Launched last year, Vacheron Constantin’s Cornes de Vache chronograph felt like a timepiece manifested by the collective will of watch lovers the world over. A timepiece that had tapped into the collective consciousness and its prevailing fascination with all things neoclassic and vintage, yet executed in a dynamically modern way.

First, there was the size of the watch, which, at 38.5mm in diameter, straddled the present and the past perfectly. Second, was the movement: the venerable Lemania CH 27 (or in Vacheron Constantin speak, the cal. 1142), now finished to Geneva Seal standards and evoking the magnificent history of precision timing back in the 1940s, when it was first created. And then there was the design overseen by Vacheron Constantin’s amazing artistic director Christian Selmoni and designer extraordinaire Emilie Vuilleumier, the same woman behind the design of the world’s most complicated watch — the panjandrum of dizzying horological pyrotechnics called the 57260.

As evidenced by this timepiece, Vuilleumier’s greatest skill is to evoke purity even in a watch of staggering complexity. And the design she created for the Cornes de Vache has to be recognized as one of the greatest contemporary works of modern, classic design purism. Each and every detail expresses a vibrant raison d’être, from the Roman indices to the Futura font used in the tachymetric scale, to the pump pushers, to the sleek, attenuated baton hands and markers. And then, of course, there are those signature lugs.

In conversation with Flavio Manzoni, Ferrari’s chief design svengali, the man behind cars like LaFerrari, the F12 TDF and the 458 Speciale, he talks about how static objects express surface tension and the almost-predatory coiled energy that appears the millisecond before release. The signature lugs on the Cornes de Vache do just that, combining ethereal light refraction with the capacity to express velocity, similar to Constantin Brancusi’s iconic sculpture, Bird in Space. And like all great watches, the Cornes de Vache comes alive on the wrist, those same lugs entering into dynamic interplay with the wearer’s wrist.

But would it be possible to push the identity of the Cornes de Vache further back in time? To create the ultimate expression of retro modernism by infusing its already-dazzling iconography with some of my favorite codes from Vacheron Constantin’s past. In my mind, an idea started to coalesce. I imagined a Cornes de Vache with a yellow-gold case, somewhere between 3 and 2N in color. I imagined a dial in ancient silver, featuring a pulsograph (a chronographic scale once used by doctors to rapidly calculate heart rate). I imagined a subtly different, more backward-looking font. And then it dawned on me that Vacheron Constantin is unique in that in addition to being haute de gamme Genevois watchmaking’s most venerable maison, it was arguably also its most creative. And much of that creativity is the result of Vacheron Constantin’s Atelier Cabinotiers. This is the laboratory of dreams where the manufacture creates custom-made timepieces to fulfill customers’ requests. These watches can range from fully bespoke, such as the 57260, which began with the goal to create the world’s most complicated and innovative watch, to something along the lines of what I wanted, a unique version of an existing watch. I really have to thank Vacheron Constantin’s incredible CEO and my friend, Charlie Torres, for permitting me to enter this program, as well as Atelier Cabinotiers’ director Dominique Bernaz for his guidance.

Little did I know that embarking on this process would allow me to work with the very same Christian Selmoni and Emilie Vuilleumier who had created the contemporary Cornes de Vache. To be able to enter into creative dialogue with them and to see the watch in question manifest as if it had been coaxed out of my imagination, and executed at a level of refinement, intelligence and beauty far surpassing anything I could have hoped for, has been one of the greatest honors of my life. Here then is the first installment in my journey in the creation of a bespoke Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache.

This first installment centers around the basic concepts for my watch, which simultaneously opened my eyes to the design process related to the magnificent Cornes de Vache itself, as well as the creation of four vintage dial options for my watch at the incredible Metalem dial manufacture in the Jura (which will be the subject of a separate story). After unveiling these four dials, I would put it to you, our reader: which dial would you select?

Collectors had requested a modern version of the ref. 6087 Cornes de Vache chronograph for some time, what motivated you to introduce the watch last year?

Christian Selmoni (CS): We have some really incredible historic pieces in our collection and they’ve been the inspiration for contemporary reinterpretations, like the American 1921. We really wanted to revisit the amazing ref. 6087 from 1955 and we really wanted to have a Geneva Seal version of the Lemania movement. Finally, the moment was right for us.

Is it true that in some ways this new watch frustrated my friend Alex Ghotbi, who was working for you at the time?

