Today, we’re not going to do a regular “Monochrome-Style” review, detailing every element of a watch or dissecting every technical feature. Instead, we’re going to do something “for the sake of watchmaking“, for the beauty of an art – because, at a certain point, I think we can move to another level and talk about proper works of art. To illustrate this, we’re going to look at just one watch, the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon, by focussing on some small but extremely important features, and demonstrating what high-end watchmaking is… And you’ll see, it doesn’t need to be loud and demonstrative.
Of course, we could easily go on about every detail of this Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon, which was first presented in September 2016. We could explain that it is a simplified version (if I can say…) of the ultra-complex Calibre 2755, a watch that combines tourbillon, minute repeater and perpetual calendar – because the Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon uses the same base calibre, just without the QP module on top. We could write at length about all the features and technical specifications of the watch, telling you about the 58h power reserve, about the 2.5Hz frequency of the one-minute tourbillon, with oversized cage, or about the 507 components of its calibre 2755 TMR. We could. But we are going to look at this watch from another angle, examining some of the details which make it special.
In the case of the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon, its pièce de resistance lies in the details; from the finishing and the level of decoration, and from the involvement of human hands, which have gone into achieving such a watch – because understanding these will help to explain why it is priced at over half a million Euros. When you reach such a price tag, features and technical solutions alone are not sufficient reasons anymore. There has to be more. You can find tourbillon watches (and Swiss made ones) below 30,000 Euros. There are even some minute repeater watches priced lower than this (although clearly, the combination of a tourbillon with a répétition minute usually means quite a hefty price). So before we hear you scream about such its price, we invite you to take a closer look at what this Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon really is, and what are the details that can even partially justify its positioning.
THE HAND-GUILLOCHE SOLID-GOLD DIAL
If textured dials are one thing, those with hand-guilloche are from another planet. It is now common to see some relatively low-priced watches with “textured” dials resembling guilloché ones. However, do consider that most of these timepieces, if they are priced under 15,000 Euros, will most likely have a stamped dial – meaning that the brass plate (brass is the most common material for dials) will go under a press that will print / stamp a motif, which could mimic the appearance of a guilloché dial, or any kind of motif you can imagine. The Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle MRT is of course not from this caliber. Its dial is pure blue-blood.
On this Traditionnelle MRT, the dial starts as a solid gold plate. Then, to obtain this concentric texture, it has to undergo an engine-turning process (also named guilloché in French). It is a decorative technique in which a very precise, intricate and repetitive pattern is mechanically engraved into an underlying material, by using an engine-turning machine. The first step is to create a master, a large-sized plate on which the desired motif is manually engraved. Then, the engine-turning machine will use the master as a base to replicate in a smaller format this motif on the final dial, by cutting into the underlying material.
Even if this sounds like a relatively straightforward process, it actually implies many hand-controlled steps. First of all, true guilloche is only possible with manually-controlled machines, most of them being century-old, entirely mechanical (no electricity or CNC here) relics. Even then, hand-guilloche allows for greater delicacy, precision, and closeness of line – characteristics which you can easily spot on the dial of the Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon – and it requires a highly trained dial-maker to control the machine, otherwise the result can easily be irregular (and because the plate is solid gold, you wouldn’t want to be missing a line on the dial…) – you can see the whole process in a video here.
Now, about the dial itself, even if the tourbillon could easily steal the show, the fine, extremely precise and very elegant guilloche pattern manages to keep things balanced. This watch is all about simplicity. Amazingly, even though Vacheron Constantin has equipped this Traditionnelle with two highly complex features, it remains extremely subtle and sleek. No needless mentions on the dial, no complex printings, in fact no fanfare at all… The slightly off-centred display of the hours and minutes also plays an important role in the proportions, in order to accommodate the massive tourbillon cage below. It’s all about being balanced and focused on the essentials, meaning here, the beauty of a craftsmanship entirely done by hand. And that also applies to the tourbillon cage…
THE TOURBILLON CAGE AND BRIDGE
Once again, it’s all about the detail here. Yes, we’ll focus on one part that measures less than 2cm long. But once you inspect it, you understand that it is not just another part. Indeed, on its own, the tourbillon bridge of the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon is impressive. So what exactly is this “bridge”? It is the small transversal bar that crosses over the tourbillon cage, and whose sole purpose is to hold the regulating organ in place – you can find another one, shaped differently though, on the back side of the watch. In the case of this VC watch, the tourbillon is a “normal” one, as opposed to a “flying” one, which is cantilevered on one side only. This means that we can enjoy the beauty of a dial-side bridge, and in particular its immaculate decoration.
