Focus: Vacheron Constantin Ref. 57260
Watchmaker Vacheron Constantin spent 10 years on a bespoke ticker with 57 complications and delivered the finished timepiece on its 260th anniversary.
Flashback to 2005, just as Vacheron Constantin celebrated its 250th anniversary, the manufacture made multiple headlines as it launched a seminal timepiece called Tour de l’Île. Named after the historical tower in Geneva where Vacheron Constantin’s first watchmaking atelier was located, this wristwatch with 16 complications was then considered the most complicated in the world. A total of seven pieces were produced and this double-face wristwatch was also fêted across the globe after it won the prestigious Aiguille d’Or prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève.
Right about this time, the manufacture received a customer’s special request to build a watch – a pocket watch this time – that was even more complicated, so complicated that it could conceivably stand on its own alongside the manufacture’s greatest horological achievements of all time.
Greatest Of All Time
Across the ages, Vacheron Constantin has produced innumerable pocket and wristwatches and a large number of these timepieces had been high or grand complications. Within its grand complications hall of fame, four historical pocket watches stand out particularly for having been a greatest-of-all-time at some point in time. Vacheron Constantin produced them decades ago for some very specific clients, and so eminent are these individuals that the watches are now identified by the names of their illustrious owners. These masterpieces are the James Ward Packard pocket watch, the pocket watch for Count Guy de Boisrouvray, the pocket watch for King Fouad I of Egypt, and the pocket watch for King Farouk I of Egypt. Today, the King Farouk and Count Guy de Boisrouvray watches belong to the collections of private collectors, while the King Fouad and the James Ward Packard are kept safe in the Vacheron Constantin archives.
Just in time for its 260th anniversary in 2015, Vacheron Constantin was able to update this legendary collection of ultra complicated pocket watches with a fifth one named not after its owner this time, but rather, a set of reference numbers. Known somewhat cryptically as Ref. 57260, this newcomer exceeds all its predecessors in terms of size and number of complications, although Vacheron Constantin can quickly and easily explain the provenance of this symbolic five-digit number.
Where 260 is quite obviously linked to the celebratory year, 57 is not so immediately apparent, so here it is: There is a grand total of 57 complications in this watch, some of which are completely unprecedented. No wonder it measures a whopping 98mm in diameter and is 15.55mm thick. At the worldwide launch of Ref. 57260, Vacheron Constantin had also revealed that this timepiece weighs just under 1kg. In addition, the owner of the watch had specific requirements about its proportions, namely that the final product should neither be bigger nor heavier than another horological great – the Patek Philippe Calibre 89 – a timepiece that he happens to also have in his (surely) astonishing watch collection.
Like the James Ward Packard, Ref. 57260 was a collaborative effort between customer and manufacture, where the customer’s role was to express his horological desires and the manufacture’s, to be consulted and fulfil them. Yet, because the owner demanded full privacy (even as he did allow Vacheron Constantin to showcase the watch at an international event), this watch could only ever be known by its reference number instead of the owner’s name, as with the first four legendary pocket watches of the Genevan manufacture.
Sun With Moon
Another factor that immediately distinguishes Ref. 57260 from the others is that it is a two-face watch – how else to display 57 functions? Understanding it requires a fair amount of time and concentration plus a loupe, and a pair of reading glasses. A dram of single malt would also help. Even though chances are slight that this piece unique will be put up for sale any time soon, it’s still worth exploring as one of the most original and inspirational works of haute horlogerie in the 21st century, and definitely one of the most ground-breaking masterpieces ever made by Vacheron Constantin.
For a start, Ref. 57260 contains not just the traditional perpetual calendar complication, but four different calendar types. One of which, the Hebraic calendar, was the client’s special request and had never been made before in a mechanical timepiece. While this does suggest the client is Jewish, Vacheron Constantin has made no official statement confirming that.
