Arguably the greatest of these is the House of Vacheron & Constantin, whose lineage extends unbroken to the Genevan cabinotier Jean-Marc Vacheron (1731-1805). While his younger contemporary Abraham-Louis Breguet (1747-1823) was undoubtedly the greater horologer and celebrity, the watchmaking House of Breguet which survived him never rivaled the house that the Vacherons built.
In this ostensibly traditional art of mechanical watchmaking, we instinctively feel that heritage, an ancient heritage (that trails off into a vast aeon before the rise of quartz), is one of the things that authenticates an inherently anachronistic product. When a watch bears the name of and old (and probably extinct) watchmaking family, we expect that this watch represents the watchmaking values and aesthetic sensibilities of their long tradition - their soul if you will. For those of a senior generation, and for those of us who have inherited their memory and sentiment, there yet remains the lingering phantom of the horological kingship of Vacheron & Constantin. But for most who partake in today's feast of mechanical revivalism Vacheron Constantin is little thought of, and thought little of.
How could it be that with such value placed upon heritage, that the house which bears the strongest claim to the tradition of watchmaking is so little regarded relative to youthful upstarts like the much celebrated 19th century houses of Patek Philippe and A. Lange & Sohne? We must ask, "Where have they gone astray?" For it is surely it could be no accident for it to slip into obscurity. What, we wonder, after nearly 250 years gives any wristwatch the right to bear the marque "Vacheron Constantin," the right to be branded with the Maltese Cross? In quest of answers and understanding we must treck back over those centuries in which that identity developed. We must return to the old city-state of Geneva. We must seek the house of Vacheron.
It was a time when watches were still a rare product made for aristocrats and gentlemen. In watchmaking it was a time of transition and experimentation, the twilight of the ancient pair-cased verge and the breaking dawn of the neoclassical waistcoat pocket watch. It was here that Jean-Marc Vacheron began his work as an independent watchmaker, a cabinotier working alone or with a single assistant in a small workshop in Geneva. The "1755" now quoted as the birth date of the house of Vacheron is an approximate one, based on the earliest extant evidence for Jean-Marc's watchmaking business. Beyond the mere fact of its existence, little is known.
Though the house owed much to Francois Constantin for his tireless world travel to promote and sell the company's fine watches, it was the hiring of Georges-Auguste Leschot in 1839 which thrust the small family concern into national greatness and a position of horological leadership. Contracted specifically to develop machine tooling for the precision serial manufacture of ebauches, Leschot would spend the rest of his life as an important part of Vacheron & Constantin. Before joining the house, Leschot had already spent years working on the development not only of a more practical lever escapement, but one that would be amenable to being manufactured by machines. Through his position as technical director of Vacheron & Constantin, he effectively turned the company into Switzerland's first modern industrial watch manufacture beginning in 1842. By 1845 Vacheron Constantin was not only producing its own calibres, but supplying other manufacturers with ebauches and escapements.
Through this time of continual technical achievement the manufacture remained a family business, passed down again to the succeeding generations of Vacherons and Constantins. In the late 1860s the name of the company was changed three times with changes in family leadership, due sadly to the subsequent passing of the last members of the Vacheron family. With the death of the last Vacheron in 1887 the manufacture was incorporated, its name fixed by legal charter as "Vacheron & Constantin." Three years later the company registered the "Maltese Cross" symbol which would in time become their trademark, based in concept upon Maltese cross stopworks.
The 132-year legacy left by the Vacherons of Geneva was not inconsiderable. In the era of handmade watches they had produced fine watches of the highest grade under its varied family names. First serving the doomed nobility of France, the house is even documented to have produced finished watches for A.L. Breguet (1813) of Paris. Their house style encompassed the continual change in mode and sensibility, from classic enamel dials to the brief vogue for gold dials and back again, the timeless beauty of silvered guilloche dials in the Breguet fashion (shown above), painted enamel casework, and much more.
In 1938 Vacheron Constantin became a part of the Jaeger-LeCoultre family under the aegis of the SAPIC holding company, and Georges Ketterer joined its board of directors. Ketterer would become much more by 1940 wherein he purchased a majority stake in Vacheron & Constantin from Charles Constantin, who had been the last Constantin to head the house (1936), bringing the 119-year legacy of the Constantins to a close. Despite the difficult economics of the Great Depression, the wristwatches produced by Vacheron & Constantin were not cheapened in any way, and along with Patek Philippe were the standard bearers of the wristwatch industry. The impeccable craftsmanship that Vacheron & Constantin was able to maintain must be in part credited to its relationship with Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The golden time for Vacheron & Constantin was brought to a close as Georges Ketterer died, perhaps prophetically, in 1969. His son Jacques assumed control, and managed to keep the house afloat through the darkest time in the quartz revolution. His death in 1987 would come at the daybreak of an impending industry renaissance. Wristwatch aficionado Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani became the new majority shareholder as Vacheron Constantin became a part of Investcorp until 1996, when the ownership of Vacheron Constantin again changed hands - purchased by its present owner the Richemont Group.