The tourbillon bridge here is polished, however not on a flat surface, as it has a rounded profile. While you might think this doesn’t make any difference, let us explain that it actually does. Polishing a flat surface is already complex: you have to have the right gesture, the right pressure, the right directions. Polishing is a process that aims to smoothen and to remove imperfections, but not to alter too much the shape or thickness of a part. For flat surfaces, you basically rub the part in question on a master surface, also perfectly plan, with diamond paste. Complex, time consuming and requiring skilled hands, but in fact it is quite a common sight in watchmaking.
However, when it comes to rounded or curved surfaces, the same rules do not apply. This kind of polishing is done meticulously with the part firmly held in place in a montage, and the watchmaker will apply pressure with a wood stick and using diamond paste, in order to achieve a mirror-like surface. The difficulty here of course is in managing to remove any imperfections while keeping the overall shape of the part intact. This is far more time-consuming than polishing a flat surface – and polishing such a bridge can take up to several days…
The second interesting part to notice is the cage of the tourbillon, which is, in classical Vacheron Constantin style, shaped as a Maltese Cross. Here, the definitive detail comes from the impressive anglage work done – anglage refers to beveling or chamfering. It consists of beveling edges to a same angle (in general 45°) and width, performed in particular on bridges and plates. While this is now mainly done by machine, with diamond tools preparing the surface, a watch such as this Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon must have bevels finished with hand-polishing (as the Hallmark of Geneva obliges). Yet here, what impresses most is the amount of internal angles (sharp angles inside and outside the cage). Such beveling work cannot be done by a machine, but only by using wood pegs and ultra-sharp files… And when you consider the size of the cage, you now have to imagine the precision required to create such a part.
Up to now, we’ve been mainly focussing on parts placed on the dial-side of this Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon. Yet, turning the watch over will make you want to wear it up-side-down. Even if the first and main objective of a movement is to provide energy and precision to indicate the time – and of course to power all kinds of additional functions named complications – true watchmakers spend probably more time in designing and decorating it than to actually assemble it. On a piece of this gravitas the movement needs to be, in keeping with the rest of the watch, a true piece of elegance and distinction. This Traditionnelle MRT is no exception to the rule.
A closer inspection of this calibre 2755 reveals all sorts of finishing and decorative techniques, all of them being part of traditional watchmaking – and executed according to the Hallmark of Geneva / Geneva Seal / Poinçon de Genève requirements (more details here and on their own website). it means that all the parts of such a movement have to be finished and decorated, including the hidden faces and the parts that are not visible. Let’s see in details:
Bridges are all beveled, meaning that their edges are chamfered and then polished by hand
The main plate shows perlage or circular graining (even on the hidden surfaces)
Bridges are adorned with Geneva stripes – and in this case they are done by hand and not on a CNC machine, like on many luxury watches
The tourbillon bridge as well as the main bridge over the movement feature internal / sharp angles, done meticulously by hand
Engravings (all the indications engraved on the movement) are done by hand
Hammers of the minute repeater are black polished… The most advanced type of polishing used to acquire a perfectly smooth surface of the steel parts, which in return reflect the light like a mirror, or appear black when studied from a certain angle.
jewels and screws are inserted in polished sinks (a concave chamfer around the screw heads or jewels is carved and polished)
Screw heads are mirror polished and slots are chamfered
Wheels spokes are chamfered by hand, and their surfaces are circular grained
Barrel has a sun-ray pattern (soleillage)
As you can see here, when you come to a movement such as the one of the Traditionnelle Minute Repeater Tourbillon, features and technology are not the only key factors anymore. Labour time, detailing and the fine decoration are what make the difference between a luxury watch and a high-end watch. All of these details, all the human intervention, have little bearing in a movement’s efficiency, but play a huge role in the pleasure we can take in admiring a movement. It is indeed emotional.
Do all of these details justify a 528,000 Euros price tag? Well, partially of course, even if as always, it feels like an incredible amount for just a watch… But, as we say in France, “le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ignore” (The heart has its reasons that the reason ignores). And this watch is all about passion: passion of the few that will be able to acquire it (and I guess those who will are proper collectors, with reserved and subtle tastes), and passion of the dozens of people who have worked on it.