Launched two years ago, Vacheron Constantin’s Chronograph Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 felt like a timepiece manifested by the will of watch lovers the world over. A timepiece that had tapped into the collective consciousness and its prevailing fascination with all things vintage, yet executed in a dynamic, modern way. First, there was the size of the watch, which, at 38.5mm, straddled the present and the past perfectly. Second, was the movement: the venerable Lemania CH27 (or in Vacheron Constantin speak, the Calibre 1142), now finished to Geneva Seal standards and evoking the magnificent history of 1940s precision timing. And then there was the design overseen by Vacheron Constantin’s Artistic Director Christian Selmoni and designer extraordinaire Emilie Vuilleumier, the same woman behind the design of the world’s most complicated watch – the ref. 57260.

As evidenced by the ref. 57260, 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 recognised 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, the pump pushers, the sleek baton hands and markers. And then, of course, there are those signature lugs that combine ethereal light reflection with the capacity to express velocity, similar to Constantin Brancusi’s iconic sculpture Bird in Space. 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.

Vacheron Constantin ref. 57260
Vacheron Constantin ref. 57260

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 favourite codes from Vacheron Constantin’s past? In my mind, I imagined a Cornes de Vache with a yellow-gold case, with a dial in ancient silver featuring a pulsograph. And then it dawned on me that Vacheron Constantin, in addition to being Geneva’s most venerable watchmaking maison, is arguably its most creative, with much of that creativity resulting from its Atelier Cabinotiers – the laboratory of dreams where the manufacture creates custom-made timepieces.

These watches can range from fully bespoke, such as the ref. 57260, the world’s most complicated watch, created for a collector rumoured to already own the legendary King Farouk Vacheron Constantin pocket 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 former CEO and my friend, Charlie Torres, for permitting me to enter this programme, 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 Selmoni and Vuilleumier who had created the 2015 Cornes de Vache. 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 honours of my life. Here then is the diary of my journey in the creation of a bespoke Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache.

The 2015 Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 (Platinum) powered by the Lemania CH 27 calibre (Vacheron’s Calibre 1142).
The Lemania CH 27 calibre (Vacheron’s Calibre 1142).

The History Boys

Before delving into the basic concepts for my own watch, I first wanted to learn more about the history of the Cornes de Vache and how it came so forcefully into being. According to Selmoni: “We have some really incredible historic pieces in our collection and they’ve been the inspiration for contemporary reinterpretations, like the American 1921 and the forthcoming triple calendar watch that will launch in 2018. 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.”

Part of the watch’s backstory relates to how renowned collector Alex Ghotbi, the man who set up and ran Vacheron’s online discussion forum Hour Lounge for many years, approached Selmoni for a Cornes de Vache custom order and found it perplexingly declined. Selmoni chuckles as he recalls: “Yes, Alex 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. I told 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.”

“I couldn’t tell him we were about to release our own version of it. Anyway, he ended up seeing the funny side and putting the story on The Hour Lounge – and in the end, he got his watch.”

The Vacheron Constantin ref. 6087 from 1955 was later nicknamed “Cornes de Vache” as the shape of its lugs resembled the horns of a cow.
The Vacheron Constantin ref. 6087 from 1955 was later nicknamed “Cornes de Vache” as the shape of its lugs resembled the horns of a cow.

Part of the impetus for the creation of the Cornes de Vache was to find a new home for the venerable Lemania CH 27 chronograph calibre (known within Vacheron as Calibre 1142) since Vacheron had by 2015 switched to an in-house movement for its chronographs. According to Selmoni: “This movement is big part of watchmaking history and big part of the maison’s patrimony so we thought we must continue utilising it. In fact, we had achieved the Geneva Seal version of the Calibre 1142 the year before we launched the Cornes de Vache and 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.’”

Once the fundamental concepts for the Cornes de Vache were laid out, it didn’t take long for designer Vuilleumier and her team to arrive at the final design. “We had been thinking about this watch for quite some time,” she recalls. “So, once we were given the green light, everything came together very naturally. The most challenging part was getting the form of the lugs just right, because these are the signature of the watch.”

The 2015 Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955 (Pink Gold) powered by the Lemania CH 27 calibre (Vacheron’s Calibre 1142).
Working directly with Vacheron Constantin’s Christian Selmoni and Emilie Vuilleumier led to the production of a number of detailed sketches before the final design was chosen.
Watch sketches
Watch sketches

Around The Horns

In fact, the modern Cornes de Vache’s lugs divert significantly from those on the vintage watches. Selmoni explains: “When we create a reinterpretation of a famous vintage watch, we never 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 old pieces. We have to search for the spirit and soul of the timepiece and connect that to the contemporary world.”

Vuilleumier concurs: “We made sketches of the lugs and 3D-printed them. We actually had an example of this watch from our museum and it had lugs that were very round, very soft in profile. We came to the conclusion that this was not the original shape of the lugs. 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. We wanted to give them a sharper shape – particularly on the side – something a bit more dynamic that 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. We had to make a watch that was clearly inspired by the old watch but with a modern energy. We were very concerned about the flow of light reflection 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.”

Detailed shots of the “cow horn” lugs on the ref. 6087.
Detailed shots of the “cow horn” lugs on the ref. 6087.

