Retrospective: The Historic Timepieces That Inspired Vacheron Constantin's Cornes De Vache
Watchonista gets a sneak peek at Vacheron Constantin's historic collection of chronographs to see how this much-loved complication has evolved from 1819 to the present day with the Maison's latest model, the Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955.
Vacheron Constantin started producing chronographs in the early 1900s, first with pocket watches and later with wristwatches at the start of the 20th century. The chronograph has always been an important complication for the brand as the art of short-term time measurement represents the height of precision timekeeping.
The Beginnings: Deadbeat Seconds
Watchmakers were already looking at how to time short periods of time in the mid-1700s and developed the deadbeat seconds mechanism to do just that. This ingenious invention allowed the seconds to advance in distinct steps, instead of sweeping around the dial, so they could be counted. This involved giving impulses to the regulation organ by storing up the energy and then releasing it in one go every second. Vacheron Constantin's private collection includes a beautiful example of a pocket watch from 1819 that features an independent deadbeat seconds.
The next advance was to make the deadbeat seconds independent via an additional gear train, which marked the birth of the chronograph as we know it today.
The First Vacheron Constantin Chronographs
The oldest Vacheron Constantin chronograph in the Maison's museum collection is a hunter-type pocket watch from 1876 that features a minutes-counter and is known to have been sold in the United States.
Fast-forward 12 years and the company was already producing split-second chronographs as can be seen in the example pictured here from 1889 that was sent to a horse-racing enthusiast in Buenos Aires, who had specially requested that the oxidized silver case be adorned with an enamel miniature painting of a jockey.
Military Models For The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
In 1917, Vacheron Constantin's reputation for precise and reliable chronographs had reached the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who were interested in acquiring timepieces for their officers. Vacheron Constantin submitted two silver, pocket-watch, chronograph prototypes (without minutes counter) to the Corps of Engineers.
The prototypes featured large Arabic numerals enhanced with radium luminescence, making them extremely legible and practical for military use. Vacheron Constantin received orders for thousands of timepieces from the U.S. Corps of Engineers that were delivered until 1919. This was assuredly the most stylish piece of kit that the officers received as standard Army equipment.
The Conversion From the Pocket To The Wrist
It was at this time that Vacheron Constantin started to convert its pocket watches into wristwatches. The oldest wrist chronograph in its collection is a single-pusher gold model with a minutes counter from 1917. Timepieces with practical functions became extremely popular in the 1930s and '40s and Vacheron Constantin was no stranger to this "instrument watch" trend. Two examples in the brand's collection are the references 4072 and 4178 that were produced up to the 1970s, proving how successful they were.
The Cornes Des Vache And Its Famous Lugs
The first wristwatch chronographs were distinguished by their refined aesthetics, such as the 1928 monopusher, pictured here, that came in an elegant cushion-shaped case. Vacheron Constantin's designers loved to express themselves through the design of the cases and, in particular, their lugs.
In 1955, the brand unveiled its first Cornes de Vache model on the occasion of the company's 200th anniversary. This timepiece, reference 6087, was its first waterproof and antimagnetic chronograph and was distinguishable by the classicism of its case and dial, but also by its unusually-shaped lugs that resembled cow horns, and thus gave the collection its name.
The Chronograph Comeback
Chronographs were to fall from favor during the next couple of decades as the world became infatuated with inexpensive digital timepieces, mainly of Japanese origin, in what is now known as the Quartz Crisis. But by the end of the 1980s, there was a renewed interest in mechanical watches and especially chronographs.
In 1989, Vacheron Constantin introduced the Ref. 4700, which unlike its predecessors, was powered by an automatic movement. This was followed by a re-edition of the reference 4178 with a manual-winding movement.
From the 1990s onwards, the Maison created many fascinating chronographs, including the Ref. 49005, an automatic timepiece with a perpetual calendar and moon phase. Chronographs also started to appear in the brand's Overseas and Malte Collections.
Chronograph Movements That Marked History
On the occasion of the brand's 260th anniversary in 2015, three entirely new chronograph calibers were unveiled — the Caliber 3300, a manual-winding monopusher chronograph featuring a fascinating structure and containing innovative solutions that were protected by patents; the Caliber 3200, which was similar to the Caliber 3300, only featured a spectacular tourbillon at 12 o'clock; and the Caliber 3500, the first split seconds chronograph movement made for a wristwatch.
The year 2015 also saw the arrival of a re-edition of the legendary Cornes de Vache. This model stayed relatively faithful to the design of the 1955 model, but came in a slightly larger case size of 38.5mm, instead of the original 35mm. It was powered by the Caliber 1143 and came with a 30-minute counter and a design inspired by timepieces from the 1940s.
In 2016, Vacheron Constantin unveiled its new Overseas models, the first since the mid-1990s, featuring a brand-new movement, the Caliber 5200, which had required nearly five years of research and development. It was particularly appreciated for its robustness, as well as a dial bearing a 30-minute, a 12-hour counter and a small seconds display.
Historiques Cornes De Vache 1955 In Steel
The latest chapter in the Vacheron Constantin chronograph story is the Historique Cornes de Vache 1955 unveiled this fall. This elegant timepiece blends both style and tradition with a stainless steel case, two-tone opaline dial and brown calfskin leather strap. It comes equipped with the brand's Caliber 1142, a manufacture, hand-wound movement featuring a column wheel and horizontal clutch that is in keeping with the overall vintage aesthetic.
Vacheron Constantin's mastery of the chronograph is a fascinating story that started exactly 200 years ago with the deadbeat seconds timepiece and has advanced and evolved over the last two centuries to almost fill a museum with chronographs today. This practical complication is a large part of the company's history in terms of mechanical innovations, but also in terms of design.
And the greatest part of the story is that there are countless more chapters to be written as Vacheron Constantin's designers, constructors, and watchmakers continue to innovate and develop new calibers and timepieces for future generations of watch lovers to enjoy.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell, vintage images provided by Vacheron Constantin)