Ahead of the Curves

<< Back to Watch Collector, January 2014
  • Laurie Kahle

When Vacheron Constantin set out to update its tonneau-shaped Malte collection from 2000, design director Vincent Kauffmann took an unexpected approach to the redesign. Rather than scour the brand’s extensive archives searching for an inspirational vintage piece—as tempting as that must have been, given that Vacheron Constantin has produced tonneau wristwatches since 1912—Kauffmann and his team looked forward rather than back. “We started with a blank sheet of paper and thought about what a tonneau would look like today,” he explains. “Vacheron wanted to create a new tonneau shape from scratch, so my goal was to play with the curves of the watch and work on the way light reflects on those curves, much like designing an automobile.”

Watch designers often reference automotive design, typically with regards to engines, high-tech materials, or signature details such as grilles or wheel rims. Kauffman, however, draws a parallel between the bodywork of a car and the case of a watch. “A watch is much smaller, and a lot of thought goes into the tension of different components of the case, so we study different positions and light reflections to create a truly dynamic design,” he says. Kauffman’s team spent more than three months producing 15 different mock-ups until they were satisfied with every curve of the next-generation Malte, which debuted for men in 2012, while a collection of quartz ladies’ timepieces launched subsequently.

To create a sleeker, dressier, more subdued Malte, Vacheron’s designers pared down the bezel to open up the dial, which is domed along with the caseback so the watch has a streamlined profile that conforms to the shape of the wrist. “Today, with the technology we have at our disposition, you can make cases with much more complex curves that make them more modern,” Kauffmann explains. “There are a lot of curves in the case, which is not something you would find on a historical watch.”

The three men’s Maltes—a small seconds, a platinum limited edition, and a ­tourbillon—all carry the prestigious Geneva Seal, which assures not only the origin of the watch but also attests to the highest quality manufacturing and finishing practices. The standards of the Seal were recently expanded to apply to the entire watch rather than just the movement.

For the Malte Tourbillon, the only complication in the lineup, Vacheron positioned the oversize tourbillon—designed with Vacheron’s Maltese cross motif—at 6 o’clock, which required the axis of the minute and hour hands to be slightly offset. The tourbillon aperture shows off the manufacture’s exceptional finishing, including the bar-like tourbillon bridge, which is made through a labor-intensive process that involves hand-filing the ends of the bar into a conical shape and painstakingly polishing it by hand.

The movement’s complementary ­tonneau shape, which is revealed through the sapphire crystal caseback, perfectly fits the watch’s 38 mm x 48.2 mm 18-karat pink gold case, making it the largest of the new tonneaus. Kauffmann notes that the tourbillon is one complication that works well in the unconventional shape, unlike a chronograph, which he feels would be too busy if it were combined with all the angles of the case.

More than a century ago, the tonneau made a revolutionary break from following the traditional round form of the pocket watch. One could argue that the tonneau was the first modern watch case designed specifically for the wrist. Yet, a century later, tonneaus are still regarded as somewhat avant-garde. “The shape does not leave people lukewarm—you either love it or hate it,” says Kauffmann. “It is not easy to wear like a round watch, and the shape still raises a lot of eyebrows and remains radical 100 years later. Someone who wears a tonneau watch wants something totally different—it’s classical, but with a twist.”

Vacheron Constantin, 877.701.1755, www.vacheron-constantin.com