As it is, the traditional, meaning Gregorian, perpetual calendar is a hard enough complication to make, but credit must go to today’s master watchmakers for their continual innovation. Another Swiss marque, Blancpain, had made a Chinese lunar perpetual calendar three years ago, and now Vacheron Constantin positively one-upped the Le Brassus manufacture with the Hebraic, which is known to be exceedingly hard to understand, much less construct.
Unlike the Chinese or even the Islamic calendars, which are based solely on the moon, the Hebraic calendar is lunisolar as it combines lunar months and solar years. The Hebrew lunar year is about 354.367 days (11 days shorter than the 365-day solar year) so it uses a 19-year system called the Metonic cycle that brings in intercalary months every two or three years for a total of seven times to align the lunar and solar cycles. To accurately display all the components of the Hebraic calendar perpetually without manual adjustment, Vacheron Constantin’s team of watchmakers and engineers had to come up with new sets of mathematical calculations and mechanical concepts never before done in the history of watchmaking.
To read the Hebraic calendar, begin with the two apertures under the sub-dials at three and nine o’clock. Displayed in Hebrew are respectively the days and months. For the date, look at the sub-dial at six o’clock and read from the gold serpentine hand tipped with a crescent. Corresponding to the 29.5-day lunar cycle, there are either 29 or 30 days in each month, and naturally, the watch adjusts itself accordingly. To know if there are 12 or 13 months this year, refer to the sub-dial at nine o’clock where a small gold hand indicates this clearly. Within the sub-dial at three o’clock, you get the Golden Number, which tells you how many more years till the end of the Metonic cycle.
There are religious observations in every culture, and in Judaism, the holiest day of the year is known as Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement. On the 10th day of the seventh month, Jews observe Yom Kippur by fasting for a 25-hour period and praying intensively. Since it’s a moveable feast, Yom Kippur occurs on a different day every year in the Metonic cycle, and Ref. 57260 displays a pre-calculated set of 19 dates in Gregorian calendar terms for convenience. The year is shown digitally in the wide aperture within the six o’clock sub-dial. At present, it states 5775 because the Hebraic calendar is calculated from the creation of the world in 3760 BC as opposed to anno Domini (AD) as used by the Gregorian calendar. Finally, the phases and age of the moon are placed prominently in the sub-dial at 12 o’clock and it requires only one correction every 1,027 years.
Take Your Chime
Cosying up to the Hebraic calendar at the front of the watch are its chiming indicators. Unlike many modern repeaters and sonneries, Ref. 57260 does not expose any part of the strike train or the movement for that matter. As such, the only way to assess the mechanism would be to activate the chimes. There are a total of five sets of hammers and gongs inside the case, four of which are dedicated to producing the Westminster chimes when the watch is in sonnerie mode, while the final set is reserved for the alarm function. Of course, Ref. 57260 being a timepiece of such superlative qualities, the owner can easily decide to switch off the strikes and choose between grande and petite sonnerie modes. More interestingly, Vacheron Constantin proffered an additional touch of personalisation: The owner can also select a night mode where the watch dutifully chimes the time in passing except between 10pm and 8am.
Pushers are located all around the watch, but rather than create bulk, they blend gently into the case. To choose between chime, night, and silence, push the button at nine o’clock, which engages the indicator on the dial at 10 o’clock, and alternate between grande and petite sonnerie using the button at 10 o’clock. Time on demand, however, is available 24/7 as long as the watch is properly wound. Simply activate the sliding lever at five o’clock to hear the hours, quarters, and minutes. There is a dedicated mainspring for the strike train. Winding it involves turning the crown and a gauge (denoted by a “C”) at nine o’clock monitors its remaining power. Turning the crown the other way winds the going train, which is aligned with the other power reserve indicator (denoted by an “M”) at three o’clock.
Along with the Count Guy de Boisrouvray and the King Farouk, Ref. 57260 includes an alarm function, but this is one alarm with a fancy upgrade. Apart from on/off, choose between one of two alarm modes where the first yields generic chimes from a single set of hammer and gong. The other mode invites you to enjoy the cascading chimes of the traditional Westminster carillon. See which mode is currently engaged using the indicator at two o’clock on the dial. While we’re not sure if it’s loud enough by which to be awakened, there is no doubt that the classical chimes of Big Ben struck by hammers on gongs are always more welcome to a connoisseur’s ears than Apple’s Marimba.
