In-Depth: Recreating the Vacheron Constantin American 1921 One Hundred Years Later

Painstakingly replicating the vintage original.

As one of Vacheron Constantin’s most distinctive timepieces marks its 100th anniversary, the watchmaker rolled out a handful of jubilee models during Watches & Wonders 2021 for the occasion, most notably the extremely good looking American 1921 Collection Excellence Platine.

But Vacheron Constantin had something else up its sleeve for the 1921’s century – something really special – a near-exact recreation of the vintage original from 1921. Christened the American 1921 Pièce Unique, the watch is a one-off created as a joint project by the brand’s Restoration Workshop and Heritage Department, overseen by Style & Heritage Director Christian Selmoni, whose long tenure at Vacheron Constantin means he is practically the brand’s institutional memory.

The watch is more than just a visual replica – an identical case and movement is a given – but even the most minor of details have been reproduced faithfully, right down to the gold alloy of the case and period-correct vintage parts from its archives.

Initial thoughts

While the modern-day American 1921 is a fan-favourite, it necessarily omits some of the finer details of the vintage original, in order to cater to current tastes as well as production methods. As such, even the most-delicious Collection Excellence Platine edition can be critiqued, for the mismatch in hand colours or the seemingly misaligned seconds register.

In contrast, the recreation is satisfyingly spot on, which give it an attractive, bona fide coinage feel that’s absent in today’s American 1921. Minor details such as typography on the dial, and even the Vacheron Constantin logo, are rendered with finesse – capturing subtle but crucial elements needed for a genuine vintage feel.

It’s practically impossible to distinguish between the modern recreation (left) and the vintage original

While it is a feat to accurately replicate a watch, the 1921 Pièce Unique is even more impressive for being period correct in materials and techniques. Components such as the hands are actually vintage spare parts, while other components were made from scratch, but using the traditional tools and methods as well as period-correct materials.

In short, the 1921 Pièce Unique demonstrates not just the eye for detail possessed by the people at the brand’s Heritage Department and Restoration Workshop, but also the artisanal and technical skill. In fact, it was the very same craftspeople who restored the historically-important “Don Pancho” minute repeater that sold for over US$750,000 in 2019.

Time travelling to 1921

To faithfully remake the vintage 1921, the brand turned to the singular example in its museum collection – one of the 24 made in the 1920s – studying the vintage original in forensic detail. That meant disassembling the watch as thoroughly as possible and then measuring every part.

At the same time, some production techniques, such as the original process for pressing the jewels into the bridges, are now obscure, leading to lengthy research and experimentation to reverse engineer the original methods.

The case of the 1921 Pièce Unique is not only identical in size – it’s a minute 31 mm wide and distinctive in shape – but also a perfect replica in composition and consequently, colour. Using a spectrometer, a device able determine the make up of a metal alloy, the development team analysed the original yellow gold case. The case was discovered to be 3N yellow gold alloy, which allowed them to replicate the alloy, giving the new case the same sheen as the original.

With the same alloy as a raw material, the case was then reproduced as the original would have been made in the 1920s. Techniques closer to those of a jeweller – as opposed to the automated, precise processes of modern-day case making – were employed, including filing, sawing, and stamping.

The thin sheet of gold that will be pressed to form the case back

Sawing the pinched corners of the case back

Soldering the lugs onto the case

A vintage crown

The 1921 is distinguished by its eccentrically-positioned crown

The polished back of the 1921 Piece Unique

Just like the case, the dial was fabricated with traditional method in several painstaking steps.

It’s a two-part, grand feu enamel dial comprising the main dial with a cutout at six to accommodate the small-seconds register. Each part of the dial is produced separately, then welded together after each disc is complete.

Both sections of the dial requiring several layers of enamel and accompanying trips to the oven, before being printed with enamel and fired once again create the markings like hour markers and scales. The hour numerals are Breguet style, as was common during the period, while the Vacheron Constantin logo is period correct.

The reverse of the dial is painted to create “counter enamel”, which prevents warping of the dial during firing

Smoothening the edges of the aperture for the seconds with a file

The dial is printed with the modern technique of pad writing, but printed in enamel

The fonts on the dial evoke a reassuring nostalgia that’s absent on the modern 1921

Unlike the dial on which they sit, the hands are actually vintage. The steel Breguet hands – for the hours, minutes, and seconds – are drawn from Vacheron Constantin’s inventory of vintage spare parts.

But as is often the case with vintage parts and watches – components were then hand made and not immediately interchangeable – the hands had to be finished by hand. They were cleaned, polished, and flame blued before being installed in the watch.

But the star of the 1921 Pièce Unique is its movement, the 11-ligne “Nouveau Amerique” calibre originally developed for ladies’ pendant watches. Undoubtedly the most difficult aspect to replicate by virtue of the number of parts, the movement is a reproduction of the original, built from scratch with both new and vintage parts.

Though hidden beneath a solid case back, the movement is a perfect fit for the 1921 Pièce Unique. Its styling fits the aesthetic of the watch, in contrast to the contemporary cal. 4400 in the modern-day 1921

A drawer full of spare parts in the Restoration Workshop

After studying the vintage movement, the development team proceeded to assemble an exact copy, using as many vintage parts as possible.

They were successful: except for the bridges and main plate, which were produced by the Restoration Workshop, the movement is comprised of vintage components from the spare-parts inventory of the Restoration Workshop.

Installing the vintage hairspring and screwed balance

Even though the bridges are newly-made, they were finished exactly as the would have been in the 1920s. The brand’s logo on the crown-wheel bridge, for instance, was hand engraved with a graver.

Hand-engraving the crown-wheel bridge

Additionally, the team used century-old tools, both to drill the jewel holes on the bridges as well as press fit the jewels – a once forgotten technique that the watchmakers of the Restoration Workshop rediscovered during the project.

Vintage jewels in a modern bridge

The fate of the American 1921 Pièce Unique is undecided. For now, the watch will embark on a world tour, with stops at Vacheron Constantin boutiques around the world, starting with New York from June 14. Subsequent destinations have yet to be announced.

Key Facts and Price

Vacheron Constantin American 1921 Pièce Unique
Ref. 1921H/000J-B949

Diameter: 31 mm
Height: 8.75 mm
Material: 18k yellow gold
Water resistance:
 30 m

Dial: Grand feu enamel

Movement: Cal. 1921
Functions: Hours, minutes, and seconds
Winding: Hand wind
18,800 beats per hour (4 hz)
Power reserve:
 30 hours

Strap: Alligator with pin buckle

Limited edition: Pièce unique
Price: Undetermined

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