Custom-built Fine WatchmakingAtelier Cabinotiers: Watchmaking expertise meets artistic crafts
Created in 2006, Vacheron Constantin’s Atelier Cabinotiers revives the very unique spirit of 18th century Geneva. At that time, prestigious clients came to order directly from the cabinotiers, the watch industry craftsmen who forged the city’s reputation. Royalty such as King Fouad of Egypt or his son King Farouk were also ferevent collectors of one-of-a-kind models created by the Manufacture. Today, for the first time, Vacheron Constantin is unveiling two timepieces ordered from Atelier Cabinotiers, a new and unique service that custom-makes Fine Watches.
Secrecy and confidentiality surround most of the watches made to order by Vacheron Constantin. Sometimes embodying the wildest of dreams, always expressions of a burning desire, they are heard of more often than seen. These exceptional collection pieces come to life in Geneva at Atelier Cabinotiers. Unique in the watchmaking industry, this custom-building department offers clients a very exclusive service representing far more than just a finished product and based on the attentive listening skills and expertise of this Fine Watchmaking Manufacture founded in 1755. By providing this service, the latter is reviving the spirit of the cabinotiers, the highly specialised Geneva craftsmen who made the city famous beginning in the 11th century – first in jewellery, and then in watchmaking. This year, for the first time, Vacheron Constantin is unveiling two unique pieces stamped with the Hallmark of Geneva and made by its Atelier Cabinotiers service.
A Vacheron Constantin tradition
Right from its origins, Vacheron Constantin encouraged its watchmakers to make custom-built watches, lavishing countless hours on determining the exact appearance of a model and on choosing its functions and its components. Everything was to be possible and the utmost efforts were devoted to endowing a watch that would forever reflect its owner’s preferences. Vacheron Constantin watch collectors have always been well aware of this possibility, and the famous New York banker and devoted watch connoisseur Henry Graves Jr. was for example a keen devotee of the one-of-a-kind models signed Vacheron Constantin.
King Fouad of Egypt and his son King Farouk, to mention just two other eminent examples, were also keen collectors of one-of-a-kind Vacheron Constantin models. One particular story vividly illustrates these lasting ties: in 1937, when the adolescent Prince Farouk was visiting Geneva with his mother, Queen Nazli, he was eager to visit the Manufacture Vacheron Constantin. Charles Constantin guided him through the workshops and, when he expressed his amazement at the young man’s vast horological knowledge, the prince admitted to having taken a number of watches apart to see how they worked. On the occasion of an official visit to Geneva, the municipal authorities presented him with a fabulous one of-a-kind watch created by Vacheron Constantin. Its dial is enlivened by no less than 13 hands: alongside the conventional hour, minute and seconds hands are a chronograph sweep-seconds hand, a 30-minute counter hand, a split-seconds hand, the four hands of the Perpetual Calendar with leap-year indication, as well as the respective pointers for the alarm and for the movement power-reserve indicator and the striking mechanism power-reserve. It features a minute repeater and a moon-phase display, and its movement comprises 820 parts including 55 jewels.
It was this extremely distinctive spirit based on mutual exchanges and creativity that Vacheron Constantin wished to revive. In response to ever-growing number from avid collectors, the company opened its Atelier Cabinotiers in 2006. Here there are no collections, products or catalogues, just a listening ear. Everything begins with a story: the secret and intimate story of the person commissioning the watch. One, a history buff, asks for a reproduction of a painting by one of the masters in grand feu enamel on the dial; another, a poetic lover, wants a grand strike that chimes only once a year, on his true love’s birthday; yet another, a grand complications enthusiast, dreams of a mechanical masterpiece such as has never yet been tried.
All requests, from the simplest to the most daring, are meticulously examined by an ethical committee specially set up for the Atelier Cabinotiers; to secure approval, they must naturally be deemed to be in harmony with the Vacheron Constantin spirit. Vacheron Constantin is the only watch manufacturer to offer such a high level of service, uniting excellence and dedication. Atelier Cabinotiers is, above all, a grouping of top watchmaking professionals. Each new project that requires any technical development is supported by a team that includes an engineer, a mechanic and a watchmaker. Together, they strive to translate even the wildest dreams into technical terms. Vacheron Constantin’s designers and R&D department are called upon as needed. Then dedicated teams responsible for project development and tracking take over. A preferred contact person acts as a continual liaison between the teams and the purchaser.
