A semi-anonymous East Coast-based watch collector sat down with Robb Report to reveal how his interest in watchmaking became a passion for one of the world’s top Swiss watchmakers. Robert’s (we’re not disclosing his last name) impressive Vacheron Constantin collection was a decade in the making and includes everything from rare Chronometre Royal and Prestige de la France models to the Swiss watchmaker’s unique Saltarello, a Patrimony Contemporaine Collection Excellence Platine, and more – and that just scratches the surface of his 13 piece collection. Robert revealed to us how his elite hobby turned into a bonafide obsession with the art of watchmaking and how the watch collecting community led to some of his greatest finds.
How did you first get into watch collecting?
I’ve been collecting for about 10 years. It’s a sickness. I think it’s a diagnosable disorder. When I bought my first watch, I was thinking, “I’m just going to get one really nice watch that I can wear everywhere, and that’ll be it.” I had no idea this was going to happen. It started after my business had been doing pretty well for a while. I wanted to get a really great watch. I just started looking on the forums and started reading about the watches, and I got very interested. I had no idea that there were actual forums out there where guys were talking about watches all day. I went onto one site, and I made some friends with some people there who taught me an enormous amount about watches.
What captivated you about Vacheron Constantin?
First and foremost, they design truly beautiful watches. After that, I learned a lot more about the history of the watches, the different design elements that are in those pieces and the movements. They’re technology brilliant, and they’re artistic. There are a couple watches that I think illustrate this really well. First is the Historique 1955 [ref. 33155/000R-9588]—what’s amazing about this watch is how ultra-thin it is. It feels like there’s nothing on your wrist, and it’s just so elegant. It also has the caliber 1003, which Vacheron has been using ever since. Just think about that. It’s like 60 or 70 years they’re using the same movement in many different watches throughout history. That’s kind of extraordinary. My Mercator [Mercator America platinum ref. 43050], first introduced in 1994, is more complicated in some ways and it’s named after the famous explorer [Gerardus Mercator]. It’s got another movement in here that’s legendary, the 1120 caliber, which is an ultra-thin automatic caliber that was developed in the late 1960s, and Vacheron’s been using it since 1968, so it’s another movement that they’ve been using for 50 years. This watch, introduced in 1996, also happens to have two retrograde hands. It’s that kind of technical prowess that really draws me to Vacheron.
What was your first watch purchase before you graduated to Vacheron Constantin?
When I first got into watches I bought a Jaeger-LeCoultre. It was a big sports watch—very different than what I would buy today. Ultimately, the guy from one of the watch forum’s that led me to that watch eventually led me to buy the Vacheron Constantin 1972 Prestige de la France [ref.2091]. It’s really thin and super elegant. It looks like nothing else that’s out there. I saw that this watch was available in a boutique in Paris, and so I called my friend from the forum and I said, “Nicholas, do you know about this watch? Can you go and check it out for me since you live in Paris?” He ran over within the hour and typed back to me, “Robert, it’s beautiful. You’ve got to get it. If you don’t get it, I’m going to get it.” So I said, “Can you just get it for me? I’ll send you the money, and then just send it over to me.” That’s how that happened.
Presumably, you met him in person before you sent him the money?
No and I’m going to tell you another story about that. I have bought watches on Ebay, and I saw a Ulysse Nardin Freak on there, which is an incredible watch, and I contacted the guy who was selling it. He lives out in Washington. I live in Philadelphia. We started chatting on the phone about the watch and I said, “I really want it.” He said, “Robert, I’m going to send it to you. Just get me a cashier’s check and send it to me after you get it.” It floored me. I said, “Are you sure you want to do that? I’ll send you the money, and then you can send me the watch.” He said, “No, I’m going to put it in FedEx right now. I’ll send it to you.” I’m usually very careful about how I do this, but that for me was just extraordinary. It just showed me how great some of these collectors can be. Once they realize that you’re really into watches, it’s this common bond, which is really great.
Was the 1972 Prestige de la France your first Vacheron Constantin?
No. I had about six watches before I bought a Vacheron. My first purchase was the American 1921 [Boutique Edition ref. 82035/000J-9717] that they launched in 2011; that was my first Vacheron Constantin. When I saw that watch I just said, “I need to have this watch in my life.” I deliberated over it for a long time. It was kind of a milestone in my watch collecting, for sure, but once I got it, that was it for me.
How long did you deliberate before purchasing the American 1921?
I deliberated over the American 1921 for probably two years before I bought it. It was to the point where there was another collector who was in touch with the dealer that I was buying it from, and he knew I was in the store, and he texted the salesperson that was there at the counter and said, “Just tell Robert to buy the damn watch already!” That tells you how tight the community of watch collectors can be at times. I do a lot of research on the watches beforehand, and that was going to be my very first Vacheron, so it was important.
What captivated you about the American 1921?
I think the thing that captivated me most about the American 1921 was that, first of all, it’s a beautiful watch. The second thing was it has a twist to it. The dial is on a tilt. The crown, which would normally be located at 3:00, is located at 1:00. It’s got unusual hands, and it’s this cushion-shaped case which is really beautiful. And then when you flip it over, there’s this gorgeous movement in it that just sparkles. It was also the watch where Vacheron launched its first in-house simple, regular production manual winding movement in a very long time, so it was a big deal when that watch came out. [Ed. Note: Its predecessor, the caliber 1400, which was too small of a movement for most modern sized watches, was launched a half dozen years earlier.]
