Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph
The Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph, a new creation from the Genevan Maison, combines a monopusher chronograph with a tourbillon. However, as Angus Davies explains, this exemplar of haute horlogerie is greater than the sum of its parts.
Plan-les-Ouates, located on the outskirts of Geneva, is home to some of the most prestigious watch brands in existence, including the revered Maison, Vacheron Constantin. Founded in 1755, this Swiss luxury marque has been in continuous operation ever since. Today, the brand is widely regarded as an exemplar of ‘haute horlogerie’.
A few years ago, I received an invitation to visit the brand’s Manufacture. Prior to my visit and mindful of the firm’s amassed years, I expected to see an old brick building with large windows. Indeed, a degree of patination would have seemed fitting. To my surprise, the Manufacture was a paragon of modern design.
This contemporary structure, designed by the architect Bernard Tschumi, incorporates a sea of glass that floods the production areas with natural light. The glass is seemingly draped in one continuous sheet of metal which hugs the roof and clings to the sides of the building. This metalwork has a grille type structure, underscoring the avant-garde design language. The theme continues inside where there is a notable absence of 18th-century dust. Indeed, the interior is operating-theatre clean, free of potential contaminants.
My tour of the production areas revealed skilled hands at work, small quantities of tools arranged neatly on benches and minuscule parts in near-airtight containers. The watchmakers, attired in crisp white coats, are highly skilled and tasked with making exquisite horological creations.
A particularly interesting production area is the Grandes Complication workshop. Watchmaking works on a hierarchal basis with only the most capable individuals entrusted to work on the most complicated watches. Needless to say, there are only a few exceptional Master Watchmakers in the world, capable of working at this elevated level.
Ironically, nobody looks at clocks or watches, time is not of importance. Indeed, time and motion experts will discover nobody worries about hours, minutes and seconds. This is a world where watches can take weeks, sometimes months to create.
While the term ‘Grand Complication’ is frequently used by aficionados, there appears to be no widely accepted definition. Most experts suggest that a watch befitting this description must feature two or more major complications, these include the tourbillon, minute repeater, perpetual calendar and chronograph.
Recently, the Genevan Maison began producing a new model within the Grandes Complication workshops, the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph. This latest addition to the brand’s portfolio of models features a monopusher chronograph and a tourbillon.
When viewing the silver opaline dial of this watch, the eyes are immediately drawn towards the large aperture at noon. This plays host to a tourbillon escapement which breaks with convention. Usually, a tourbillon carriage is driven by the fourth wheel pinion, however, in this instance, the luxury brand has installed an intermediate wheel to propel the rotating carriage. This approach has allowed the firm to create an extraordinarily large aperture, conferring unrivalled views of the cage, balance and escapement in motion.
Consistent with other Vacheron Constantin models endowed with a tourbillon, a gleaming tourbillon bridge, or bar, spans the aperture. Near the jewel at the centre of the bridge, the circumference of the bar is at its greatest, it then tapers as it nears each end. The bridge is ’rounded off’, using a combination of files, wooden buffers and abrasive paste. The resultant surface gleams resplendently.
A tourbillon carriage sits beneath the aforementioned tourbillon bridge. The shape of this carriage, which emulates the Maltese cross, the Maison’s emblem since 1880, encompasses hand bevelling and mirror polishing, sometimes termed black polishing. Parts embellished with mirror polishing appear black, grey or white depending on the position of the dominant light source. This form of polishing is incredibly labour intensive and, therefore, is usually the preserve of the finest watches.
The black screw affixed to the carriage rotates 360° every minute and converses with a track encircling the tourbillon aperture, articulating the running seconds.
A 45-minute chronograph register is positioned adjacent to the crown. This recessed counter, framed with a chemin de fer, features a snailed centre and a silver-grey hand. A power-reserve indicator resides at 6 o’clock, which again is sunken, snailed and features a silver-grey hand.
