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Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers – The Berkley Grand Complication

The new king of hyper-horology

Grand complication watches are fascinating horological pieces. If nothing else, they carry many complex mechanical functions that often are made to share elements (for example day, date and month in a calendar) and fit into one tiny machine. There is also the fact that a lot is learnt in the research and development of the watch, so there is some bleed down of technology and know-how that allows other movements to be devised.

Almost a century ago, Henry Graves Jnr and James Packard were unknowingly pitted against each other in a race to the commission, as clients of Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin, the most complicated watch on the planet. At that time, Graves ordered the Super Complication with 34 different functions. Delivered in 1933, it held the title of the world’s most complicated mechanical watch for over 50 years, until 1989, when it was superseded by the Star Calibre 89 for Patek Philippe’s 150th anniversary. Its reign lasted 26 years. In 2015, Vacheron Constantin revealed Les Cabinotiers Ref. 57260 with 57 complications, taking the mantle that Patek had held for the best part of a century.

The Ref. 57260, which contained the first Hebraic perpetual calendar, was the work of three Les Cabinotiers watchmakers, the 2015 GPHG Special Jury Prize winners, Micke Pintus, Yannick Pintus and Jean-Luc Perrin. But even as the Ref. 57260 was being completed, plans were being made for a watch with even greater complexity.

Front and back of the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers – The Berkley Grand Complication, one of the most complex watches ever produced.

The same team of watchmakers and commissioner are also responsible for Ref. 63269, a 63-complication, 2,877-component magnum opus of a watch. Announcing its arrival at Watches & Wonders this year, Vacheron Constantin released the most superlative grand complication yet. While most of us will understand the basic function of any watch – telling the time and possibly the day, date and month too – it’s what comes after that demonstrates where the new watch excels.

The main features the Ref. 63269 is the perpetual Chinese calendar, a highly elaborate combination of ancient philosophy on the regularity of the earth’s orbit, dating from around 771BC-476BC, but with additions during the late Ming dynasty following the assistance of Jesuit missionaries, who translated Western astronomical works and introduced new concepts. Its complexity derives from the solar and lunar cycles, which are calculated separately and then synchronised using an extra lunar or intercalary month. The new year starts on the second or third moon after the winter solstice, hence the varying dates for the beginning and length of each year, under the sexagenary cycle. Until now, it was thought to be a calendar system that would be impossible to subject to perpetual mechanics.

There is insufficient space here to list the complications in name, but there are three areas where this watch provides ground-breaking solutions. There are three mechanisms that control the different calendars: a 19-year Metric cycle with different New Year dates; a sexagesimal cycle of 60 combinations; and finally, a solar agricultural cycle of one tropical year. Integrated into the perpetual Chinese calendar is a perpetual Gregorian variant. Other mechanical innovations of note include the retrograde seconds hand, the automatic night function for the Grand Sonnerie and the triple-axis armillary tourbillon.

Detail of the movement in the Berkley Grand Complication, showing the triple-axis armillary tourbillon regulator.

The watch is so intricate that it took a whole year to put together. Christian Selmoni, Style and Heritage Director at Vacheron Constantin was rightly effusive in his description of the new masterpiece, “I have boundless admiration for the complexity of this timepiece, its level of finishing and its precision, given the 63 complications. It is the epitome of hyper-horology, stemming from years of effort and ingenuity.”

Unlike the Ref. 57260, the new record holder bears the name of the commissioner, Berkley, who joins a notable lineage after Packard and Graves. It was thanks to these two and other commissioning customers, such as King Farouk of Egypt and Count Guy de Boisrouvray, in the 1920s and 1930s that Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin created the grand complication watches from the 1940s until today. It will be fascinating to see the innovations that will be developed thanks to the very few collectors currently commissioning this kind of piece.

Learn more about the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers – The Berkley Grand Complication HERE.

Words: Andrew Hildreth

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