Tailored time

Customizable components and anti-counterfeiting features make Vacheron Constantins Quai de l’Ile appealing to collectors. How does it hold up as a practical everyday timekeeper?

SPECS

VACHERON CONSTANTIN QUAI DE L’ILE AUTOMATIC DAY DATE

Manufacturer: Vacheron Constantin, Chemin du Tourbillon 10, CH-1228 Plan-les-Ouates, Switzerland

Reference number: X85IOP2A

Functions: Hours, minutes, seconds; day and date; power-reserve display; stop-seconds function

Movement: Self-winding manufacture Caliber 2475 SC/1; 28,800 vph; 27 jewels; index adjusted via setting screw; Glucydur balance; Kif shock absorption; 40-hour power reserve; diameter = 26.2 mm; height = 5.7 mm

Case: Rose gold and titanium, highly domed sapphire crystal with non-reflective treatment on both its surfaces, fully threaded caseback made of rose gold with sapphire window, water resistant to 30 meters

Strap and clasp: Hand-sewn, cut alligator leather with secure rose-gold folding clasp

Pros

+ Modular case concept

+ Very good crafts¬manship

+ Beautiful manufacture movement

Cons

– High price

– A tool is needed to set the day and date. – Irregular rate results

Vacheron Constantin introduced the Quai de l’Ile in 2008, touting it as the world’s first customizable line of luxury watches. Its modular, building-block system enables prospective buyers to visit one of Vacheron’s retailers and use a portable monitor to view mockups of various combinations of two dials and a wide variety of case components in different materials to create their own personalized watch. (You can also configure a watch on Vacheron’s website.) The first Quai de l’Ile models were a three-handed watch with date display and another version with date, day and power-reserve displays. This year, the company added an annual calendar with retrograde indicators, and began offering, for all three models, simpler, opaque dials in addition to the transparent sapphire dials on the first generation.

Juggling all the potential permutations of functions, dials, case materials and straps results in approximately 700 conceivable variations in the current collection. (The total number would have been even larger if Vacheron Constantin hadn’t prohibited certain combinations of case materials for aesthetic reasons.)

Our tested watch, the full name of which is the Quai de l’Ile Automatic Day Date Bi-Color, is equipped with the newer dial. For the case, we chose a combination of rose gold and titanium; the other material available is the silvery-white precious metal palladium. Materials can be combined because each Quai de l’Ile case consists of three subassemblies, each of whose parts are made of the same material. These three sections are the bezel; the lugs, including the add-on between them and the bottom ring; and the flanks and rearward base plate.

On this watch, the first and second subassemblies are made of rose gold, and the third is made of titanium. Choosing a titanium or palladium bezel to contrast with the gold lugs would have more strongly highlighted the modular concept, but the new, classically styled dial looks particularly elegant with a front made entirely of rose gold.

Another notable feature of the first-generation Quai de l’Ile models was their protection against counterfeiting. The sapphire dials have a sunburst pattern that is visible under ultraviolet light and minuscule type that is discernible through a watchmaker’s loupe. To make life even more difficult for copycats, the dials are coated on both their surfaces with transparent anti-counterfeiting foils similar to those integrated into Swiss bank notes. Vacheron Constantin uses a pattern of tiny Maltese crosses (the brand’s logo) for the lower foil. The upper one bears 60 rays that emanate from the dial’s center and continue to its periphery, where they serve as minute indices.

The elaborate anti-counterfeiting protection is effective and technically interesting, but it probably isn’t much of a concern for potential purchasers of the Quai de l’Ile because the watch has such a highly complex case that it would be very difficult for a copycat to construct a fake that would be good enough to fool a buyer. With this in mind, Vacheron Constantin chose to curtail these safety measures in the new, more elegant generation of dials, leaving only the UV-luminescent sunburst, which is positioned between 4 o’clock and 5 o’clock on the dial of our tested watch.

ASIDE FROM ITS ability to be customized and its protection against counterfeiting, the watch is well crafted, its design is attractive, and it’s powered by a handsome, solidly constructed manufacture movement. But how does this wrist-watch look and feel on the wrist and how does it perform in everyday use?

Surely, the first thing the purchaser of a Quai de l’Ile Automatic Day Date Bi-Color will scrutinize after removing it from its box will be its case, which of course was created with his personal in put. Among the first things he’ll notice about the case are the diverse forms and finishes of its individual components. Screws pierce the lugs, which boast steps and accentuated edges; on the flanks, two edges extend above the satin-finished middle piece; and the fully threaded back rises three-dimensionally from the rearward base plate. The highly domed sapphire crystal harmoniously continues the attractive curvature of the case. The pretty alternation between polished and satin-finished surfaces is especially striking on such a complex case.

