Introducing Vacheron Constantin’s Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes VermeerBy Neha S Bajpai
On its 260th anniversary in 2015, Vacheron Constantin paid an extraordinary tribute to its horological ingenuity with the Grand Oeuvre, Reference 57260. Eight years in the making, the Reference 57260 was equipped with 57 complications, 2,826 individual components, 31 hands and more. Of the 57 complications relating to astronomy, striking time and the chronograph, ten were patented. This watch was built entirely by hand by three watchmakers, two of them brothers, who are masters of micro-mechanical engineering at the maison.
Just two years before the completion of the Reference 57260, this trio of watchmakers received another ambitious request for a unique watch to be made at the Les Cabinotiers. A dream timepiece for a collector who is always seeking to own a watch “theoretically impossible to obtain”, the said pocket watch had to have a real Westminster chime with five gongs, five hammers, Grande and Petite Sonnerie and adorned with miniature enamel.
Today as Vacheron Constantin gives us the first glimpse into this incredible project, one could say that it took the company eight years to realise the ‘Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer’ pocket watch, however, this masterpiece actually represents 266 years of the maison’s expertise in chiming mechanisms and exceptional craftsmanship. “This astonishing creation has been made on request by one of our clients who owns an impressive number of important timepieces from Vacheron Constantin. He has a couple of unique timepieces as well, notably, an old fashioned minute repeater in steel and one of the 15 unique pieces from the Métier d’Art Chagall & L’Opera de Paris “Tribute to Famous Composers”, says Christian Selmoni, Style & Heritage Director, Vacheron Constantin.
Powered by a brand new calibre 3761, developed specifically for this timepiece, the unique pocket watch is not just a technical marvel but also one of the most supreme examples of Vacheron Constantin’s phenomenal craftsmanship. “This timepiece is 98 mm in diameter, which is an unusual size. The client believed that the scale and size of this piece were very important to showcase its acoustic and visual excellence. So a pocket watch was a natural choice here,” says Selmoni. While the officer-type caseback cover of the timepiece features a flawless reproduction of Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting of the ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ from 1665, the case sides are decorated with hand-engraved friezes composed of acanthus leaves and tulips. “The client also wanted the bow to be adorned with two roaring lion heads carved from a block of gold, a style seen in classical statues. The master engravers took several 3-D prints for this intricate engraving,” explains Selmoni.
Vacheron Constantin and Chiming Watches
In the haloed world of chiming watches, Grand Sonneries are extremely rare thanks to their substantial complexity and the very few master watchmakers who can actually attempt them. While the record for Vacheron Constantin’s oldest pocket watch with Grande and Petite Sonnerie dates back to 1827, the maison introduced its first grande sonnerie wristwatch only in 2017. The Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860 has been one of the most important milestones in the history of Vacheron Constantin’s chiming watches. The entire watch was assembled, adjusted, and regulated by just one watchmaker who spent over 500 hours to achieve the melodious feat. “We have made some incredible chiming watches over the last two centuries, which includes the Packard pocket watch made for industrialist James Ward Packard in 1918 and the astronomical pocket watch with a grande and petite sonnerie with silence function made for King Fuad I in 1929. Besides the 30-minute counter chronograph, grand and petite sonnerie, the Packard pocket watch included a semi quarter repeater which is a rarity,” says Selmoni.
In 2019, Vacheron Constantin announced 11 unique chiming watches as part of the Les Cabinotiers ‘La Musique Du Temps’ Collection. Each of these pieces was offered with an original sonic print recorded by Britain’s Abbey Road Studios. The Reference 57260, which serves as a blueprint of sorts for the current generation of high complications from Vacheron Constantin, included the Carillon Westminster chiming with 5 gongs and 5 hammers and a grande et petite sonnerie. The new Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer too has been bestowed with a Westminster chime, one of the most complicated striking mechanisms to build, as it requires a sequence of five gongs struck in perfect harmony by their respective hammers controlled by four racks.
The strikework mechanism in this pocket watch can be activated with a gentle slide on the on side of the case. There is a small switch at 9 o’clock that offers three modes – the Sonnerie mode, in which the watch is automatically activated each time the quarters change, the “Night Silence” mode, which has been exclusively developed for Calibre 3761 and can be tuned to a time zone chosen by the wearer and lastly, the complete “Silence” mode, which suspends the striking mechanism. One can also easily switch between Grande Sonnerie and Petite Sonnerie, with another selector positioned between 10 and 11 o’clock. The two barrels promise at least 16 hours of power reserve for the musical mechanism in “Grande Sonnerie” mode and 80 hours for the time indications.
In wristwatches, Grande Sonnerie mechanisms are usually operated by a single rack, mainly for reasons of miniaturisation. Vacheron Constantin has paid particular attention to the sequencing of the melodies and the clarity of sound with the help of the four rack and snail solution. Even the gongs for this pocket watch have been especially designed and tested several times before being cased up for that perfect acoustic experience. “The watchmakers started with five gongs made out of a steel alloy, however they were not satisfied with the result and then two of those gongs were replaced with those made of another steel alloy for a crystal clear, harmonious tune,” says Selmoni.
To deliver a perfect musical sequence, the Calibre 3761 has been furnished with a special system characterised by a pair of weights whose shape has been optimised to generate a kind of “engine-braking effect” – by centripetal force – on the regulator’s pivot axis. This silent mechanism ensures an even release of energy by the barrel.
