Vacheron Constantin and the inner cercle

-Hisham Wyne, 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 became the firm’s credo as it pushed mechanical and horological boundaries year upon year.

The story of Vacheron Constantin’s pursuit of mechanical excellence combined with human skills 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 kept innovation going.

But the times, they are a’changing, as Bob Dylan sang.

In a mechanized world of mass-production, there is less space for traditional excellence in craftsmanship. Skill is eroding in favour of standardisation, and products are converging to machine-made kitsch. Though functional and well made – and importantly, affordable – mass-produced products just do not have the history, humanity, craft and struggle evident in hand-crafted works of art.

It is perhaps to safeguard against the inevitable erosion of individual skill and tradition in a mass-manufacturing world that Vacheron Constantin has become one of the founding members of the Cercle 250 – an association of expert 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.

To understand Cercle 250’s mission, it’s important to look at historical changes in 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 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 created.

Then came the industrial age and the commencement 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, certain skills, and maisons, 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.

And it is that institutional memory of excellence that Cercle 250 has been created to 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.

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.

There are other considerations too. Geographical diversity is encouraged to ensure the Cercle doesn’t become Eurocentric, and instead seeks global excellence. The Cercle also wants members from different crafts that combine in complementary fashion for bold new 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.

A scientific and cultural committee takes charge of triggering Cercle 250 projects; which create meaningful encounters and exceptional events to protect and celebrate centuries-old knowledge and artisanal 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.

By bringing together craftsmen and designers in new combinations, the Cercle will create unique works that contribute to a collective heritage. These works will be shared at exhibits, private functions and public events. Audiences will be encouraged to delve behind the scenes and appreciate traditional trades.