Being at the top is always nice, of course. But here, with such famous names as Piaget, Rolex, Harry Winston and Patek Philippe as neighbours, it is just as delightful to be at the bottom. Only physically, of course, on the ground floor of the Vacheron Constantin manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates, near Geneva.
On top: The manufacture VIP Room
At the very top, though, on the third floor of the futuristically designed building by Bernard Tschumi, there is a VIP salon. This is the place where presumably the most turnover is made in this spaceship-like building, where top customers of the maison can be inspired to make new investments in beautiful surroundings. Decorated in natural tones, it combines a dining, living, and meeting room into the transparent space. Dark leather meets light wood panelling, while grey and beige tones are illuminated with Cirque lights by Giopato & Coombes.
It makes for an environment in which the Billecart-Salmon champagne served tastes even better – but we will return to this lap of luxury another time. The real magic of this company ultimately takes place on the other levels of the manufacture.
A building worthy of the brand
No. 10, Chemin du Tourbillon is a building that captures the attention of passers-by. Sheets of steel meets vast panes of glass. A congregation of birch trees growing in front lend a warmth and charm to the modern ambience that continues inside the building – no matter how imposing the three-storey atrium may be, or how cool the concrete walls may first seem. This is a futuristic-looking place, where the centuries-old tradition of Vacheron Constantin and its beautiful craftsmanship are omnipresent, from the reportage photographs by Steve McCurry on the walls to the ancient watches displayed in the restoration department.
The Vacheron Constantin Manufacture in Plan-les-Ouates near Geneva
Fotocredit © Maud Guye-Vuillème
From 1755 to the Overseas hype
Vacheron Constantin sees itself as the oldest horology house in the world, producing watches without interruption to this day. As early as 1755, a contract was handed down enabling watchmaker Jean-Marc Vacheron to take on his first apprentice, a young man named Ésaie Jean Francois Hetier. Since then, the small craftsman’s workshop has transformed into a global brand whose designs, from the Patrimony to the Overseas collection, have become iconic models with high recognition value. Here in Plan-les-Ouates, as well as at the workshops in the Vallée de Joux, hundreds of employees work to create timepieces that many a collector longs to get their hands on.
Moving behind the reception counter, you leave the imposing entry area and enter the rooms where the magic happens at the creative hands of the watchmakers. On the ground floor lies the atelier for the complex as well as more ‘normal’ complications. Meanwhile, on the following floors, one finds decoration, assembling and adjustment, engraving, enamelling, guilloché and stone setting, as well as after-sales service and restoration.
Polishing, assembling and final examination
Restoration at Vacheron Constantin
Our guide through the workshops of Vacheron Constantin is one of the most experienced watchmakers here, having worked for the manufacture for almost two decades, exclusively assembling Grandes Complications. He and his colleagues comprise the beating heart of the brand, from the fledgling new watchmaker to the accomplished veteran. With the highest concentration, they pore over their workbenches. Some use headphones and listen to music or even podcasts. Each creates their own introspective world, allowing them to be completely focused on their respective work. The wealth of experience between them is vast, the equipment first-class, the motivation to always go the extra mile (and a few more) is all-pervading.
Fotocredit © Maud Guye-Vuillème
This is surely an explanation for the brand’s incredible current success. The demand for models such as the retro Historiques 222 presented this year, the Traditionnelle Complete Calendar Openface, and pretty much all the models in the Overseas collection always exceeds the supply. At the same time, Vacheron Constantin never tries to appear elitist to its customers, despite their yearning for the products. Even new customers should at least have a chance at obtaining the most coveted pieces in the collection.
Historiques 222, Traditionnelle Complete Calendar Openface and Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin Skeleton
Les Cabinotiers: The department fulfilling extraordinary dreams
With a mixture of great pride and worldly composure, we are led through the departments, past the CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines where the blanks for bridges are being produced, and into a world where just about anything is possible: Les Cabinotiers department for custom-made products. The high standards of the maison and its expertise in perlage and anglage, for example, are well known, but what a manufacture is actually capable of is best seen through the top tier of the collections. Four engravers and a gem-setter alone occupy this workshop, where special requests are the rule.
Vacheron Constantin only sets a certain framework for the choice of models; the Overseas collection, for example, is not considered customisable, but the Minute Repeater Tourbillon Monopusher Chronograph with drag hand is. For reasons of discretion, the models currently being created may not be described in detail, but the extent of the special requests may. Images are submitted, enamelled in detail, and used on the dial. A wall with colour samples helps Vacheron’s experts to estimate how the colour tones change when subjected to heat. But no matter how carefully the team works, they are always absorbed in a world of absolute meticulousness, where even the smallest mistakes can destroy weeks of preparatory work on a dial, and nothing can be repaired. The only thing that helps is a completely new start. It’s an occupational hazard, say the experts laughingly, adding that it happens rather rarely.
It’s also incredible to see how the cases are engraved individually according to the wishes and preferences of the customer. The team here are the best in their field, often spending months working on the flawless realisation of their customers’ wishes. The only limits are the customer’s budget or good taste – something Vacheron Constantin of course keeps an eye on, given that the unique pieces must be in line with the image of the house. In addition, the department also creates a small collection every year, which has aesthetically changing artistic leitmotifs and is an impressive showcase of watchmaking. The most recent, for example, was the Les Cabinotiers Minute Repeater Tourbillon – Flying Dutchman models inspired by the deep sea.
Les Cabinotiers Minute Repeater Tourbillon – Flying Dutchman
The Les Cabinotiers watches give the manufacture a special status within the luxury Swiss watch industry. Although other companies also produce unique pieces, they are either much smaller or it is much more difficult for the end customer to order a unique piece – no matter how much money and good words are invested on it.
Final assembly, finissage and sales in Plan-les-Ouates
Vacheron Constantin currently employs well over a hundred watchmakers in Plan-les-Ouates, plus dozens of administrative and management staff. The elegant steel spaceship perching behind this birch forest is the heart of the brand. This is where the many components arrive from the workshop in the Vallée de Joux, where they are finished by the watchmakers, and where the components are bevelled by hand, a process that can take up to five days for a tourbillon cage alone. On top of that, they are assembled twice and tested for accuracy.
The ultra-modern CNC machines used to manufacture the components are not hidden; they are considered irreplaceable in today’s haute horlogerie anyway, ensuring the highest precision – while the watchmakers gift the timepieces a soul through their mechanical constructions. From here, the chronographs, tourbillons and full calendars set off on their journey around the world.
Some of them don’t even have to be sent; they are simply placed in the safe in the salon on the third floor mentioned at the beginning. There, the ‘International Clients Managers’ present to the clients of the house the watches that might touch their hearts – and what is even available.
We can be quite sure that Jean-Marc Vacheron would be pleased with what has become of the brand under the Richemont Group. Hardly any other manufacture succeeds so well in balancing history and contemporary modernity; hardly any other is currently as popular and on the upswing as Vacheron Constantin.
Upon leaving the manufacture and heading towards the airport, two things become clear: the brand, proudly bearing its Maltese cross emblem, is well-equipped for the peculiarities of the current watch market. As for if you ever wanted a unique piece, a watch like no other: the atelier of Les Cabinotiers would certainly be the first address to call upon in this exclusive business.