A dedicated website specially created as an additional service gives customers the opportunity to enter the world of the Atelier Cabinotiers via a password that gives them direct access to their watch in the making. They can follow each stage of production, including through photos and videos, thus enabling them to keep track of the work in progress at any given moment.
But Atelier Cabinotiers’ greatest asset lies, perhaps, in the extraordinary artistic skills found there. The Vacheron Constantin guillocheurs and enamellers are among the last remaining masters of their forefathers’ art; others – engravers and gemsetters – proudly carry on ancient traditions, combining natural talent with expertise. From the hands of these artists come unique timepieces representing the pinnacle of Fine Watchmaking, which will find in due course find their place, like all the creations of the Manufacture since 1755, in the company heritage and archives.
Philosophia*: the other way to tell the time
Vacheron Constantin’s Atelier Cabinotiers service was recently busy with two special orders. The first, christened Philosophia* by its owner, is in and of itself a paradox. It brilliantly sets the scene for the peaceful coexistence of Fine Watchmaking and approximate time. The original idea was based on the postulate that mankind does not need to constantly know the exact time to the nearest minute. In some parts of the world, making an appointment “in the morning” or “in the evening” is quite sufficient to allow two people to meet. In the same spirit, knowing that it is 12 or 17 minutes past ten o’clock does not make the Philosophia*’s owner any happier or unhappier. However, while this man has decided on a lifestyle of displaying approximate time, he is no less a connoisseur of excellence. Far from being indifferent, he is in fact a Fine Watchmaking enthusiast and a major collector of timepieces.
The Philosophia* conveys all of these things at once. Based on a model from the Patrimony collection, it has only one hand in the centre, the hour hand, with a 24-hour display, allowing the approximate hour to be read without worrying about the minutes. But if the owner wants a more exact idea of the time at any given moment, he simply engages the on-off slide of the Philosophia*’s minute repeater, which reveals the exact hour, quarter hour and minute. If the hand is a little before 6 o’clock, the chime will sound five times on a low note, three times on a low-to-high note pair, and, for example, twelve times on a high note. That means it is exactly 5:57.
Another sophisticated touch in the Philosophia* is an opening in the dial at 6 o’clock that reveals a tourbillon rotating once every 60 seconds. The commissioner of the piece, who also likes astronomy, asked for a customised precision moon phase; the moon is shown with its craters, and a single star – the pole star—shines near it. On the back of the watch, the power reserve indicator bears a small plaque stamped with the intertwined constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor. Nearby, engraved in the 18-carat pink gold of the custom case, the identifying phrase “Les Cabinotiers” and the Atelier Cabinotiers coat of arms attest to the exceptional origin of this timepiece, which is also stamped with the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva.
Highly customised, the entire Philosophia* - a one-of-a-kind model – was made piece by piece at Vacheron Constantin by Atelier Cabinotiers. At its owner’s request, it was engraved with “No Un/Un” [No. One/One] instead of the usual “1/1” marked on one-of-a-kind pieces. This attention to detail was the rule for all 522 components of the hand-wound mechanical movement that makes the Philosophia* tick. The movement that drives a minute repeater, a 60-second tourbillon and the moon-phase display. Careful attention was paid to the finishes of all components; even the surfaces that will never be seen are hand decorated. This is true, for example, of the plate and its hand matt-effect file-stroke treatment, which gives it a very beautiful granulated sandy effect but which no one –except the watchmaker who takes the watch apart for maintenance – will ever see. Another special detail is the openwork at the centre of the escapement wheel, which provides a place for a pierced Maltese Cross motif, the symbol of Vacheron Constantin.
