The oldest watch company in Geneva, Vacheron Constantin, also has the singular honor of having produced the single most expensive watch of all time — the “Kallista” (Greek for “the most wonderful”) — which is set with over 130 carats of emerald cut diamonds, each with its own GIA certificate. The Kallista”s original selling price was over $5 million, and today, its value is estimated at over twice that figure should the watch ever be offered at auction. Needless to say, there are many passionate fans of Vacheron Constantin.
Genevois watchmaker Jean-Mark Vacheron founded the company in 1755 at just 24 years of age. Vacheron was known for expensive and finely finished timepieces. His personal ambition was to create timepieces that would stand out for their elegance and quality. In 1785, Vacheron”s son Abraham took over the company, which survived the French Revolution, among other economic crises.
By 1814, third-generation watchmaker Jacques Barthelemy Vacheron was leading the company, but Vacheron realized that he needed a partner if the company was to survive. He could not oversee the company”s day-to-day operations and travel overseas to market the watches. So it was that in 1819, Francois Constantin — son of a wealthy grain merchant — became a partner in the firm. From that point forward, the firm went under the name “Vacheron & Constantin”, a name that is to this day synonymous with the finest quality timepieces.
By all accounts, Francois Constantin led an opulent lifestyle and was quite a flamboyant character. He relished his role as Vacheron & Constantin”s representative and journeyed around the world selling watches. Whenever Constantin traveled, the firm protected itself by constructing huge shipping cases with all sorts of hidden compartments. Francois Constantin also led the charge in opening new markets overseas, especially in North America, where the Vacheron & Constantin agency was eventually established in 1864. Francois Constantin”s unique motto remains the company”s motto to this day: “Do better when possible, and it is always possible!”
Another key protagonist in the Vacheron Constantin story is Georges-Auguste Leschot. A mechanical genius, Leschot had experimented with machines that could be used for series production of watch components. This was a revolutionary concept to be sure, but the watchmaking establishment ridiculed Leschot.
In 1839, Leschot was hired as Technical Director for the House, which wanted to improve their production methods. Thanks to Leschot”s cost-saving inventions, including a turning and drilling machine that could drill holes in the exact same position every time, Vacheron & Constantin was able to sell their watches for far less than what other comparable watches were selling for. In spite of the cost savings, Leschot insisted that every part still be worked on by hand. As a result, the watchmakers were able to focus more of their attention on finishing, rather than fabrication of component parts.
A series of Vacheron and Constantin heirs took over the company in the wake of Francois Constantin”s death in 1854, followed by Jacques Barthelemy Vacheron”s death in 1863. Interestingly enough, the company was even led by two women at one point when Charles Vacheron, an heir apparent, died at the age of 25. Laure Vacheron-Pernessin, the widow of Charles Vacheron, and Catherine-Etienne Vacheron, the 88-year-old widow of Jacques Barthelemy Vacheron, made an unlikely team, but they successfully guided the company into the 20th Century.
In 1877, the name of the firm was officially registered as “Vacheron & Constantin, Fabricants, Geneve”, while salesman Jean-Francois Constantin was promoted to partner. Moreover, the company started using the Maltese cross as its trademark, which is still in use today. After Laure Vacheron-Pernessin and Catherine-Etienne Vacheron passed away, the firm was re-organized as a stock company in 1887. Several years of declining sales ensued, but the firm bounced back in the early part of the 20th Century, when they successfully capitalized on the newfound demand for wristwatches. A number of spectacular pocket watches were also sold, including an ultra-complicated pocket watch that was presented to the Egyptian King Fouad I in 1931.
Although Vacheron & Constantin suffered through lean times during the Great Depression, the one bright spot was that Charles Constantin became president of the company in 1936, the first time that a Constantin had led the company since the mid-1850s. Unfortunately, with the advent of World War II, sales once again plummeted. Georges Ketterer acquired a majority ownership position and under Ketterer”s watch, Vacheron & Constantin bounced back. It was during Ketterer”s reign that they produced some of their most famous watches, such as the “Chronometre Royale” wristwatch.
Georges Ketterer died in 1987, and the company changed hands, yet sales have improved and Vacheron is now producing nearly 20,000 watches a year.
Vacheron Constantin (the ampersand was dropped sometime in the late 1970s) recently introduced a number of popular models such as the sporty “Overseas”, as well as the “Les Historiques” series of mechanical wristwatches whose designs are clearly modeled after classic designs from the 1940s and 1950s.
Vacheron Constantin also continues to manufacture a limited number of ultra-complicated watches, such as the Tourbillon watches, the unique “Grand Mercator” and a magnificent minute repeater/perpetual calendar. The prices for these watches are obviously quite high, but for many watch enthusiasts, a Vacheron Constantin represents the ultimate expression of the watchmaker”s art — an heirloom to be passed down through the generations and treasured by those lucky enough to own one.