Vacheron Constantin and the inner cercle

Written for Shawati magazine

“Do better if possible, and that is always possible,” say the immortal words of Francois Constantin, one half of exquisite horologists Vacheron Constantin. The words, penned by  François Constantin to Jaques-Barthélemy Vacheron, became the firm’s motto and even raison de etre as it pushed the boundaries of mechanical and horological excellence year on year.

The story of Vacheron Constantin’s pursuit of mechanical excellence combined with humanistic skills and cultural resonance started in the middle of the 18th century, in the city of Geneva – the very epicentre of high horology. In 1755, a young man called Jean-Marc Vacheron decided to open his own watchmaking workshop. He was an exceptional craftsman, and the fledgling business he created was to become one of the most renowned houses of the science of time two and a half centuries later. In a mere fifteen years post inception, Vacheron’s watchmaking concern was creating complication watches, leading horological invention and innovation.

In 1810, Jaques-Barthélemy, grandson of Jean-Marc Vacheron took over the reigns of the business, and in 1819, together with François Constantin created the name "Vacheron et Constantin". From engine turned dials in 1779 to sweeping awards at the Geneva Observatory’s precision contest for timepieces almost a century later in 1872, Vacheron Constantin has always been an exponent of the highest values of artisanship and the embodiment of craftsmanship to the finest degree.

Now, in a mechanized, mass produced world, the values of exclusive, painstaking excellence are eroding in favour of standaridisation, and almost a convergence to kitsch. Products, though often functional and well made, often do not have the history, humanism, craft and painstaking excellence that comes from employing artisans of only the highest standards.

It is perhaps to safeguard against the inevitable erosion of individual skill and tradition in an increasingly transient world that Vacheron Constantin has become one of the founding members of the Cercle 250 – an association of uniquely historic patrons with over 250 years of continuous activity to their name. Cercle 250 creates exceptional encounters with history, art and supreme examples of skill, preserving and celebrating centuries-old expertise through cultural projects.

Cercle 250 was borne of recognition that material and intangible heritage must be safeguarded. Original experience should be shared in an environment that supports and nurtures it, and brings it to a common platform for connoisseurs and enthusiasts to appreciate.

Cercle 250’s mission lies almost in the roots of historical human creativity. The Renaissance saw the promulgation of art, science and philosophy, ending a European era of scattered knowledge and superstitious now referred to as the dark ages. From the sheer aesthetical beauty of the Renaissance to the scientific brushstrokes of Enlightenment that purposefully cleared the musty cobwebs of rank ignorance in the 17th century, the human race saw an era of tremendous respect and appreciation of invention, innovation, aesthetics and excellence. Artisans and craftsmen, composers and philosophers were prominent in the receipt of patronage, and a brave new world saw beauty and expertise valued in its own right, as well as for the priceless pieces of art, horology and machinery that it might create.

The industrial age was the commencement of a process of mechanised standardisation. Here was a different aesthetic – not of individual excellence but of convergent reliability and replicability. Furrows in the field were straight and narrow and not subject to a ploughman’s whims. Mills and steam engines rotated in tandem precision, creating works that were consistent in form and function. While this era of mass production resulted in the human race scaling the highest epochs in history, there was nevertheless a gradual erosion of individuality, quirkiness and high craftsmanship.

Fortunately, some trades were not very affected by the relentless consistency of industrialisation. Certain skills have stood the test of time – with watchmaking a prime example. Vacheron Constantin took full advantage of mechanisation to improve consistency and attention to the minute detail, but the fundamental elements of watch manufacture remained personalised, humanised and artisan-led.

Vacheron Constantin has through the years operated on the core values of the pursuit of excellence, support for creativity, openness to the world, the transmission of knowledge and the sharing of passion. These five values have been handed down over 250 years, since1755 when Jean-Marc Vacheron first hired an apprentice to whom he transmitted his watchmaking skills, establishing an element of mastery, launching the beginnings of an institutional memory.

And it is that institutional memory of scintillating excellence that Cercle 250 will promulgate. Cercle 250 members are all driven by a passion for craftsmanship imbued with the finest human values of accomplishment. The Cercle’s rigorous criteria have seen around a hundred and fifty luxury concerns associated with the arts of tableware, gastronomy, lifestyle and finery identified and recruited into the association. Purveyors of exceptional products will be invited to the Cercle’s Artistic Crafts Round Table. The Table will be a thing of beauty and diversity, around which a producer of beautiful French silk may well be seated next to the world’s oldest paper mill in Italy, a three hundred year old Japanese cutlery maker or perhaps an exclusive creator of fine fragrances from Britain.

As the founder and president of Cercle 250, Vacheron Constantin has a leading role to play in recruiting contributing members to the Cercle 250 committee. Five symbolic admission criteria govern the gates to this inner Cercle – at least 250 years of uninterrupted operations, a high level of knowledge and expertise, evidence of mastery, a confirmation of shared heritage and fouding values, and demonstration of an international reputation.

Other considerations in choosing Cercle members include geographic complementarity, ensuring that the selection is not overly Euro-centric but encompasses accomplished firms from the world over. The Cercle also takes into account the presence of a diversity of expertise and crafts, while also paying heed to the subtle interplay between cultural and aesthetic values, and heritage.

The Cercle’s mission is to promote the values of excellence and commitment to manual skill. It will service as a meeting point and forum for sharing experience and heritage, with initiatives focusing on training and knowledge transfer. The idea is to create support for learning through the launch of mentoring groups, and perhaps even the establishment of a training programme that revives the traditions of artistic craftsmanship. The Cercle also offers support to outstanding craft workers, trying to find commercial avenues for artistic projects.

All Cercle members are committed to promoting the arts and crafts, investing in media communication and reaching out to other relevant stakeholders across the world. The Cercle’s dedicated scientific and cultural committee will take charge of initiating Cercle 250 projects, creating meaningful encounters and exceptional events to protect and celebrate centuries old knowledge and nous through cultural exchanges. It will create unusual experiences that work towards preserving the heritage of manual excellence. Against a backdrop of sharing and generosity, the Cercle will bring in partners and audiences to marvel at human endeavour and seek to preserve it.

Leading Cercle members will jointly initiate and support a minimum of one annual project, creating fora for the exchange of influences, piquing the curiosity of customers, enthralling amateur enthusiasts and captivating the experts. The Cercle will blend old expertise into new scripts in a celebration of artisanship. By bringing together craftsmen and designers in new combinations, it will create unique works that contribute to a collective heritage. These works will be shared at exhibits, private functions and public events, and will invite the audience to delve behind the scenes to appreciate traditional trades.

Even in the age of mechanisation and aesthetic conversion, some bastions of craftsmanship remain strong. Vacheron Constantin is holding aloft the banner of high horology. And with the Cercle 250, it is rallying troops to the cause of craftsmanship.