Vacheron Constantin Patrimony self-winding

Dress watches are where my passion for horology began. As a young kid I would sit on my grandparents’ couch, staring at my grandfather’s gold Longines, with its glossy black dial, thin case, and tiny diamond at 12 o’clock. To me, it represented the pinnacle of adulthood – elegance, experience, knowledge, and all.

But the world looks very different now than it did when our grandparents grew up, and that totem of adulthood might look a little different as well. Few watchmakers, let alone true manufactures, have a history of producing dress watches so emblematic of the time in which they were made as Vacheron Constantin. Whether it’s their rectangular watches from the 1920s and 30s, the now archetypal tear-drop lug cases of the 1940s and 50s, or the restrained, round ultra-thins of the 60s, they maintain a certain DNA while balancing timelessness and sense of place.

Thanks to the good people of Vacheron Constantin Patrimony self-winding North America, I had the opportunity to spend a week wearing one of their distinctly 21st century dress watches, the 41mm Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding in rose gold. This outstanding timepiece is a perfect fit for the man who wants to nod to the past while standing firmly in the present. And although this watch features no complications (not even a seconds hand), there is a lot going on here to understand.  I’ll take you through it below.

Inside the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding is Vacheron Constintin’s ultra-thin calibre 1120. We have spoken about this famous movement before (when introducing you to Vacheron’s Patrimony Contemporaine Auto Excellence Platine) but it has an important place in watchmaking history and warrants some further discussion.

The VC 1120 goes by many names.   Audemars Piguet calls it the 2120, Patek Philippe calls it the 28-255, and Jaeger-LeCoultre calls it the 920. While Jaeger-LeCoultre has never finished or cased the movement for its own watches, it did originally design and manufacture the 920 in the mid 1960s, as the thinnest full-rotor automatic movement in the world. When AP sold its minority share of JLC to Richemont 12 years ago, they retained the rights of manufacture and ownership of the JLC caliber 920, and currently own it singularly. The original 920 was only 2.45mm thick (as is the 1120 in this watch), though a date module (as used in the Royal Oak from the very beginning) brings it up to 3.05mm. It also had a Gyromax balance from day one, as well as an anti-shock system. The winding rotor’s mass is concentrated on the outer rim, which sits just outside the perimeter of the rest of the movement. This lets the rotor sit more flush to the movement, making the whole package slimmer than it could otherwise be while retaining the full-rotor winding system. Ruby rollers support the outer edge, otherwise the weight would pull the rotor down on top of the movement.

The 920 (by whatever name) is the only calibre to be used by the trinity of Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Patek Philippe, and it has only been used by those three manufactures. Both the Royal Oak (1972’s Ref 5402) and the Nautilus (1976’s Ref 3700/1A) were launched with 920-based movements, though while the Royal Oak Jumbo (15202) still houses a 2120 to this day, Patek Philippe switched the Nautilus over to their in-house designed 335SC when the reference 3800 launched.

It really is a testament to this movement’s design that it was chosen by three of the finest manufactures around and is still being used in flagship pieces (among others) by two of them today – AP’s Royal Oak Jumbo, and Vacheron’s Auto Excellence Platine and Les Historiques 1968.  The 2120 is also used both by AP and Vacheron as the base movement for a handful of complicated watches – the self-winding, ultra-thin nature is a perfect backbone on which to build.

The 920 / 2120 / 1120 is a highly sought-after movement by collectors, and while Vacheron’s use of this movement has been limited in the past, the introduction of it into the classical, elegant, and extremely popular Patrimony Traditionnelle line is surely to be met with fan-fare. Timezone Senior Moderator and Collector Howard Parr went so far as to say: The [Caliber 1120] movement is a pinnacle achievement in watchmaking. It’s certainly one of the most confident and refined movements ever made, and one of the few automatics that spells credibility in any watch it powers.

Audemars Piguet only makes a limited number of these movements each year, with a small number allocated to Vacheron Constantin. There is no telling how long Vacheron will continue to have access to these iconic movements, making each piece containing the VC 1120 highly collectable. And in the Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-WInding, Vacheron Constantin has upped the ante, adding the Geneva Hallmark to this already impressive architecture.

