Vacheron Constantin Historiques
This is not a new watch for Vacheron Constantin Historiques and that’s actually true in two senses. The first sense has to do with this specific model: the Historiques Ultra Fine 1955 was first introduced in 2010 and it was at the time of its launch, the thinnest mechanical watch in the world, at only 4.1 mm thick overall. It also had what at the time was the thinnest mechanical wristwatch movement ever made: the Vacheron Constantin caliber 1003, which was and is a full-bridge, hand wound caliber measuring only 1.64 mm thick. (For reference, the ubiquitous ETA 2892 is 3.6 mm thick, albeit it is an automatic movement; the Piaget 833P is 2.5 mm thick and is a hand-wound movement.)
This is not a new watch for Vacheron Constantin and that’s actually true in two senses. The first sense has to do with this specific model: the Historiques Ultra Fine 1955 was first introduced in 2010 and it was at the time of its launch, the thinnest mechanical watch in the world, at only 4.1 mm thick overall. It also had what at the time was the thinnest mechanical wristwatch movement ever made: the Vacheron Constantin caliber 1003, which was and is a full-bridge, hand wound caliber measuring only 1.64 mm thick. (For reference, the ubiquitous ETA 2892 is 3.6 mm thick, albeit it is an automatic movement; the Piaget 833P is 2.5 mm thick and is a hand-wound movement.)
Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that thinness per se is only one measure of a movement (to make a feeble pun) however once you get below about 3 mm – which we can arguably take as a reasonable albeit somewhat arbitrary threshold for what constitutes an extra flat/thin manually wound movement – you’re dealing with increasingly daring watchmaking. The basic problem is that tolerances become very unforgiving because clearances are so minute – everything from the thickness of gears to the amount of clearance available for setting the hands starts to shrink to somewhat nerve wracking proportions, and for this reason many watchmakers actually consider ultra thin watchmaking a complication in and of itself. (It’s always cracked me up that the Berner Dictionary of Horology, the closest thing to an “official” watchmaking dictionary there is, defines extra flat watches as watches which are “extremely flat” with a completely straight face. So no, there is no universally agreed-on definition, and the terms “ultra thin,” “extra flat,” “extra thin,” and the like tend to get used more or less synonymously.)
Now the reason I mention two senses in which this is not a new watch is because, as the name indicates, the Historiques Ultra Fine is actually based on a watch that the company first made in the year 1955, and which was introduced with the caliber 1003. Vacheron Constantin made no bones about it; the watch was referred to as “la montre la plus plate du monde” in its advertising – the flattest watch in the world.
The Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra Fine 1955 is not the thinnest wristwatch in the world today – that title appears at present to be held by two watches, which are the Piaget 900P (officially, 3.65 mm thick overall) and the Jaeger LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Squelette (officially 3.6 mm; obviously the difference between the two, which is about equal to the diameter of a human red blood cell, is of more academic than experiential relevance, but those are the numbers).
Beyond a certain point, of course, the question of which holds what record becomes less important than the impact of the overall package, and if you’ve a liking for really beautifully done unrepentantly classic watchmaking, the Historiques Ultra Fine 1955 is for you. It’s often said of thin, flat watches that you forget they’re on the wrist but I didn’t find that to be the case with this one; it’s so thin that you almost feel like you’re watching a sort of magic trick. The watch is so thin and light you almost feel as if you’re wearing a cut-out of a watch. And it seems forbiddingly simple at first – but if you spend some time with it, it starts to take on a kind of stark richness all its own. The vanishingly small clearances for the hands are worth a close look as they reveal just what a tight fit it is for all the components inside the watch, and the case-making alone is worth the price of admission – Vacheron managed to make the case both extremely thin, and yet rigid enough to make a safe-as-houses home for the caliber 1003 inside. Though it’s a very simple timepiece, it’s also impeccably made throughout.
Rather surprisingly, this is actually not the thinnest watch movement that Vacheron Constantin has ever used. That record is held by a movement a lot of folks have never heard of: the Lassale caliber 1200, seen above, which was made for a few years starting in 1976 by a company called Bouchet-Lassale SA. Lassale caliber 1200 was only 1.2 mm thick and it achieved that height in part by actually ditching the bridges entirely and making the gear train run entirely in ball bearings set into the mainplate – think of them as analogous to a flying tourbillon. For a lot of reasons ball bearings in the going train are generally not considered such a hot idea, but nonetheless for the time it was a radically unusual movement. Vacheron and Piaget, among others, both used them and here we see a Piaget-badged caliber 1200. Vacheron historian Alex Ghotbi has written that they were not ultimately a success, however – the movements were basically impossible to service, and servicing them consisted of tossing out the old movement and dropping in a new one. The Vacheron version was known as the caliber 1160, and it had pretty haute-de-gamme finish including Geneva stripes (you have to wonder how the company managed to find any metal to remove at all).
Even more surprisingly, this isn’t the thinnest movement ever used by Vacheron Constantin. To find that rare beast – and I do mean rare – we have to go all the way back to 1931, which was the era of so-called “knife” pocket watches. The thinnest of the thin is the Vacheron Constantin reference 10726 (above) which had a movement 0.90 mm thin. Only three were made – for obvious reasons this was not exactly a go-to mechanism in terms of reliability – but as far as I know nobody has ever made anything thinner (again, for pretty obvious reasons).
Remarkably enough, despite the longevity of the caliber 1003 its record for thinness still stands today: at 1.64 mm it is the world’s thinnest traditionally constructed watch movement. In the Historiques Ultra-Fine 1955, it is a beautiful thing: the plate and bridges are in pink gold (as are the case and hands) and it’s a wonderfully ornate, archaic counterpoint to the impassive, almost marmoreal splendor of the dial. At nearly $30,000 this isn’t an inexpensive investment, but it is not only a record-holder – and a record holder, in 2015, for 60 years – but it is in addition, and probably more importantly, a gorgeous example of a very demanding and very particular kind of watchmaking. Records come and go, and they may briefly make history – but the Vacheron Historiques Ultra-Fine 1955 is history.