With the launch of a highly selective collection of well-sourced vintage watches, Vacheron Constantin joins Audemars Piguet and F.P. Journe in a growing wave of haute horlogerie brands bringing the vintage market in-house
By Chris Hall
The setup goes by the name of Les Collectionneurs, and comprises a set of around twenty hand-picked watches that are being offered for sale through Vacheron Constantin boutiques. Initially at least, it is functioning as a travelling roadshow, with the watches spending a month or so in different markets before moving on. Currently, the watches are on display at the brand’s Old Bond St boutique in London.
The whole project is the brainchild of the brand’s director of heritage, Christian Selmoni. It’s not an entirely new concept – Vacheron Constantin would occasionally come across an attractive vintage piece and consign it for sale in a boutique – but it’s now organised and marketed on a different scale.
“It was quite a passive thing before,” explains Selmoni. “Now we’ve shifted it to something much more active. There’s a huge interest in vintage in general worldwide; we’re surrounded by vintage style and design. And it’s something that most other brands don’t do at this level right now.”
Selmoni and his team – an expert watchmaker and a specialist in the vintage market – are sourcing watches for the Les Collectionneurs collection around the world, predominantly at auction but also via direct sales. Each watch is then restored by Vacheron Constantin in Geneva, and offered for sale with a two-year warranty and certificate of authenticity.
“We have a strategy of what we want to acquire, but it depends what is offered at auction. And we fix a limit for the price – if it goes above our maximum, we don’t buy it,” says Selmoni.
“Surprisingly enough there is a strong interest in pocket watches, particularly from 1910 to 1930. Older pocket watches are often fragile and the restoration cost is quite high, so the final price doesn’t make sense. That’s why we’re concentrating on pieces from the 20s and 30s – we have nice designs and from a condition point of view they’re ok.”
“The wristwatches fall into three categories. Firstly, simple automatic designs, from the 1940s until the end of the 1960s – preferably oversized for the period, at least 35-36mm, with beautiful dials. Secondly, we’re looking for early 1970s designs, because they’re becoming popular. They still look a bit weird, but it’s coming back so it’ll be interesting to see how they do. And lastly we are looking for complicated watches, from chronographs and calendar watches to exceptional watches: striking watches and minute repeaters. These are usually from the 1930s and ‘40s.”
Sourcing what are already rare watches, and restricting themselves to examples that are in good condition is made even more complicated by the fact that Vacheron Constantin is stepping into direct competition with the same collectors to whom it will then look to sell the watches. And price, as Selmoni says, is crucial; a balance has to be struck that factors in the cost of restoration and still allows Vacheron to sell the watch for a reasonable sum.
“It’s different from if we were buying for the museum,” says Selmoni. “From time to time we have to back out from a sale. We also aren’t doing this with the intention of pumping up our auction values – it may happen, but that’s not the plan.” There’s little chance of Vacheron Constantin becoming overnight the kind of commodity that vintage Patek Philippe is often seen as, but the brand would be happy to see its profile raised a little.
The retail prices of Les Collectionneurs watches are, he admits, higher than the watches would normally command in the vintage market – but Selmoni feels that the advantage of a brand-approved, fully-restored watch with a two-year guarantee will be seen as worth paying extra for. Prices also compare well with the brand’s new watches: time-only Les Collectionneurs watches can be had for between £10,000 and £15,000, a sum which only just gets you through the door for a modern-day model. A pink gold triple calendar will set you back £31,300 – just £900 more than the contemporary reedition for a watch that is leagues rarer.
Some models however are beyond Les Collectionneurs reach, in particular the reference 222 (the forerunner to the Overseas and Vacheron Constantin’s first foray into the integrated-bracelet sports-luxe trend of the 1970s).
“The 222 is too hot these days,” says Selmoni. “There is a huge interest in tool watches from the 70s; we only made a few 222 watches and now the prices are so high – if we included one it would look opportunistic. We’d have to offer it at around £70,000.” He goes on to drop an intriguing hint about what the future might hold for this cult-classic design, saying that a modern re-make could appear in the brand’s Les Historiques collection (home to watches such as the Cornes de Vaches chronograph, the American 1921, and the recent set of triple calendars).
“It would be a really interesting candidate for a re-edition in the historiques collection. Even though I always had some problems with the bezel! I never really liked it – I feel that it looks too much like a tool for opening things, you know? But it’s a tremendous success – I think it would make sense to revisit this watch.”
Another interesting aspect to the new programme is the relationship between Les Collectionneurs and the brand’s museum archive of historic watches. The brand will reserve its real buying power for significant watches with strong provenance to be installed in the museum, as you would expect, but what will pique collectors’ interests is Selmoni’s revelation that the museum collection could also one day feed into the Les Collectionneurs offering – in other words, you could one day be able to buy watches that today sit in the Vacheron Constantin archive.
“We are considering that the private collection – the museum – can be a source for Les Collectionneurs. We are re-analysing the whole collection, and there are maybe some watches that we can transfer to the vintage offering. The [museum] collection has to evolve, and we have to sell some watches to buy some more,” he says.
What’s also possible – although not the intended function of the Collectionneurs programme, Selmoni is keen to stress – is that it becomes a means for collectors to source rare pieces to order. “We are open to suggestions from our clients. There’s a collector in Singapore who always buys with his business partner and they always go for the same thing but with a slight difference: recently they asked if we had one reference in two different metals. We had one of the two; our job was to find the second one.”
Once found, and successfully acquired, all watches are flown back to Vacheron Constantin’s headquarters in Geneva for a “full restoration” by the after-sales team – specifically, the team of watchmakers that also works on customers’ vintage pieces. In case you’re wondering what a full restoration consists of – nobody wants an over-restored watch – rest assured, the brand is committed to a very sympathetic approach.
“Firstly, we are trying to buy back watches that are in as good condition as possible, so they need the least work doing to them. We respect the origin of the movements, only using genuine, original spare parts, no modern parts. Concerning the case and dial, if the case does have very heavy scratches we will re-polish it, but we are trying to keep them in their original condition as much as possible. On the dial, if they have a patina and especially if it is nice, and regular, we’ll keep it – that’s what collectors have a strong interest in.”
He goes on to say that the next step will involve much more documentation of the restoration process, so that customers can understand exactly what has happened to the watch they’re buying (and giving the rest of us a priceless insight into the masterwork that goes into restoring a 1924 split-seconds chronograph movement, below). If this is the future of vintage, collectors have plenty to look forward to.