After the new owner has given the case a full once-over, he’ll probably examine the dial, which has several layers and has a partly brushed, matte surface. The numerals and indices that mark the hours have beveled and polished edges and longitudinally satin-finished surfaces. Fine satin finishing graces the two luminous hands for the hours and minutes, as well as the non-luminescent seconds hand and the three smaller additional hands, which indicate the date, day and remaining power reserve. Most of the displays on this excellently crafted dial are easy to read, but the date isn’t quite up to snuff: a small hand-type date display, in which every other numeral from 1 to 31 is skipped, is always difficult to read, but this one is also missing a numeral for the 23rd of each month, so the wearer is apt to be somewhat unsure about the dates between the 21st and the 25th. The date and day can be reset by pressing the tip of a little wand (delivered with the watch) against two corrector buttons in the case’s flanks. Using the crown for this process would surely have been more convenient, especially since the Quai de l’Ile’s crown is easy to extract and turn.

However, the upside of having the buttons is that the crown is simpler, pulling out only to the position used to set the time. Setting the watch is easy and precise because the movement has a stop-seconds function. A little spring stops the balance when the crown is pulled out. That’s only one of the many advantages of manufacture Caliber 2475 SC/1, which the Quai de l’Ile’s owner can examine through the transparent pane of sapphire in the watch’s caseback. The beautiful, self-winding movement has a Glucydur balance and a classical architecture of bridges and cocks. The decorations are also traditional, with rhodium-plated surfaces, beveled and polished edges, Geneva waves, cloud patterns and golden engravings. Unobstructed views of the entire winding mechanism and of the springs and levers that comprise the stop-seconds mechanism are highlights for aficionados of mechanical timekeeping. As proof of especially high-quality construction and outstanding embellishment, the movement is marked with the Geneva Hallmark, which is unostentatiously engraved, without golden filling, next to the balance.

CALIBER 2475 SC/1 has a modern look, particularly on its ruthenium-coated (and therefore noticeably darker) 22k-gold rotor with semicircular ribs and trapezoidal piercings. The rotor is one element in the movement’s attractively contradictory character, also reflected in the watch’s exterior, which combines a classical front with a comparatively high-tech, modular case. The rotor’s cutouts are inspired by the notches on the back of the case. The rotor winds the mainspring in only one direction of rotation, and with extraordinary efficiency: just a few minutes after putting on this watch in the morning, it has already amassed its maximum power reserve of 40 hours.

When the owner is finally ready to slip the Quai de l’Ile onto his wrist, he’ll need a bit of patience. First he has to use a screwdriver to loosen the setting screw on the inside of the heavy, no-nonsense double-folding clasp, then find the correct hole in the strap, and finally retighten the screw. Unfortunately, while this process makes for added security, it sacrifices ease of operation, because the owner cannot change the strap’s length without reaching for a tool.

The gold clasp is notable not only because of its very stable architecture and the brand’s large, halved logo on its outer stirrup, but also thanks to its asymmetrical construction. The wing that bears the closing stirrup and the buttons to open the clasp is longer than the opposite wing. The buttons function reliably, but unfortunately (as a result of their construction) they only open the longer wing. This means that the wearer must forcibly pull open the short wing much the way he would a folding clasp without opener buttons. Vacheron Constantin claims that this system improves the resistance to theft: if both wings could be opened at the push of a button, a thief could surreptitiously slip the watch off its wearer’s wrist.

The watch’s strap is of the same high level of quality as the clasp. (The watch we tested and photographed was outfitted with an embossed cowhide-leather strap rather than the alligator-leather one used on commercial models; Vacheron sent the alligator-leather strap separately.) The real McCoy is hand-sewn and fully glued, and its surface is lightly coated with glossy lacquer. If one wanted to make a good item even better, one would have to bend the upper leather and the edges and then stitch through them from below, but the high-quality, cut and lacquered edges look quite good and are indisputably well crafted.

AS FAR AS THE WATCH’S movement goes, its rate performance unfortunately did not hold up to its high-quality craftsmanship. Our timing machine calculated a theoretical average with only a minimal deviation of -0.5 second, but the greatest difference between two positions was fully 13 seconds, which is much too high, and the watch lost an average of 3.5 seconds per day on the wrist. This is certainly not the fault of the index’s fine adjustment, which uses a setting screw: such mechanisms can make effective fine adjusting very easy. Nonetheless, we would have preferred here the more elegant solution of a fine regulation mechanism without an index — that is, one with a freely oscillating hairspring and with weights on the balance.

On the other hand, the very slight decline in the angular arc of the balance between flat positions and hanging positions was a pleasant surprise. This suggests that the moving parts in the move¬ment, especially the pivots of the gears in the train, generate little friction in the hanging positions, meaning that they’ve been very exactly positioned and/or meticulously post-processed.

Along with the test model’s irregular rate, the only other serious criticism of the Quai de l’Ile is its high price: $52,900 is a lot to ask for a watch, even one with a manufacture movement that is also well crafted and offers interesting additional functions. However, it’s worth pointing out that the ability to personalize the watch might still make it a very good deal for a fan of mechanical timekeeping who craves a truly individual luxury item.

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