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IN DEPTH: Venerable Vacheron Constantin looks to the future

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Vacheron Constantin's flagship showroom in New York opens in the summer of 2021.

Watchmakers from the publicly listed groups are often accused of being slow-moving and conservative while privately-owned brands are more nimble and innovative. Richemont’s Vacheron Constantin is proving to be the exception that rule, and is being rewarded with growing enthusiasm from consumers and retail partners across the world and particularly in the United States.

That is good news for incoming Vacheron Constantin president of the Americas, Alexander Schmiedt, who officially took the helm from Lelie Kobrin on July 1.

Mr Schmiedt, a native of Austria, has been working for Richemont brands since 2004, first with Montblanc in Germany and then for four years in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, where he was regional brand director for the Middle East, India and Africa.

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His first public outing was to cut the ribbon on a brand new flagship at 28 E 57th Street in New York just days after Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the lifting of all state-mandated coronavirus restrictions last month.

Alexander Schmiedt.

“The new Vacheron Constantin Flagship in North America celebrates the relationship between our Maison and America that has existed since 1831. Engaging with the creative spirit of America and its many diverse cultures, Vacheron Constantin is ready to make 28 E 57th Street its new North American home. This Flagship exemplifies Vacheron Constantin’s dedication to excellence and our motto: Do Better if Possible, and That is Always Possible,” said Louis Ferla, global chief executive officer of Vacheron Constantin.

On behalf of the American office, Mr Schmiedt added: “For someone who is passionate about timepieces, it is an honor for me to work for Vacheron Constantin. I look forward to sharing the maison’s approach to fine watchmaking in the North American flagship, opening this summer in New York City. The new boutique will offer a glimpse into a culture rooted in human values, craftsmanship, and technical innovation, and immerse visitors in the exceptional ‘one of not many’ spirit of Vacheron Constantin.”

The new flagship occupies 4,500 square feet over two floors with a glass façade opening directly onto 57th Street, between Madison and Park Avenue. It has a strikingly contemporary feel with a number of New York visual references along with nods to the history of the brand including a blue straw marquetry wall with Maltese cross motif.

The aim is to strike a balance between the history and heritage of the watchmaker and inspirations for its current collections. There is also an emphasis on service and experiences. A dedicated area on the ground floor displays the restoration capabilities of the Maison and rotating exhibitions of historic timepieces from the Vacheron Constantin private heritage collection in Geneva.

Up a sweeping bronze staircase there is an in-house watchmaker for consultations, adjustments and watch engraving. The first floor also has a VIP Lounge for meetings or small events.

The showroom has one of the most comprehensive collections of current Vacheron Constantin timepieces including boutique exclusive models, the first permanent “Les Collectionneurs” vintage watch offering, and a rotating Les Cabinotiers assortment.

A one-off American 1921 Pièce Unique re-creation timepiece was unveiled as part of the flagship opening. The watch was chosen, not just because it was first introduced precisely 100 years ago, but also because of its significance to watchmaking at the time of its creation just after the First World War.

Only 24 pieces of the original watch were ever made, but the revival piece is even rarer, with a single ‘Pièce unique’ taking the watchmaker’s restoration workshop and Heritage department an entire year to create. The project is a demonstration of Vacheron Constantin’s commitment to the conservation, transmission and continuous enrichment of its heritage and of traditional skills, the company says.

Vacheron Constantin poured an inordinate amount of time and resources into the American 1921 Pièce Unique, but there is nothing particularly new, unusual or innovative about reviving a watch from the archive.

The maison is mixing its passion for the past with a keen eye on the future, not only with the exquisite contemporary styling of its Manhattan boutique, but also with initiatives like the use of blockchain authentication. Having first piloted the protection of its watches using blockchain technology in 2019, one of the first in the industry to do so, Vacheron Constantin is now using the anti-counterfeiting measure to every watch it produces.

“Digital identities will transform the way one owns valuable assets, enabling owners to track the product lifecycle, share or prove ownership, and benefit from tailored services attached to each timepiece. On top of proof of ownership, our clients will benefit from blockchain’s ability to store all information about a timepiece, including technical information, user guides, certifications, and product history. Our clients will benefit from a new galaxy of services, such as seamless resell on Watchfinder and online repair requests,” explained CEO Mr Ferla.

Blockchain authentication will come in particularly useful in the years to come for Vacheron Constantin’s stablemate at Richemont, the pre-owned specialist Watchfinder, which recently announced it will work with the maison’s boutiques around the world to buy trade-in watches. Knitting together the primary and pre-owned watch worlds seems obvious, but it is far from normal for an industry that always treated the second hand market like an unloved and unwashed distant relative in the past.

In another initiative to engage with owners of its watches, Vacheron Constantin is launching The Hour Club, a digital platform exclusive to the brand’s customers, will serve as a hub for the traceability and authentication of its watches. Owners of Vacheron Constantin watches will also have access to experiences, events and exclusive content through the Club.

You might think that opening such a major flagship and rolling out so many direct to consumer initiatives would anger Vacheron Constantin’s authorized, which would typically bridle at competition from the mother brand. Not so, according to Matt Burdeen, CEO of Burdeen’s Jewelry in Chicago, who we speak to in this month’s Big Interview. He is reassured by all this activity and investment, and it has encouraged him to open his own Vacheron Constantin boutique.

A Vacheron boutique has been opened by Burdeen’s in Chicago.

“We sure are excited to be bringing Vacheron Constantin to Chicago. I am sure you know they are opening a spectacular new flagship in New York. That gave us a lot of confidence in the brand. Mr Ferla has made it a priority to open boutiques, and that makes us comfortable that we will have the support we need to make ours a success,” he tells WatchPro.

It seems that Mr Schmiedt, the incoming president for Vacheron Constantin in the Americas, will need many more skills than his predecessors. Wholesale, retail, blockchain, new watches, pre-owned watches, event management and big data will all be part of his remit.

Still, having arrived in the United States after four years working in Dubai — a gleaming 21st century city that barely existed 30 years ago and now boasts the tallest skyscraper in the world — he knows a thing or two about embracing rapid change.

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