Accuracy is an axiom of Swiss watchmaking. Even so, when Vacheron Constantin celebrated its 260th anniversary, unveiling a celebratory masterpiece on September 17, the venerable Geneva brand took the concept of accuracy to a new level. The day of the month chosen was the same as the date on an apprenticeship contract that is the first recorded mention of founder Jean-Marc Vacheron. What is more, the event just happened – although I doubt anything “just happens” in the world of Vacheron – to take place on the 260th day of the year.
The timepiece presented was a startling pocket watch (price on request) with 57 complications (although purists might quibble about counting the tourbillon, as it does not add a function). The name was logical enough (57260) and, to keep things tidy, I was one of 57 press invited.
Weighing 957g (note the last two digits), CEO Juan-Carlos Torres joked that only a kangaroo would have a pocket of the right size. This piece was the result of a commission by a collector who wanted the most complicated watch of the 21st century.
The sight of such a large and impressively complicated pocket watch inevitably recalls the epoch-defining launch by Patek Philippe of the Calibre 89, 26 years ago, to mark the brand’s 150th anniversary in 1989, which with 33 complications was the most complicated portable mechanical timepiece of the day. Preparations for the Calibre 89 had begun in 1980, a time when mechanical watchmaking was at the nadir of the disastrous decade known as the Quartz Crisis. In this context the decision taken by company president Philippe Stern to instruct his top watchmakers and technicians to spend the entire 1980s working on such a project was both brave and farsighted. It was a gamble that paid off handsomely and the Calibre 89 is widely regarded as a milestone in watchmaking. As the author of the as-yet unpublished official history of Patek Philippe, I may be a little partisan, but it is fair to say that it signalled the renaissance of complicated mechanical watches. One could also argue that it was the first of the modern-era anniversary watches.
These two virtuoso examples of haute horlogerie bookend a period of immense change in the watch industry, one element of which has been the rise in importance of the limited-edition watch. To cover such a subject adequately requires a book rather than an article, and even restricting the focus to watches created to mark an important anniversary will inevitably omit many more marques than it will include, which in itself indicates how much of a phenomenon it has become.
Watchmaking is a richly historical activity so there is no shortage of anniversaries: each year brings its share of watches to celebrate company foundations, icon-model launches or other important dates. For instance, given its Nasa association, the launch of an anniversary Omega Speedmaster celebrating some aspect of the US space programme has become an almost annual occurrence. And when Zenith discovered that Louis Blériot had owned one of its watches, the centenary of his 1909 cross-Channel flight was celebrated with a pilot watch (from £3,900).
But the latest crop of anniversary watches has been a bumper one. Last year Patek Philippe was 175 years old, an event celebrated in spectacular style with a week of parties at the headquarters in Geneva and the Grandmaster Chime (SFr2.5m, about £1.6m). Also celebrating this year was Zenith, which racked up 150 years, and 2016 sees Girard-Perregaux celebrate 225 years.
Among the milestone celebrants this year was A Lange & Söhne, which marked the 200th birthday of its founder with some special 1815 timepieces (from £17,000). The interesting thing about this is that Lange has not chosen to make an extravagantly complicated watch but to create celebratory runs of its entry-level pieces.
“We tend to have limited editions of watches because of their highly complicated nature, and even then it takes us three to four years to produce them,” explains CEO Wilhelm Schmid of much of Lange’s output. “For these big dates you have to make a reasonable number, otherwise they end up in the same hands. We have collectors with smaller pockets and we want to give them a chance to have a very special piece. And it made sense to link it to the family of watches named after Ferdinand Adolph Lange’s birthday.”
But just because they are at the affordable end of Lange’s production it does not follow that they will be easy to get hold of. Production will be spread over a couple of years and distribution will be further limited as buyers of the platinum edition (200th Anniversary FA Lange, £24,100) announced at the beginning of the year have the chance to purchase the same edition number in the “honey gold” series launched at October’s Watches & Wonders fair in Hong Kong.
