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by Jason on 16 January, 2013
First off I’d like to apologize to our readers who have been following the Baily Blog as of late; I’ve been busy here at the store due to the Holiday season, newsletters, website back-end work, and the translation of our site into French. As a result I’ve been neglecting the weekly blog updates, something I will be rectifying in the coming weeks. Bear with me as I return to the regular routine to keep you updated with the latest and greatest products here at Matt Baily. – JC
When referring to the Swiss watch industry, there are a few venerable heavyweight companies that have a disproportionate amount of influence upon the market. You have the highly recognized and well-integrated Rolex brand, the staunchly traditional Patek Philippe, the classically inspired and heritage-driven Breguet… And then you have Vacheron Constantin, one of the oldest brands in Swiss watchmaking that has maintained a continuous lineage since Jean-Marc Vacheron founded his workshop in Geneva in 1755.
Vacheron started his atelier in Geneva and operated quietly for several decades before passing the business along to his son Abraham, who then passed it to his son, Jacques-Bartholemy. Francois Constantin would join the company in 1819 to aid with sales to Vacheron’s growing export markets – subsequently the company was renamed Vacheron & Constantin (the “&” would be dropped from the name in 1970; any pieces produced before then will feature the ampersand in the brand logo). The most important contribution the company would offer in its early years would be the introduction of standardized (mass produced and interchangeable) parts for specific calibres. This technological breakthrough came courtesy of Georges-Auguste Leschot, who joined the company in 1839.
Leschot modernized movement production and tightened tolerances to the point where parts could be made to fit different movements with minimal hand-work. Before Leschot’s standardization, each movement was built from scratch and the parts used within were unique to that particular watch – any replacement parts had to be made to suit. Even if the movement design was the same in two different watches, the parts could not be changed between the two without modification. Imagine two carpenters building the same cabinet with hand tools, then attempting to swap panels between them. Minor differences in production would prevent perfect fitment. But if both cabinets were made with a jig and mechanized cutting that insured consistent tolerances and sizing, you could easily swap parts. Despite the “mechanization” of the process, a craftsperson would still be needed for final fitting, adjustment, and decoration of the piece. Others had attempted to modernize the industry before but Leschot’s innovations were the first that offered the precision needed for watch movements, and his contributions allowed Vacheron & Constantin to grow exponentially and begin supplying other brands with parts and movements.
Today Vacheron Constantin maintains a relatively low-profile spot among the top Swiss names, quietly producing high-quality pieces in a variety of styles with moderate brand recognition compared to competitors like Patek. Like Blancpain and Jaeger LeCoultre VC straddles the line between classical and modern style, offering elegant dress watches alongside contemporary sports designs – with flagship high-complication and limited-production artisanal pieces rounding out the catalogue. Since 1996 the brand has been part of the Richemont (nee Vendome) group, where the brand is positioned as one of the group’s most prominent manufactures alongside Jaeger LeCoultre and A. Lange & Sohne.
The watch we have here today is one of the rarest modern Vacherons this side of a minute repeater – the very rare and seldom seen 247, which is a Patrimony retrograde model produced in platinum in 2002 to mark the (you guessed it) 247th anniversary of the company. As you would expect, 247 individually numbered watches were produced - and sold out within a short period. As a result finding information about the 247 is sometimes difficult, and examples for sale are extremely rare. Collectors speak of the 247 in reverent tones as a difficult-to-obtain holy grail that is seldom offered for sale outside of major auction houses (at a rate of about one per year by my research). It’s a rare bird and we are fortunate to have one of the only examples in Canada in stock at Matt Baily’s.
The 247 is essentially a Patrimony retrograde date model with a skeletonized dial and platinum case. It is sometimes referred to as a Malte Retrograde, though today the Malte collection is limited to tonneau-shaped models. It features the same 37mm diameter of the original Patrimony (the current Contemporaine Biretrograde versions have been upsized to 42.5mm) and the same automatic calibre 1126/1-R31 movement with retrograde date at the top of the dial and a day register at 6 o’clock.
