The 1970s were a period of upheaval and turmoil for the mechanical watchmaking industry. This was the time of the “quartz crisis” during which the advent of quartz watches, with its superior accuracy at a much lower cost, had posed an existential threat to the Swiss watch industry. The quartz crisis led to a major power shift from the West to the East – to Japan specifically. While the Swiss remained largely devoted to mechanical watches, Japanese watch companies such as Seiko, Citizen and Casio embraced quartz technology to the fullest. In a period of almost two decades, employment related to the Swiss watchmaking industry had fallen by almost two-thirds, which is another way of saying thousands of people lost their jobs.
In efforts to remain relevant, Swiss mechanical watches had to stand out in some way. Manufacturers began seeking refuge in the higher end of the market, focusing on craftsmanship and redefining watches as objects of luxury and social status. It was during these years of tribulations as well that the Swiss “Holy Trinity” of watchmaking introduced and cemented the idea of the luxury integrated-bracelet sports watch. It began with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in 1972, followed by the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976 and finally the Vacheron Constantin 222 in 1977. Unfortunately for the 222, it hasn’t enjoyed a strong, unbroken run of production that its competitors have. In total, fewer than a thousand units of the 222 were created, in a run that only lasted a few years into the 1980s.
Vacheron Constantin Historiques 222
A living icon like the Royal Oak and Nautilus it might not be, but the 222 is a cult classic amongst connoisseurs. In line with the recent upsurge of interest in sports watches both vintage and modern, Vacheron Constantin has introduced a faithful remake of the 222 at Watches & Wonders 2022. While the release made sense from a commercial perspective, it caught many off-guard as Vacheron Constantin’s already got a resident sports watch line in the Overseas. Nevertheless, the watch – added into the Historiques collection – was well-received by all and deemed the highlight of the brand’s 2022 novelties. Here, we bring you the details and our honest thoughts on the new Historiques 222.
The Case, Dial, and Hands
The original 222 came in three different case sizes: quartz-driven 24 mm marketed to women, mid-size 34 mm, and ‘Jumbo’ 37 mm. The Historiques reissue of the 222 is modelled after the ‘Jumbo’. Remakes of vintage watches tend to suffer from gigantism, but fortunately, the Historiques 222 has been spared. Faithful to its original 37 mm sizing, Vacheron Constantin’s latest Historiques timepiece is as elegant as a sports watch can get. Rendered in yellow gold, the monobloc tonneau-shaped case is expertly brushed and has edges that have been beveled and polished for contrast. On it is perhaps the most defining feature of the watch: the fluted bezel that resembles a soda bottle cap. And just outboard of the bezel is the other signature mark of the 222, the polished Maltese cross set within a sand-blasted recess. To match the case, the bracelet is also crafted in – you guessed it – yellow gold. Full gold sports watches tend to run the risk of looking crass, but not the Historiques 222. The watch is refined and oozes class and sophistication.
And as if a full yellow gold case and bracelet wasn’t golden enough, even the dial and all its elements are gilded. The dial surface appears to be a blend between gold and cream. It’s similar to champagne but more vivid – truly a gorgeous hue. On the dial are applied hour markers and two central hands – all coated with luminescent material and all rendered in gold, naturally. But wait, there’s more. The date window at 3 o’clock has a gold frame, framing the date printed on a date disc with the same shade of gold as the dial. In the original 222, the date display cuts through the minute track near the edge; in the 2022 remake, the date is inboard of the minute track, signaling that the two versions do not share the same movement.
The original 222 was powered by the Calibre 1120, a movement that is actually still used in one form or another in a number of current Vacheron Constantin timepieces. The manufacturer has, however, opted against reusing the movement in the Historiques 222, choosing instead to use a more modern calibre: the 2455/2. Being almost twenty years old, the Calibre 2455/2 isn’t exactly avant-garde either, but it is still around thirty years fresher than the Calibre 1120. The balance of the Calibre 2455/2, for example, beats at a contemporary 4 Hz frequency, while the seminal Calibre 1120 operates at a slow 2.75 Hz. The former also boasts a quick-set date function which the latter lacks. The two movements do share the same power reserve of 40 hours, which falls short of the 60 hours that the Overseas Calibre 5100 offers.