Disciples of Vacheron Constantin will feel a sense of calm when reading-off the prevailing time. The dauphine-type hour and minute hands uphold the design language of the Traditionelle collection, conferring beauty and functionality in equal measure. Most hours are denoted with applied pink gold hours, save for noon where the tourbillon takes precedence over a rectangular-shaped baton. A minute track and tachymeter grace the periphery of the dial.
The Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph is housed in a 42.5mm, 18-carat 5N pink gold case with a height of 11.7mm. Close examination of the case reveals an incredible degree of refinement. The case band is intricately stepped (etagé), heightening production costs. The case back features a fluted motif, resembling castellations. Each of these involuted facets enjoys a charming reciprocity with light.
Unusually, the crown ensemble serves three roles. Not only is it used to energise the mainspring and set the prevailing time but, courtesy of a lone pushpiece set within the crown in this case, it also operates the chronograph. This pushpiece, termed a ‘monopusher’ starts, stops and resets the chronograph, in that order. The brand’s Maltese cross logo adorns the vertical flank of the pushpiece.
With most chronographs, if the wearer presses the pushpiece with insufficient force, the mechanism may be partially engaged but may fail to run. The Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph features a dynamic activation system, termed an ‘all-or-nothing’. This system prevents the chronograph mechanism from engaging should the wearer apply inadequate pressure to the pushpiece.
The watch is presented on a dark brown alligator leather strap paired with an 18-carat pink gold folding clasp.
Remove this timepiece from the wrist, turn it over and, courtesy of its sapphire caseback, savour the spectacle presented. The hand-wound Calibre 3200 was ‘developed and manufactured by Vacheron Constantin’. This statement may seem obvious, however, for a long time, some of the finest exponents of haute horlogerie were ètablisseurs. These firms sourced ébauches and parts from specialist companies and then subsequently finished, assembled and thereafter, regulated the completed watch.
The Calibre 3200 comprises of 292 components, including 39 jewels. In common with many of its siblings the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph bears the Poinçon de Genève or Hallmark of Geneva. The onerous requirements of this certification necessitate many additional hours of work, albeit the resultant watch justifies the effort (see my review of the Vacheron Constantin Historiques Triple Calendrier 1942 for more details on the Geneva Seal).
Traditionalists will skip with delight when they discover this movement is fitted with a column wheel, formed in the shape of a Maltese cross, and a lateral (horizontal) clutch. An increasing number of high-end chronographs feature a column wheel with a vertical clutch, hence the lateral clutch is becoming increasingly rare.
The lateral clutch grants the owner the opportunity to view the chronograph engaging and disengaging. Unfortunately, a minor irritation with a lateral clutch is that when the teeth mesh, the central chronograph seconds hand can stutter on leaving the starting gate.
With a vertical coupling, the mechanism is not quite as attractive and the visual spectacle of the chronograph engaging and disengaging is mainly out of sight. However, the teeth are always in mesh, hence the central chronograph seconds hand commences its journey without any hint of hesitation. Furthermore, there is less wear with a vertical clutch. Lastly, there is the issue of ‘drag’. Often when a chronograph is actuated, the amplitude of the balance drops, impairing precision. This proves more of an issue with the lateral clutch.
Nevertheless, Vacheron Constantin, one of the finest practitioners of haute horlogerie, would never countenance anything less than excellence. The brand has used both a ‘friction’ technique for the lateral clutch mechanism and the 45-minute counter is equipped with a dragging display. Both systems ameliorate the disadvantages of a lateral clutch system. Indeed, the brand state the following:
‘.. the use of the “friction” technique for the lateral clutch mechanism combined with a column wheel, thus ensuring smooth activation of the function and preserving it from excessive wear over the long term. This technique also reduces potential stuttering of the chronograph hand when it is activated.
Finally, the 45-minute counter with dragging display serves to reduce the loss of amplitude generally noted when the chronograph function is activated. When the latter is stopped, this type of display also serves to provide a more accurate time indication’.
Rest assured, purists can sleep easy.