To activate or deactivate the alarm, use the button at 1.30 and to choose between normal and carillon mode, use the one at 2.30. When it’s time to wind the mainspring for the alarm, the owner gets to do something very cool. Being a pocket watch, albeit an exceedingly large one, it has the classic bow above the crown, but this is no ordinary bow for it controls the release mechanism for the alarm’s flush fit winding stem. Push and turn the bow clockwise by about 25 degrees and this winding stem pops out instantaneously. Use it to wind the mainspring and set the alarm time. Remaining power can be monitored via the gauge next to the alarm mode selector, and the alarm time is displayed at 12 o’clock, where the alarm hand is in gold with a triangular tip. When it is no longer needed, the alarm winding stem can be pushed back into the case.
Timekeeping With A Twist
In addition to the Hebraic calendar, the sonnerie night mode, and the carillon alarm, there is one other complication made for the very first time in Ref. 57260: The monopusher retrograde rattrapante chronograph. Where traditional rattrapante (or split-seconds) chronographs position both chronograph seconds hands on the same axis in order to keep the rattrapante hand from sight when not engaged, Ref. 57260 proudly displays both with equal prominence and allows each to move according to its own rhythm. For once, the rattrapante hand is not acquiescent to the chronograph seconds hand.
At rest, both hands point to zero on their respective scales. When timekeeping begins, they spring into action, ascending steadily up the scale towards 60. When they reach that point, the hands flit back to zero and instantaneously begin counting the next 60 seconds. At any point, when the rattrapante mechanism is activated, the rattrapante seconds hand (positioned on the left) stops, indicating first elapsed time. When deactivated, it swiftly catches up to the chronograph seconds hand no matter where it is. Elapsed minutes and hours can be read off the silver hands in the sub-dials at nine and three o’clock. Never mind the fact that this timepiece can only give you the time difference in terms of seconds because the fluid and graceful motion of the two retrograde hands sweeping up and down is reward enough for engaging the chronograph.
Because of the sheer heft of this timepiece, practically every component that went into its making had to be proportionately bigger than that of a wristwatch. This includes the hands, particularly, the retrograde chronograph hands and the minute hand. Because of their sheer length and fineness, the retrograde chronograph hands would be prone to wobbling and backlash whenever they’re moving and particularly when they retrograde or stop. The force of inertia acting on the farthest point of the hands – think the Road Runner when he abruptly stops running – causes them to be unstable at the pivoting point and does not meet the stringent watchmaking requirements at Vacheron Constantin. What the manufacture did to ameliorate the effect was to implement a deliberate and unique design so as to yield perfect stability and accuracy during operation.
Having successfully pulled off such extraordinary complications as the Hebraic calendar, the grande and petite sonnerie with personalised alarm, and the monopusher retrograde rattrapante chronograph, Vacheron Constantin could have called it a day, but it didn’t. So brace yourselves as we continue with part two of the Ref. 57260 tutorial.
Business & Leisure
The other calendar complications present in Ref. 57260 include the traditional Gregorian perpetual calendar, the formal business calendar also known as the ISO 8601 calendar, and the astronomical calendar complete with star chart, zodiac indications, the four seasons, as well as equinoxes and solstices. Date, day, month, and leap year are the key elements of the Gregorian perpetual calendar. Ref. 57260 presents the date in a retrograde indicator located at 12 o’clock with the leap year indication in a circular aperture to its right. The day and month displays have been set into the sub-dials at the nine and three o’clock postions respectively. Not to take away any merit, but as complex as it is, the traditional perpetual calendar is somehow still dwarfed by Ref. 57260’s plethora of high complications as well as unique technical achievements.
