Vacheron Constantin’s Reference 57260 Is The Most Complicated Portable Watch In The World
It was a Wednesday in Geneva in 1755. Wednesday, September 17 to be exact.
This was the day a 24-year old master watchmaker walked through the Saint-Gervais neighborhood on the right bank of the river Rhône on his way to the office of a certain Master Choisy, a notary who often handled legal matters for watchmakers.
That master watchmaker was young Jean-Marc Vacheron, and the day was notable because he was headed to Choisy’s office to complete a task that would later be noted as a historical moment: Vacheron was hiring his first apprentice, Esaïe Jean François Hetier.
As history books would later show, this simple act is the earliest known reference to Vacheron, and it marks the founding of one of the most traditional and respected firms in Swiss watchmaking: Vacheron Constantin, the world’s oldest watch manufacturer in continuous operation.
The symbolic date
September 17, 2015: 260 years after Jean-Marc Vacheron put quill to paper to found a dynasty, Vacheron Constantin unveils what it terms in its sumptuous new book Artists of Time “one of the greatest man-made objects in the world.”
Vacheron Constantin’s history has been filled with extraordinary, complicated, and elegant timepieces. However, the Genevan brand that calls itself “the maison” wanted to present a horological “triumph,” something to rival the Tour de l’Île presented in 2005 on the occasion of Vacheron Constantin’s 250th anniversary. (For full details on that, read How Vacheron Constantin Celebrated Its 250th Anniversary In 2005.)
Eight years ago, Vacheron Constantin entrusted the conception and building of this mechanical work of art to a trio of brilliant watchmakers: Jean-Luc Perrin and brothers Micke and Yannick Pintus. Since then, this gifted triumvirate has spent eight years designing and producing what is now known as Reference 57260 under the aegis of Vacheron Constantin’s bespoke watch division, Atelier Cabinotiers.
The Atelier Cabinotiers represents a unique service among traditional watch brands: since 2007 it has offered connoisseurs the chance to commission a custom-made watch according to their own tastes and designs (but within the boundaries of the brand’s style). Reference 57260 came into being thanks to one of the world’s foremost collectors. While his identity remains anonymous, rest assured he is one of the greatest connoisseurs of horological art in the world, and that he already owns a number of masterpieces. This collector specifically requested that Vacheron Constantin create world’s most complicated timepiece for him.
The reference number, which is the only “name” this masterpiece officially goes by, is also symbolic and comprises two numbers: 57 for the number of complications it reportedly contains and 260 standing for the anniversary year.
No matter how you count the “complications” on this timepiece, 57 functions and displays make up a stupendous number that far exceeds anything else out there today. Even the celebrated Patek Philippe Supercomplication from 1933, which, coincidentally, also took eight years to complete, and the Patek Philippe Calibre 89 from 1989, which contains 33 functions and displays. Comprising 1,728 components, Patek Philippe’s Calibre 89 held the record as the most complicated portable timepiece up to September 17, 2015.
Included in the new timepiece are complications desired by the collector that did not previously exist. These, of course, needed to be developed from scratch. Then the more conventionally known complications had to be reinterpreted to make space for the new.
The innovations included in Reference 57260 resulted in 12 patents being filed.
Easy reading and use
Two dials of solid silver comprise rotating discs and displays in lightweight aluminum. The use of the light metal was an energy-saving measure as 57 functions make for a heavy movement requiring lots of power to run.
Though it is hardly discernible as such, the time is actually quite easy to read on this busy watch, though it does take some getting used to. Shown in regulator style, the hours, minutes, and seconds are separated and thus display on different dials.
This masterpiece’s crown is placed at 12 o’clock in typical pocket watch tradition. It is a three-position crown outfitted with an indication window on the case band to show its position.
Vacheron Constantin has also revealed a new function making its debut in this wristwatch: the hidden flush-fit alarm winding button. This is an elegant hidden activator for the alarm function ensuring that the classic lines of the watch’s case remain whole and uninterrupted.
