Interview

Christian Selmoni on Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers, on keeping very Complicated Watches wearable and the Overseas

Vacheron Constantin's Style and Heritage Director talks about the recently launched ultra-complicated watches.

calendar | ic_dehaze_black_24px By Frank Geelen | ic_query_builder_black_24px 14 min read |
Christian Selmoni Vacheron Constantin

Christian Selmoni is the Style and Heritage Director at Vacheron Constantin. He joined the brand thirty years ago, in 1990, and gradually climbed the ladder to his current position. He is also the man behind the design and development of the company’s famous 250th-anniversary collections. Overall one of the most likeable persons in the watch industry, a perfect gentleman, always dressed to impress and when he starts talking about ‘his’ brand you can see and feel his enthusiasm. Through zoom, we talked about a range of topics including bespoke and one-off VC timepieces, some of the brand’s most complicated pieces (and most complicated watches in the world), and the strategies of making a watch wearable when it’s packed with two dozen complications and watch faces on both sides.

Christian Selmoni knows the Geneva-based brand like nobody else and the task of enriching and developing VC’s heritage has his name written all over. He’s also responsible for extracting designs and design elements from the past for Vacheron Constantin’s present and future creations. And last but not least, he’s travelling the world to meet with the international press, and more importantly, Vacheron’s clients and watch collectors. When you are invited for a nice dinner organized by Vacheron Constantin, you might just have the good fortune to meet with Christian Selmoni. Since my interview with Chris Grainger-Herr was 3,000+ and I started with an apology for the long reading time, I think I should warn you… this interview is close to 3,000 words, but again very interesting!

NOTE: due to COVID-19 we do not have any original photos and have had to use the PR photos provided by Vacheron Constantin

Vacheron Constantin FiftySix Sepia Brown Dial
Just to be clear, this stunner was also introduced this year, but since it’s only about a new dial colour we didn’t talk about it in the interview. But it is stunning!

Frank Geelen, MONOCHROME Watches – In February of this year, ahead of the Watches & Wonders launches, we saw a new women’s watch collection. And in December of last year, there were already three magnificent pieces from Les Cabinotiers. How does it work with Les Cabinotiers? Is every watch a bespoke piece? 

Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin – When we had a client who wanted a very special Vacheron Constantin timepiece, we had the means to create the Vacheron Constantin of his dreams within the Les Cabinotier workshop. This is a time-consuming process of course! For instance, the big pocket watch, reference 57260, was a bespoke timepiece made for one client. However, in a world in which time is very scarce, clients who have the patience to wait five or six years before a complicated piece is ready are equally rare.

Vacheron-Constantin Reference 57260 - 260th anniversary - 6
Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260 – the world’s most complicated watch

Les Cabinotiers, in this context, is very powerful for communicating about the brand. This is why we are presenting three or four of them every year. Obviously, we do more than that, but we can’t show all of them because some of our clients don’t want us to talk about their timepieces. For us, this can be frustrating if we are not able to showcase the things we are doing in this workshop. So that is why we changed the approach of Les Cabinotier three years ago. Of course, we maintain the essence of Les Cabinotier, but in addition, we are creating unique watches in which we can showcase our mastery in different fields. This can be focused on complicated watchmaking or métiers d’arts or all mixed together. And so, every year we are creating one event in which we invite our clients from around the world, and during this event, we present our newest watches in the year’s theme. This year the theme is La Musique du Temps – the music of time – so for us, this obviously drives us to chiming and striking watches (among others).

Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers La Musique du Temps Minute Repeater Ultra Thin
Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers La Musique du Temps Minute Repeater Ultra Thin

How did the Grand Complication Split-Seconds Chronograph Tempo come to life? Was this a bespoke piece for a client or was this particular watch a showcase and will it be for sale?

So, the story of this watch is that we have three super master watchmakers in Les Cabinotier. These are the guys who made the reference 57260 pocket watch, which is the most complicated watch in the world. They wanted to do a double-sided super complication having three different kinds of complications. In this case that meant a chiming watch with a minute repeater function, a split-second chronograph and an astronomical complication. So, it’s really a combination of different types of complications in one single timepiece. Tempo is a 100% creation from Vacheron Constantin and we are offering this timepiece for sale.

Were they, the ‘super master watchmakers’, able to use some of the parts, and the way the complications were constructed in the ref. 57260 pocket watch, in the Tempo? Maybe reduced in size? Or was it designed entirely from scratch again?

