A Love Letter
I cannot shut up about this watch. Is that bad? I feel like I ought to be at least slightly embarrassed about talking the way I do about this watch — insistently, passionately, with a level of intense affection that doesn’t seem creepy until you realise that the subject of my volubility is not actually a person, or even a live thing. (But it’s alive to me!)
The Vacheron Constantin Historiques Cornes De Vache 1955 is yet another example of how the company successfully mines its ridiculously, unbelievably rich archives for designs that go straight to the core of what we (I) want in a timepiece. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this, not by a long shot. Earlier this year, the cushion-shaped Harmony, a much more complex beast than its 1928 inspiration, gave me a sock in the thorax that still makes me hear “Theme From A Summer Place” and see things in soft-focus slow motion when someone mentions its name.
And then there was that time in 2013 when I was utterly smitten by the 1972 Prestige (I still am, to be honest) and its slender, taut profile and its dangerous yet restrained asymmetry and the muted sheen of its herringbone-etched dial. My mouth went a little dry and my palms a little damp just by typing that and thinking about this watch.
People tell me they think the watches of Vacheron Constantin are boring and conservative, and sometimes it can be a real struggle trying to stop my face from automatically recalibrating its features into red-alert, level-11 klaxon “ARE YOU KIDDING ME” configuration.
The same thing happens when I hear people say things like “Oh, I only eat my steak well done”, or “I thought ‘Thriller’ was much better than ‘Bad’ as an album”, any sentence beginning with “I saw on Fox News” or simply “I love blue”. It’s a real problem; I don’t know how to sort it out.
Vacheron Constantin’s watches might be some of the most un-boring and un-conservative things you’ve ever seen in your life. Go look at their collections right now, if you still don’t believe me. This article isn’t going anywhere, so take all the time you need. We don’t mess around on a Thursday. There are few watches in the world as powerfully pure as the Patrimony, as quietly imperious as the Malte, or as distractingly sensual as the Mécaniques Ajourées. These are provocative watches — they provoke thought, they provoke curiosity, they provoke desire.
At this point, I realise that the underlying message of this article is really that I should seek professional help, but we don’t have to discuss that right now.
Back to the Vacheron Constantin Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955. You might be able to guess from the name that it originates in a 1955 chronograph with distinctive lugs shaped like cow horns. They may be shaped like cow horns to the Swiss — I don’t have tons of experience with the bovine tribe in general — but to me they resemble teardrops, like the pearlescent mermaid tears of joy I’ll shed if I ever get to own one of these watches.
There are some minor differences externally between the 1955 watch and the 2015 watch — I won’t insult your intelligence by enumerating the obvious improvements that come from technologically advanced manufacturing processes. I have an irrational preference for the vintage model, simply because it comes in yellow gold (which I desperately adore) and has all the tiny imperfections associated with pursuing perfection in the middle of the previous century. But that doesn’t stop me from acknowledging the objective superiority of the 2015 watch.
The 2015 model is resplendent, it is superb; it has blue markings and a blue strap, but that is due to historical reasons of its case material, platinum, being traditionally paired with the colour blue, so I won’t hold that against it. By the way, if someone can provide me with a compelling reason why platinum watches are linked with the colour blue, that would be really awesome.
They kept the pump pushers of the original design, which I really like, because the tendency today is always to “upgrade” to the more ergonomic and sleek-looking oblong pushers, and they would have been all wrong — ALL WRONG!! — on this watch. As an exercise, try printing out a few copies of a Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 photo and drawing different pushers onto them. You could do this with Photoshop, of course, but it’s more fun to do it with a big marker. You’ll soon see what I mean.
The Cornes de Vache 1955 is an example of something at which Vacheron Constantin is extremely adept — design that is simultaneously voluptuous and controlled. The fullness of its curves when you look at it face-on is sharply leashed in by the deep austerity of its perfectly even lateral surfaces. The precision and intelligence of the chronograph function is perfectly balanced against the exuberance of the calibre 1142. All this creates a sense of coiled power in the entire outlook of the watch, a tension that is at once fulfilling and challenging. Honestly, if you don’t think that’s hot, you shouldn’t be allowed to have nice things.
The movement is really something else.
This is the manual-winding calibre 1142, and if it looks familiar to you, that’s because it’s derived from the legendary and most exalted Lemania 2310 that has driven dress watches and sports watches and space watches and grand complications. I first learned about the chronograph mechanism by internalising the workings of this movement, through visual and mental osmosis. I looked at it a lot and read about it a lot and wrote a score of epithalamia in its honour.
The calibre 1142 is the reason my face reconfigures itself (see above) whenever someone tells me that the chronograph is a masculine complication. It is not. There are masculine interpretations of the chronograph mechanism, and there are feminine interpretations of the chronograph mechanism.
If you want to see what a masculine chronograph movement looks like, check out the other famous chronograph calibre, the Valjoux 7750. Notice especially the directness of its action and construction.
The Lemania 2310 is always attractive, and the Vacheron Constantin calibre 1142 adds extra refinement and performance — a higher frequency of 3Hz (21,600vph) as compared to the 2310’s 2.5Hz (18,000vph), and exceptional finishing, visible particularly in the chamfering of the stamped components.
But let’s not get too technical. The calibre 1142 is voluptuous (there’s that word again), alternately wide and slender in the shape of her levers. Yet she is strict in the economy of her construction — every component is optimally formed and balanced. She is generous in layout, and her spaces are never cluttered in any of the running-stopped-reset configurations. And she is strong; that massive screwed balance oscillating at six half-swings per second for 48 hours takes a formidable constitution.
She can be so tender — have you ever had the pleasure of actuating a Vacheron Constantin chronograph that contains this movement? — and she is demanding. This movement takes a lot of attention. Look at those eccentrics located just behind the chronograph column wheel ratchet pawl. Give the calibre 1142 her due, or she’ll kick seven shades of shit out of you.
I haven’t yet discovered a single Vacheron Constantin watch with this movement that I don’t go absolutely weak for.
Laudamus te. Adoramus te. Benedicimus te. Glorificamus te.
By the way, it may amuse you to know that I went back over this article and edited out all the profanity and swear words, because I am acutely aware that I cuss a lot when excited. As a result, this article is now 57 words shorter than it used to be. I know, I know; I’m a writer and have vast expanses of language and lexeme at my disposal. Why swear at all?
I choose to see it as an indication of how certain watches can leave me tongueless and inchoate. A wordsmith without her words! I’m so embarrassed. But not about loving the Vacheron Constantin Historiques Cornes De Vache 1955.