To wind the alarm, the button is released by depressing the crown and giving it a quarter turn. The button is then pushed back into the case.
Calendars – yes, plural
Reference 57260 also contains functions that have not yet been included in this form in a mechanical timepiece (though a simplified Jewish calendar has already been incorporated into timepieces by Konstantin Chaykin). One of these new functions is a perpetual Hebraic calendar, which was specifically requested by the collector. This calendar is used both in Israel and for Jewish religious purposes throughout the world.
Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which we commonly use in daily life in the western world, the Hebraic calendar is mathematically quite complex because its long-term cycles change. One challenge was to transcribe the mathematical complexity, which includes lunar (synodic) months and solar years, so that it remains attractive as a display and logical to read off.
One reason for the Hebraic calendar’s complexity is that it is based on the 19-year Metonic cycle. A mechanical computation of this cycle was included in the 2,000 year-old Antikythera mechanism, but until now it has not been included in perpetual form a modern timepiece – meaning that each month, which comprises either 29 or 30 days depending on where in the cycle it is, corrects itself automatically. It is shown by a hand within the corresponding subdial at 6 o’clock.
The secular Hebrew year (calculated from the supposed biblical date of the creation of the world in 3760 BCE) is displayed in a four-digit window within the subdial at 6 o’clock, which also displays the Jewish sacred date of Yom Kippur (day of atonement) represented by a retrograde hand. That hand returns to its starting point every 19 years.
This perpetual calendar naturally displays the day (retrograde), weekday and month (subdials), and leap year (window displaying numerals 1 through 4).
However, the perpetual calendar of Reference 57260 differs from most western perpetual calendars in that it includes a mode that allows the reading of what is known as the “business week,” which sees the weeks of the year numbered from 1 through 52 or 53 (in years when New Year’s Day falls on a Thursday or Wednesday in leap years) according to ISO norm 8601. This is a system often used by businesses in Europe and the financial sector.
When this mode is in use (the user can choose to use either the 8601 mode or the normal perpetual calendar mode), a small number appears in a window directly above the subdial for the week that represents the day. Monday is represented by 1, Tuesday by 2, and so on. This system also boasts a full cycle of 400 years.
Reference 57260 also includes a full astronomical calendar with a dozen indications including the seasons, the signs of the zodiac, an equation of time, times of sunrise and sunset, a sky chart, and a lunar calendar with the age of the moon and its phases.
This super complication also includes a reinterpreted function that Vacheron Constantin calls the seasonal astronomical indication, which is displayed by a scale. This scale, comprising three indications, encircles one of the two main dials and is read off by a central gold hand outfitted with a sun icon.
One of these three indications displays months with their respective numbers of days around the outermost scale. Just inside that is a scale for Zodiac periods, which additionally indicates the summer and winter solstices (when the sun is at the highest and lowest points relative to the equator) as well as the dates of the vernal and autumnal equinoxes (when day and night are of equal length).
The two equinoxes occur in March and September each year: in the northern hemisphere in March it is called the vernal equinox and falls on either March 19, 20, or 21; in September it is known as the autumnal equinox and falls on either September 22, 23, or 24.
The earth’s axis is tilted at an angle of about 23.5 degrees in relation to the ecliptic (the imaginary plane created by the earth’s path around the sun). On any “regular” day of the year, either the southern hemisphere or the northern hemisphere tilts a little towards the sun. But on the two equinoxes, the tilt of the earth’s axis is perpendicular to the sun’s rays, making the length of day and night nearly equal. The innermost ring shows the seasons winter, spring, summer, and fall.
Also included here is a 12-hour second time zone subdial with a day/night indicator window. The second time zone is used in conjunction with the digital world-time function that provides 24 cities and countries and their deviations from GMT.
Then there is the moon phase, which is so accurate it needs correcting only once every 1,027 years.
