One of life’s great pleasures is travel. The opportunity to view distant lands, experience new food and drink, sample exotic cultures and meet local citizens is always rewarding. One of my most prized experiences when I visit any new land is to sample local produce, manufactured goods and learn about local industry and commerce.
When I visit Geneva, Switzerland I relish the opportunity to shop, research and be amazed by the fabulously artesian craft of exclusive watch making found in the city’s endless jewelry ateliers. The city of Geneva is the center of Swiss timepiece manufacturing and the array of brands, models and stupendously elegant, technologically advanced watches on display is the ultimate experience in viewing old world craftsmanship in contemporary times. One of my reactions on seeing the feast of horlogerie on display in Geneva is always this: who buys all of these watch styles, from scores of limited production houses, at such stunning prices?
Obviously, the international demand for exclusive, custom designed watches is huge and growing. Rolex, Piaget, Chopard, Audemars Piquet and dozens of other centuries old exclusive watch manufacturers are headquartered in Geneva. The oldest, and in many ways the most exclusive, is Vacheron Constantin. This venerable house offers an excellent example of how an ancient brand stays ahead of the competition, keeps reinventing itself and prospering through constant innovation.
Vacheron Constantin was founded in 1755 by Jean-Jacques Vacheron. Mr. Vacheron was an excellent jeweler and watchmaker, as well as a progressive businessman. In 1770 his new Company created the first “complication’ and several years later Mr. Vacheron invented and installed in his timepieces the novel “engine turned dials”. These early advances in technology helped establish the reputation for quality and performance that the business enjoys to this day.
After narrowly surviving the horrors of the French Revolution, Vacheron Constantin became one of the first watchmakers to export. First to France and Italy, and then, most importantly North America, the Company enjoyed early 19th century success among the newly rich industrialists and aristocrats who sought craftsmanship, exclusivity and elegance in timepieces. The Company’s branding motto, “Do better if possible, and it is always possible” was first used in 1819 and is still in use today.
Vacheron Constantin was the first manufacturer to perfect production of standardized movements into “Calibers”. The Art Society of Geneva awarded the Company the Gold Medal in 1844 for inventing the breakthrough “pantographic device”, an innovation that further separated Vacheron Constantin from competitor’s production technology. In 1885 the Company introduced pieces made with novel non-magnetic technology, including movement components made from palladium and gold.
In 1906 the first Company owned store was opened on the Quai de I’lle and the boutique is still operating in the same location to this day. During World War I, the Great Depression and World War II the Company struggled, but managed to remain solvent by catering to the fashion conscious with stunning new design and styling cues. After the conclusion of fighting in Europe in 1945, the Company immediately began marketing new strategies and products to regain hegemony.
The “Patrimony” model was then introduced. This is one of the most famous, exclusive and collectible watches in the world. The “Patrimony” was the world’s thinnest watch, featuring a thickness of only 5.25 mm.
The “Kallista” model was introduced in the 1970’s. The “Kallista” is considered the most expensive and exclusive watch in the world. Initially sold for $5 million, it is now valued at $11 million. “Kallista” is enriched with 118 emerald cut diamonds, requires 6000 hours of master watch maker labor and 20 months of detailed embellishment by the finest jewelers in Switzerland.
Today, after more than 2 ½ centuries of producing the most desirable watches and timepieces in the world, Vacheron Constantin continues to enjoy great success and demand for product far exceeds supply. The Company, now a subsidiary of luxury goods powerhouse Richemont Group, makes only 20,000 pieces per year. The exclusive pieces are sold in 16 Company owned stores and less that 500 carefully chosen luxury retailers in 80 countries. Vacheron Constantin watches have been worn by Napoleon Bonaparte, Pope Pius VI, Nicholas Sarkoszy, Harry Truman, Clark Gable and the Duke of Windsor just to name a few of the famous people known to sport this classic brand.
Any research conducted on the history of watch makers will uncover a plethora of brands that did not survive competition, changing tastes or technological advances. Vacheron Constantin has not only survived, but flourished and become one of the handful of consumer products (think Ferrari, Dom Perignon, Brioni,
Faberge, Chanel) that exist as category icons. When fashionable people seek the finest quality and craftsmanship in timepieces they immediately think Vacheron Constantin.