The 57260 was a large pocket watch and it wasn’t possible to downsize and reuse components from that pocket watch. So obviously, with such unique pieces, we are starting from scratch, but we can also reuse parts from other calibres. In the Tempo, we have elements coming from our minute repeater calibre 2755, so it means that the heart of this complication, the engine if I may say, is from our minute repeater calibre 2755. The driving force of the movement or the very heart of the movement is the calibre 2755 and they’ve added complications on both faces and modified some functions. This means that the split-second chronograph has been incorporated into the minute repeater calibre.

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle calibre 2755 slate grey
Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle calibre 2755

Ok, that’s quite something and sounds like a different way to get started. Do I understand correctly that the split-second is a module on top?

It’s not exactly a module, but it has been built in addition to. How can I say, it interacts with the minute repeater. Nobody likes when we talk about modules, but when a watch is so complicated there are several layers. This is a construction in which we have to put layers of complications, which was also the case with the ref. 57260.

It is a very long list of complications and considering that it starts with a minute repeater complication, even in terms of the astronomical complications built on top, that is a lot. And there’s more including a rattrapante. How do you keep the watch being wearable in terms of size? Yes, it is 50mm in diameter and 20mm thick, so it’s a big watch, but considering that it comprises 24 complications, I’d say that’s almost modest in size.

Yes, I think it’s a very interesting question. I think for us, you know, we don’t make watches with a 50mm diameter and 21mm thickness every day. I think what’s really challenging is its volume. Our engineers thought about something which is quite interesting. The designers made a totally symmetrical case, meaning that you can wear the watch on both sides. We have an integrated system in the strap, so you push a button, a push-piece on the strap, from behind, and you release the strap from the case. You just flip the watch on your wrist and then re-fix the strap with the push-piece. This way you can read the time on the two faces of the timepiece. So, that’s what led to optimizing the readability first, and secondly, the total thickness of the timepiece.

Is it wearable?

Yes, I think when you come to such dimensions, you are close to the maximum in terms of what you can put on your wrist. You know, there’s always a price to pay when we deal with this number of complications, especially when you think about the split-second chronograph. As we know the chronograph complication is a space killer, it takes up a lot of space and the complexity of adding the astronomical complications only adds to the required volume.

The real challenge is to integrate a split-second chronograph in the astronomical complication plus a minute repeater. So, it’s no surprise that the watch can’t be a thin watch. It is particularly true if you compare the Tempo to the second Cabinotier watch that we are presenting, which is the Ode To Music. It has 19 complications, astronomical complications on both sides, minute repeater in the centre; however, the watch is only 12mm thick! But, there is no chronograph with the split-seconds inside and I think it makes a great difference.

Les Cabinotiers Astronomical striking grand complication – Ode to Music

Do you remember the Celestia that we presented at the SIHH three years ago? It took us five years to develop one movement that could be created in two versions. One fully astronomical timepiece with a tourbillon and three weeks of power reserve, and 23 complications. It is the Celestia from 2017. And in the same development, to reduce costs and reduce lead time, we were developing as well the minute repeater iteration of this design. So, this is why we are coming this year with a minute repeater complication within this astronomical development. So, the two watches are brother and sister, something like that, and they have in common a very thin and very elegant volume. So, 45mm in diameter and 12mm for the thickness.

The Tempo features 24 complications, making it, in number of complications, the most complicated wristwatch in the world. Was that also the goal of achieving that number of complications, in other words, a few complications more than a certain watch from the neighbours? Or did it just happen? 

To be 100% honest, I saw the very early version of the media briefing in which we were comparing Tempo with one from another company in the area. I can tell you that Vacheron Constantin never wanted to compete against the Grandmaster Chime. It’s very interesting because the two watches have some similar solutions for the same problem, particularly when we’re dealing with thickness and expressing the functions on the watch faces. They use the double-sided timepiece as we know, to have enough space to showcase all of these complications,  and we were facing the same situation.

However, both watches are very different because the other one is a chiming watch, but with a different kind of complication, it’s a Grande Sonnerie. I think that wristwatches that comprise more than 1,000 components in the movement are extremely rare. We can mention the watch we spoke about and there are maybe a few more with such a number of components.

So I think that beyond the aspect of the competition this is really the vocation of the watchmakers to break the barriers and always do better, and to open new doors. I think that it’s fascinating to see this and a great evolution in the field of watchmaking. This evolution was possible thanks to the latest developments in computer-aided design and also manufacturing technologies and techniques.

However, I think the most important thing, at least for us, is to maintain the watchmaking tradition, meaning the watch was hand-assembled by one and the same watchmaker from scratch, hand finishing, etc. and respecting all of the spirit and values of traditional watchmaking, and this is exactly what we have put in Tempo.

