Hands-On: The Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Small Model

One of the most common complaints over the last decade or more from watch enthusiasts has been that watches have, by and large, gotten too big for their own good. It’s certainly true that watches are bigger now, in general, than at any other time in the history of wristwatches although size itself is, like any other fashion, variable, and it’s no more objectively wrong for 40mm watches to be popular, than it was wrong for leisure suits to be popular (ok, maybe not leisure suits). What does or doesn’t work for anyone in terms of comfort and style is very dependent on physique and personal tastes as well; you can hardly expect someone who’s six foot five with an eight inch wrist to think that anything over 36mm is “too big.” 

That said, there is something to be said for the exercise of seeing just how well you can fulfill the codes of a time honored tradition. The tuxedo hasn’t changed all that much since the beginning of the 20th century, and for a reason: the expression of a tradition serves a certain purpose in connecting us with the past and providing a (hopefully pleasurable) sense of continuity. With that in mind, let’s look at the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Small Model.

The Patrimony Small model is one of those watches that looks like it could have appeared in 2017 via to a time machine from 1955. At 36mm x 8.10mm, it’s as traditionally sized as anyone could possible want. Now, if we think of this as a watch that’s an exercise in classic dress watch design, we can usefully think about what one would want, under ideal circumstances, from such a watch – in much the same way we could look at a guy dolled up (duded up?)  for a white tie embassy event and size up how successfully he’s fulfilled the dress code, or not. 

“Dress watch” is a somewhat elastic term; in general, however, you would expect something relatively small in diameter (check) round (check; round however isn’t essential and there are many excellent examples of the form with a rectangular or square shape; the NOMOS Tetra and the Jaeger LeCoultre Reverso both spring to mind) and fairly thin (check) with no complications other than – maybe – a date; if you’re going to have a date, the better integrated it is into the overall design, and the more unobtrusively it’s executed, the better.

The other criteria are not so much design criteria, as they are quality criteria. A dress watch can and should be simple (just how simple is a matter of taste and interpretation) however it cannot and should not take relative simplicity as an excuse to be careless in terms of craft and execution. This pitfall is one that an awful lot of would-be fine or dress watches fall into – you very often see quite banal (and that’s being kind) dials, fonts, hands and dial markers, when what you are looking for is the opposite: great care taken in every detail, even though (or perhaps especially when) there are relatively few details per se. 

Moreover, this expectation can and should extend to the movement as well. The movement doesn’t necessarily have to be in-house (“in-house” is, by itself, an extremely unhelpful criterion for quality) but it should ideally be a bit of a showcase for a high level of craft in movement finishing, and excellence in materials and precision construction. Perfectly finished screw slots, black polished steel elements, well-executed, clean anglage with good transitions between bevels and Côtes de Genève, clean countersinks, and no evidence of carelessness in oiling are just a few of the things one can and should expect from a first grade Swiss dress watch.

The Patrimony Small certainly fills the bill in terms of dimensions and materials, and with respect to the dial elements and quality of the case execution, everything is as it should be. The hands are luxuriously done without being inappropriately ornamental and the dial markers – elongated triangles at the quarters, stick markers in between – are also as cleanly done as you could want, with the minute round minute markers glowing like tiny pearls. The date window sits neatly atop the truncated six o’clock marker, with a beveled frame around it to add just a little extra contrast. The only slight let-down is the seconds hand, which is a flat, tapering gold lancet – one wishes for just a little curvature along its width, or maybe a radiused tip – but it does contrast nicely with the hour and minute hands, and echoes the shape of the hour markers.

Where any high grade dress watch really shows that its dignity and beauty comes from the inside out is of course, in the movement, and the view through the caseback is both an attractive one taken just on purely visual terms, as well as offering a window into some fascinating aspects of Vacheron’s history, and the history of automatic movements. Let’s take a closer look at the in-house, 26.20mm x 3.60mm Vacheron Constantin caliber 2450.

In an era where “in-house” remains, to many, synonymous with high end watchmaking, it may come as a surprise to hear that Vacheron Constantin did not begin production of its very own in-house self-winding movement until 2007 – over 260 years after the company’s founding in 1755. Despite what you might think, for most of the history of industrial watchmaking in Switzerland (which goes back much further than is generally recognized and which partly has its roots, surprisingly enough, in Swiss-made counterfeits of English watches) the general rule was that watches were put together piecemeal from components produced by specialists – the ébauche tradition, as Carlos Perez pointed out on Timezone.com back in 2000, was standard practice, and even the most elevated names happily used supplied movements unhesitatingly. 

