It was 4 December 1956 when one Elvis Aaron Presley dropped into Sun Record Studios on Union Avenue, Memphis to see his friend and fellow musician Carl Perkins who was working with the then-unknown Jerry Lee Lewis. Together with another Sun artist, Johnny Cash, the four spent the next few hours jamming, resulting in an impromptu recording that would resurface in Europe in 1981 entitled The Million Dollar Quartet.
This legendary session was the culmination of 12 months that, for Presley, had involved numerous TV appearances and live concerts, his first No.1 record with Heartbreak Hotel, followed by a further three No.1 singles, two No.1 albums in Elvis Presley and Elvis, the release of his first movie, Love Me Tender, plus an infamous order from a juvenile court judge to tone down his onstage movements. Not too shabby a year for a 21-year-old “mama’s boy” from Tupelo.
While no one would claim that Presley invented rock ‘n’ roll, he undoubtedly had a greater influence on youth culture than any single artist who had gone before. Taking inspiration from many of America’s more marginalised music and cultural genres, he blended rhythm ‘n’ blues, country and gospel seamlessly in a synthesis of black and white, urban and rural. In an era of imitation, Presley revolutionised the status quo by adding to it without constraint – and 1956 saw the power of this sound unleashed on the world, along with its newly crowned King.
Presley’s contemporaries, as well as the greats that came before and after, all paid dues to the man that Sammy Davis Jr. rated an 11 out of 10, who John Lennon said the Beatles could not have existed without and who led Little Richard to declare: “He was God-given, there’s no other explanation… Before Elvis everything was in black and white. Then came Elvis. Zoom, glorious Technicolor.”
What Presley had done was draw on everything familiar, combine it and add a twist. The resulting sound had a hint of the past – enough to make its roots recognisable – but, at the same time, represented an entirely new direction, one that was fresh, ground-breaking and relevant to a new generation. And, although there is no definitive starting point for the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, Presley’s annus mirabilis of 1956 is certainly one of the strongest candidates. What better name, then, for the venerable Vacheron Constantin’s new collection of everyday timepieces that draws on the experience of 263 years of traditional watchmaking and then turns every expectation on its head?
Pillars of Strength
In continuous production since 1755, the 21st-century has seen Vacheron Constantin, along with most established watch companies, increasingly focus on the pillars of the brand. On one side are the very classic timepieces of the Patrimony and Traditionnelle families and on the other is the burgeoning range of Overseas sports watches. These two product poles leave a large expanse in the middle for a collection of casual timepieces with an elegant and dressy profile.
“We are very client-centric and, in this digital age, we are becoming more and more connected with our customers,” says Vacheron’s Heritage and Style Director Christian Selmoni. “And something we have seen recently is a call for a more casual Vacheron Constantin watch, but one less sporty than the Overseas. So, the initial brief was to create a new segment to fill the gap between classic and sport. We knew we could do something, but the ultimate goal was that it had to be fresh.
“We did not want to simply adapt what we already had – it could not be anything too obvious. But we absolutely had to include the Vacheron Constantin qualities and values of refined details, care in finishing, classic watchmaking and beautiful design. It was an interesting challenge to create something between the two. Our core values are still present, it is not something totally different – we don’t want to be disruptive or create a revolutionary concept – and I think the resulting collection complements our existing line-up.”
The fact that steel was chosen to stand alongside the pink-gold versions of the watches is a response to the collection’s raison d’être – to be an everyday Vacheron Constantin, a cool watch that can be worn throughout the day and into the evening. In fact, this is not the first time Vacheron has used steel in a dress-style watch case – several versions of the Quai de L’Ile were executed in the material, as was the Historiques Triple Calendar 1942, suggesting that the use of steel was integral to the foundations of the new collection, rather than a cost-cutting exercise.
Another myth that Selmoni wants to bust is that the Fiftysix is a deliberate attempt to seduce the so-called Generation Z. “I think it will certainly appeal to younger buyers, but that was not the reason for its creation,” he says. “In the West, we might consider Vacheron Constantin a brand for older people, perhaps in their 50s. But the average age worldwide is 40 and, in Asia, very young people are buying our watches.” Instead, he suggests, the spirit of the collection is simply to be new and distinctive with a “gentleman’s club” vibe.
“It will certainly attract new clients, and no doubt younger ones because of its retro-contemporary style, which we know young people these days are interested in,” he continues. “But we did not deliberately develop a line to talk to millennials. It was much more about spreading the Vacheron Constantin line and introducing a sector that many high-end brands are working in: the elegant casual timepiece. So, I would say that for us it is more about adapting and following the demands of our clients. For example, we are promoting Fiftysix on Instagram because all our customers use digital platforms.”
As with any brand that has a long history, Vacheron has developed its own peg on which to hang its products. Some companies may be famed for their links to diving, automobiles, aviation or fashion, others are seen as purely technical or are loved for their use of rare crafts or gemstones. Vacheron Constantin’s “thing” is its faithful dedication to the traditions and craftsmanship of its past and this was a major challenge when it came to developing the Fiftysix, a collection very much based in the present.