Unique in its spirit, aesthetics and exclusive mechanism, the Philosophia model was recently delivered to its owner by Vacheron Constantin’s Atelier Cabinotiers. It goes without saying that the presentation box as well as all the accessories and related documents – including the instructions – were also custom-made, one of each.
* Philosophia is the name given by the owner
Vladimir*: the ultimate in complications and artistic crafts
The second special order was named Vladimir* by its owner. This Slavic first name is derived from the ancient term Volodimir, which literally means “domination by peace” or “peace to all.” This superlative watch is none other than one of the world’s most complicated timepieces. That is what its owner wanted, and Vacheron Constantin’s Atelier Cabinotiers gathered the resources to meet this very ambitious goal. As it began this extraordinary adventure and accepted this uncommon mechanical challenge, Vacheron Constantin knew it could count on its unusual expertise garnered over an uninterrupted span of more than 250 years in business. The Genevese Manufacture had demonstrated this during its quarter-millennial celebration in 2005 by designing and producing in its own workshops what was at the time the world’s most complicated wristwatch, the famous Tour de l’Ile. The Vladimir* model that has just left Ateliers Cabinotiers is even more complicated than that legendary model of 2005. The hand-wound mechanical movement of this unique Vladimir* watch drives no less than 17 complications. This exceptional movement, bearing the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva, has some 891 components, all hand-finished or hand-decorated at Vacheron Constantin. It is both a technical and aesthetic triumph that took Atelier Cabinotiers and its top-flight watchmakers four years to develop.
Just one look at the Vladimir*’s main dial, which was hand-engraved on a rose engine at Atelier Cabinotiers, gives an indication of the complexity of this horological masterpiece and reveals an impressive array of complications, in addition to the usual display of hours and minutes. To begin with the supreme example, the very refined 60-second tourbillon mechanism stands out at 6 o’clock, while next to it at 3 o’clock appears the moon phase on a blue sky with a precision moon in gold, smiling or serious depending on the phase and hand-engraved by Atelier Cabinotiers craftsmen. To its right, a smaller counter with a small blued hand indicates the striking mechanism torque, i.e., whether the minute repeater mechanism is engaged. In addition to the hour and minute hands – one-of-a-kind pieces made especially for this watch –that travel around the slightly off-centre minute markers, the front side of the main dial provides a second time zone with day/night indicator at 11 o’clock. The power reserve indicator is located in the 9 o’clock sector, also enhanced by a 52-week indicator. At this point, we have already seen seven easily identifiable complications on a well-balanced dial – with all of the motifs and materials having been selected by the purchaser – that are perfectly legible and aesthetically flawless. As another sign of the personalisation evident throughout the entire creative process, the guilloché pattern on the dial was also chosen by the collector of this exceptional timepiece.
The back is no less admirable than the front, having a wealth of information that is pleasantly arranged, exciting, subtle and surprising. On the upper portion, the perpetual calendar dials are arranged in a triangle, displaying the days of the week, month and date from left to right. A small window at 1 o’clock shows the leap-year cycle. In the centre of the dial, a blued hand sweeps over a small sector devoted to the equation of time, the variable difference observable between true (solar) time and the time marked by clocks, which for convenience is divided into equal intervals. Two other pieces of astronomical information are conveyed by hands traversing two sectors at 4 o’clock and 8 o’clock: the time of sunrise and sunset. The list of functions ends in a blaze of glory with a precision sky chart of the northern hemisphere, as one rarely sees it.
