A Gentleman's Affair

Vacheron Constantin has reclamed its title as the manufacturer of the world’s most complicated pocket watch.

In the past, exploring the mechanical limits of watchmaking was always the consequence of a quest for knowledge embarked on by gentlemen, who not only had the financial means to do so, but also the desire to contribute to the advancement of science. The watch, seen as a scientific instrument subjugated to measuring time, reflected the mechanisms of the cosmos from man’s point of view, and thus represented the celestial machine to which we are all subjugated. 

Thesewatches,knownas‘supercomplications’, attempted to encompass human knowledge through the largest number of indications possible, combining, in watchmaking terms, the most important complications of the era in which they were built. 

Portuguese-Brazilian António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro (1848-1920), gentleman, collector and bibliophile and the man who built the Quinta da Regaleira, was the first, in 1897, to throw down the challenge to a manufacturer, in this case L.Leroy, to build the world’s most complicated watch. The result, delivered in 1901 by King Carlos himself, was the Leroy 01, which, with its 20 complications distributed over the watch’s two dials, represented one of the wonders of science of its era. 

Henry Graves (1868 – 1953), an illustrious financier and collector from New York, was the next gentleman in line. The gauntlet was thrown down in 1925 to Patek Philippe, which responded with a watch featuring 24 complications, also distributed over the two dials of the watch. For 56 years the ‘Graves Supercomplication’, as it became to be known, hung on to the title of the world’s most complicated watch. Since being auctioned at Sotheby’s, on November 11, 2014, for CHF 23,237,000, it now holds the title of the world’s most expensive watch. 

Unlike the Leroy 01 and the Graves, the next level was achieved not through the initiative of a collector, but by a manufacturer, which wanted to outdo itself and thus return the mechanical watch to its rightful place following the threat posed by quartz to Swiss watchmaking in the 1970s. With the Calibre 89, a model built to commemorate the manufacturer’s 150th anniversary, Patek Philippe revealed a watch with 33 complications, of which it went on to produce four examples, in yellow, rose and white gold, and platinum. Once again it took the title for the world’s most complicated watch. 

With this creation, the level of mechanical complexity able to be included in a pocket watch seemed impossible to surpass, and for 26 years Patek Philippe was considered the only manufacturer able to challenge itself in this task. But, in 2015, the challenge was reignited from an unexpected source – Vacheron Constantin. 

Following almost a decade of research, development and construction, Patek Philippe’s neighbour, in Plan-les-Ouates, unveiled the Reference 57260, right in time for its 260th anniversary celebrations. Announced once again as the world’s most complicated pocket watch, nobody ever expected that Vacheron Constantin would lay claim to 57 complications, adding no less than 24 to the already incredible 33 in the Calibre 89. To the 1728 parts of the latter, Vacheron added a further 1098, making a total of 2826 parts, and instead of 24 hands, the newcomer provides 31. A truly inordinate leap in terms of the level of complexity, justified solely by the mind-blowing evolution in technology experienced over the nigh-on three decades separating the two creations. 

But the Reference 57260 from Vacheron Constantin also marked the return of the gentleman collector as a leading figure, patron and instigator in this challenge to build the world’s most complicated watch. The challenge taken on by the manufacture Genevoise came from an undisclosed client, who challenged it to raise the bar of the complicated mechanical watch to a level that until then no one would ever have dared considered. Over eight long years, Vacheron Constantin set three of its master watchmakers to work solely on this secret project, which was given the codename “Tivoli”. 

Jean-Luc Perrin, Yannick Pintus and Micke Pintus dedicated themselves entirely to this project, which gained in complexity the more it developed, requiring extraordinary technical ability and determination on their part. This unprecedented work resulted in the inclusion of complications never seen before, such as the double retrograde split-seconds chronograph, or the complex Hebrew perpetual calendar. The list of complications is actually too long to be detailed here, but a mere glance at the watch’s two faces, or at the various ‘layers’ making up the movement, is enough to gain a rough idea of the work involved in planning and construction this timepiece. An effort recently recognised when it was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, the Oscars of the watchmaking industry. 

Having reached such levels of excellence, is there any room left for a follow-up in this story? Even before the Vacheron Constantin presented the Reference 57260, Patek Philippe had already announced that it wanted to focus its efforts on complications in wristwatches, believing that this is where the focus of technological development of mechanical watchmaking lies today. The presentation, during the commemorations for Patek’s 175th anniversary, in November 2014, of the extraordinary ‘Grandmaster Chime’ Ref. 5175, with its 20 complications, goes to prove this. But now that the title has changed hands, will Patek Philippe let all the glory go to someone else? Will the brand simply take the lead by presenting a successor to the Calibre 89 when it celebrates its 200th birthday, in 2039? Or will it accept, as in the past, and with Vacheron Constantin, that a gentleman will have to challenge its credentials as a manufacturer? 

The feat achieved by Vacheron Constantin with the Reference 57260 appears to be virtually impossible to surpass in the coming years. Until then, the house founded by Jean-Marc Vacheron and François Constantin, in 1755, will be able to revel in the fact that, among its achievements, it can count the world’s most complicated pocket watch. A challenge that can trace its origins back to a gentleman collector of Portuguese and Brazilian extraction, going by the name of António Augusto Carvalho Monteiro.