In the 1970s, the post-war global economic boom came to an end. The new, accurate quartz watches gained popularity and plunged the Swiss watch industry in a deep crisis. As the inexpensive electronic watches began to flood the market, the competition from foreign manufacturers created a major economic turmoil, and with it, the need for Swiss brands to reinvent themselves, making necessary disruptive changes. And that includes the Vacheron Constantin Overseas, a watch born in that exact period.
It was at that time that Audemars Piguet decided to introduce something totally new. Together with the celebration of postmodernism, the 1970s style was all about freedom and eclectic, informal, laidback looks. To break away from their classic – somehow conservative – gold dress watches, Georges Golay, the brand’s managing director then, contacted Gerald Genta to design an entirely new genre of wristwatch.
Presented in 1972, the Royal Oak sparked a complete paradigm shift in the high-end Swiss watch industry. Genta’s avant-garde brainchild was a sporty yet elegant steel wristwatch whose bold case crowned with an octagonal bezel was extended with an integrated bracelet. The case and bracelet were designed as a whole rather than conceived separately. Despite fierce initial criticisms, his revolutionary vision turned into a huge international success, a game-changer creating a new category of timepieces.
The creation of the Royal Oak was followed by several other iconic high-end sport watches with integrated bracelet including the cult Patek Philippe Nautilus or the IWC Ingenieur Jumbo SL, both designed by Genta. Not to be outdone, Vacheron Constantin, the oldest watch manufacturer in continuous operation (over 260 years), also introduced its luxury sport watch. To celebrate the brand’s 222 anniversary, Vacheron presented the “222”, designed by young Jorg Hysek. Like for Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, the 222 was a radical breakaway from their traditional dress watches.
Sharing signature hallmarks of the “Genta” design, the 222 also included distinctive features: a thin, barrel shaped case with a notched round bezel and a tiny Maltese cross inlaid at 5 o’clock. Its one-piece construction was water resistant to 120m. Its complex integrated bracelet was shaped with large, hexagonal center links. Underneath the clean dial with ‘baton’ markers, Vacheron used the VC1120 caliber, based on the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920. Interestingly, this high-grade, trustworthy, ultra-flat automatic movement developed in the 1960s by Jaeger-Lecoultre was also used for the Royal Oak and the Nautilus.
The 222 was produced in different versions (37mm and 34 mm with automatic JLC based movements and 25mm with quartz movement) and materials (steel, gold and steel, and gold). Its shape went through iterations including a square version. Produced in limited quantities, the 222 was discontinued in the mid-1980s. It has now soared in popularity to become a 1970s horological icon.
Within the sport offering of the brand, the 222 was followed by the 333 (sic), an octagonal case with integrated bracelet and then the Phidias, with round case and integrated bracelet proposed in different versions and with different functions such as chronograph or GMT indication by the mean of a rotating bezel.
The success for Vacheron Constantin sports watches really came in 1996 with the launch of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas, a direct descendant of the 222. At that time, the Vendôme Luxury group (Richemont was holding 70% of Vendôme, the buy-out of minority shareholders would be completed a few months later) had just acquired Vacheron Constantin from Investcorp. The development of the Overseas had been initiated a few months before by a design team including Dino Modolo, an external watch designer and Vacheron Constantin’s Vincent Kaufmann. More than just a high-end sport watch, the overseas aimed at satisfying global travelers with an appetite for casual yet elegant statement pieces.
Like the 222, the Overseas was built around a tonneau shaped case with a fluted bezel reminiscent of the Maltese cross. Its dynamic lines were extended by an integrated bracelet with geometric links. The first overseas was 37mm, water resistant to 150m and powered by the VC1310, a COSC certified version of the ultra-flat automatic Girard-Perregaux 3100. Smaller versions at 35mm and 24mm were added. 1999 saw the introduction of a chronograph based on a Frédéric Piguet 1185 modified with the addition of a large date mechanism.
A second version of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas was launched in 2004, with a more modern design, notably with its metal bracelet featuring a half Maltese cross motif and optimized for greater comfort. Its integration to the case was reworked and its center link was extended up to the bezel. The crown guard disappeared and new, patterned dials completed the overall sportier feel. Muscled up at 42mm, the Overseas 2 was relying on the VC1126 (JLC889-based) and the VC1137 (FP1185 with big date) while a soft iron antimagnetic screen gave the movement an all-around protection.
In 2006, a dual time Overseas was added to the collection, featuring second time zone, power reserve, day night and date indications. This useful (and somehow awaited complication given the travel background of the collection) was indicated by the VC1222 based on the JLC 920 that is also used by Audemars Piguet for the Royal Oak reference 26120.
A noteworthy evolution was introduced in 2007 as the Overseas came on leather strap for the first time with a US limited edition of 100 chronographs fit with a choice of alligator and rubber strap (another first for VC).Given its commercial success, the line was animated with different materials, different functions – as complex as a perpetual calendar chronograph – and numerous other limited editions.
In 2016, Vacheron Constantin Overseas presented a revamped Overseas collection with a more elegant and refined style while retaining its distinctive character. The overall design (by Vincent Kaufmann) is cleaner with more fluid lines. If the case takes more of a barrel shape, a disc below the bezel underlines its round, enlarged opening. The Maltese-cross bezel now has 6 notches versus 8 previously and spread out to the very rim of the case. The case back no longer features naval engravings but a sapphire crystal revealing mechanics worth a close look: 3 new in-house movements, new complications and the return of a horological classic, the VC1120. Really quite something all the more as all new models bear the Geneva Seal and are fitted with convenient interchangeable straps/bracelets.
The 40mm Ultra-Thin Overseas marks the return of an horological icon, the VC1120, today manufactured in-house and based on the design of the JLC920, the cult ultra-flat automatic movement that was powering in the original Royal Oak, Nautilus and 222. More than just a “mechanical exception”, this emblematic, high-grade caliber celebrates the very spirit of the Overseas. Its elegant, thin case is an ultimate statement of sporting chic.The impressive revised Overseas collection is enriched with new complications in the form of an uber-elegant ultra-thin perpetual calendar also based on the VC1120 and a worldtimer, the largest piece in the collection at 43.5mm and a befitting complication as travel is a leitmotiv of the collection.
Last, the new generation of Overseas was also the opportunity for Vacheron Constantin to introduce three new calibers. The 5200 is an in-house integrated column-wheel chronograph with vertical clutch and automatic winding. The 5100 and 5300 new automatic calibers with respective dimensions of 13’’’¼ and 9’’’¾.
If you go as far back as 1977 with the launch of the 222, the Overseas will soon turn 40. The age of maturity? Like the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or the Patek Philippe Nautilus, it has stood the test of time to become iconic. The impressive revamp of the collection in 2016 is a new milestone further installing the Overseas as a versatile, casual elegant timepieces, duly forming part of the elite of the high-end luxury sport watch. But after all, 40 years in the life of an icon sounds like just the beginning…