HANDS-ON: Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 36.5mmFergus Nash
They say that fashion trends move in cycles, but when a design remains attractive for over a century, you’ve got to admit that it goes beyond mere stylistic whims. The Vacheron Constaintin Historiques American 1921 is unashamedly a period piece, but that’s not to say it belongs to a bygone era. It might look strange in the online renders, but that’s because this watch isn’t meant to be viewed vertically. Its design isn’t just a quirky nod to the past, but a practical solution that allows you to read the time without straining your arm or while driving a car.
One element of watch-wearing that certainly has evolved is the discussion around case sizes. When wristwatches started hitting the streets closer to the start of the 20th century, they were intended as a form of functional jewellery for women, and pocket watches were still the gold standard if you wanted a serious time-telling device. Those decorative wristwatches were often tiny, with movements that could be less than 10mm wide. Servicing them was an afterthought, and good luck actually being able to read the time even if they were accurate enough to be worth checking. Fast forward to the end of WWI, and strapping a pocket watch to your wrist had become an essential survival tool for a lot of soldiers. With the wristwatch niche broken, it was time for brands such as Vacheron Constantin to change the game.
Although there are larger versions available, this particular watch measures 36.5mm in diameter to closely emulate the size of the original reference 12070 from 1919. That measurement alone is certainly small by today’s standards, but it doesn’t take everything into account. Firstly, the high-polished case’s cushion shape spreads out the presence further than it would if it were circular, and helping to compensate for the diminutive wire-style lugs. Secondly, the choice of white gold as the material helps give the watch a bit more of that reassuring heft we tend to expect from luxury watches. The thickness of the watch is 7.4mm, which makes it extremely comfortable and easy to slide under a shirt, although you may find yourself wanting to show it off. The 12 o’clock crown is also historical, being another hallmark of its pocket watch origins, as well as ensuring it doesn’t dig into the back of your wrist.
At first glance the dial appears pretty much as classic as you can get, however there have definitely been developments in the century since its ancestor was first built. Gone is the radium-based luminous paint that has its own dark history, indeed it scraps the luminous idea altogether. The Arabic numerals are now made in a painstaking enamel process, and what were once cathedral hands are now Breguet style to match those numerals. The hands are in a subtly charcoal or gunmetal finish, which helps them remain legible while traversing the softly grained silvery dial, and the white gold applied logo plays with the light in the same manner as the case. An asymmetrical element is introduced with the small seconds subdial, which is also biased towards being more easily read when on wrist.
You would expect no less from a titan such as Vacheron Constantin, but the in-house calibre 4400 AS is just as much a work of art as the watch itself. The manually-wound movement has a 65-hour power reserve thanks to a large mainspring barrel and is tastefully laid out to look similar to a pocket watch movement. The centre wheel is the most evident homage to this, as well as the use of large plates. Of course, it’s been meticulously finished, with chamfered edges, perlage peeking through from the bottom, and Côtes de Genève lavishly adorning the rest. The movement bears the Hallmark of Geneva, certifying its quality.
The Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 is definitely a watch that imbues more character into the wearer than the other way around, and as such it’s going to require someone who doesn’t mind strapping on the old-world charm. Its size makes it easily wearable for anyone, and the 40mm version is there should you really feel like you need to break out of the classical proportions. At $43,600AUD, the Historiques American 1921 will be living in grail-watch territory for a lot of people, and within that realm it stands strong. Such unique watches don’t come up often, and seldom at such a high level of quality. My only wish as a personal admirer of this watch is that they would make a mirrored version for left-handers.
Made in partnership with Vacheron Constantin. However, the opinions expressed in this article are our own in accordance with our Editorial Policy.