CS: Funnily, Alex Ghotbi, who was working for us at the time as the creator and moderator of The Hour Lounge, our website and online forum, had made an official inquiry to have a bespoke Cornes de Vache made for him. I am a member of the ethical committee for bespoke pieces but I didn’t know Alex was the customer. The committee met and they said, ‘We have a bespoke request for this watch.’ I said to the committee, ‘I’m sorry but there is no way [we can fulfill this] because we want to keep this idea for our own offer.’ Then one day I was in a meeting with Alex, and he said, ‘So you are the guy that refused to make my watch.’ And I said, ‘My gosh, Alex, it was you! I didn’t know that.’ I couldn’t tell him we were about to release our own version of it. Anyway, he ended up putting the story on The Hour Lounge and it was really funny. (Read the story here: Part 1 & Part 2)

Is it true you also wanted to find a new home for the venerable Lemania CH 27 chronograph caliber since you switched to an inhouse movement for your other chronographs?

CS: We achieved the Geneva Seal version of the cal. 1142 — the Lemania CH27 chronograph movement — the year before we launched the CDV. So we put it in the Horomundi ladies’ chronograph. We had used this movement for many years and we were very happy to bring it up to Geneva Seal qualification standards; previously, there were a few springs and other elements preventing it from qualifying. Once we achieved this, we said, ‘Look, we have a legendary vintage movement, we need to put it in a legendary vintage case.’ That’s when we decided to create the Cornes de Vache.

Was the Cornes de Vache a long process or did it come together easily?

Emilie Vuilleumier (EV): Once we started the project, we reached our final design quite quickly. I think it was because we had been thinking about this watch for quite some time, so once we were given the green light, everything came together very naturally. Actually the most challenging part was getting the form of the lugs just right. Because these are the signature of the watch.

What was the biggest challenge?

CS: The challenge when creating a reinterpretation of a famous vintage watch is that you don’t want to just replicate the past. The key point about the Historiques collection is to give icons a chance to live again, but not by making copies of the vintage pieces. You have to search for the spirit, the soul, the anima of the timepiece and connect that to the contemporary world. That was what Emilie was focused on for the cow-horn lugs.

Please tell me a bit about how you reinterpreted these famous cowhornshaped lugs

EV: I made quite a few sketches. And then we made some iterations and printed them in 3D. The funny thing was that we actually had an example of this watch from our museum. It had lugs that were very round, very soft in profile. And we came to the conclusion that this was not the shape of the lugs when the watch had been new. We felt that this was a watch that had been polished and repolished over the years, and that process had changed the shape of the lugs. So we had to reinterpret the shape of the lugs because we were not precisely sure how they looked in the very beginning. The lugs of the watch we had in the collection were too round and we wanted to give them a sharper shape, particularly on the side of the lugs, something a bit more dynamic and that also echoed the straight profile of the case and the chamfer on the bezel.

One of our designers comes from the car industry and he really has a sensitivity for shapes. So he was put in charge of studying the shape of the lugs with the idea of creating a modern and dynamic interpretation of them. One thing that was very important to him was how light would reflect on these lugs. We had to make a watch that was clearly inspired by the old watch but with a very modern energy. We were very concerned about the light reflection flow and we simulated this on the lugs and continued to refine the shape by subtly changing the surface points, without changing the spirit of the original watch.

Why did you end up at the 38.5mm case size?

CS: Regarding the size of the watch, we had to think about this. For example, the tribute to the America 1921 is a watch typical of the early part of the millennium, where people in general were very responsive to larger watches. So the current Cornes de Vache is well linked to today’s prevailing style, which is for more-classic proportions. We were aware of and very influenced by the return of smaller watches. If this watch had been released in 2002, we would have probably made it 40-plus millimeters in diameter. However, understanding the culture of today and its reconnection with classic elegance, we decided to make it 38.5mm in diameter. We had to make a modern watch and not encroach too much on the 35mm diameter of the original watch, because it is also our responsibility to maintain the value of the original watch.

The 38.5mm diameter allowed for a balanced dial, correct?

CS: Well, the idea of a smaller watch also made us happy because we could use the placement of the continuous seconds and minute axes of the Lemania movement in a harmonious way. Ten years ago, we would have dealt with the challenges of a larger watch by enlarging the tachymeter of the pulsometric scale.

At a tough time for the watch industry, the Cornes de Vache has been a smash hit. A great demonstration that if you make a watch desirable enough, people will still line up to buy it. How important was this for you?

