Vacheron Constantin has reshaped the world of modern watchmaking — quite literally. In continuous operation since 1755, the legendary, luxurious Swiss Maison has spent centuries innovating, experimenting and refining its designs. It has created icons, moved mountains with movements and established itself as one of the finest watchmaking companies in history.
So what is the brand’s secret? What makes so many of Vacheron Constantin’s most memorable timepieces tick? Here at Gentleman’s Journal, we’ve got a good idea: we think it’s the idiosyncratic, asymmetric shape of those cases.
Vacheron, for instance, was among the first watchmakers to adopt the ‘tonneau’ shape — introducing the ergonomic barrel-like case in 1912. Subsequently, the brand began to use the ‘coussin’ and ‘rectangle’ shapes in its decadent designs. And, in 1919, came perhaps the most famous, shapely watch of them all; the rakishly angled Reference 11032 — the watch that paved the way for the famous American 1921.
It was almost the 1920s — and the decade was beginning to roar. Fashions were changing and motor cars were flourishing in popularity across the world. In the United States, motorists were vocalising a growing desire for a specially-designed wristwatch — one that would still be legible even if the wearer had his arm angled to hold a steering wheel. Vacheron took on the challenge, and set about creating an icon.
The design was a masterstroke; a fusion of art deco styling and practicality. The yellow gold case stayed straight; suspended between the straps. But the white dial was skewed diagonally, shifting the 12 o’clock marker to the top right corner of the case. The crown also revolved, resulting in a completely contemporary look — a new watch for a new decade. Or, as the Swiss Maison described it at the time, a model “for an American client with a passion for cars”.
Only 25 of these original models were ever built and sold. But, in 2008, Vacheron Constantin debuted the Historiques American 1921 collection as a tribute to the original trail-blazing, ground-breaking design. Since then, the vintage watch has seen a resurgence in popularity, with the model becoming available in a whole range of sizes, precious metals and dial variations during the last decade.
Which brings us to 2021. 100 years on from the original design, Vacheron is celebrating a century of the iconic American 1921 wristwatch. A trio of new models have been released to mark the occasion — with a ladies’ 36.5mm option in 18K white gold and a men’s 40mm limited edition in platinum among the offerings.
But our favourite of the three is the watch you see above; the 40mm Historiques American 1921 in white gold. This model reprises the aesthetic codes first outlined 100 years ago in those pioneering Vacheron Constantin workshops. At once retro and refined, its dial is finely-grained and silver-toned — punctuated only by a second-counting sub-dial, black Arabic numerals and a razor-thin minutes track.
“For an American client with a passion for cars...”
It ticks with 18K gold Breguet-type hands, and is buckled up with a calf leather strap crafted in the Milan-based workshops of leather goods company Serapian. Like the dial itself, the movement — visible through the sapphire crystal caseback — is also offset from its usual axis. But the reliable and accurate handcrafted VC Calibre 4400 AS doesn’t suffer for its asymmetry; instead driving the display of time precisely — and with a power reserve of 65 hours.
It’s an apt tribute to a century-enduring watch — and one that will catch admiring glances whether it’s fully on show or just edging its way out from under your cuff.
Because, while Vacheron Constantin is never afraid to innovate or experiment with its case shapes, the Swiss brand also has the good sense to realise when it has got something absolutely right. And, with that logic, the jauntily angled, endlessly practical American 1921 requires no reinvention at all.
Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921
Want more heritage watches? Here’s the story behind the Vacheron Constantin Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955…
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