It’s no small feat to be the oldest continuously producing watch manufacturer in the world. And while Vacheron Constantin holds this historic accolade, and can stake claim to 260 years’ worth of developments in horlogerie, the luxury Swiss watch brand continues to produce pieces that strike a balance between an illustrious past and a tech-driven future. In order to best understand how a prestige timekeeping brand creator keeps up with design and material innovation, we visited the Vacheron headquarters (designed by Bernard Tschumi) in Geneva to speak with artistic director Christian Selmoni. Accompanying the launch of the brand’s third generation Overseas collection, Selmoni shared his thoughts on design advancements, tattoos, travel and what craftsmanship means in the watch world.
How have you seen the watchmaking process develop over the last few decades?
15 years ago, when we were designing watches, it was about hand-sketching and making a series of prototypes with the case-maker. It was making iterations. In 2010, we hired what we call a digital designer. Normally people who design cars come from this background in design, but we hired him and started to really incorporate that digital step into our process. It was quite interesting. It really helps us to move forward and create something which is different. We can look at the watch and say, “I am going to change that and that and that.” We adapt the product before printing the mock-up. It’s a huge step forward.
In that process, maybe you’ve used a 3D printer and made a mock-up, but what are the steps from there to building a case?
For us, obviously we have quite a lot of iterations from the 2D point of view. We still are very much into designing with sketches. We do have 3D printer here, so once the design is OK from the 2D point of view, after designers have really sketched out the lines and the curves, then we work with our digital designer and we make many more iterations before printing—and then finally building a case.
Can you talk to us about the laser-fusion elements?
We are doing the 3D files and then sending them to a prototyping machine which is really building with lasers by a fusion of steel. It’s not wax. It is 3D-printed steel. Then we have to polish it. It’s quite interesting. We are more and more working with laser-fusion. It gives us the possibility to have a real metal mock-up, even if the finishing is so-so.
When looking at it, these laser-fusion mock-ups are much closer to the final output than plastic or wax iterations. Is there any part of the watch not impacted?
Today, dials are the longest lead time for prototypes, because it still demands so much detail work. It’s more time now to make a dial than it is to make a case.
Are prototype dials made differently than final dials?
Yes. They have a dedicated workshop, but in reality they are using complex factory systems. We are still working to reduce this time.
This is how you developed the new Overseas collection?
Yes, very much. We did more than 40 iterations. For the Overseas, this is the third generation. The first generation was quite a classical product. Elegant, not casual. We did that design in 1996. It was rooted in the ’70s. (In high-end watchmaking, many designs were rooted in the ’70s.) We went to the second generation which was very much on the sporty side of things. It was interesting because we made the bracelet like it is now. For this last generation, for us, it was a very important project. We took three years to fully sketch and develop it. It’s an evolution. Much like with the car industry, of course you can introduce disruptive designs, but you really have to think about the consequences of doing that. The Overseas Two was really quite a nice design, globally speaking, it was a watch from the 2000s—sporty, big. I think with the Three we wanted to adapt the piece to a new generation.
When you are looking at designs and figuring out which iteration is the right one, is it emotional? Do you try to represent that from the customer’s perspective? How do you tap that intangible element—that feeling of getting emotion when you see a timepiece you like?
I think to talk about this point, we have to come back to this brand. Vacheron is the oldest watch manufacturing company, so we have a long history. Consistently, we are very much on the classical side of watchmaking. When we talk about watch design, emotion is key. In every design that we develop, this emotional aspect is at the center. We must create that “wow” effect.
It is a difficult question to answer. We start with a general idea—or perhaps two. Then we begin to work on them and design to a certain moment, before we go on or suspend it. We have to reach a point where we ourselves are impressed. If we do not reach that point, and things become more difficult, we stop. The most difficult part of this job is to be consistent—consistent in the design world and consistent in the qualities we incorporate and develop over the years. On top of that, we must maintain a vision where the collection and brand will ultimately go.
When you do a new design, you do have to bring new things. You have to change things. You also must leave things behind.
So change is important?
You have to change. When you do a new design, you do have to bring new things. You have to change things. You also must leave things behind. Your clients do not expect that you’ll leave existing things behind, so you must introduce little changes. But you can never deliver the same watch. A couple of months ago, I met with the Japanese press. They said, “We are coming to the big question,” but they asked, “Why only six parts to the bezel when you used to have eight?” I think, honestly, this was just a matter of enhancing the bezel. We didn’t think that reducing would resonate that much but for the Japanese press it was very important. For me, this brings me to the evolution of a design. You leave things behind and change because you have to.
You’ve mentioned that travel is very important to you, and inspiring. What are some of your favorite places?
I am a good traveler in the sense that when we take off I am happy and it doesn’t matter where we are going. Places that I really love… Well, I have a special love for Japan. It’s amazing to see that this country has managed to have aspects that are so futuristic but on the other hand there’s such a sense of tradition. Osaka is fantastic for this. I also really love Los Angeles. I was born in the ‘50s. The second World War was finished but we had this feeling that, all my childhood, American culture was very important. When I went to Los Angeles for the first time, I was blown away because it was exactly like my young dreams of America. I like it still because for me this is a strange mix of love and hate and happiness and failure.
There are a few things that are a little unexpected, here in your office.
It’s a new office. I have few things on the wall, but normally it would be full.
What about this “True Love” tattoo badge and INKED magazine? Talk to me about tattoos?
This is one of the things I really like. I like very much alternative culture and modern art and pop art, things that are not exactly the official culture. Going back to the ‘60s, if you like comics or like counter-culture, tattoos are a part of this. This is what I like in terms of art, too. Modern art and tattooing are connected. Tattoos are important to me. It’s far from my everyday, but at the same time it is an inspiration as well.
Do you have tattoos?
I do. It used to be illegal in the states but now it is very popular. Everyone has tattoos. I think that there are still a lot of things to discover here, though. It is a great place for art.
Stepping back to the brand: aside from Vacheron Constantin being the first watch manufacturer, what are other things about the brand that someone needs to know?
It’s about the craftsmanship. Coming from a family of watchmakers, I always saw my grandfather working on the finishing. I’ve seen it since I was six years old. He was explaining to me how to polish and the beveling and the framing. I am happy to see this here, still, alive. This aspect of handmade finishing is still a reality. In 2016, areas in which you mix mechanics with finest craftsmanship are rare. The work by hand is the most important to me. Design is one thing, but the design without the craftsmanship and finishing and the value added by the hand separates us.
Watch images courtesy of Vacheron Constantin, all others by Josh Rubin