Finance executives, managers, and business owners would be familiar with at least one more calendar than the Gregorian: the ISO 8601 calendar, more commonly known as the business calendar. As a purely secular method of calculation, the business calendar operates without months, primarily focusing on day of the week and week of the year. It is often used in tandem with the Gregorian calendar for more practical reasons and is especially useful to professionals within the finance sector because it breaks down all 365 days of each year into a period of 52 weeks and seven days. Also, the business calendar has a full cycle of 400 years and the first day of the year is always a Monday. Ref. 57260 displays the week of the year in the sub-dial at three o’clock corresponding to a gold hand, while the day of the week in numerical form is displayed in the window above this sub-dial. Vacheron Constantin reveals that it is also possible to synchronise the business calendar with the Gregorian one.
The final calendar complication in Ref. 57260 is the astronomical calendar. While it does not have an especially practical application except to astronomers and astrologers, it does encourage one to fully contemplate the passage of time – and hence watchmaking – in a most poetic way. Offering the celestial sky chart and sidereal indications is a blue rotating disc at 12 o’clock that’s calibrated to the owner’s home city. Months are also displayed here, along with 12 red indices that indicate the last day of each month. Look around the circumference of the dial to obtain additional celestial information like month and day of the year in the outermost ring, zodiac sign period, and vernal and autumnal equinoxes, as well as summer and winter solstices in the middle ring, and the four seasons in the innermost ring. All of these are read off the long sweeping gold hand with a sun counterpoise.
Not just the stars but the sun also gets time of day in this watch, literally, because Ref. 57260 also provides the equation of time function – the equation of time being known as true solar time.
Measured in terms of the distance between the Sun and the Earth, true solar time can differ from civil time by as much as 16 minutes in a day. The elliptical orbit of the planets and Earth’s tilted axis also mean that the discrepancy can be faster or slower than civil time. When the equation of time hand points to zero, civil and solar time are the same. This complication is located just above the tourbillon, and is accompanied by indications for times of sunrise and sunset, as well as lengths of day and night.
It appears that in spite of Ref. 57260’s fantastical offering of four calendar types, four striking complications, and an exceptionally complex chronograph, Vacheron Constantin remembered to be practical and so it included the second time zone function. Although it’s not like one would actually leave the house with this timepiece, much less travel with it, take it as yet another display of the manufacture’s immense watchmaking know-how because here’s a world time unlike any other.
A world time system that shows all 24 time zones simultaneously is clearly too much for the dial, so Vacheron Constantin only allows home city to be on display. Shown in hour and minute format, it also comes with a day/night indicator. Adjustment to the second time zone is done through the crown, which has a three-position stem linked to a window through the case next to the crown displaying “R” for rewind, “C” for celestial, and “M” for mise à l’heure (time setting).
Of the 57 complications found in Ref. 57250, only the tourbillon was directly inspired by the historical roots of traditional watchmaking. More accurately, it is an armillary sphere tourbillon. Rotating on three axes, it is without doubt more accurate than a classical single-axis bridged tourbillon, and even more splendid to admire. Crafted out of featherweight aluminium, the carriage carries the shape of Vacheron Constantin’s insignia, the Maltese cross. Appearing once every 15 seconds due to the carriage’s rotations, its three dimensional form invites you to admire its polished and gently bevelled surfaces.
Vacheron Constantin explains that the choice of an armillary sphere tourbillon came from an historical four-sided clock supporting a mechanical astronomic armillary sphere ordered by King Louis XVI and made by legendary 18th century watchmaker Antide Janvier. Another historical watchmaking figure that inspired the Vacheron Constantin watchmaking team was Jacques Frédéric Houriet who was the inventor of the spherical spiral. Inside the carriage, the balance wheel, escapement, and spherical balance spring pulsate to a leisurely cadence of 18,000vph regarded by many connoisseurs as the perfect frequency with which to admire a tourbillon. This low frequency coupled with high inertia of the large balance wheel yields exceptional chronometry for the movement. According to the manufacture, time variance is only +/- one second per day.