“We have a great history, so it would be crazy not to use it,” Selmoni explains. “This can be a constraint from a design perspective because you always have to work on watch elements from the past, but it makes sense because this is our style. Today, Vacheron Constantin is a benchmark in classical watchmaking, so for us it is important to keep this identity and remain faithful to our heritage. So, you could say that the idea behind the Fiftysix was something of a departure.”
With the new collection, just like with rock ‘n’ roll, the goal was to make a modern timepiece that was infused with a flavour of the past, but that was still very much a product of its own time. Selmoni laughs as he recalls the shockwave that rippled through SIHH after the unveiling of the Fiftysix. “People were trying to find the 1956 model in the watch,” he says. “I realised this and had to explain that while the inspiration came from 1956, this is a modern watch and we have incorporated touches that were around at that time rather than directly reissuing a model. Take for example the reference 6073. We have taken elements from it but with the intention of making something a lot more modern and urban.”
The ref. 6073, a 1950s design with Maltese Cross lugs – and one of the first self-winding Vacheron models thanks to its Calibre 1019/1 – is a heritage piece that was always an ideal candidate for inspiring a new collection, so when the idea for Fiftysix was floated it seemed like the perfect time to revisit it. Although very much a Vacheron Constantin watch, it is not instantly recognisable from across a room – something that has never been of prime importance to Vacheron, the brand preferring to use its unique combination of elegance, sophistication, refinement, and classicism-with-a-twist to create a familiar VC vibe. “All these words mean nothing until they are combined,” muses Selmoni. “And with the Fiftysix this was as important as with every other pillar. These elements are what makes it a Vacheron Constantin. The greatest compliment for our designers is to hear: ‘I don’t know why, but I knew it was a Vacheron Constantin.’ For us, understated elegance is never instantly recognisable. The two things don’t go together.”
While not dismissing the SIHH reactions, Selmoni is philosophical about presenting a collection that is so radically different to what is expected and says that the true success of the Fiftysix will only become evident when the pieces enter stores. “Everyone tells you, you have to think out of the box, but it is not that easy and it is hard to know if something will be successful,” he says. And while the Fiftysix was certainly unexpected by the majority, Selmoni believes strongly that a brand has to adapt and evolve in order to move forward. Currently wearing the Fiftysix Self-Winding in steel, Selmoni says that he had two main questions about his latest wristwear: firstly, how he would feel wearing it and secondly, how people would react to him wearing it. In answer to the first, he likes it very much. While people who have seen the watch on his wrist – especially non-collectors – have all been attracted to the freshness of the design.
A Sounder Time
The name of the new collection comes straight from an era that represents a cultural turning point. In 1956, the Second World War was still a vivid and cautionary memory, but there was great hope for the future and optimism was the predominant mood. People were spending more time outside of their homes and there was a leaning towards experiencing new things. Globally speaking, the 1950s was a decade of fantasy. In terms of fashion, entertainment and travel, anything was possible and, across the board, designers and makers took classical elements and made something new and of the time. Musically, artists did not set out to make a sound for a new generation, it was simply a by-product of their desire to make cool tunes – something that resonates with Selmoni when he says: “We wanted to do a cool collection. So, with respect for the past and love for the present, we did it.”
In a further nod to the era that inspired the new watches, Vacheron Constantin has chosen to market the collection through a link to music – unsurprisingly, a contemporary sound based on the musical foundations and traditions of the 1950s. The Fiftysix will be launched with a digital media campaign supported by more traditional methods. And to personify the new brand signature – “One of not many” – Vacheron has chosen to partner with two extraordinary musical talents.
Winner of the acclaimed Mercury Prize, in 2015 Benjamin Clementine was listed in the Guardian’s New Year’s honours list to celebrate heroes of the year, as well as being declared one of the most influential people in Britain by both Debrett’s and the London Evening Standard. In 2016, the musician’s success bridged the Atlantic when the New York Times named him as one of 28 geniuses who defined culture in 2016. Along with the multi-talented James Bay, who, despite initial success on a stratospheric scale, continues to reinvent his style and sound to huge critical acclaim, Clementine epitomises the spirit of the Fiftysix, bringing yet another unexpected twist to the new collection.
Perhaps led by a younger buying market and, no doubt, influenced by the flood of information available today at the click of a button or the touch of a screen, there is little doubt that watch clients are becoming more sophisticated and discerning with regards to the information they are supplied with, a fact that Selmoni recognises and believes is good for Vacheron. “We have so much access to information now that people want to know if there is any reality behind the facts we are bombarded with every day.
“The notion of authenticity is particularly interesting. We have moved on from the days of brand marketing where everyone wanted to wear a logo. Fifteen years ago, you could walk down Bond Street or Fifth Avenue or Orchard and every woman in her 30s was dressed the same way: Louis Vuitton bag, Gucci shoes, Burberry raincoat. Everybody had the same outfit because that was the power of marketing and advertising, while authenticity and craftsmanship were less important. This is shifting and it is great to see the spotlight moving to the essence of a brand.”