Vacheron Constantin prides itself on not only adhering stringently to the Geneva Hallmark standards, but also having helped create the new, more strict set of criteria in June 2012. An astounding 75% of Vacheron’s watches carry the Geneva Hallmark, including the watch at hand.The original standards for the Geneva Hallmark were set in 1886, when Geneva’s local government established an optional set of inspection standards for watches made within the Canton. If you wanted to inscribe the name “Geneva” on your movement, that movement had to be up to standards. Think of this as relatively early brand protection for the Swiss watch industry.

There are two basic requirements for a movement to even be eligible for the Hallmark: 1) It must be assembled and adjusted in the Canton of Geneva and 2) it must bear its own individual production number.

From here, there are twelve criteria that have been around for decades, covering things like the prohibition of wire springs, particular requirements for polished and beveled surfaces, and specifications to ensure optimal escape wheel performanceBut earlier this year, the certification process became even more stringent. While we won’t bore you with every little change and addition, there are a few crucial categories that have been added to the Hallmark’s already rigorous list of requirements.

First is the introduction of specifications for components that link the movement to the case – previously, only the movement itself was covered under the Hallmark. This includes components like screws, push pieces, case rings, and other connecting elements. There is also now wear-testing, which makes sure that winding mechanisms (automatic or manual) work properly in simulated “real world” conditions. Water-resistance testing, power reserve verification, and chronograph power usage checks are all part of the review process now.

All of the modern Hallmark testing information is stored in a centralized database, and tests are only performed by independent third-party inspectors who work directly for the Hallmark agency. The idea is to use twenty-first century technology to uphold centuries-old standards, and to raise consumer awareness as to the impact these standards have on the performance of a watch. For more on the Geneva Hallmark and Vacheron Constantin, click here.

But even with this rigorous testing, the Hallmark only guarantees so much. You know you’re getting an accurate, beautifully finished watch steeped in tradition – but this is no guarantee that you’ll actually like the watch. To get a better sense of the emotional and practical value of the Patrimony Tranditionnelle Self-Winding, I strapped it to my wrist and put it through some tests of my own.The 41mm Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding is a little larger than the other members of the Patrimony Traditionnelle line (most of which are sized at 38mm), but the 41mm case feels “modern” rather than just large. This is certainly helped by the fact that at 7.26mm thick, the case sits nice and low to the wrist. This is paramount for a dress watch, since extra height can make getting the watch in and out of your shirt cuff clumsy. Diameter is the measurement people throw around most often when talking about a watch’s size, but thickness is every bit as important in most cases.

The Patrimony is nothing if not straightforward. Just hours and minutes displayed by the pink gold hands on the clean dial. The hands look razor sharp, the railroad minutes track is clean and crisply painted in black on the silver opaline dial, and the 18k pink gold hour markers are really well integrated into the design. They don’t look plopped down onto the dial as markers of this kind sometimes do – instead they are subtle and don’t overpower the dial or look flashy.

The Patrimony’s appearance does a great job balancing tradition and progress. Obviously inspired by the pure dress watches of the early and mid twentieth century, the Patrimony has enough modern boldness about it to prevent anyone from mistaking it for an oversized vintage piece. It’s the sort of watch that in another half century will be a reminder of early 21st century elegance, not mid twentieth century nostalgia.

Turning the Patrimony over, you can see just how immaculately the VC 1120 movement is finished. From the weighted gold edge of the skeletonized rotor to the crisp chamfering of every visible (and invisible) edge, you’d be hard pressed to find something that could be done to improve the presentation of this movement. I recently paid a visit to Vacheron Constantin’s Geneva manufacture, and looking through the sapphire caseback on the Patrimony brings me right back to the clean white rooms filled with dedicated artisans delicately filing and arranging each and every component by hand.  Do I generally prefer looking at manual movements? Yes, but if it has to be automatic, it doesn’t get any better than this.

I wore the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding for a week, including over a weekend at a family wedding. The watch sits comfortably on the wrist, and while I was a little skeptical at first about wearing a 41mm dress watch, by the end of the weekend I was completely convinced. While it looked and felt perfect with a suit and tie, I also enjoyed wearing it with more casual clothes like sweaters and sport coats. The rose gold case and slightly larger size really help with this.