The finissage on the Calibre 2455/2 is what you’d expect from a prestigious Maison such as Vacheron Constantin. Visible through the sapphire crystal case back are Geneva waves across the bridges, edges that have been beveled and polished, screw heads that have also been polished, circular grained wheels, and perlage across the base plate. The biggest differential in aesthetics between the new 222’s movement and other movements can be found on the rotor. The austere, retro-inspired shape is fitting got a vintage remake, while the soda bottle cap pattern and the alternating brushed/frosted surfaces complete the look.
Overall, Vacheron Constantin’s decision to use a different, newer movement appears justified. The Calibre 2455/2 is more sturdy, chronometrically stable, and pragmatic compared to the original Calibre 1120. Sure the latter might score some nostalgia points, but having the Calibre 2455/2 inside the 222 shouldn’t take away from the authenticity and experience. Its level of finishing is also similar to what you’ll find on a Royal Oak or Nautilus of similar price, in other words, worthy of high horology.
The Competitive Landscape
It’s yet another sports watch, but this one is different. Because this one is created in the image of a legend. Like every Historiques timepiece before it, the new 222 is essentially a close copy of its old self in terms of appearance but with some modern touches to take it to the 21st century. It retains its charming old looks, but is born of modern manufacturing methods and driven by a superior movement. The Historiques 222 may not a limited edition piece but it is priced at a steep SGD99,000. While its production numbers are technically not capped, expect production to be bottlenecked and the accompanying wait-list to be lengthy.
Until this year, any talk of the 222 tends to serve as preface to the Overseas. The Overseas is, after all, the descendant of the 222. The two watches do share some similarities in design, notably the fluted bezel and the tonneau-shaped case. The Overseas – currently in its third generation – is a significantly larger watch with contemporary design cues. The example in the photograph below measures 41 mm x 11 mm, has a blue lacquered dial and features a bracelet quick-release system for easy strap change. It is also fitted with a modern movement in the form of the Calibre 5100 that has 60 hours of power reserve. Priced at SGD70,500 back in 2020, the Overseas Self-Winding in full pink gold is a worthy alternative to its rejuvenated cousin the Historiques 222. But like the Historiques 222, don’t expect to snatch one easily from boutiques in the midst of sports watch mania.
Back on the topic of vintage remakes, the Royal Oak also finds itself in the same shoes as the 222 this year. Because this year, Audemars Piguet has launched the third generation of the iconic Royal Oak “Jumbo” Extra-Thin Ref. 16202 in celebration of the Royal Oak’s 50th birthday. That’s right, it’s been 50 years since the birth of the first luxury sports watch. Much like the 222, not much has changed with its appearance, but the watch has been made better by modern manufacturing methods and a new movement. Created specifically for the Ref. 16202, the Calibre 7121 features improvements such as a quick-set date, a balance that beats at 4 Hz (instead of 2.75 Hz), and a bi-directional winding rotor (instead of uni-directional). These improvements are welcome as they extend the longevity of the legendary model. Priced at USD33,000, the stainless steel Ref. 16202 appears to be decent value considering its fame and world-beating quality. Like the rest, just don’t expect it to be on display at boutiques.
It’s hard not to get excited for the Historiques 222. Yes, sports watches are the flavour of the year, but the piece is more than just a sports watch. It is a faithful recreation of one of the forefathers of the luxury sports watch. The original 222 might not have seen success like the Royal Oak and Nautilus have but it’s got plenty of admirers. If there ever was a time to bring it back, that time is now. Vacheron Constantin has done a splendid job with the execution of the Historiques 222, earning universal plaudits from collectors and media alike. Watches from the Historiques collection have always seen high customer demand – it wouldn’t be surprising if the 222, combined with a euphoric sports watch market, became the collection’s most profitable timepiece yet.