How Vacheron Constantin Makes The Best Vintage Watches Even Better

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How Vacheron Constantin Makes The Best Vintage Watches Even Better

Words by Mr Chris Hall

10 December 2021

All images courtesy of Vacheron Constantin

In a sense, today’s luxury watchmaking is all about history. That’s not to say that brands and individuals don’t forge ahead, creating new designs or complications – they do, with great energy. But everything stands on the shoulders of those who came before. To be in the Swiss watch business in particular is to be involved in the continuation of a national heritage, overseeing the evolution and preservation of a craft that dates back centuries.

And not that watchmaking is to be boiled down to a game of Top Trumps (More jewels! Bigger cases! More tourbillons!), but Vacheron Constantin has more history than just about anyone else out there – an unbroken record from 1755 to the present day. Perhaps it stands to reason that it should have been the manufacture to see the appeal of launching Les Collectionneurs, an official programme for sourcing, restoring and selling the very best examples of its vintage watches on the market.

The idea came about in 2017 and remains unique among major watchmakers. A number of high-end independent brands have developed “certified pre-owned” offerings, but no one goes to quite the same lengths as Vacheron Constantin, as we will explain.

Therefore it is a proud moment for us at MR PORTER to say that we have become the first company to partner with Vacheron and offer a selection of Les Collectionneurs watches exclusively, online, around the world. These form part of the MR PORTER 10th Anniversary Collection and span half a century of watchmaking history. We spoke to the brand’s heritage director, Mr Christian Selmoni, the originator of the scheme, to help us understand just what sets these apart from other vintage watches.

“We really wanted to showcase the diversity of Vacheron Constantin watches from the past,” says Selmoni. “Their design, technicality and craftsmanship – and also, we have some famous models that we wanted to talk about. We decided to cover the 20th century, and not to use watches that were older than that because as we know, they are fragile, they do not have anti-shock systems, etc, and they are more considered as antique by specialists.”

The watches included in MR PORTER’s anniversary collection include pieces produced in every decade from the 1940s to the 1990s, starting with a 1945 triple calendar reference 4241 in yellow gold, a sensational piece with vivid red dial text for its date functions, and a typically elegant case with flared, teardrop-shaped lugs. At the most recent end of the spectrum, we have a pristine first-edition Overseas from its launch year, 1996, a watch that in many ways heralded the start of Vacheron Constantin’s modern era.

One of the conditions that Selmoni and his team placed on inclusion within Les Collectionneurs from the very beginning was that watches must be at least 20 years old. To date, very few pieces from the late 1990s or early 2000s have ever been included. But as a rolling age range, in the not-too-distant future, it will open up the programme to what we would still consider fairly contemporary designs. For now though, the main focus rests on the mid-century models. However, there are other criteria beyond age, as Selmoni explains.

“There are several aspects that are mandatory to enter the collection. First of all, we need the watch to be fully authenticated by our archive, meaning that we need matching numbers between case number and model number. If we don't have matching numbers, we just don't buy. If the movement has been changed, and we don’t have a full history, we cannot buy. And we also make sure that the dial is the original. If the dial is not original and we still have a new old stock dial in the restoration department, we might buy the watch, but if not, we don’t buy it.

“In addition, we absolutely need to find watches in good condition. The reason behind this is very obvious; we have to restore them, and if the cost of restoration becomes too high, we have to reposition the watch on the market.”

The subject of restoration can be a touchy one in vintage watch circles. Authenticity and originality have become the most prized qualities for vintage collectors and the presence of a refinished case, dial or hands can have a huge impact on a watch’s value. But the fact that each of these carefully selected watches has passed under the hands and loupes of Vacheron Constantin’s skilled restoration watchmakers is one of the key reasons to buy a Les Collectionneurs watch. You know they have had a once-over from the best in the business, and come with a fresh two-year warranty as a result. So how does Vacheron approach it?

“It really depends on the condition of every watch,” says Selmoni. “We always do something to the movement, but depending on the condition, it can just be a service, oiling again and cleaning. If something is broken or is there some rust, we will have to replace the components with another one from the same period. We have, of course, enough spare parts. When it comes to the case, if it's necessary, we do a very soft kind of surface polishing. But we don't re-polish heavily. If there is sometimes a kind of oxidation on the surface, we remove this oxidation, that’s all, and usually we don’t touch the dials and the hands at all.

“In addition, we replace the strap and potentially the buckle – sometimes the buckles are not original in any case, and they are delivered in new packaging, a special box for Les Collectionneurs.

“The restoration workshop is the hidden gem of Vacheron Constantin,” continues Selmoni. “We have super watchmakers, who have a great knowledge about the entire history of watchmaking, and we have a case maker, we have a goldsmith, we have a guy who can do dials, so we are able to do everything, and we use vintage machines as well. It’s very respectful of how we treat the vintage watches.”

The images you see here show the restoration process at work on one of the standout watches from MR PORTER’s 10th anniversary collection, the reference 2215 Chronometre Royal. First produced in 1975, but only kept on the books for two years, it was the brand’s first foray into an all-steel timepiece, and embraced the demands of the era for unorthodox case shapes with fully-integrated cases and bracelets. Today, it is rapidly becoming highly sought after, not least for its rarity, but as part of the great uplift in desire for all stainless-steel integrated designs. Significantly, the 2215 – as its full name implies – was fitted with a chronometer-grade movement from one of Switzerland’s finest watchmakers, making it one of the best time-only watches of its period.

Two years after its launch, it was followed by the better-known reference 222, so named for its release on the 222nd anniversary of the brand, and often hailed as part of a “holy trinity” of 1970s releases alongside the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak and Patek Philippe Nautilus. The 222 makes an appearance in our anniversary collection as well, in the form of a yellow gold model in superb condition. This 34mm “mid-size” reference still packs presence on the wrist thanks to its solid gold bracelet, which still has the crisp lines and even brushing it did when new.

The task of finding watches for the Les Collectionneurs programme falls mainly to one “hunter”, as Selmoni describes the role. Most pieces are bought at auction, but the brand scours dealer networks, other online platforms and shops around the world in search of the right pieces. Fewer than 20 watches a year will be deemed good enough to purchase. Some are offered directly to Vacheron Constantin by their owners, and occasionally the brand will dip into its 1,400-strong museum collection of watches and bring something out for sale.

Key to Selmoni’s ambitions, and one of the qualities that made it perfect for MR PORTER, was the focus on curating a selection to appeal to all tastes. For example, no set of vintage Vacheron Constantin would be complete without a dress chronograph or two, and we have a perfect pair in the anniversary collection: a ref 4178 and ref 4072, both in yellow gold, dating from 1948 and 1949 respectively. Powered by hand-wound Valjoux-based movements, they represent golden-era Vacheron Constantin in every possible sense.

Also represented is a less well-known side of Vacheron Constantin, a certain rakish flamboyance, from a brand sometimes wrongly perceived as quite conservative in its tastes. The back catalogue contains numerous examples of bold, even brave, designs, two of which stand out in our selection. The first is 1972’s Prestige de la France, so named in honour of the company’s decoration by the Comité de France for its craftsmanship. This curved, asymmetric design has enjoyed a revival in more recent years under Vacheron’s Historiques range, but the original cannot be beaten for pure futuristic flair. Made from white gold, it’s a minimal masterpiece.

Alongside it, we place the “Batman” Chronometre Royal, a 1968 piece nicknamed for its distinctive oversized lugs. Although more conventional in other respects, it has bags of character and a presence that belies its 35mm diameter.

All 10 of the Les Collectionneurs pieces are now available to view – click here to see the entire set.