Vacheron Constantin Offers Look at Traditional Watchmaking

Swiss watch luxury brand Vacheron Constantin, the world’s oldest watchmaker in continuous operation, recently hosted Métiers d’Art, an exhibition of traditional watchmaking skills and decorative arts, at Sotheby’s auction house in New York City.

This was the first time the brand has demonstrated its crafts-people’s expertise to the public outside of its home in Geneva. It chose the United States, said Vacheron Torres, chief executive officer of parent firm Vacheron Constantin S.A., and Julien Tornare, president of Vacheron Constantin North America, because the U.S. luxury watch market is relatively young (in terms of consumer interest in high-end watches), strong, and growing.

The exhibition featured four of the brand’s top craftspeople—master watchmaker Chrystian Lefrançois, enameler Anita Porchet, guillocheur Supachai Wattanakanoktham, and engraver Jeanne Ulrich—who demonstrated their skills in creating artistic horological works. While well trained and experienced in these traditional, disappearing watchmaking skills, they also use state-of-the-art equipment like high-powered microscopes and mini camcorders to perform precise, miniature work that would strain normal eyesight. Their delicate, painstaking work for any one watch can take from days to many weeks to complete.

As the four worked each day of the exhibition in early December, they talked with the event’s hundreds of visitors—including VIP clients, watch enthusiasts and connoisseurs, friends of the brand, and newcomers who learned about it for the first time—and often let them try their hand, briefly, at doing the crafts.

The four demonstrated their expertise, while TV screens at their station provided close-ups of their detailed, intricate work on watch dials, movements, and parts. All the techniques have been used by Vacheron Constantin since its inception 250 years ago, though some, like watch enameling, are now uncommon, even in fine watchmaking. This faithful adherence to, and training in, such traditional watchmaking skills, said Torres and Tornare, has kept Vacheron Constantin among the world’s leading luxury watchmakers for a quarter of a millennium.

This exhibition spotlighting Vacheron Constantin’s skills in mechanical watchmaking, they told JCK, was aimed at both U.S. watch enthusiasts who know Vacheron Constantin and young affluent adults who don’t or are less familiar with it. It was also part of an ongoing effort here to raise the brand’s profile and reinforce its reputation for fine handcrafted mechanical watches, as was (also in late 2006) a well-publicized Hollywood gala that unveiled its new collection of watches with platinum dials, and the wearing by actor Leonardo DiCaprio, a collector of the brand’s timepieces, of two unique Vacheron Constantin watches at the premieres of his films The Departed and Blood Diamond.

The Sotheby’s exhibition itself attracted hundreds of visitors and generated so much interest, said officials, that the Swiss watchmaker plans to do it elsewhere in the world, including a return visit to the United States, possibly this year on the West Coast.

In addition, the New York event featured a display of Vacheron Constantin timepieces made during the past 250 years including some of its very first. Torres and Tornare also hosted a series of lectures on Vacheron Constantin watchmaking presented by Christian Selmoni, director of product development.