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Swellboy on… the Geneva watch fair

The curious case of the missing watch

Swellboy on… the Geneva watch fair

Image: Brijesh Patel

January 24 2012
Nick Foulkes

Constantine the Great must have been a remarkable man. As well as laying the foundations of the Byzantine empire, he found time to tinker with the Julian calendar, establishing a system that would endure until the 16th century (when Pope Gregory lent his name to the Gregorian calendar, by which the west still lives). However, I also live by a second calendar: the horological one. My year is marked by the two pre-eminent watch fairs, in Geneva and Basel.

I have just returned from the Geneva event, and do so with a profound gratitude to the industry for giving me an interest in life. Rereading that sentence, it sounds a little portentous and just a touch sad, so I am compelled to add that there are other things in my life, too.

But the fact remains that I am very fond of watches, an interest that began in my teens, when I started to buy old clothes (before second-hand suits became “vintage”) and needed old watches to go with them. Of course, no one was much interested in old mechanical watches back then, but my fascination with them grew at about the same time as the industry was recovering from its near-death experience in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

One of the things I like most about the Swiss watch industry is the passion it has for its history and heritage. Vacheron Constantin started building up its own collection of vintage pieces as long ago as 1911, and yet, even with a century of collecting under its belt, there are still little lacunae here and there.

One of these happened to be on my wrist when I found myself seated with Charly Torres, CEO of Vacheron, during the opening dinner of the fair. Upon seeing the watch I was wearing – a slim, hexagonal Vacheron from 1966 – he told me it was very close in appearance to Vacheron’s major launch this year: a tonneau-shaped watch.

My watch is smaller, of course, but the family resemblance is strong, almost parental. The following day I noticed that the Vacheron stand featured a display of its tonneaux through the ages, but there was a conspicuous space around the second half of the 1960s, into which my watch would have slotted. It transpired that, among its 1,200 or more treasures, the Vacheron collection did not feature an example of my very modest, albeit curiously shaped, hours and minutes timepiece.

There was only one thing for it. I unfastened the watch from my wrist and gave it to Vacheron Constantin on long-term loan, so that they could complete their genealogical line-up of the tonneau’s family tree. For the next year or so I must accustom myself to seeing this watch in a display case rather than on my wrist.