Introducing Calibre 3761
Besides the daunting mechanical complexity of the Calibre 3761, Selmoni is particularly impressed with the phenomenal finishing of the movement. “ All the components are hand-finished with no compromise anywhere. Right from the engraved balance bridge to the bridges that are protected with a unique coating and the galvanic treatment of the plates adorned with Côtes de Genève, every little detail here is worth admiring,” says Selmoni. In fact, it took the watchmakers almost a week to finish the ratchet wheel and the two barrel wheels. The wheels were first given a surface treatment with sandblasting, followed by a sunburst finish, before the teeth were glazed on all five gear portions. This intense task required chamfering the teeth and giving them a mirror-polished finish on the flat parts.
The Calibre 3761 measures 71 mm in diameter and is 17 mm thick. It is regulated by a tourbillon majestically enthroned on the lower part of the movement, which can be admired through the caseback. The tourbillon performs one full revolution per minute and is driven by a 2.5Hz balance. “The engraved tourbillon (which is 2.5 times bigger than a regular tourbillon) here features a double wheel system to avoid any jerks. The seconds hand here is unusually long and to regulate how that hand moves along the sub-dial, we employed a system based on two coaxial toothed wheels linked by a spring serving to eliminate gear play,” explains Selmoni.
The “Geneva” Enamel Miniature Painting
Over the past two decades, Anita Porchet has created the most stunning enamelled timepieces for the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Piaget, Hermès, Jaquet Droz, Chanel and Hublot. Working from her home studio in the countryside somewhere between Geneva and Lausanne, Porchet has come a long way—from when there were hardly any takers for the craft to a time when luxury brands are spending millions on creating enamelled dials.
One of Porchet’s most popular masterpieces for Vacheron Constantin includes the recreation of Marc Chagall’s ceiling of the Opera Garnier in Paris for a special edition in 2010. It took her more than three months to hand replicate the 200-metre-wide ceiling on a 31mm wide watch dial.
Recreating Johannes Vermeer’s ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ on the 98mm caseback of the Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie had its own challenges. “Every layer on the girl’s turban in the miniature painting requires at least two weeks of work. Anita Porchet has done a fabulous job with the complex color palette where the background alone involved the use of seven shades to achieve the darkness that would contrast with the girl’s portrait. Dark enamels tend to oxidise, so it is difficult to stabilise the process. It took seven months to bring this portrait to life and the research for this work began in 2018,” says Selmoni.
For this stunning creation, Porchet used the “Geneva Enamel” technique dating back to the late 16th century. A really elaborate process, originally used to decorate pocket watches from that era, the technique involves painting colours – based on metallic oxide powders that are mixed with an oil-based binder – onto a layer of white enamel which has a copper or gold leaf base. After each phase, the colours are stabilised by successive firings in the kiln, with no chance of touch ups. “The client wanted the main dial to be Grand Feu enamelled in an eggshell colour with blue enamelled Roman numerals, which makes the timepiece look really elegant,” says Selmoni.
The elegance of this pocket watch has been subtly enhanced with an engraved gold case, which looks absolutely resplendent against the Grand Feu enamel dial and a pair of gorgeous Golden pfinodal hands. The ornamental design for this engraving was meticulously studied and adopted to complement Vermeer’s painting. While the beaded or double ‘pearl’ border has a clear reference to the ‘Girl With a Pearl Earring’, the acanthus leaves running along the scrolls exemplify the overall artisanal dexterity in this unique creation.
It took over five months for the master engraver to enhance every little detail on the case using various traditional techniques. The creation of the border, for instance, begins with an even distribution of engraved squares running around the bezel and caseback. The engraver then transforms these squares into half-beads using a beading tool with a spherically hollowed tip. The tiny 0.8mm beads are then hand polished using a brush coated with diamond paste.
Some of the tools were specifically designed to engrave and sculpt the various elements on this pocket watch. To accentuate the shadows and to add details to the leaves and flowers, slender hollow lines are made on each of them using the fine line engraving technique involving hollowing out the material. “We have to understand that the biggest challenge in enameling and engraving a timepiece like this is that it has no room for mistakes. So one has to be extremely talented to achieve the level of craftsmanship demonstrated here. For example, the point-by-point hand-chiselling of the background is so challenging that one wrong move can ruin the whole effort,” explains Selmoni.
Last but not the least, to ensure the safety of the caseback, Vacheron Constantin has equipped the pocket watch with a mechanism that allows the user to half-open the caseback by pressing the crown-integrated pusher. There is a cone- shaped titanium pin that acts as a hinge for the cover, while a spring occupying approximately 90° of the case angle slows down the closing of the enamelled and engraved caseback.
Eight years ago, a timepiece as extraordinary as the Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer, might have been “theoretically impossible to obtain” but Vacheron Constantin has proved otherwise. We can’t wait to see the next fantastical piece from the Les Cabinotiers.
Movement: Vacheron Constantin Calibre 3761; 71 mm (31 ½’’’) diameter, 17.05 mm thick; power reserve of 80h; Strikework power reserve (Grande Sonnerie mode) approximately 16 hours; 2.5 Hz (18,000 vibrations/hour); 806 components; 58 jewels; Hallmark of Geneva certified timepiece
Functions: Hours, minutes, small seconds, Tourbillon, minute repeater, Westminster carillon
Case: 18K 3N yellow gold, engraved with acanthus leaves on the case sides and with tulips and “pearl” decor on the bezel and the caseback; Bow sculpted with two lion heads; Officer-type cover, Grand Feu miniature enamelling depicting Johannes Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring painting, hand made by Anita Porchet; 98 mm diameter, 32.60 mm thick; “Les Cabinotiers“, “Pièce unique”, “AC” hallmark engraved on caseback
Dial: Grand Feu eggshell-coloured enamelling; Blue enamelled numerals; Golden pfinodal hands
Presentation Box: Les Cabinotiers model exclusively developed for this timepiece
Availability: Unique piece