Special indications, used in the construction of mechanical movements to decouple the functions indicated on the dial from the gear train, soon began to interest watchmakers.
These complications, which include jumping and retrograde indications, made possible new technical and aesthetic interpretations of time. Vacheron Constantin started designing pocket watches with jumping indications at the dawn of the 19th century and developed watches with retrograde indications in the 20th century. These complications have become a technical and aesthetic signature of the Maison and are present in several collections.
Retrograde and jumping indications are a technical complication that soon began to attract the attention of watchmakers who wanted to go beyond the traditional indications of the time with a central hand and the date with a number visible through an aperture. Historical documents mention these alternative displays as early as the mid-18th century: they were made possible by moving some hour or calendar indicators on the dial. Vacheron Constantin’s first jumping indications date back to 1824, but it was mainly from the mid-1930s onwards that the Maison distinguished itself for its retrograde indications on wristwatches, at a time when the world of watchmaking was animated by a strong creative impulse.
The retrograde date display, which appeared in the 18th century and is sometimes accompanied by jumping indications, represents a technical difficulty requiring extreme precision.
At Vacheron Constantin, jumping indications were already present in pocket watches in 1824, followed a century later by wristwatches with retrograde indications.
These horological complications have become a Vacheron Constantin signature and are part of the company’s current collections.
Vacheron Constantin – Precision Mechanisms
A retrograde indication is when the indicator does not make a complete turn of the dial, but returns to the starting point and starts moving forward again after covering the entire measuring segment. Typically, it is a hand moving along the arc of a circle. In addition to retrograde indications for time cycles such as hours, minutes, seconds and dates, there are also so-called ‘scrolling’ indications, e.g. for the power reserve.
This is a mechanism that requires extreme precision. The retrograde hand, in fact, does not couple directly with the wheel dedicated to it, as in traditional watches, but is positioned on an off-centre axis, itself equipped with a spring and pinion. The wheel is surmounted by a spiral cam with notches. Between the two components is a lever with a beak running along the cam on one side and a rake meshing with the seconds pinion on the other.
The rotation of the gear advances the retrograde hand through this lever, which puts tension on the spring. At the end of the stroke, when the beak descends into the notch of the cam, the lever instantaneously returns the seconds hand to zero with the help of the spring connected to the pinion. This type of mechanism requires rigorous discipline, especially in terms of shock resistance and wear. Depending on the components, the indicator returns to its initial position at speeds that can exceed 60 km/h.
Jumping indicators also require special architecture. The energy of the gear is transmitted to a storage and memory mechanism that discharges periodically. In this case, too, a spiral cam is usually used. When the cam has completed one full revolution, the lever falls into the notch, instantly releasing the corresponding indication, such as the hour, or even several indications if the system is coupled in series, triggering cascade reactions.
The selection of watches
1- Yellow gold pocket chronograph – 1894
The chronograph, a function that embodies the very essence of Haute Horlogerie, is a fundamental complication that Vacheron Constantin mastered to perfection and integrated into its pocket watches from the very beginning. Vacheron Constantin’s records show that, from the 1970s onwards, simple and more complex split-seconds chronographs were produced, which served to calculate intermediate times (rattrapanti) with two hands. This 1894 yellow gold pocket watch with an enamelled dial is one of the first that the company equipped with such a split-seconds mechanism, which was mainly used in horse racing.
2 – Bras en l’air’, two-tone yellow and white gold pocket watch, bi-retrograde display – 1931
This two-tone, bi-retrograde pocket watch, made in 1931, expresses the aesthetic freedom permitted by special indications at the height of the Art Deco period. The dial depicts an Indian magician whose arms – by touching the push-button at 10 o’clock – indicate the hours and minutes on two graduated circular arcs on the sides of the satin-finished silver-plated dial. As the hours pass, the magician, made of engraved and enamelled gold, assumes different positions, reminiscent of the automata in vogue at the time.
3 – Yellow gold pocket watch with split-seconds chronograph, perpetual calendar, minute repeater – 1964 Traditionally, Grand Complication watches enriched their time indications with the three ‘noble’ functions: measurement of short intervals, astronomical indications and chime. Since the end of the 19th century, Vacheron Constantin has specialised in this prestigious field, producing extremely complex timepieces that are among the most sought-after by collectors. This yellow gold pocket watch with three complications is a superb demonstration of mastery, as it integrates a minute repeater mechanism, a split-seconds chronograph with 30-minute counter and a perpetual calendar with phases and age of the moon.