Image: Brijesh Patel
April 30 2011
I hate public speaking and yet occasionally I am lured into doing it. I am not a natural orator. I tuck my head into my chest, direct my gaze at the sheaf of papers on the lectern, take a deep breath and try to deliver the opening page in one exhalation. Occasionally I remember to look up and glare, like an irritated basilisk, into the eyes of a member of the audience, as I have been told to do by the various instructors I have had on the subject; but my fear is that on doing this I will lose my place in my notes, that my speech will falter and that the world will come to an end.
And yet about once a year I am lured into making a speech; of course the fee is an incentive, but these days I try to accept only if the subject matter interests me as much as the remuneration. The last speech I did was about 18 months ago, when Arnaud Bamberger asked me to give a talk to some of his clients one Christmas. Arnaud is a friend and someone I have difficulty refusing. Moreover, the subject appealed: London Cartier. By 1960s the holy trinity of Cartiers – Paris, London and New York – functioned as more or less separate entities and it was at this time that Cartier London made what to my mind are some of the best watches of the time, including the legendary Crash.
Now I have found myself lured into giving another talk at the Masterpiece Fair; I think Masterpiece is a great thing, a beacon of civilisation (or at least the appurtenances of civilisation) in an increasingly barbaric world. Except this year some of its visitors will have the misfortune to hear me talk about the cultural values of Vacheron Constantin.
The title of the talk is of my own devising and it is indeed something that I happen to believe in. This year Vacheron Constantin is 256 years old, which means that people were wearing Vacheron Constantin watches before America separated itself from Britain, before the French got into regicide, before such countries as Belgium, Germany and Italy existed, before the first glint of communism in the Paris Commune, before railway trains let alone cars and planes. There is a gout du terroir about Vacheron, it is distinctly Genevois and its argot is larded and seasoned with centuries of Genevan watchmaking lore. I feel much the way about brands, maisons, call them what you will, as the poet Horace did about the law: “for what use are empty laws without the traditions to animate them?” It is the accretion of tradition, like layer upon layer of shellac that transforms a dull and lifeless surface into a glossy plane of lambency.
Of course I have little idea what I am going to say, and I daresay that I will include my favourite story about Vacheron which takes place in the marque’s recent past (around about 1970, I think). My wife’s stepfather was driving down to his house in the country in his blue Ferrari 275 GTB arguing with his then wife when she leant across, ripped his paper-thin white gold Vacheron Constantin from his wrist and hurled it out of the sunroof he had installed in the car. He stopped at once to look for the watch, but so svelte was it that he was unable to locate it… turn a watch like the Vacheron Constantin Ultra Slim sideways and it disappears. Last year Vacheron relaunched its Ultra Slim and managed to shave almost half a millimetre off the height, for no other reason than that it could. I can only presume that the aim was to make it even more difficult to find when your spouse hurls it out of a fast-moving sports car.