Making tradition fit for the future

Founded in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is the oldest operating watchmaker in the world. As style and heritage director, Christian Selmoni supervises the coexistence of the analogue and digital world. ADAM met up with the profound brand connoisseur for a talk.

ADAM: How do you safeguard and preserve your watch making treasures for the future, without being left behind by the digital world?

Christian Selmoni:
It is imperative that you decide whether you want to safe- guard the craft or the product … Let’s begin with the craft.
I believe that the digital and analogue world work well together. One does not exclude the other. We place great importance on showing the successes and qualities of our Haute Horlogerie in the best light. It’s a matter of extensive know-how, tradition, classics and not least of all aesthetics. For us it is crucial to conduct the tradition of manual finishing, every watch part is polished and embellished by hand. The entire watchmaker’s knowledge is mechanical by definition. Today almost no one buys a watch to read the time. We all have some sort of gadget for that.

What is special about a watch nowadays?
A watch is a beautiful object and a work of art that also shows the time. It is expected of Vacheron Constantin that we preserve our Haute Horlogerie, which originated in the middle of the 18th century.

Is it even possible to digitalize this legacy? If so, how would you go about it?
We definitely have no plans to tackle that issue. The discussion is contradictory to the values of the company. Our position in Haute Horlogerie demands that our watches are and remain mechanical. We do not entertain any fears because of smart watches. They require a completely different technology which we incidentally do not command. We can leave this business model to others.

What are the plans for digitalization of your archives?
There are two answers to that question. We digitalize everything we can from our archives. Letters, documents, it is a large task. Nevertheless we still retain the documents in physical form. Digitalization is not mandatorily the best and only solution. You only have to think of the floppy disc from 30 years ago.Today these devices and data carriers no longer function. Digitalization makes sense but we also have to be able to work with the original documents. At the same time we always have a back up and can work with archive material without exposing it to any risk of damage.

Which is Plan B? The physical archive or the digital?
In the Heritage Department we work both with the physical as well as the digi- tal archive every day. If we are looking for a certain watch model, we research electronically. However, we always check this information in the physical archives. We treat it with great care. We respect the support from that era. After all from the 18th century until the 80s we only had physical archives. The big problem is the period from the 80s until today, because there are no longer physical archives, everything is digital. The result is that the amount of electronic documents is exploding. The volumes of data are gigantic. We have to regularly make triages, which entails a lot of work for the employees. We have to sensitize them not to delete every- thing. It is a huge opportunity to preserve important documents for the future. The design and creation departments have to transfer their data into the Patrimoine. In the case of prototypes we only need one archive. The euphoria about digital pos- sibilities has faded somewhat.

Design plays a large and significant role in the watch industry. How important is it for your new watch collection?
Design is of vital, central and capital importance. The question of how one clothes a watch is of crucial significance. Our designs work using classic codes. In my previous position as a design director I confronted the question of which design represented the style of Vacheron Constantin best. For me it is elegance, refinement and a certain level of discretion. Those are unshakeable codes. You do not even have to put them down on paper; they are the natural signature of our company. Vacheron Constantin is timeless, classic, refined. Design is more important than ever. The market is extremely competitive. It is imperative to have your own aesthetic identity.

Your company headquarters is in a remarkable building. Can architecture influence the look of a watch?
I consider myself very fortunate to be part of the oldest manufacturer that has always been active since1755. That is why we have this wonderful archive with documents, illustrations and photos. There are 1500 watches in our collection. If we need inspiration we generally look there first. For me it is a veritable treasure. We use the past to create modern watches. The past helps us to capture the essence of the design and continue to tell our history and not to copy it. In contrast architecture can additionally nourish this universe. Our building was constructed in 2004 by the famous architect Bernard Tschumi. He created an aesthetic signature, based on our emblem, the Maltese Cross. He stylized it to an extremely high level. We work here in an interesting tension field between traditional craft and a very modern building.

What skills does a Style & Heritage director need in a watch manufacturing company? What are your particular talents?
A good question. If only I knew! I think in my case this development is the advancement of my previous work. I was design director and now I manage this department with one creative eye. It is one of my responsibilities to single out those watches from the Vacheron Constantin legacy, which have details that are interesting today.

How did you acquire your knowledge about the long company history?
I have spent almost my entire career at Vacheron Constantin. That’s why I know so much about the company history. I be- gan as a sales executive. I was always very interested in products. Then I was direc- tor for manufacturing and from 2002 until 2017 I was in charge of brand creation and development. In the different stations over the years I was able to build up a very deep knowledge of the manufacture and products. Today I have been entrusted with the task of preserving the rich cultural legacy of Vacheron Constantin and preparing for the future. It’s not just about watches but also about our customers and the company history. Today people are very interested in the vintage sector. We show a lot of interesting vintage related issues on our Instagram account Thehourlounge.

Does Vacheron Constatin also sell vintage-watches?
Yes, since 2017 we have a program called Les Collectionneurs. We rebuy vintage watches from the 20s through to the 70s, at auctions for example, bring them back into working order and sell them again. We cannot buy them at an inflated price, as we have to be in a position to sell them at a sensible price. That is a challenge. The volume of this business is small, but it is a fantastic opportunity to talk about the brand using relatively simple means. In this way we keep our legacy alive.

Design is of vital, central and capital importance.
The question of how one clothes a watch is of crucial significance.
Our designs work using classic codes.

Who is interested in vintage watches?
I meet a number of young clients between 25 and 38 years and they are really interested in these vintage watches.

Isn’t a new vintage model also selling very successfully at the moment?
You mean the new version of «Chronograph Corne de Vache» from 1955. This watch is a classic of great design. In 2013 we started to produce it again. It is extremely successful. We just brought out a steel version.

Does art influence your work? If so, what type of art inspires you?
I appreciate art as a layman. But I don’t collect it. I am more inspired by art crafts from different cultures and civilizations. I particularly love the folk art museums in Japan and Mexico. I also love Street Art in New York.

Vacheron Constantin has established a connection to the famous Abbey Road Studios in London…
Yes, musical affinities and joint creative endeavours are at the core of this part- nership with Abbey Road Studios, which is based on common values entirely in tune with the new “One of not many” communications campaign.

What type of music would you compare to Vacheron Constantin? If the company were a piece of music, which would it be?
A modern jazz quintet with an excellent soloist. Jazz is music with soul, that’s why it suits Vacheron Constantin so well.

Vacheron Constantin’s claim is «One of not many». Where did it come from?
Our beautiful watchmaker craft is small in comparison to other sectors. Roughly one billion watches are produced per year. Of these only 157 000 are from the high watchmaker craft. We are very small.

How do you explain your watches for someone who is not a watch aficionado?
I simply explain the Haute Horlogerie. We make authentic watches of very high quality with an unusual finish. They survive the test of the centuries. It is the sum of Horlogerie. It is not about quartz against mechanics. We strive for perfection and that has its price.