One of the most appealing things about the Patrimony Traditionnelle might seem counter-intuitive at first: almost no one noticed or asked me about it while it was on my wrist. The best dress watches are discretely elegant, not loud and in-your-face. Especially at a wedding, you’d don’t want to be the guy who shows up with the flashy watch that begs for attention. The Patrimony is the sort of watch meant to be enjoyed by the owner more than by others. And during the week the watch was sitting on my wrist I got nothing but enjoyment out of it.

As much as I enjoyed wearing the Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding, there are a number of options in the marketplace that fill the modern, elegant ultra-thin category. It is a style that has been getting a lot of attention lately from the better manufactures, and there are a few watches out there that compete directly with the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony. Each has something the others don’t and there are far too many to cover in detail here. But, one in particular stands out as a particularly close sibling to the Patrimony – the Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Ultra-Thin.

These two watches look extremely similar on paper, and they do in fact share a lot technically and stylistically. But as we know, while numbers are important, there is a lot more to a watch than the facts and figures. Here is a closer look at the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding side-by-side with the Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Ultra-Thin, complete with numerical rundown and a few considered observations.

Here you get a balance of modern and classic elements, with the faceted, polished pink gold hands balanced against the crisp minutes track. The 41mm case has all the usual Vacheron treatments like beautiful lugs and contoured edges. Also in its favor, the Patrimony bears the Geneva Hallmark and contains a stunning rendition of the historically important 1120 movement. Overall a much more modern, angular take on the classic dress watch, and one whose overall look and style I prefer to the Jules Audemars.

From these numbers alone, it would be easy to think the Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Extra-Thin is almost the exact same watch. But upon closer inspection there are a number of important differences. Aesthetically, the opalescent dial bears no minutes track, the hour markers are so thin they’re barely there, the hours and minutes hands are a vintage-looking curved shape, and the case features a mix of brushed and polished surfaces. You can also request personalization on the oscillating weight, should that be your kind of thing. Check out Audemars Piguet’s website for full specs on this one. It would be remiss of us at this point not to mention price. As you can see above, there is a serious price gap between the AP and the Vacheron. The nearly $8,000 difference is certainly significant, but this does not by any means make the AP the only right answer here. Sure, for a lot of guys the Audemars Piguet might present better “value,” but for others the Vacheron has something special about it. So, ultimately, what is it that makes the Patrimony Traditionelle Self-Winding this special?

From the very beginning, this watch has serious pedigree. It is part of the Patrimony Traditionnelle collection, which in many ways embodies the best of what simple dress watches can be. The focus is on fewer details but having each detail executed to the very highest standard possible. Less but better. These watches though are typically powered by some of the most respected manually-wound movements around, so to maintain standards, Vacheron Constantin has decided to power the Self-Winding with the legendary Caliber 1120. Though not a Vacheron Constantin manufacture movement, this caliber is a collector favorite and holds a significant place in the pantheon of great historical movements. Vacheron Constantin’s version of this icon, finished to Geneva Seal standards, might just be the greatest instance of the greatest automatic movement ever. Add that there are not too many modern Vacherons powered by the 1120 and the chance to snatch one up is not something to ignore.

And as if that wasn’t enough, the Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding bears the Geneva Hallmark. You can be skeptical all you like about the branding value of the Hallmark, but there is no denying that a watch bearing this mark adheres to extremely stringent standards of quality and finish. That Vacheron is one of the major forces behind the Hallmark’s recent standards increase and continues to move in the direction of 100% compliance only makes this more interesting. If there is a brand for whom the Hallmark really represents a dedication for pushing traditional watchmaking forward, it’s Vacheron Constantin.

Finally, this watch is just a joy to wear. It’s the kind of watch you find yourself smiling and staring at (which I did often during my week with the Patrimony) and you look for excuses to wear it. Luckily, the 41mm size and updated-classic styling make it more versatile than you might immediately expect considering the “dress watch” moniker. The Patrimony Traditionnelle Self-Winding is a straightforward, wearable watch with a historic, beautifully-finished movement, which is exactly what we’ve come to love from Vacheron Constantin.

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