The Size Is Right

When the Cornes de Vache was released, the collecting community was delighted by the watch’s more restrained size at 38.5 mm, which to many signalled the end of oversized behemoths in the classic category. Selmoni smiles: “We had to think about this. For example, the tribute to the American 1921 is a watch typical of the early part of the millennium, where people were very responsive to larger watches. So, the current Cornes de Vache is well linked to today’s prevailing style 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 millimetres in diameter. However, understanding the culture of today and its reconnection with classic elegance, we decided to make it 38.5mm. 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 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 or the pulsometric scale.”

From a commercial perspective, the timing for the Cornes de Vache couldn’t have been better. It emerged during a tough time for the watch industry, and has been a smash hit. It is a great demonstration that if you make a watch desirable enough, people will still line up to buy it. “Of course, it is always rewarding when people are responsive to our watches,” says Selmoni.

“I think that is one of the things that makes Vacheron so special; it is 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.”

Vuilleumier adds: “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, 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.”

Bespoke Watch

I recall the first moment I sat down with Dominique Bernaz, Vuilleumier and Selmoni to begin reflecting on my personal bespoke watch. My first thought was for a steel watch with a salmon dial. However, I had heard rumours that a steel watch was being made, which eventually became the very beautiful Hodinkee limited edition. But for some time now I have been championing the return of yellow gold as the material of choice for classic watches and so quickly our focus shifted to this as the primary concept. From there we quickly decided on a smoked silver dial that in combination with the case would exude nostalgic warmth.

Face Off

Vuilleumier recalls: “This has been a very interesting project for me. Because from the beginning, I felt you knew exactly what you wanted. When you design a watch for the main line, the brand DNA, the heritage and the technical consideration are always the focus. For the unique pieces, you have one more parameter to consider: 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 propose ideas. 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 smoky and in old silver.”

The next step related to passing the creative brief to Metalem, Vacheron Constantin’s dial maker. “Metalem is an incredible collaborator because they possess exceptional 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 achieved a great result. What was remarkable was that they were so passionate and loved the idea of collaborating on a project for one customer.

“The challenge for Metalem is that this kind of old-silver dial can normally only be achieved with a sort of slow oxidation. You will smile when you see the triple calendar watch we’ve created for 2018 as in some ways your dial was a bit of an inspiration for the tone we’ve used.”

Vuilleumier smiles and adds: “Their first attempt, I would characterise 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 oxidised.’ Because he didn’t know about the project and these dials were so unusual for him.”

I had the pleasure of spending significant time with Vuilleumier as she researched dial fonts. “I really loved it,” she says. “It is never easy to find the right fonts. For your watch, we wanted one that communicated this more ‘ancient’ style. For example, I use Futura 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 – which were originally totally closed loops – to give a more vintage look, so even then we made some modifications to the original font.”

Wei Koh's unique Cornes de Vache watch.

On The Pulse

Collectively we decided to use a pulsometer instead of a tachymeter for the chronograph scale. A complication that allows you to calculate heartbeat, I’ve always loved the pulsograph, especially – as I explained to Selmoni and Vuilleumier – as it gives you a reason to touch the wrist of attractive women at dinner parties. Selmoni laughs when I remind him of this: “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.”

Not finding the right pulsometer in herarchives, Vuilleumier eventually designed the scale herself. “Initially I tried to make the calculations myself but eventually, because I am neither a watchmaker nor an engineer, I had to ask a watchmaker to help me,” she says. “Some brands do it based on 20 pulsations or even 15, but we decided to do it based on 30 pulsations because it just looked much more symmetrical on the watch dial.”

This memory brings a smile to Selmoni’s face. “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.”

Vuilleumier sourced new fonts for the bespoke version of the Cornes de Vache (below) and added a unique pulsometer scale in place of the standard version's tachymeter (above).
The four final dial designs produced for Wei Koh's bespoke Cornes de Vache.

In this article I’ve included an image of each of the four final dials that Metalem delivered, each featuring a pulsometeric scale. Eventually the consensus was to use a dial with a blue scale and gold cabochon styled indexes, which were popular in Vacheron Constantin chronographs of the 1950s. “I think the final dials were all fantastic,” says Vuilleumier.  “But the one we decided to use on your watch is really special. The round applied indices in combination with the colour we used, gives the dial a character that is totally unique from the dial used in the Master Line watch.”

It’s extraordinary when an object surpasses even your loftiest ambitions and my bespoke Vacheron Constantin is precisely this. Every step of the Atelier Cabinotiers bespoke programme was such an incredible pleasure and I genuinely feel that it would be hard to match the intellectual, emotional and sensory pleasure I’ve received from this process ever again in my life.

When I received the watch at this past Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie, a surprise awaited me that brought it to an even more dizzying height. In Selmoni’s words: “We decided to include all four of the dials with the watch, the three additional dials that we didn’t use and a spare of the one we did use so that you and your heirs can have the pleasure of changing the dial to a different configuration any time you want. In this way, we give a certain perpetuity to this watch.”

When I approached my friend Charlie Torres to thank him for this incredible gesture, he replied: “This is Vacheron Constantin. We don’t think about just today, we think in terms of eternity.” And I am and always will be eternally grateful.

Wei Koh's unique Cornes de Vache watch.
A delighted Wei Koh collects his unique Cornes de Vache watch from Selmoni and Vuilleumier.

Also Read