Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Vacheron Constantin Exhibit NSM

One of the benefits of living in a large metropolitan city are their museums, and the interesting special exhibits that show up.  Singapore has several museums, and we've taken advantage of touring several of the exhibits that have come to town during our stay here.  Currently the National Museum of Singapore (we are members) has an exhibit called "Treasures of Vacheron Constantin:  A legacy of watchmaking since 1755".  With some fascination with watches, I decided to check it out.  The exhibit seems a little different than most-- it is apparently sponsored by the watch company itself, in celebration of its 250th anniversary.  The exhibit presents 180 watches produced by the company during its long history, several pieces of early horological equipment, and an interesting story line of the company.

I have always wondered why Geneva Switzerland is known as the center for watch making in the world.  Mechanical clocks showed up around the 13th century in Italy, and watches in the 15th century.  In the 16th century many protestant craftsman and artisans migrated to the region around Geneva, including jewelers.  The Calvinist movement was central to this area at the time, and flashy, expensive jewelry was frowned upon by this conservative group.  However, watches were viewed as a tool or instrument and not an ostentatious accessory, and were more acceptable.  Consequently many artisan jewelers moved into the watchmaking trade.  Watches and the ability to measure time was something in demand world wide.  The craft in Geneva was strictly controlled, with a required apprenticeship of four years necessary before becoming a master.  Masters were allowed only one or two apprentices, and were bound by their membership to the guild to teach them everything they knew about their craft.  At one point in time one in five residents in Geneva were involved in watchmaking.  The craft evolved from the fine craftsmanship necessary to produce a quality one-off timepiece, to more sophisticated techniques and machinery that enabled greater consistency, and also greater complexity to the components.  It seems amazing that finely machined watches with miniature components were being produced at a time when medicine and other sciences and technology still had a long way to develop.

Many of the Swiss watch companies from the 1800's and earlier are still in business, including Vacheron Constantin which is now part of the Richemont luxury products group that includes Piaget, Cartier, Mont Blanc and several other luxury good brands.

Watches are a beautiful blending of art and mechanics.   With the advent of smart phones, perhaps they are an artifact of the past.  Yet the art and fashion of a watch now outstrips its usefulness and purpose as a time measuring instrument.  Perhaps this will continue through the ages to come.

Here are some the watches and artifacts from the exhibit.
Traveling Case--  This is the traveling case of the company founder Jean-Marc Vacheron, ca late 1700s
Pantograph--  This duplication machine was invented by one of Vacheron's employees in the early 1800's.  It allowed unprecedented production and replication of parts, maintaining relatively tight tolerances.  The machine was kept as a trade secret until 1844.
Guilloche Machine--  Guillochage is a technique from the late 18th century which cuts intricate patterns in metal only 0.1 mm in depth.  This machine moves the pattern material, while the artist holds a cutting tool against the metal, controlling the pressure on the tool.
Engraving vise-- the chisel tool to the right is used to cut fine artistic patterns into the metal held in the vise.

Pocket Watch, ca 1800.  Early watches provided simple time-- hours minute seconds, with more complexity (day, month) coming in later year.

This watch design has a unique if novel dial, almost appearing as a sundial. 

Dual Time--  This watch from the turn of the 20th century allows tracking time in two locations.

Complexity--  More complicated time keeping, including moon phases requires considerably more parts and difficulty for a mechanical time piece.

Platinum--  This watch from 1931 has its case made from platinum and is only an amazing 0.95 mm thick.
Aviator Watch--  This watch design is from ~1915 and was built for early aviation pioneers.  The watch has a large face, and is worn strapped to the thigh.
Aluminum--  The movement and housing of this watch from 1945 are made from aluminum, making it one of the lightest mechanical watches made.

Engraved huntsman case--  Fine engraving of the watch case
Enameled case--  Enameled art requires very fine work done under microscopes to produce pictures on the case.  The paints are a special ceramic powdered paste that are applied to the metal in engraved areas, then fired to vitrify the ceramic pastes.  The case may require as many as 20 firings during the process.
Louvers--  This watch has louvered cover.  Another watch in the display had shutters.
Jewels--  Embellishments with jeweled cases.  One watch on display (a replica) was for a design with over 100 square cut diamonds.

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