Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer

A Closer Look At The Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer

Having had the privilege of a personal presentation of this truly unique masterpiece was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As the perfect marriage of art, watchmaking, and craftsmanship, this unique commissioned piece is worthy of discovery.

By Marco Gabella
Chairman & Executive Publisher

This summer, I was honored to receive an invite from Vacheron Constantin to head their manufacture in Plan-Les-Ouates (Geneva) to discover “something extraordinary.”  The only information I was given with the invitation was to discover a special client commission that was soon to be delivered by Vacheron Constantin's Les Cabinotiers Department to their lucky client.

As any collector knows, this is a unique opportunity to view such a special order as the commissioner typically keeps these amazing pieces for their eyes only. Hosted by Christian Selmoni, Style and Heritage Director at Vacheron Constantin. I didn't anticipate how rare and emotional the presentation and unveiling would be.

Of course, the Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer is a pure watchmaking achievement with its spectacular caliber 3761, but it is far more than just that. The alliance of the craftsmanship and technical specifications in an officer's pocket watch is quite an achievement. When elevated to be considered a masterpiece, it gives the piece a whole new level of significance.

Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring : The intimacy of the gaze

When Christian Selmoni slowly lifted the veil to unveil the brand's latest creation, I never imaged what would lie beneath.  In total awe, I was amazed to discover a depiction of the famous Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer. But rather than seeing this famous lady hanging on the wall of The Mauritshuisof, I was experiencing it as a miniature enamel painting. The creation being sized at only 98mm diameter, incredibly detailed, and engraved on a yellow gold pocket watch.

It is still difficult to describe the emotional impact that discovering this major work of art had on me.

Chosen by the client, The Girl with a Pearl Earring, painted by Johannes Vermeer in 1665, is without a doubt one of the world's most significant pieces of modernist art. Dutch Protestantism permitted the emergence of a painting paying homage to the simplicity of ordinary scenes. It was a departure from the formal representation of monarchs in their splendor and power. Through the eyes of Vermeer, he offers an intimate moment of a girl wearing an oriental turban and exotic dress, and of course, a massive pearl earring.

The decision of the buyer was to commission enameller Anita Porchet to master this miniature enamel painting. Gaïa Prize Winner Porchet is undoubtedly at the pinnacle of her field, having created incredible masterpieces for prestigious watchmakers and brands over the past decades.

Knowing how challenging it is to correctly reproduce the perfect final colors with “Geneva” enamel, the result is a pure feat of Porchet’s unquestionable talent. Enamel colors are based on metallic oxides and are stabilized by successive firings where different layers are applied, affecting the final color. Knowing that blue is specifically challenging to obtain and master in enamel painting, the enamel execution and variation of colors in the turban are phenomenal and produce a stunning recreation of Vermeer's original masterpiece.

Having the privilege of admiring this enameling with a loupe, I loved the meticulous details and shades of colors. The level of perfection in Vacheron Constantin's Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer left me speechless.

An engraved case guarded by sculptural lions

It took me a few minutes to recover from the shock of discovering the exceptional enamel painting and focus on other details of the Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer.

Like a picture frame surrounding the exquisite enamel painting, the yellow gold case sides arbored champlevé engraved friezes of acanthus leaves and tulips. At 12 o'clock, a sculptured belière with two roaring sculptured lions stands guard to the crown.

By creating volume and depth by carving them with a burin, the engraver gives the lion's heads an intense three-dimensional effect while playing between polished and matte surfaces.

To determine the correct and exact engraving depth of the two rearing lion's heads, the engraver produced several 3D prints of the case before finding the proper proportions. As with Porchet’s enamel painting, the skill of the master-artisan is done to an insane level of perfection and harmony.

Under the loupe, you get the feeling that the two lions are purring into your ears!

Master of the Striking Mechanism

Vacheron Constantin has a centuries-old tradition of making striking watches: its first-ever travel clock featuring a Grande Sonnerie complication is dated 1820, while the oldest pocket watch with Grande and Petite Sonnerie in the brand’s heritage collection dates from 1827.

Fast-forward to the present day, and Vacheron Constantin has once again shown it is still a master of the striking watch. For the Les Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer, the brand developed the manually-wound Caliber 3761. This new 806-component in-house movement is regulated by a 60-second tourbillon and features Grande and Petite Sonnerie Westminster chimes, as well as a minute repeater.

The Westminster chime – named after the four-bar, four-note chimes of the Big Ben great bell in the Palace of Westminster – is one of the most complicated striking mechanisms, involving a sequence of five gongs struck by their respective hammers, controlled by four racks.

In “Grande Sonnerie” mode, the watch chimes the quarters in passing, with the hour repeated at each quarter. In “Petite Sonnerie” mode, it strikes the hours and quarters in passing, but without repeating the hour at the change of quarter. And a slide on the side of the case can be used to activate the minute repeater that chimes the quarters, minutes, and hours in sequence.

A selector positioned between 10 and 11 o'clock is used to switch from Grande Sonnerie to Petite Sonnerie mode, while another selector at 9 o'clock offers a further three modes: "Alarm" mode, where the watch is automatically activated each time the quarters change, "Night Silence" mode where the alarm is deactivated between 11 pm and 9 am, and "Silence" mode, which pauses the striking mechanism.

A generous power reserve is supplied by two mainspring barrels, with 18 hours of autonomy for the striking mechanism in "Grande Sonnerie" mode and 80 hours for the time indications. Along with the power, there is also impressive precision: a centripetal strike governor acts as a brake on the regulator's pivot axis to even out the energy released by the barrels, for the perfect regularity of the musical sequences. And a double-wheel system with clearance adjustment ensures smooth rotation of the sizeable hands.

As you can imagine, a movement as mechanically complicated as this has been fittingly hand-finished too, with hand-beveled, hand-polished bridges, Côtes de Genève, sunburst patterns, and an engraved balance bridge all helping the watch to meet – and go beyond – Geneva seal standards.

A small team was behind the development of this spectacular caliber and I was lucky enough to meet master the watchmaker who carried out the final assembly and regulation of the movement, as well as most of its hand-decoration.

Commissioning to Obtain Excellence

Ordered by an important and discrete watch collector in the quest of "seeking something that is theoretically impossible to obtain," the journey to create this masterpiece started in 2013.  With constant exchanges and visits to the Vacheron Constantin manufacture, the client's requests had, without a doubt, challenged the team of watchmakers and artisans.  This approach brings us back to the glory days of watchmaking when the most advanced and complicated pocket watches were ordered on-demand, including personal involvement in creating these pieces of art.

As unique as the pocket watch itself, it was unique to have the occasion to see such a special commission. For that, Watchonista sends our special regards to the owner of the Vacheron Constantin Cabinotiers Westminster Sonnerie – Tribute to Johannes Vermeer.

(Images © Vacheron Constantin)

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