While it might be stretching a point to call this a “gift” to loyal collectors, it offers a sense of exclusivity, which auctioneer Aurel Bacs believes is crucial. And while he cites Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin as paradigms of “enduring value”, he sounds a note of caution. “Many anniversaries have been abused and I have the feeling that the CEO asked the head of marketing, ‘Can you think of an anniversary we can celebrate this year?’” In his view, a good limited-edition piece is “anything done as a special run in a very limited edition where craftsmanship wins over marketing”, which, says Bacs, is reflected in the prices achieved “when these pieces come back to auction”.
“They should be meaningful, really linked to the event they commemorate and offer features that you don’t find on other watches in the collection,” says Karl-Friedrich Scheufele of Chopard. “Next year we have 20 years of Chopard manufacture – that is nothing,” he says humbly, “but we will present at least three special watches.” One of these is likely to be a minute repeater.
But even a short history is cause for celebration. When I first visited Chopard’s Manufacture in the quiet mountain village of Fleurier it employed three people and was located above a cork factory. Now it employs 190, an achievement that deserves to be marked, as do the 10 years that have seen the explosion of Hublot’s Big Bang. Hublot was a dying brand until Jean-Claude Biver took it over and made it such a success that LVMH snapped it up. I remember him explaining his fusion concept to me by drawing on a tablecloth (at the time he did not have even a prototype). Now the 10th birthday of this highly successful model is being celebrated with a limited run of 50 examples of a five-day tourbillon (£25,300) and 250 pieces in the brand’s scratch-resistant “Magic Gold”. In this instance the opportunity has been taken to showcase Hublot’s innovative use of materials and its new in-house Unico movement.
As the Hublot anniversary celebrations this year indicate, there are times when it is more fitting to celebrate an individual model than an entire brand, which gave Bulgari the opportunity to celebrate its 130th anniversary last year and 40 years since the appearance of the famous Bulgari Roma with the B Roma Finissimo (£18,400) this year. And also this year Breguet celebrates two major anniversaries, one of which marks the appearance of its first marine chronometers in 1815, for which a run of 200 special Marine watches (£38,080) will be made. It is also 10 years since the launch of the Breguet Tradition, which, thanks to a much reduced time-indication on a small dial at 12 o’clock, exposes the mechanism above the mainplate – this is a watch for the hardcore horophile and its 10th anniversary is marked with highly technical pieces, including a chronograph (£56,400) with two gear trains, and a minute-repeater tourbillon (£329,000).
Of course, the thing about anniversaries is that they recur, and at Jaeger-LeCoultre quinquennial celebrations of the landmark Reverso model (£14,800), launched in 1931, are more than just a cherished ritual, but an established part of the brand strategy. “We celebrate the Reverso every five years and it is a way to signal the new trend for the Reverso. When we celebrated in 2006 with the launch of the Squadra, it came back to sports roots and reflected the taste for bigger sports watches,” explains Jaeger’s Stéphane Belmont. “Then in 2011, for the 80th anniversary, we revisited the iconic ultra-thin.” This iteration was known as the 1931 and resulted in some highly coveted watches with boldly coloured dials. “For next year’s 85th anniversary we will try to go in a different direction.” Among other things, expect to see a simplification of the range to just three sizes.
What makes anniversary watches so interesting is the different ways in which they are interpreted by different brands. At the beginning of this article I noted the remarkable lengths to which Vacheron Constantin went to time its anniversary to the day. By contrast, IWC is a little more relaxed about these things and devoted the whole of 2015 to the 75th birthday of its most emblematic watch, the Portugieser (£15,250).
The Portugieser has been at the heart of the phenomenal growth of IWC in recent years. Its story began in 1938, when two Portuguese watch importers requested a pocket-watch movement in a steel-cased wristwatch. The first such “Portugieser” watches were delivered in 1939. My maths may not be perfect, but that makes this watch 76 years old. When I asked CEO Georges Kern about this, his answer was simple: “We thought we should party one year later.” Clearly some anniversary years are just so good that they last longer than 12 months.