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Review: Homage to a Bygone Era – The Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921

by Frank Chuo on July 24, 2018

Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921

Vacheron Constantin’s Historiques collection was launched 13 years ago in 2005 and has never looked back since. The collection honours the company’s creative history (263 years and counting) with contemporary versions of its iconic pieces. In it are some of the brand’s most desirable watches, which includes the American 1921. The American 1921 made its debut back in 2009 at SIHH. It pays tribute to not one, but two vintage Vacheron Constantin references (one from 1919 and the other – you guessed it – from 1921) by combining the design of both watches into one. It is, as the saying goes, “better late than never”. Here, we bring you the details and our thoughts on what is one of the most sought after timepieces from Vacheron Constantin: the Historiques American 1921.

 

The case, dial, and hands

The first thing worth mentioning about the Historiques American 1921 is its case shape. Neither round nor square, its shape is best described as ‘cushion’ for obvious reasons. The design of the case remains faithful to the original of almost a hundred years ago albeit more refined. Available in either pink gold (as pictured), yellow gold or platinum, the case is entirely polished and features a crown placed unconventionally at its top right corner. Its flatness ensures that it doesn’t dig into the skin, though at the expense of grip. While its positioning allows for easier on-the-wrist winding, such a practice is never recommended – and not just for lack of grip. The case measures a reasonable 40.0 mm x 40.0 mm, with a svelte height of 8 mm that allows it to easily slip under dress cuffs. Due to its broad, non-round shape, the watch has tremendous presence on the wrist. It also feels heftier than a round equivalent due to the extra amount of gold needed to build the case. While the watch does appear to wear larger, the short lugs ensure that it can be worn even by smaller wrists with comfort and security. It is worth noting that last year, in 2017, the brand has released a smaller 36.5 mm version of American 1921, not just for daintier wrists, but also to cater for the steadily increasing demand for traditional case sizes.

 

 

Just as intriguing as the case shape of the watch is the dial, which is tilted 45 degrees clockwise. Remember how the American 1921 is an homage to two vintage Vacheron Constantin references? Cushion case aside, they too had tilted dials – and for good reason: they were driver’s watches. The dial on the American 1921 is designed in a way that would allow time to be read easily by a driver with both hands on the steering wheel, or in the digital age, both hands on a keyboard. Its aesthetics is surprisingly nuanced. From afar, the dial looks to be matte silver, but up close it appears to be quite textural, almost eggshell-like. The Breguet numeral hour markers and railroad-style minute track printed onto the dial are inky and luscious; they are matched beautifully and fittingly with black oxidised gold Breguet hands. The seconds sub-dial is located at the 3 o’clock position (4:30 on a conventional dial). Strangely enough, while the main dial is tilted at an angle, the seconds sub-dial remains aligned vertically as it would be on a regular watch. All this does is give the observer a headache as it makes reading the seconds very unintuitive. Perhaps this design incongruence was Vacheron Constantin’s attempt at distinguishing the American 1921 from the watches that inspired it (both had a seconds sub-dial that was aligned with the main dial).

 

The movement

Ticking inside the American 1921 is the 127-part, 21-jewel Calibre 4400 AS. The in-house designed hand-wound movement, which is now being used in numerous other models, made its debut in (and along with) the American 1921 back in 2009. Thanks to its large single barrel, the Calibre 4400 AS has a generous 65-hour power reserve even while beating at a modern 4 Hz. At 28.6 mm in diameter, the movement is a decent fit for the watch’s 40.0 mm x 40.0 mm case size. That said, we reckon that it fits better inside the 2017 36.5 mm x 36.5 mm version of the watch. The movement’s thin 2.8 mm height is a delight and is a key contributor to the American 1921’s elegant case profile.

 

 

Stamped with the Geneva Seal, one can expect a high standard of finish on the Calibre 4400 AS. Interesting to note that back in 2009 when this model was launched, the Geneva Seal was only applicable to the movement. In late 2011, the rules were updated such that they applied to the entire watch, not just the movement. Therefore, all American 1921s built 2012 onwards are covered by the new Geneva Seal (note the Geneva Seal also marked on the back of the case). Peering through the sapphire crystal, the usual culprits can be seen: textured Geneva waves on the surface of bridges; polished chamfers on the edges with rounded, outward AND inward angles; mirror-polished screw heads; circular grained wheels; and of course, tight perlage on the base plate. Bottom line: the Calibre 4400 AS may be simple, but it is reliable and gorgeously finished.

 

The competitive landscape

The Historiques American 1921 continues to be regarded as one of the Vacheron Constantin’s finest by not just the brand’s enthusiasts, but also the watch community at large. The combination of it being an homage to vintage references, its atypical case shape, its slanted dial orientation and its fine craftsmanship assured its place in the hearts of many. The rose gold Historiques American 1921 retails at SGD51,800 (or CHF37,500). It sits at a significantly higher price point than a three-hand equivalent from the Traditionelle or Patrimony collection for one simple reason: demand. Fortunately, if you don’t mind/prefer wearing classically sized watches, the American 1921 36.5 mm is about 20% more ‘affordable’ at SGD42,800 (or CHF31,000).

 

 

There aren’t many watches in the market that directly compete with the American 1921. You see, it’s not easy to find a vintage inspired watch with a tilted dial. Interestingly however, the Tiffany & Co. East West Automatic fulfils both criteria. While it was not exactly based on a vintage driver’s watch, its sideways dial does qualify it to be one. It also doubles as a small clock when placed on its side. The watch is one of, if not the most distinctive from Tiffany & Co., guaranteed to be a conversation starter at parties like the Vacheron Constantin American Historiques 1921. The good news is that the East West Automatic costs dramatically less (thanks in part to its industrial Sellita movement) at around SGD7,000 for the steel version and SGD17,500 for the gold version.

 

Whether as a vintage driver’s watch or a watch for the modern typist, the Tiffany East West watch literally turns the rules of watchmaking on their side with its audacious design.

 

Then there’s the MB&F HM8 Can-Am, totally from left field and ready to have you reconsider what you think you know about watch design. The case structure is based on the aerodynamic wedge shape of a Can-Am (referring to the Canadian-American Challenge Cup, which was a sports car racing series running from 1966 to 1987) car, complete with roll bars sweeping from the front of the watch to the tapered back. But here’s where it gets cooler (or stranger): A set of discs rotates horizontally on the top of the movement, visible in the corners of the transparent cover. This horizontal time indication is reflected through a system of sapphire crystal prisms to magnify (1.2 magnification factor), and deliver the image of the discs to the “dashboard” in the front of the case. The design of the HM8 is definitely not for everyone but objectively speaking, it is finely crafted and finished. It is also the most expensive piece of the three that we have listed: SGD127,800 or CHF78,000 – more than double the Vacheron Constantin.

 

On the wrist, the watch is large. Larger than the HM5, but still manageable.

Final thoughts

The Historiques American 1921 is a glorious tribute to the Art Deco period and to the manufacture’s past. It is perhaps the most sought after timepiece in the Historiques collection, and that is saying something when other watches in the collection include the Cornes de Vache 1955 and the brand new Triple Calendrier 1948. The American 1921 is considered to be an “investment-grade” timepiece by connoisseurs – one of the few in Vacheron Constantin’s modern collection. But what a shame it would be to lock such a beautiful timepiece in the cold depths of a safe. The American 1921 deserves to be admired and worn like it was intended to be by the watchmakers that built it: one hand on the steering wheel*, channelling the bygone era of Art Deco.

*Always have both hands on the steering wheel when driving.

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