Vacheron Constantin also developed a completely new regulator for controlling the precision of the timekeeping functions: a tri-axial tourbillon outfitted with a spherical spring invented for this watch.
The tri-axial tourbillon is housed in what Vacheron Constantin is calling the Armillary tourbillon cage, which is made of aluminum and is fully visible through a cutaway in the back dial. The word Armillary was chosen because it reminded the watchmakers of the circles and rings attached to the scientific instrument known as the armillary sphere or spherical astrolabe.
Naturally this tourbillon carries a rendition of Vacheron Constantin’s emblematic Maltese cross, which becomes visible every 15 seconds.
Aside the from the spherical balance spring, the diamond pallet jewels add to the mechanical beauty of this exquisite element.
Sonorous striking functions
Just above the chronograph totalizers, which are placed in the middle of the front dial where we also find the Hebrew calendar, there are two arcs on either side of the dial. These indicate the mode of the chiming function, the alarm strike, and the alarm power reserve.
Reference 57260 offers three types of chiming function. The first is the striking function, which sees the watch chime automatically at each quarter hour.
This in itself is like a party because not only does it strike a Westminster chime, but it does so on five finely tuned steel gongs instead of the usual four. The repeater mechanism can play a grand or a small strike as well as the Westminster chimes.
Then there is the silent mode. This allows the owner to turn the strike completely off.
Finally, the chiming mechanism is also outfitted with a night silence model, a function that was requested by the collector who commissioned Reference 57260. The night silence function is a user-friendly new feature that may well have been inspired by modern mobile phones outfitted with a “do not disturb” function.
Thanks to this function, the chimes do not ring between 10:00 pm and 8:00 am. It is unique because the watch does this automatically with no need to flip any switch.
Further, Reference 57260 is outfitted with an alarm with its own gong and also provides the possibility to link to the chimes of the repeater. The alarm rings as the owner chooses on a given day: as a Westminster alarm or a single strike on one gong (the tone can be chosen). When the alarm sounds, it rings until all the power is released from the dedicated barrel, which is completely independent of the power dedicated to the timekeeping function.
Reference 57260 also includes a double retrograde rattrapante chronograph. Vacheron Constantin is certain that this is the very first split-seconds chronograph with a double retrograde display.
The visual trick here is that, while both hands still work in unison and operate from the same arbor, they never actually meet. They display their intervals on separate scales across from each other on the dial. To achieve this display, the trio of watchmakers had to invent a completely new chronograph mechanism.
The chronograph otherwise measures elapsed time up to 60 minutes and hours up to 12. These functions are each shown by totalizers.
The chronograph is operated by a button in the crown for start/stop and reset. A button in the case band at 11 o’clock operates the rattrapante.
Looking at this complicated beauty, one that has now made history, I am very sure that Jean-Marc Vacheron could never have envisioned the places his name would travel when he signed his apprentice that day in 1755.
Case: white gold, double-sided displays; 98 x 50.55 mm
Caliber: manually wound Caliber 3750, 71 x 36 mm, Seal of Geneva, 60 hours power reserve, 2,601 individual components, with pallet lever and escape wheel in diamond-coated silicon with diamond pallets within a tri-axial tourbillon
Functions: 57 functions aside from the regulator-style hours, minutes, and seconds including perpetual calendar with moon phases, leap year, zodiac sign, season, equinox and solstice and age of moon, Hebraic perpetual calendar including displays of the century, decade and Yom Kippur, astronomical calendar with celestial sky chart and sidereal indications, grande and petite sonnerie with silencer and night mode, alarm with choice of one or Westminster gong, power reserve displays for chime and movement, display of alarm torque and alarm power reserve, equation of time, display of sunrise/sunset calibrated to location of owner, double retrograde split-seconds chronograph, second time zone with day/night indication, world time, length of day, length of night, perpetual ISO calendar for display of calendar weeks
Limitation: one unique piece
Price: not disclosed