To power all 57 functions, Ref. 57260 cannot simply be based on any existing calibre because no movement that is capable of providing sufficient power exists. Even if there were one, Vacheron Constantin would still insist on building everything from scratch – that is only right for a timepiece made at the Ateliers de Cabinotiers. Designing the entire movement from ground up also made it possible for the watch to subsist only on a single mainspring apart from the one dedicated to the sonnerie. Imagine the huge amount of power required at 23.59 on New Year’s Eve when all the 13 or 14 indicators (15 if it’s a leap year) advance simultaneously. Without having owned the timepiece, it is hard for anyone to judge, but all doubts would be swiftly cast aside as soon as you realise that Ref. 57260 had received the approval of the Poinçon de Genève.
Easily taking the number one spot as the most historically significant timepiece made by Vacheron Constantin in the 21st century, Ref. 57260 took 10 years to materialise, but takes just moments to captivate the hearts of all haute horlogerie aficionados. A decade ago, the Tour de l’Île did the same and won an award. This year, Ref. 57260 shone the limelight on its makers, Micke Pintus, Yannick Pintus, and Jean-Luc Perrin. The three master watchmakers were awarded the Special Jury Prize at the 2015 Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève. What a spectacular finish to the grand anniversary festivities.
Take a closer look at the most complicated pocket watches ever made by Vacheron Constantin
The James Ward Packard
Commissioned by and made for the founder of the Packard Motor Company, James Ward Packard who was known widely for his passion for horology, this exceptional keyless pocket watch completed in 1919 was as luxurious as it was complicated. Cased in 20K yellow gold, as opposed to the more ubiquitous 18k variety, decorated with fine hand-chasing, and fitted with a rock crystal watch glass, which was notoriously difficult to polish and shape, the James Ward Packard pocket watch is the only known example of a grande and petite sonnerie striking clockwatch with trip quarter and half-quarter repeating and chronograph. It produces an additional strike on or after each elapsed 7.5 minutes following the full quarters. The pocket watch is also impressively precise as it uses a non-magnetic Guillaume balance, which has a near-zero thermal coefficient, and two spring barrels, one for the going train and another for the strike train.
The Count Guy de Boisrouvray
This 18K gold hunter’s case timepiece includes the carillon minute repeater with three hammers on three gongs, perpetual calendar with leap year indication, moon phases, split-seconds chronograph, register, and alarm. Sold to the Count in 1948, it was one of the few grand complication pocket watches of the 20th century that included an alarm function. Like the James Ward Packard, this timepiece is known for its high precision in spite of the numerous complications. It was also made with a Guillaume balance and features a unique regulation system for precision setting. Gold and platinum screws in the balance protect the movement further from temperature fluctuations. Its set of three gongs and hammers produce a cascading triple note when the striking mechanism is in play.
The King Fouad
This pocket watch was a gift to the king in 1929 by the Swiss expatriate community in Egypt. The story goes that in 1927, president of the Cairo Joint Tribunal, Francis Peter, who was a Swiss citizen, approached Vacheron Constantin for a suitable gift to the King. At that time, the watch was not yet complete, even though the manufacture had started to work on it in 1914, with the ambition to make it the most complicated Vacheron Constantin watch ever. Two years later, Peter presented the finished product to King Fouad I. Made over a period of more than 10 years, this watch included a carillon trip minute repeater with grande and petite sonnerie striking on three hammers, split-seconds chronograph, digital format perpetual calendar, and phases and age of the moon. The day and month indications were initially in English, but had been changed to French upon the King’s request.
The King Farouk
The King Farouk pocket watch is Vacheron Constantin’s most complicated creation of the 20th century. Presented to a young King Farouk on his 15th birthday, the slew of functions packed in this timepiece includes a carillon minute repeater with grande and petite sonnerie striking on three gongs, split-seconds chronograph with 30-minute register, perpetual calendar with phases and age of the moon, alarm, and two power reserve indications, one for the going train and another for the strike train. Apart from the Count Guy de Boisrouvray, there is no other Vacheron Constantin complicated pocket watches made in the 20th century that comes with an alarm function. The King Farouk has a staggering presence, measuring 80mm across – now that’s what we call king sized.
Text by Celine Yap
This article was originally published on World of Watches