Precision is a prerequisite for all fine watches and the Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph doesn’t disappoint. Abraham-Louis Breguet patented his tourbillon (whirlwind) invention in 1801. The Swiss-born genius realised that gravity has an adverse influence on the regulating organ. His ingenious solution was to place the regulating organ within a rotating cage, thereby negating the influence of gravity. However, the whirlwind was conceived for a pocket watch worn in a vertical position. A wristwatch will encounter a myriad of different positions throughout the day. A time-served watchmaker needs much skill, not only to bring the tourbillon to life, but to regulate it. He/she must seek the optimal set-up, ensuring the watch delivers the greatest accuracy despite being subject to an array of positions. Needless to say, the Master Watchmakers at Vacheron Constantin are up to the task of regulating tourbillon escapements.
The bridges are embellished with Côtes de Genève motif and engraved golden text. The main plate is circular grained, the sinks for jewels and screws gleam resplendently and the screws possess beautifully defined slots.
The Calibre 3200 encompasses a high-quotient of hand finishing. Exquisite chamfering is much in evidence. Most notably, the movement features a number of highly desirable ‘internal angles’, much loved by purists.
One of my favourite elements of this movement relates to its topography. On modern movements, the bridges resemble flat fields of cut grass, arranged in lines. However, this movement resembles the design of the beautiful horological landscapes of the past. The vista consists of undulating contours with exposed wheels and levers. Indeed, the scene is rich with mechanical detail and brims with an abundance of life.
The Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph fulfils every task admirably.
The dial displays elapsed minutes and seconds, the status of the mainspring and the prevailing time. The expansive area reserved for the tourbillon confers fabulous views of the constituent parts in motion. However, despite the number of indications and the sizeable whirlwind positioned on high, the dial area doesn’t appear cluttered and converses with the wearer with notable lucidity.
A contentious area in the world of watch journalism is the thorny issue of size. Often, a watch brand will sate the whims of one group only to alienate another. The Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph measures 42.5mm in diameter with a case height of 11.7mm. Personally, I think these dimensions are perfect. The case occupies the middle ground and should prove acceptable to the majority of would-be wearers and cynical journalists. Furthermore, the case height has a modest thickness, particularly considering the complexity of the movement within.
At the heart of the watch is the Calibre 3200. In my opinion, this is the pièce de résistance. The movement blends impressive functionality with exquisite finishing, albeit both are linked. Finishing is not merely to enhance the aesthetic appearance of a movement, or to remove undesirable traces of machining, it also enhances corrosion resistance ensuring reliable operation and longevity.
Today, there are many chronographs available for less than £3000. These are comparatively simple and relatively crude when compared with the highly specified Calibre 3200. The problem is that many consumers perceive that chronographs are cheap to make and readily available. However, a chronograph movement such as the Calibre 3200 is incredibly complex and time consuming to create. It necessitates an inordinate amount of time and the finest watchmaking talent to bring to fruition.
However, this watch is not merely a monopusher chronograph, a major complication, it also incorporates a tourbillon, another incredibly technical complication that proves difficult to execute and regulate. It is not surprising therefore that Vacheron Constantin has chosen to allocate the task to the Grandes Complication workshop with its team of Master Watchmakers.
Vacheron Constantin continues to uphold its revered standards, respecting traditions and the legacy of Jean-Marc Vacheron. However, it never rests on its laurels. It pursues continuous improvement and conceives ever more desirable watches. Indeed, just in the way the brand operates from a modern building, it always seems to embrace progress while always respecting its patrimony.
- Model: Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Tourbillon Chronograph
- Reference: 5100T/000R-B623
- Case: 18-carat 5N pink gold; diameter 42.5mm; height 11.7mm; sapphire crystal to front; exhibition case back.
- Functions: hours; minutes; small seconds on tourbillon; power-reserve indicator; monopusher chronograph
- Movement: Calibre 3200; hand-wound movement; frequency 18,000 vph (2.5Hz); 39 jewels; power reserve approximately 65 hours.
- Strap: Dark brown alligator leather strap paired with an 18-carat pink gold folding clasp
- World Price: €180,000 (RRP as at 22.5.2020)