How did you begin building your collection your initial big acquirement?
The second watch that I got was an Overseas chronograph [Special U.S. Edition, steel ref. 49150/000A-9337]. I bought this one from another collector. I’ve had a lot of really great experiences buying directly from collectors for some of my older pieces. This guy is from Poland and we’ve become friends. I’ve seen him a number of times since. We chat, and usually when we get together and talk, we’re not necessarily talking about watches. Now we talk about how the families are doing. “How’s your business?” The state of the world and that kind of thing. That’s one of the wonderful things about watch collecting, is you get to meet really interesting people.
What is your approach to adding to your collection?
I buy what I love, so if a watch just captures my interest, it doesn’t really matter what kind or what purpose the watch is for. Some I bought new from a dealer, other ones I bought from collectors, and other ones I bought at auction. Sometimes it’s a watch that I’ve been looking for, for a long time. My Chronometre Royal from 1957 [yellow gold, ref. 6107]—a 60-year-old watch—is really hard to find in great condition, and it was the first watch, launched in 1953, that they made at chronometer level, which means it’s highly, highly accurate, and it has a movement with a hacking seconds mechanism, which means that when you pull out the crown the seconds stop. This is the first watch that was made for the general public that had those features on it, so it’s a great legendary watch. I hunted for it for a long time, and I found one from another collector just by happenstance. That’s how I add watches to my collection.
Do you ever sell any of your pieces?
I have sold a couple of my Vacheron watches, only to buy them back. As I told you, this is a sickness. [Laughs] I bought and sold the Historique 1912. It’s a really lovely watch. I sold it because I wanted to buy something else, and then after I sold it, I missed it. So I found another one, in even better condition.
Are you looking to add to your collection this year?
I have a long list of watches that I would like to add to my collection. I do not have infinite resources, so one has to pick and choose, but I definitely have a list of probably about a dozen more Vacheron watches that I would love to own. The grail for me would be a minute repeater, which is probably the grail for many collectors. Vacheron happens to do them really, really well. Ultimately, that’s where I would love to end up, and then I can say I’m done. But I’ve still got some collecting ahead of me.
Do you wear all of the watches in your collection?
I wear all of my watches except for my pocket watch, which is an all-aluminum pocket watch from the early 1950s [ref. 4358]. I just wanted to have it because it’s such a cool watch. Everything else I wear on a rotating basis. The Overseas is the watch that I wear the most. The Prestige de la France I wear for weddings or a nice night out somewhere or a formal occasion, that kind of thing. But I enjoy wearing all of them, and I don’t buy any watch to just keep it in the safe.
Which watch gets the most attention when you wear it?
The Saltarello, because it’s so unusual. The dial is very unusual because it’s a retrograde hand and the hour is in the hour window. I think the shape also calls attention to it, because it’s kind of a square cushion-shaped watch. Some collectors who know this watch go crazy over it when they see it. They know what it is, and they know why it’s so special.
Which watch are you wearing today?
The one that I’m actually wearing today is the 222 yellow gold reference 44018-411. It’s sort of the beta version of the Overseas. They wanted to have a steel sports model, so they came out with the 222 in 1977. Approximately 720 of all versions of it were made at the time with 100 of them were the all-gold version, and it’s got the same movement that’s in the Mercator, the same movement that’s in the Saltarello, which is the ultra-thin automatic caliber 1120, so it’s a super-thin watch. They’re really, really hard to find in good condition and to find ones that haven’t been over-polished. It’s got very sharp edges, and that’s what you want. I bought it from a dealer in the south of France and when I got it, it was not running well, but Vacheron can restore and service any watch they’ve ever produced, whether that was from the 1700s or yesterday. That’s a great thing, so I didn’t care about how it was running. It was a great find for me. It’s my most blingy watch by far.
What do you have your eye on from Vacheron Constantin’s 2018 releases?
The new Overseas collection is really intriguing to me, and they just came out with a black dial Overseas that I’m really eager to see. The other watch that came out this year that’s really great is the triple calendar watch, and it comes both with a moon phase and without a moon phase. There’s one version that has the moon phase that’s got a red background to it, which is just so cool.
Which timepieces do you consider the most exclusive in your collection?
From the 1950s through the very early 1970s Vacheron Constantin had a policy that was written down where they would only make 24 pieces exactly the same, and at the 25th piece they would change something. They would change something in the dial, something in the hands, or maybe the crown would be different. So if you buy any watch from Vacheron made up until the very early 1970s, it’s likely that there will never be more than 24 of that watch that’s been made—my Chronometre Royal and Prestige de la France are from this period. I have a really special Patrimony manual wind [Patrimony Contemporaine Collection Excellence Platine, ref. 81180/000P-9220], which is made in 150 examples. Everything is platinum on this watch, including the dial, which is very hard to make, apparently. The 1921 is actually the New York boutique edition, so there are only 64 examples of this watch that were made, so that’s a fairly rare watch. Only 100 examples of the Overseas [Overseas Chronograph Special U.S. Edition in steel ref. 49150/000A-9337] I have were produced. When they first launched the second generation of the Overseas, they launched a few limited-editions, and that was one of them. But each one is kind of rare in its own way.