In the world of vintage watch collecting, three things really matter: rarity, authenticity, and a good story. Vacheron Constantin, a company that has been making watches for discerning collectors since 1755, understands this innately. Like any good watchmaker, it’s also not averse to showing off on occasion. These are the main motivations behind a new one-of-a-kind watch — the 1921 American Pièce unique — created from a century-old design using period-correct parts, methods, and tools.
“For the 100th anniversary of the American 1921, we thought about a project that would be a little different,” says Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s style and heritage director. Unlike the Historiques American 1921, a modernized version of the same piece already in the Vacheron Constantin lineup, this project’s aim was to celebrate the design’s centenary by recreating it as faithfully as possible — down to the tiniest detail. “We wanted to recreate a timepiece from the past and to do it exactly the same way as it was,” Selmoni says. “Using components from the period, doing everything by hand, and redoing the movement exactly as it was made at the beginning of the 20th century. It was a very important challenge for us, and we decided to go for it.”
The first stop was the Vacheron Constantin archive which contains nearly 1400 vintage watches. Among these is an original American 1921, a driving watch whose unique tilted dial was likely designed that way to make it more readable while operating a large 1920s steering wheel. The archive also contains hundreds of machine tools, workbenches, toolsets and, crucially, hundreds of thousands of watchmaking parts going back more than 100 years. Incredibly, while the movement’s main plate and bridges had to be created from scratch, all of the watch’s 115 other components — from the pomme hands to the copper dial to the winding crown — are period original.
In addition to using these original pieces, Vacheron Constantin’s watchmakers had to re-discover lost techniques for jewel-setting and finishing that had fallen out of favour. It reportedly took the Maison’s master watchmaker some 700 hours of research to figure out how to create and assemble the movement, and 9 hours of work to set its 16 jewels in place. In keeping with this extreme level of authenticity, Selmoni adds, the watch is neither waterproof nor dustproof, with a mineral crystal covering its dial (waterproof cases and scratch-proof sapphire crystals were not used in 1921). This makes the American 1921 Pièce unique not just a faithful tribute to Vacheron Constantin’s early 20th-century watchmaking, but an incredible example of its skill in the 21st.
With its extreme rarity, unique authenticity, and unusual story, the 1921 American Pièce unique will surely be irresistible to collectors. Vacheron Constantin, however, has no plans to sell the watch anytime soon. The American 1921 Pièce unique will tour North America this summer and fall (including a stop in Canada, health restrictions permitting), before making its way back to the archive in Geneva. One day in the future, it will likely be auctioned off for charity, Selmoni says. Whatever the asking price, Vacheron Constantin likely won’t have much trouble finding a buyer. After more than 200 years in business, this is a brand that knows what its customers want.