The case is small by current standards but not out of place among its peers – it’s the same size as a (large) Patek Calatrava and a bit thicker. Most dress watches in this category are on the smaller side, usually no more than 40mm – it’s only recently that the high-end brands have begun offering substantially larger dress models, a bit behind the mid-range end of the market where big has been the norm for a few years. The case has some art-deco elements in the lugs and combines some angular details with a rounded profile. The massive lugs give the watch an odd set of proportions; it looks smaller than it is, though the effect is diminished when it is on the wrist. Being made of platinum, the 247 has a nice weight despite the small size. There are sapphire crystals front and back, as you’d expect. Overall the design is sober and understated, certainly not a shouty piece by any stretch. This is a simple design that could blend in almost anywhere without drawing undue attention.
Much to the chagrin of collectors and those who seek information about the 247, the case is engraved with the wrong model number – 47245 (which is a standard Patrimony in gold) while this watch is referred to as the 47247 in warranty paperwork and official documents. Oops. Rest assured this is normal for this model and no cause for concern, though the first few owners who noticed the discrepancy had some worries…
The unique feature of the 247 that distinguishes it from standard Patrimony models, aside from the platinum construction, is the skeletonized dial. It’s not a traditional skeleton, though Vacheron is well versed in the practice of elaborate skeletonization, but a more-subtle revealing of the intricate retrograde mechanism and a flawlessly finished base plate. A traditional skeleton would have the bridgework carved away to the bare minimum with ornate engraving and detailing throughout, whereas the 247 has a more industrial look that eschews baroque detail in favour of a straightforward peek at the inner workings. The chapter rings for the various displays are cut to the minimum needed for legibility, and float a few millimetres above the base bridge. The hands are minimalist, polished batons for the hours, minutes and day, and a blackened arrowhead for the date. No lume is present, and hour markers are reduced to small triangular markers. The mechanism visible is finished well but not decorated any more than usual (aside from the brand’s signature Maltese Cross engraved on the central wheel). The bevelling and striping is flawless and fine, even better than some of Vacheron’s competitors who charge far more money for something comparable (I won’t name names, but I’ve handled some very expensive pieces that have remarkably coarse finishing on their movements).
It’s not very legible at a glance, but that’s not the point of such a watch. The retrograde works is the centrepiece – push the quick-set button at 10 o’clock to advance the date one click at a time… When you reach 31 and press again, you’ll see the intricate series of levers and pawls lock together and then instantaneously spring everything back to the opposite side. It makes for a nifty display of engineering and fine tolerances, and it’s also something rarely seen in-action outside of a watchmaker’s bench. Try to find another watch with a visible retrograde mechanism.
The movement is the Vacheron 1126/1 R31 (for Retrograde 31 day module). The 1126 is derived from the well-respected Jaeger LeCoultre calibre 889 ultra-thin automatic, a movement that has been used by quite a few major brands, and in some legendary models (it was used in the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the IWC Mark XII, Portuguese and Ingenieur, and a variety of JLC and Vacheron models). The 1126 is a slim automatic calibre that has earned a good reputation among aficionados. While very similar to the JLC 889, it features some subtle modifications, like ceramic bearings for the rotor instead of ball bearings (and of course the retrograde module and day of the week register). A 21k gold mass rings the rotor. As you would expect for a watch of this calibre, the movement is adjusted to 5 positions and heat/cold, though it is not certified as a chronometer by the COSC (Vacheron doesn’t submit to the COSC for testing, preferring to do its own accuracy certification in-house).
The strap is a black alligator item with a platinum Maltese cross tang buckle, as you will find on most Vacherons. In my opinion it is the only weak point of the watch, the quality of the alligator is acceptable but not exceptional and the tang buckle is a put-off to clients accustomed to deployant clasps. But, as I always tell my clients, you can always change a strap. You wouldn’t dismiss a car because of the tires it came delivered on, would you? Ok, bad analogy, a lot of reviews do just that.
The 247 is one of those rare, once-in-a-collecting-lifetime pieces. It is rare and sought after, and is seldom seen on the open market. By my research, an average of one to two examples per year are offered for sale, usually at a major auction house. You won’t find it on eBay. You won’t find it at the local dealer. You likely won’t even find it in the usual watch classifieds. But you can find it here at Matt Baily.
For more information about the Vacheron Constantin 247 Retrograde or any other preowned watches, give us a call at 514 845 8878 or visit us in-store.