That makes a lot of sense, befits Vacheron, and actually makes Tempo an object d’art. Now there’s a beautiful mono-pusher chronograph tourbillon in the Traditionnelle collection. 

Ah yes, a great addition to the Traditionnelle line.  In Traditionnelle we are creating some of our most complicated timepieces and the idea was to create a very classic chronograph, manual winding, super nice movement, adding a tourbillon at 12 o’clock, and making a single-button chronograph because we have a fantastic line-up of classic chronographs at Vacheron.

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Chronograph Tourbillon 5100S

Since we have a great tradition in the field of chronographs, we wanted to pay tribute to the early chronographs wristwatches by having a single-button chronograph. This is a wink to the tradition of the early chronographs at Vacheron Constantin. We thought about having a kind of double-precision, so we need the precision of short-time measurement with a chronograph and we need precision, accuracy, with the tourbillon.

By the way, movement-wise, is it related to Harmony?

Very much, very much. So, the movement is an iteration of the calibre 3200 presented in 2015. The only change that we have made is that now the tourbillon carriage or tourbillon cage is driven by the lower bridge of the tourbillon, activated directly by the seconds. So, having the tourbillon cage driven from another place, we were able to create a very spectacular, larger running tourbillon.

Can’t wait to see it in the metal. To my pleasure, I saw two new versions of the Overseas Ultra-Thin Perpetual Calendar. Since I have not heard too much about the Overseas in the past year, I wondered if some of the models are being phased out slowly? Or do they remain in the collection for the foreseeable future? What is the plan?

So, talking about Overseas, what we see is that Overseas enjoys great success. I think as you know very well there is a very major trend, well, it’s not a trend anymore but a reality, that elegant sports watches are very much in demand. Typically we are living in a society in which we’re supposed to do sport and go outside and have drinks with friends, and we’re supposed to go to the beach and then afterwards go to the office, have some Zoom conferences and then do something after. And so it’s better to have a very versatile timepiece. So, I think this is why we see more and more grand complications in sports elegant timepieces and this is no exception for Overseas.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas perpetual calendar ultra-thin skeleton Pink Gold 4300V
Presented this year, the new Overseas Perpetual Calendar, with an ultra-thin skeleton movement.

Last year we presented the automatic tourbillon in the Overseas lineup. An elegant timepiece! And yes, another Perpetual Calendar in the Overseas line-up too. We are adding models to Overseas and we didn’t phase out any models in Overseas since the beginning, with the exception of the simple ultra-thin in white gold, which was launched at the very beginning of the collection and we made only very few examples.

Is it planned to let that one (Overseas Ultra-Thin in white gold) come back in some sort of form with that same calibre or is the ultra-thin not planned for the foreseeable future?

I think that we are building the collection for the long run. When we launched the collection in 2016, we wanted to create two very legitimate models in Overseas, which were ultra-thin models in white gold exclusively. There was the perpetual calendar in white gold and we had the time-only in white gold as well. And so we wanted to express something that was linked to the 1970s when we launched the 222. We also launched the three-hand Overseas with a new movement and this model really replaced the previous one.

I think there is still room to create different iterations of Overseas and for sure we can imagine a future to come back with a new version Overseas, but this is not something that we have in our papers for the moment. But, why not?

I was this asking because some years ago, Charlie Torres (previous CEO) was talking about it and he told me that the ultra-thin calibre 1120 should be more industrialized so production wouldn’t be that costly. It simply isn’t the easiest movement to produce in large numbers.

It’s a great movement from the 1960s and it’s a necessity for Vacheron to have such calibre in the line-up. So, I think for the future we will absolutely have thin automatic movements and this is something we may plan for the future. But so far we have other developments to carry on and I think on top of that you have to build things in a thoughtful way, so we have plenty of time and think that Overseas will become a very important part of Vacheron Constantin in the next years. At least we hope due to its aesthetics and versatility, as one of the most important assets or key points of the collection is that we have the interchangeability for the bracelet, which really adds a lot to the Overseas.

Thanks so much for your time, Christian.

5 responses

  1. I was shouting at my screen, ‘Make that ultra-thin in steel, with or without a date window, Jesus H Christ on a Maltese Cross.’

    Alas, it did not respond.

  2. Tradition in making chronographs ? Not really, until recently it was only the lemania or the FP 1136 movement. In the past they used movements from other producers too, so dont believe all the spin and invented philosophy. They’ll tell you anything to make you buy the product.

  3. @ Frank

    Heh! Yeah, it made me happy to see you ask, especially referring to Torres. But Selmoni was having none of it lol.

    Well, it’s something to look forward to, maybe on their 270th anniversary. *crosses fingers*

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