In 2004, when Vacheron Constantin inaugurated the limited series of watches created in honour of the great explorers, the Geneva-based brand was displaying a fierce determination to ensure the continuity of one of its most fundamental values: the workmanship traditions involved in fine watchmaking “metiers d’art” – or artistic crafts.
Vacheron Constantin’s deep-felt commitment to highlighting the value of these decorative arts now continues with a magnificent demonstration of the expertise faithfully ultivated by the world’s oldest watch manufacturer for the past 250 years.
Clearly dedicated to excellence, Vacheron Constantin once again unveils two genuine works of art from both mechanical and aesthetic standpoints, thanks to a patented movement driving an astonishing reading of time and a dial sublimated by the extremely complex and time-honoured art of “grand feu” enamelling. An accomplishment worthy of those achieved by the great explorers of past centuries who, by risking their lives as they journeyed across land and sea, contributed to the advancement of Humankind.
Respect for Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus
After the two first models in the collection dedicated to the Chinese admiral Zheng Hé, the intrepid Ming dynasty explorer and his Indian Ocean discoveries; and to Magellan with his discovery of the strait bearing his name, Vacheron Constantin pays a glowing tribute to two of the most famous world travellers: Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus.
These two exceptional timepieces, entirely hand-crafted with patience and passion, meticulous care and a desire for perfection, are in harmony with the spirit of the Geneva “Cabinotiers” cherished by the brand founders. The demanding nature of the work entailed justifies the limited edition of 60 for each model.
Stemming from the emblematic “Métiers d’Art” line, the exclusive mechanism of these models calls for unusual devices incorporated within an exceptional dial depicting the amazing voyage of these great adventurers who set off in quest of the unknown. A mysterious journey in which time is not counted but instead savoured, like an inestimably precious asset. A legacy.
A dial in two separate parts, on two different levels
Transposing the voyage of the world’s greatest explorers onto a watch dial was the astounding technical and aesthetic challenge taken up by the Geneva-based watch manufacturer Vacheron Constantin.
The “grand feu” polychrome enamelled dial consists of two parts, with one partially overlapping the other.
The upper part depicts a portion of the globe by reproducing an historical map relating to the feats of the great explorer.
The twelve hour numerals move across a 132° minute scale on the lower part of the dial of this mysterious watch embodying the finest horological traditions and featuring a truly stunning complication.
A Vacheron Constantin movement that makes time travel
Pushing their know-how to new frontiers of excellence, the engineers and watchmakers of the Manufacture have developed a complication which, thanks to the extreme reliability of the self-winding movement equipped with Vacheron Constantin Calibre 1126AT, sends time sailing in the cartographical wake of these intrepid adventurers.
At the heart of the watch lies a highly sophisticated and patented mechanism driving both parts of the dial thanks to a number of highly sophisticated devices linked by cams shaped like the brand-signature Maltese cross.
Pivoting crown, positioning fingerpieces, numeral-bearing rotating satellites: all these exclusive devices developed by the in-house engineers ensure an entirely original reading of time. The hour wheel features three arms extended by a satellite. Each carries four hour numerals, pointed in a direction determined by a Maltese cross-shaped cam. The hour crown turns in such a way as to line up the satellite bearing the appropriate hour number in front of the gap between the two parts of the dial. The Maltese cross-shaped cam then moves the appropriate number into the gap and the hour crown then makes it move from left to right in exactly one hour over the minute scale on the lower dial.
Thus steadily counting off the time, the hours journey to the far end of the upper dial facing its lower half, transforming the hour numeral into a symbolic hand specifying the number of minutes at a glance. The resulting magical dance of the hours is based on an ingenious configuration that called for a considerable amount of research and development.
This journey of time through time is a powerful metaphor of the long, difficult and often risky voyages undertaken by the great explorers in order to quench their thirst for discovery.
The time-honoured art of “Grand feu” enamelling
The limited series of “Métiers d’Art Tribute to Great Explorers” gives pride of place to “grand feu” enamelling, one of the oldest and most remarkable hand craftsmanship traditions of Haute Horlogerie.
This noble craft, consistently cultivated by the Manufacture Vacheron Constantin, has become so rare that only a few artisans worldwide can claim to master its secrets. This traditional art is indeed characterised by its daunting complexity and exquisite delicacy.
The enamelling process consists in adding the colours composing a motif dot by dot with a fine-tipped brush, beginning with the outlines. Each application of this coloured glass paste calls for extremely rigorous and accurate gestures, before placing the dial for a few minutes in a kiln heated to a temperature of between 700 and 700 degrees Celsius.
Once cooled down, the enamel is then sanded down – but gently so as not to spoil the effect. During the firing in the oven, the colours may change and even shrink. The skill and experience of the enamel artist thus play an essential role in the procedure, at the end of which a translucent flux or protective lawyer is applied to the motif before a final firing at 900°C, followed by lapping and final polishing.
Each new colour application implies the same set of operations, and the piece may be fired as many as 30 times in all.
It is here that the difficulty of this ancestral art becomes most clearly apparent. Totally unpredictable by nature, “grand feu” enamelling can wipe out in an instant the patient, meticulous work of the artist creating it.
Occasionally rebellious and consistently capricious, enamel requires cautious and progressive cooling to room temperature so as to avoid any tensions that might prove destructive to the point of causing the work of art to literally “explode”. A single slip-up can result in irreversible damage and oblige the craftsman to began all over again.
The exquisite specific work on the dials of the “Métiers d’Art Tribute to the Great Explorers” models
In the case of the dials in the “Métiers d’Art Tribute to the Great Explorers” collection, the two parts must be enamelled at the same time in order to ensure they are fully matched: the same colours, the same firing time, the same radiance. The hand-crafted nature of the task makes each execution and each dial a truly unique work of art.
But every sacrifice brings its reward and for the enameller, that means a creation literally bordering on perfection. Thus associated with the watchmaking art, this traditional craft reveals the full measure of its prodigious stature. The result is all the more striking, in that the detailed geographical depiction of the routes sailed by the great explorers is graced by superbly nuanced shades of colour ranging from the pale blue of the seas to the orangey ochre of dry land. A spectacular feat expressing a wealth of meticulous care.