Following three new Historiques American 1921 pieces in white gold and platinum unveiled last month, Vacheron
marked the centenary of the original watch with a special project that faithfully recreated it using vintage components and period techniques and machines.
The American 1921 Pièce Unique was the product of a close collaboration between the brand’s heritage and restoration departments with the goal of relearning lost savoir faire in the process.
Founded in 1755,
is endowed with a unique legacy that is carefully guarded in its extensive archives, a treasure trove for the brand and specifically for this ambitious undertaking. The brand’s heritage department preserves some 800 machine tools, work benches, and sets of watchmaking tools, in addition to substantial documentary and iconographic archives.
Its private collection includes almost 1,400 timepieces spanning its 265-year history. Among them is the original 1921 wristwatch upon which the current Historiques American 1921 is modeled. The brand originally produced 24 pieces that were sold exclusively in the American market with the exception of the brand’s Geneva boutique.
Enter the restoration department with its expertise in restoring antique pieces, drawing upon its vast stock of vintage watchmaking components—hundreds of thousands of them housed in an array of tiny boxes. While the team of master watchmakers, case makers, goldsmiths and specialists in decorations and finishes have restored pieces going back to the 18th century, they had never before attempted to reproduce an antique piece in its entirety down to the smallest detail.
The quirky Deco design with a cushion-shaped case and the crown position shifted to between 1 and 2 o’clock with a diagonal time display is believed to be an early driver’s watch, allowing the motorist to read the time while grasping a wide steering wheel.
The first step was the scientific analysis of the original. The watch was completely disassembled and all 115 components of the 11-ligne Calibre Nouveau manual-winding movement were measured and catalogued. This information was then used to make plans and mock-ups, which proved to be a daunting task given the complex sizing calculations involved.
Only the movement’s mainplate and bridges were made using modern CNC technology, simply because there was not an old machine in the heritage department that could satisfactorily produce them. However, everything else—including wheels, springs, pinions, jewels, even the crown and hands—came from that gold mine of vintage parts dating to the early 20th century and the 1920s in particular.
The most daunting challenges they faced came from reviving forgotten skills, such as the method used for hand-setting the jewels, a process that’s been automated for many decades. Also, they had to figure out how to reproduce the movement’s unique ribbed decorative engraving, another technique lost to time.
One master watchmaker spent 700 hours just researching ways to manually set the jewels before attempting the procedure, which is akin to setting a gem in a piece of jewelry—everything must perfectly align. The process of setting the reproduced movement’s 16 jewels in this way required nine hours.
“To have components is one thing, but you also need tools,” said Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s heritage & style director, during a video presentation from Geneva last week. said. “To reproduce handcrafted operations from back in the day, the artisans had to work with some historical tools from the heritage department,” including an 18th-century upright accessory used to drill through the mainplate and an early 20th-century staking tool used to drive the jewels into their settings.
Watchmakers also recreated special tools from the period to use with the vintage machines.
The brand’s metiers d’art workshop assisted in recreating the unusually large single-stripe
Côtes de Genève
engraving from the 1920s that decorated the movement. There was no known machine or documentation to offer a clue as to how it was done. After a process of trial and error, they tweaked a hand-driven machine used to produce Geneva stripes to replicate it.
Unlike the movement, there were no vintage case components to utilize, with the exception of a stash of 1920s crowns. Everything else was made in the restoration workshop using hand-driven vintage machines from the period. Even the bullet-shaped lugs were handmade and soldered.
The two-part dial was produced in pure white grand feu enamel, using an ancient technique requiring numerous firings in the kiln at temperatures exceeding 800°C. The beautifully rendered Breguet-style numerals were hand painted and the dial is marked with the brand’s logo from the period: “Vacheron
et Constantin Geneve Suisse.
” The slender open-tipped hands were selected from a batch of 1920s steel hands that had never been blued, until February of this year.
In adherence to its vintage purity, the reproduced piece is not endowed with modern enhancements, such as water-resistance or shock-resistance. Even the glass is made of mineral crystal rather than sapphire crystal.
The piece will star in an exhibition in New York, where Vacheron Constantin is opening its new North American flagship boutique next month, of the brand’s exceptional 20th-century designs timed to the opening, after which the exhibition will embark on a world tour before returning to Geneva in early 2022.
“For us, it was all about challenging ourselves in order to recapture and relearn how to do a kind of watchmaking knowhow that was lost or forgotten,” Selmoni said. “It was also a great opportunity for us to showcase what we are able to do in the restoration workshop of Vacheron Constantin.”