Feature: Vintage Futures

  • James D. Malcolmson

You may not attract many stares wearing Blancpain’s subtle 1735 grand complication—except among fellow aficionados who realize, with more than a little bit of envy, that you have acquired one of the great ones. Among the scores of highly coveted and collected contemporary timepieces, a precious few stand out to experts, just as an elite vintage is instantly recognized by an oenophile.

Acquiring one of these ultimate timepieces is a seminal experience in the career of any collector, like landing a case of 2000 Premier Grand Cru Classé Bordeaux. What makes these wristwatches so special? Watch cognoscenti recognize each not only for distinctive design and technical mastery, but also for its place in watchmaking history or its capacity to change it.

These watches have their own cult followings, and some collectors are willing to wait a very long time just to lay their hands on one. The following watch list outlines the select few contemporary timepieces capable of provoking a similar reaction from both aesthete and watchmaking authority—“Excellent choice!”

Paris, France, Cartier,
Tortue Monopoussoir, 1998

The Tortue single push-piece chronograph, or Monopoussoir, as its fans like to purr, is a re-creation of a classic piece from the late 1920s, an era that is a treasure trove for historically minded collectors. The Monopoussoir is outstanding from both a design and technical standpoint, making it one of the most sought-after pieces in Cartier’s exclusive Privée Collection.

The Tortue’s distinctive barrel-like shape, now considered a textbook men’s dress watch style, was first introduced in 1912 and targeted to a female clientele. While transforming the design into a man’s chronograph in 1928, Cartier’s movement makers integrated the push piece, which operates the chronograph, into the winding crown. This watchmaking innovation preserved the design’s integrity—and design is always the most important quality in a Cartier watch.

“It’s my favorite watch in the entire world,” says Nelson Holdo of Asanti Fine Jewelers in San Marino, Calif., one of the few U.S. dealers authorized to carry Cartier’s Privée Collection and an admitted admirer himself. “When we received our first two, I sold one immediately and kept the second for myself.”
Cartier, 800.Cartier, www.cartier.com

Glashütte, Germany, A. Lange & Söhne,
Langematik Perpetual, 2001

Leon Adams, owner of Cellini in New York’s Waldorf Astoria, is one of the few individuals privileged enough to get first dibs on nearly every exclusive timepiece emerging from Switzerland. But the watch he is most excited about is not even Swiss. It is the Langematik Perpetual from revived German maker A. Lange & Söhne. “Lange & Söhne is at the forefront of both technology and quality,” he says. “I think it is the finest line of watches, period.”

Collectors at every level are beginning to share Adams’ enthusiasm because of Lange’s distinctive style of watchmaking, which produces pieces that are original as well as user-friendly, a relatively rare attribute among high-end watches. The Langematik Perpetual incorporates a long list of practical improvements over garden-variety perpetuals. Most obvious is its clear, oversize date window, which reminds you of how maddeningly difficult it can be to read the date on other perpetual dials. When you consider Lange’s other advances—a rotor that winds in both directions, a single-button setting system, and a moon phase that has an infinitesimally small margin of error—you can easily understand why the orders are piling up. “It is relatively new,” says Adams, “but with Lange’s quality behind it, it’s an absolutely spectacular watch.”
A. Lange & Söhne, 310.317.9852

Geneva, Switzerland, Vacheron Constantin,
Skeleton Minute Repeater, 1994

Watchmaking in its most traditional form is a pursuit of patience and detail, aspects that are not lost on Vacheron Constantin. Fine finishing and detail work can often be mere articles of faith for most watch buyers who never lay eyes on the intricate mechanics of a piece, which is why owning a Vacheron Constantin skeletonized minute repeater is such a coup for collectors.

“They are so well-finished and so thin,” says Barry Donoho, a Houston-area jeweler who has cultivated a voracious watch-buying clientele. “Of all the skeletons I’ve seen, the Vacherons are by far the most beautiful.” Quality detail work, such as chamfered and polished edges, is rarely visible for watch owners to inspect. In a skeleton, however, such finishing takes center stage, together with the work of the engraver, who in essence makes each a pièce unique.

The minute repeater complication, although unrelated to the skeleton work, is a masterpiece in another sense, because attaining quality sound requires patience and persistence in tuning all of the metal parts together. This Vacheron Constantin, therefore, is a very rare example that allows quality to be heard as well as seen.
Vacheron Constantin, 877.862.7555, www.vacheron-constantin.com

Geneva, Switzerland, Patek Philippe,
Reference 5110, 2000
Patek Philippe is a company that often points to its success at auction as proof that not one, but all of its reference numbers are coveted by collectors. In a sense the market does speak for itself, where the slightest hint of rarity brings out a feral streak in bidders on Patek models. But if you press the experts, some favorites do emerge.