The notion that “in-house” would be a major selling point, is a relatively new one and it was an easy one for luxury watch brands to appeal to in the 1990s and 2000s. As well, more and more brands saw it as a necessity to reduce consumption of supplied movements and begin making at least some of their own. The concentration of what were formerly many independent brands, under single group umbrellas (Richemont, Swatch, LVMH, and so on) also meant that from a strategic standpoint, brand-centric verticalization could help reduce dependence on one’s competitors, and so the notion of in-house continued to gain traction, and continues to be an attractive point to customers.

Caliber 2450, then, was developed by Vacheron as a general purpose self-winding movement that could be used in a wide range of timepieces, and like other in-house movements developed during that era, such as Audemars Piguet’s 3090, it’s a bit on the small side by modern standards in terms of diameter (the caliber 3090 is even more diminutive than caliber 2450, at 21.4mm). Like the 3090, it eschews any obvious attempts at hitting watch technology’s cutting edge – remember, by 2007 silicon components had already been on the market for nearly a decade, starting with the Ulysse Nardin Freak – in favor of very high quality traditional manufacturing and and finishing techniques throughout.

The quality of finish is pretty terrific – and very, very traditionally Swiss. The finish on the steelwork is impressive – there’s nicely done anglage and black polishing even on the regulator (as well as on the beautiful kidney shaped balance spring stud). There’s no visible part that looks as if it hasn’t received a craftsman’s attention. Technically it’s interesting to note that the winding rotor actually runs in a central jewel, which is a rather old-fashioned touch; most modern automatic movements and certainly, anything designed in recent years, would probably use ceramic bearings, but that central jewel gives an old-school charm to the movement that ceramic bearings can’t match, for all that the latter make a lot more sense from a practical and engineering standpoint.

The whole thing is a major nostalgia trigger, and it makes me wish for the good old days when I was a moderator at the first version of ThePuristS.com, when we could actually get away with borrowing a watch from a manufacturer for a tear-down (or sometimes talk an owner into letting us take apart his or he watch) because what I would love to do is see what the dial side finishing is like. I honestly don’t think Vacheron is the sort of company to pull the sort of chicanery we used to call display-back finishing, but the under-the-dial work can often be a much more informative indication of a company’s committment to quality than what’s visible through the display back. The images of the dial side on Vacheron’s website are pretty reassuring but still, a lot of the keyless works are tucked out of sight under the date ring. Still, of what’s visible, the same focus on quality that you see through the display back is present on the movement side as well.

Now I will say, this is a very easy watch to love in most respects; it’s a living, ticking memorial to a kind of quiet excellence in watchmaking that’s become increasingly rare, as mechanical watches have increasingly become luxuries, and high luxuries at that – and which in consequence need more and more to overtly signal their cost and exclusivity. However one thing that is very modern about the Patrimony Small model is the price – full retail from Vacheron this is a $24,300 watch, which is a little discouraging if you’re from the working professional class that used to be Vacheron’s bread and butter in the USA, once upon a time. It’s a bit sad that the days are gone when an average family physician with a family, a mortgage, and a couple of car payments to cover could also afford a really nice, round, gold, high grade Swiss dress watch. 

However, to put it in perspective, these are the days when Patek can charge around $30,000, depending on the model, for a Calatrava. At the other end of the scale, of course, there’s the Lange Saxonia Thin 37mm, which is $14,800, albeit for a hand-wound watch with no date guichet. In the abstract, I’d love to see this Vacheron, with all its wonderful quality, and all its wonderful expression of a certain tradition of high-grade Swiss watchmaking, priced in accordance with standard practices from even ten years ago but that would require not just Vacheron, but the entire watch industry and probably the entire world, to be very different from what it is.

Maybe, after all, it’s better to not dwell too much on a past that’s going to stay past – at least in some respects. The part of the past that is alive in this watch is not only alive and well, but beautifully alive and well, and with the pendulum of taste with respect to classical watchmaking dimensions and design swinging back in favor of tradition, maybe we can hope for even more such expressions of the best of traditional watchmaking in modern watches.

The Patrimony Small model, as shown, $24,300. Case, 36mm x 8.10mm, 5N pink gold, water resistance, Three bar/30 meters. Movement: in house caliber 2450 Q6, self-winding, 26.20mm x 3.60mm, running at 28,800 vph in 27 jewels; 40-hour power reserve; stamped with Geneva Hallmark. 

For more, visit Vacheron Constantin online.

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