CS: Of course it is always rewarding when people are responsive to our watches. And there was an immediate reaction to the Vacheron Constantin style. I think that is one of the things that makes Vacheron so special; it is really classic watchmaking at the highest level conceivable but with real creativity in terms of shapes. I ask our designers sometimes if they find it limiting to use the past to create the future and they always respond that they are empowered by our vast history.

EV: This is what is so fascinating about Vacheron Constantin: the breadth of the incredible timepieces it has created in the past. I think that it would have been really difficult for our team to be creative if we had to start with nothing. For me, personally, it is so important to have really strong roots and we are very lucky to have these. It is such a wonderful base for us to extract some special inspiration to create something modern.

When Christian explained that Charlie Torres had given me the green light to collaborate on a bespoke watch, which invoked an even more historic interpretation of the Cornes de Vache, what did you think?

EV: This has been a very interesting project for me. Because from the beginning, I felt you knew exactly what you wanted. That is something I enjoy as a designer because it brings one more parameter to the project to consider. When you design a watch for the main line, the classic parameters, the brand DNA, the heritage and the technical consideration are always your focus. For the unique pieces, you add one more parameter to consider, which is the client. Sometimes you have a client who knows they want a unique piece but they don’t have a precise idea in mind. So we will propose ideas to the client. With you, it was very different as you are very passionate and had a very specific idea. You wanted an execution that was very warm and very vintage. I liked the idea of a yellow-gold case, and of a dial that was slightly smoked looking, an old-silver kind of dial.

Was your dial maker Metalem enthusiastic about this project?

CS: Very much so. But the challenge with our dial maker Metalem is that this kind of old-silver dial can normally only be achieved with a sort of slow oxidation. Metalem is an incredible collaborator because they possess incredible savoir faire and are so knowledgeable about how to create subtle effects to bring a different emotion to the dial. They understood the objective and I think they really achieved the result. What was incredible was that they were so passionate about the project as well and they really loved the idea of collaborating on this project for one customer. And they were delighted to receive you there.

EV: Funnily, Metalem’s first attempt at this kind of dial, I would characterize as a little shy. It was like their normal silver dial with maybe just a hint of yellow. It was an unusual request for them and so we needed a second round of dials. It’s funny but when we make unique pieces, there is a man at Vacheron Constantin who controls all the parts for them. He called me and he said, ‘I think we have a problem with these Metalem dials because they look like they are oxidized.’ Because he didn’t know about the project and these dials were so unusual for him.

Did you like the idea of a more retrolooking dial?

EV: I really loved it. I am always very exigent regarding fonts and it is never easy to find the right fonts. For your watch, we wanted to find a font that really communicated this more “ancient” style. For example, I often used the “Futura” font for many of the Master Line watches because I feel it really captures the spirit of Vacheron Constantin. But for your watch, I had to look for a lesser-known font that better communicated the emotion of the heritage watches. Then in addition, we decided to cut the “buckle” of the “6” and “9” in your watch (these were originally totally closed loops) to make it look even more vintage, so even then we made some modifications to the original font.

And what did you think of using a pulsometer instead of a tachymeter?

EV: I remember we had many conversations about what kind of scale we wanted to do for the chronograph. I really love the idea of the pulsometer that measures your heart rate, and we felt it would add the right romantic touch to the dial. Regarding the pulsometer, initially I tried to make the calculations myself but eventually, because I am neither a watchmaker or an engineer, I had to ask a watchmaker to help me. Some other brands do it based on 20 pulsations or even 15, but we decided to do it based on 30 pulsations because it looked much more symmetrical on the dial.

CS: It’s funny, I often have technical guys coming to me and saying, ‘Can you talk to Emilie because she wants a certain thing done from the design perspective and it is really complicated from the technical perspective?’ But as we are at Vacheron Constantin, we must be ambitious and try to create the best integration between technical and aesthetic qualities.

What did you think of the four final dials that Metalem delivered, and which one did you like best?

EV: I think the final dials were all fantastic. The one we finally decided to use on your watch was really special. In particular, it was related to these round applied indices, which were inspired by dials we used in the past. I think in combination with the color we used, it gives the dial a very special character that is totally unique from the dial used in the Master Line watch.

CS: I think the round indices, together with the old-silver color, brings a really nice, romantic character to the dial’s technical characteristics.