This exceptional mechanical watch bearing the Hallmark of Geneva has a setting to match. The Vladimir*’s case is itself a work of art, epitomising the legendary expertise and nimble fingers of Atelier Cabinotiers’ artistic craftsmen. On the sides of this unique and imposing piece, which is 47 mm in diameter, the signs of the Chinese zodiac appear in bas-relief. The motifs and the bas-relief technique (which is extremely rare in watchmaking) used here were both done by request of the owner. Before getting to the heart of the matter with regard to the subject and materials, the designers showed the purchaser many sketches. The decision was then made to depict the signs of the zodiac on both sides of the case, which itself is made of 18-carat pink gold. In the end, the twelve figures – from the dragon through the rabbit and the rooster to the snake – were made to stand out slightly from the main body of 18-carat pink gold. It was a colossal task for the engravers – the twelve figures alone took more than six months – and required that a very special case first had to be made with extra-thick sides, from which the superfluous material was removed, carving roughly at first and then in very fine detail. As with every other timepiece from Vacheron Constantin’s workshop, the case was then polished very subtly, a task made all the more difficult by the fact that it absolutely must not destroy the engraver’s incredible work on the bas-reliefs. In order to meet the challenge and create this extremely complex and unique timepiece, Atelier Cabinotiers called on more than 20 experts and craftsmen. It was a Herculean effort for a watch that deserves to join the legendary ranks of exceptional watchmaking.
* Vladimir is the name given by the owner
The timeless spirit of the Cabinotiers
Since its founding, Vacheron Constantin has always encouraged its master watchmakers to custom-make watches, never begrudging the time needed to determine the exact aesthetics of a piece and select its functions and components. Atelier Cabinotiers is carrying on this tradition. Extreme complexity or a poetic expression of time, guilloché or enamelled dial, Roman or Arabic numerals, seconds in the centre or chronograph functions – anything is possible when giving a watch the character that will forever reflect the wishes of its owner. Then it is up to the owner to choose whether to show off the watch or keep it a secret. An indescribable pleasure in either case.
The art of the Cabinotiers
The first craftsmen to spread Geneva’s reputation far and wide, beginning in the 11th century, were its goldsmiths. The fineness of their work was highly sought after at that time by dignitaries of the European courts. Attracted by this centre of excellence, engravers and enamellers did not take long to form powerful guilds in their turn. In their wake, watchmakers and diamond-cutters, as well as carvers and chain-makers, came to occupy Saint-Gervais, the city’s oldest neighbourhood, on the right bank of the Rhone. From 1650 on, there were more watchmakers than goldsmiths, and watchmaking became Geneva’s main industry.
But Saint-Gervais, which was hemmed in by the city walls, offered only narrow, dark alleyways. In order to make the longest possible use of the best midday light, the craftsmen preferred to locate their workshops on the top floors of the buildings. These workshops, often cramped and sometimes located in attics directly beneath the roof, illuminated by numerous tiny windows, built a solid reputation for the quality of their work. They soon came to be called cabinets [“closets”], and their occupants were known as cabinotiers. The well-trained cabinotiers did not consider themselves to be ordinary members of the working class, but constituted a sort of worker aristocracy, more like artists, both educated and cultivated. So the art of the Saint-Gervais cabinotiers left its mark on the city’s daily, economic and social life for centuries.
Geneva’s famous jet d’eau, a by-product of La Fabrique
From its beginnings as master watchmakers creating their watches alone from beginning to end, Geneva’s watchmaking industry was to grow and change. Gradually, it organised itself around the various cabinotier groups: case-fitters, guillocheurs, carvers, encasers, gilders, enamellers, and of course watchmakers. Training and access to the “freedoms” were heavily regulated, ensuring the high quality of watch and jewellery production. Activity in Saint-Gervais was so intense that the neighbourhood was renamed La Fabrique [“The Factory”]. Merchants and craftsmen could be found there, but also rich clients coming to order directly from the attic workshops. Around 1800, it supported about 5000 cabinotiers, at a time when the entire city had 26,000 residents.
In a surprising bit of history, Geneva’s jet d’eau fountain owes its existence to the cabinotiers. To provide La Fabrique and the city’s craftsmen with power, in 1886 the authorities had a hydropower plant built on the Rhone, near Saint-Gervais. The high-pressure system enabled local industry to acquire small piston engines, which were less bulky and power-hungry than steam engines. But every evening when the craftsmen stopped working and turned off their motors, the hydraulic plant operators had to race to shut down their pumps, to avoid disastrous excess pressure. That was when someone had the idea of installing a safety valve that would let the water under excess pressure escape into the sky. The first jet d’eau, 30 metres high, was born.