Osvaldo Patrizzi, chairman and watch expert at Antiquorum Auctioneers, is enamored with past models, such as the 2499 perpetual calendar. But some of the company’s current models intrigue him as well. “One of the modern watches that really stands out is the reference 5110 world timer,” he says. “It’s one of the most clever watches made today: easy to operate and very well made with a perfect movement. It is probably the best product made in the last 10 years.”

The reference 5110 is heir to a long line of Patek Philippe world time models, which display the world’s 24 time zones. These pieces date back to the 1930s, when watchmaker Louis Cottier developed an ingenious mechanism and collaborated with Patek to produce the first world time wristwatches. These pieces, though not the most complicated or expensive Patek Philippes by any means, are appreciated because of how beautifully adapted they are to their use. Of course, Patrizzi has every reason to be fond of Patek world timers: His company just sold a platinum model from 1939 for $4,026,524, the world record for a wristwatch.
Patek Philippe, 212.218.1240, www.patek.com

Geneva, Switzerland, F.P. Journe,
Resonance Chronometer, 1999
Watch devotees love the idea of F.P. Journe’s Resonance Chronometer as much as the watch itself. In a world where heavily promoted watchmakers preside over 21st-century assembly plants, there is something refreshingly authentic about Francois-Paul Journe, whose tiny workshop not only makes almost every movement component, but makes each one faithfully. Journe’s genuine advances in horology have made his timepieces highly prized among watch collectors who hope they have stumbled upon a latter-day Breguet.

“In the eyes of many, the Resonance Chronometer is a timepiece that really captures the essence of F.P. Journe,” says Aspen jeweler Dan Hochfield. Resonance is a natural phenomenon in which two side-by-side pendulums tend to oscillate in harmony, enhancing their accuracy. Journe is the first to apply this mutual enhancement concept to a wristwatch movement, creating a unique and historic piece. The side-by-side balances, escapements, and dials accent the unconventional, atelier look of Journe’s watches.

“They’re very well finished,” says Gene Stern of Swiss FineTiming/Atelier Jewelers in Highland Park, Ill. “But a customer of mine once said they look like a very advanced prototype—I think that’s part of their appeal.”
F.P. Journe, +41.22.322.09.09, www.fpjourne.com

Le Brassus, Switzerland,
Blancpain, 1735, 1991
Blancpain’s 1735 is not the most complicated wristwatch you can buy, but it is probably the most desirable of all the ultraprestige grand complications. From time to time, premium manufacturers attempt these grand complications—which traditionally incorporate a chronograph, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, and, quite frequently, a tourbillon—but they do so as a symbolic statement of their prowess in mechanical watchmaking more than anything else. In most of these examples the actual watch is a monster, fabulously complicated but more suited to the display case than the wrist. This is why the Blancpain 1735 stands out among its peers. The 1735 is 41.5 millimeters in diameter and only 14 millimeters thick, smaller than some of the oversize watches that are so popular now.

The 1735’s size stands as a mark of quality in itself. “Blancpain considers ultrathin to be a watchmaking discipline in its own right,” explains Gene Stern of Illinois’ Swiss FineTiming. “What they did is design and build the watch as an integral unit rather than piling on module after module like many other makers. That’s another order of difficulty entirely.”
Blancpain, 877.520.1735, www.blancpain.com

La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, Girard-Perregaux,
Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges, 1994–2002
“Girard-Perregaux’s Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges is the finest tourbillon ever made,” attests Antiquorum’s Osvaldo Patrizzi. In a world where tourbillons are fast becoming the gold standard of high-end complications, that is heady praise indeed.

The tourbillon, with its escapement cage gently rotating around the balance, is the most captivating sight in watch mechanics. Since the Tourbillon with Three Gold Bridges first appeared in Girard-Perregaux’s pocket watches in the 1870s, the design has been acknowledged as the prettiest way to show it off. “It is very balanced between the mechanism and the view of the movement,” continues Patrizzi. “It really was a better execution than that of Breguet, who invented the mechanism.”

Girard-Perregaux first used the movement design in a mechanically wound wristwatch in 1994. In 1999, the movement was adapted with an automatic winding mechanism and introduced in a round wristwatch, and this year the automatic version enhances the company’s square Vintage 1945 model.

The purpose of a tourbillon is to compensate for the effect of gravity in a portable watch. However, today that precise technical aspect has been overshadowed by the tourbillon’s status as the prevailing symbol of watchmaking expertise. And while several companies manufacture tourbillons, not all of them work properly. Three Gold Bridges, on the other hand, is exemplary in its reliability—one reason for the long line of collectors who are waiting to get their hands on one.
Girard-Perregaux, 877.846.3447, www.girard-perregaux-usa.com

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