As regular readers of Revolution know, this magazine was built on its conviction that in a world where thousands of timepieces exist, watches sell through storytelling – genuine stories that help people empathise and emotionally connect with the product itself. Selmoni agrees and since taking over the heritage department a year ago, has worked on sharing these stories through Vacheron’s Hour Lounge and Instagram account. “We have a fabulous heritage but until now we never spoke about our archives,” he says. “It is a fabulous experiment – you open a door and it elevates the brand. It is also two-way and people are feeding information back to us. We are listening to what clients want us to do and, hence, we are promoting Fiftysix in a new way. We have looked at what interests people and we have brought a product that matches their expectations.
“I think it is maybe the youth market that is driving this. I work in the heritage department with two people in their 20s. They collect vintage watches because they are interested in brand histories and stories from the past. This was not really the case a decade ago. But today younger buyers want to know about the craftsmanship behind products and are enabling the growth of a form of garage manufacturing, where they can learn about craftsmanship and meet the makers. I believe this is something that will be even more important in the future.”
The Complete Collection
So far, the Fiftysix collection consists of four models all with automatic movements: the Self-Winding, Day-Date and Complete Calendar, all launched at SIHH and available in either steel or 5N pink gold and the stunning Tourbillon in 5N pink gold. Speaking before the announcement of the Tourbillon, Selmoni said: “As we wanted to create a pillar collection it made sense to go from simple time-only models up to high complications. With the Traditionelle, Patrimony and Overseas we are introducing more complications and it will be the same with the Fiftysix. For the launch, it made sense for us to come with a complete calendar because this is a must-have in such a collection. Looking at our history, we have been making calendars since way back, so it was only right to have one in the initial line-up.”
As with ref. 6073, the lugs of the Fiftysix models are inspired by the Maltese Cross – a symbol that subtly marks it out as a Vacheron Constantin. The box crystal over the dial is a further nod to 1950s styling as are retro-chic touches including a sector dial with dual finishings and a chapter ring with alternating Arabic numerals and baton-style indexes. All versions are powered by self-winding movements with a polished and satin-brushed openworked gold rotor featuring an applied Maltese Cross visible through a sapphire caseback. All models are water-resistant to 30m and are fitted with an alligator leather strap with either a polished half Maltese Cross-shaped steel folding clasp or gold pin buckle.
The 40mm Self-Winding model houses a new Calibre 1326 movement with 48-hour power reserve. Simply executed in shades of grey, it is instantly appealing – especially in its steel version which adds an air of stealth. The sunburst dial features luminescent hour indicators and hands, while functions comprise hours, minutes and central seconds plus a date window at 3 o’clock and a stop-seconds device.
The 40mm Day-Date is powered by the Calibre 2475 SC/2 with stop-seconds device. Managing to stay clear and uncluttered, the double sunburst-effect dial features two snailed sub-dials at 9 and 3 o’clock indicating day-of-the-week and date respectively, plus an arced indication of the watch’s 40-hour power-reserve at 6 o’clock. These are highlighted by gold numerals, hour-markers and hands.
Also in a 40mm case, the Complete Calendar, is a highlight of the collection. Powered by the Calibre 2460 QCL/1, the Complete Calendar encapsulates Vacheron’s mission statement of understated elegance, the monochrome sunburst dial provides one of the clearest calendar layouts on the market with day-of-the-week aperture at 11 o’clock, month aperture at 1, date around the dial edge indicated by a blued arrow-head hand and a large moonphase at 6 o’clock that only requires adjustment once every 122 years.
Currently, the jewel in the Fiftysix crown is the Geneva-Seal Tourbillon, so new that at the time of going to press the piece has not yet been launched – an event due to take place at London’s famous Abbey Road Studios on 11 September 2018, to a soundtrack by Benjamin Clementine. Ultra-slim at under 6mm thick and equipped with a gold peripheral rotor, the 188-component manufacture Calibre 2160 movement has a frequency of 2.5Hz. The calibre is housed in a 41mm pink-gold case and the watch features the two-tone opaline-sunburst dial that is a signature of the collection. The alternating Arabic numerals, hour markers and three central hands are all in 5N pink gold, highlighted by blue luminescent material, while the tourbillon carriage takes the form of a the maison’s Maltese Cross emblem.
So, there we have it. A new comprehensive contemporary watch collection inspired by the style and spirit of an era that has endured for six decades. When Elvis Presley uttered the words: “Values are like fingerprints. Nobody’s are the same, but you leave ‘em all over everything you do,” he could have been speaking directly about Vacheron Constantin. And through the Fiftysix collection, the watch brand aims to follow one more pearl of the King’s wisdom: “Do something worth remembering.”
Assisted by: Toh Si Jia and May Myat
Hairstyling: Andrea Razali
Makeup: Rina Sim using DIOR
Models: Gyles C, Miro K and Anthony H / Ave