt ever since, particularly over the past decade as China’s political authorities have opened the country to the world. “Little by little, families began to take out the Vacheron Constantins they had tucked away. That we are able to repair and service models from over a hundred years ago has meant fabulous publicity for the brand, and for the boutiques we have established not just in China’s main cities but in smaller agglomerations too. We have sown the seeds and now we are reaping the rewards.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Vacheron Constantin’s passion for the applied arts should this year look to the ancestral arts of the East, and more specifically the lacquerwork that can trace its origins to Ancient China before blossoming in the hands of Japanese masters. After the Vacheron Constantin Les Masques collection, the next three years will be devoted to La Symbolique des Laques. Says Vacheron Constantin: “The Manufacture is opening up a whole new horizon for combining watchmaking and decorative techniques by offering, for the first time, a Métiers d’Art collection in which part of the work is done outside Geneva, on a far-off continent. The mysterious term maki-e refers to the crown jewel of traditional ancestral Japanese lacquer techniques. Maki-e is the most sophisticated of all lacquer techniques, designating a decorative operation in which the design is created by delicately sprinkling gold or silver dust over lacquer, usually black, while it is still wet.”
A master of elegance
La Symbolique des Laques will extend over three years. Each year will bring a new set of three watches in a limited edition of twenty. The lacquered decoration will be the work of the House of Zôhiko, established in Japan in 1661. Vacheron Constantin has fitted these timepieces with a skeletonised version of the ultra-thin Calibre 1003. A sapphire crystal front and back reveals two lacquered dials of awe-inspiring force and harmony. La Symbolique des Laques is a worthy successor to Les Masques, exactly as the Manufacture intended it to be.
“The thinking behind this year’s collections is consistent with the direction we’ve given ourselves,” Juan Carlos Torres observes. “Over the past four years, we have developed products which take in the entire watchmaking palette. Year after year we tick the boxes, bringing our personal touch and never forgetting to introduce an element of surprise. La Symbolique des Laques aside, we are returning to the elegance which has always been one of our fortes, with extra-thin watches, while continuing to express our savoir-faire in the field of traditional grandes complications.” This direction has produced the wafer-thin Historique Ultra-Fine 1955, it too fitted with a hand-wound Calibre 1003 (1.64mm high), and the Historique Ultra-Fine 1968, driven by the Calibre 1120 (2.25mm high). The gold oscillating weight bears a Maltese Cross. Both collections carry the Poinçon de Genève, and are a further milestone in the Manufacture’s mastery of the “distinctive form of expertise” that is the pursuit of an ever-thinner watch.
Vacheron Constantin has no less focused its efforts on complications in its Patrimony collection. “This collection can just as easily include a self-winding movement showing hours, minutes and seconds as it can a minute-repeater, tourbillon and perpetual calendar. Spanning watchmaking from its most simple to its most complex, it is the very expression of Vacheron Constantin’s inventiveness and a tribute to its two and a half centuries of history.” This year, this tribute comes in the form of the Patrimony Traditionnelle Calibre 2253 (tourbillon, perpetual calendar, equation of time, sunset, sunrise and fourteen-day power reserve), Patrimony Traditionnelle Calibre 2755, (tourbillon, perpetual calendar and minute-repeater with strike governor) and Patrimony Traditionnelle Chronograph Perpetual Calendar Calibre 1141QP.
“For a brand which already masters extra-thin movements and grandes complications, anything between the two is of disconcerting facility,” Juan Carlos Torres concludes. A little over a year ago, Vacheron Constantin promised its staff they would all celebrate Christmas 2009 together. A promise kept by Juan Carlos Torres and a Manufacture that continues to spark aficionados’ dreams.