(click on all images to view a larger version)
While Vacheron Constantin is best known for their complicated offerings and high horology pieces, they have recently turned a corner in their prestigious history by reestablishing themselves as a manufacturer at the most fundamental level. Since at least the 1940s, outside of their specialty pieces, Vacheron Constantin has utilized ebauches supplied primarily by Jaeger LeCoultre and Lemania. While their treatment of these high-grade ebauches has always been among the best (the Geneva Seal is not given away lightly), there is a mystique of movement manufacturing that has been missing from the repertoire of this venerable house.
In 2000, having acquired the specialist manufacturer HDG (Haute de Gamme) two years earlier, the renamed VCVJ (Vacheron Constantin Valle du Joux) announced the release of the Malte line. This distinctive line of watches included a stunning tourbillon with power reserve and date, a perpetual calendar chronograph, a dual time regulator, an automatic with large date and an elegant ladies watch, entirely paved with diamonds.
The impact of this substantial new line of watches was significant but the following year an even bolder step was taken with the addition of the otherwise unassuming "Grande Classique" simple manual wind. With the introduction of the calibre 1400, Vacheron Constantin declared to the watch world that they have definitively rejoined the ranks of the manufactures. This indicates a concerted effort to solidify their position as one of the great watchmaking marques, past, present and future.
The Malte "Grande Classique" is in some ways exactly what the name implies: a grand classic. It is a simple manual wind watch with hours, minutes and sub-seconds in a round case. With typical Vacheron aplomb, this most basic of wristwatch forms is merely the starting point for a striking design marked by bold lines and delicate textures.
The signature elements of the Malte design - the wide, stepped bezel, the elaborate, angular, stepped lugs and the striking, facetted sword hands seemlessly merge into a retro-futuristic composition that remains etched in the minds of all who come under its spell. This example also features an exquisite, guilloche, silvered dial that can mesmerize under close scrutiny while serving as an unobtrusive backdrop for the rare, casual glance at the time. The white gold two-piece case is appropriately heavy (just so, as will be seen) and the suppleness of the hand-stitched aligator mississippiensis leather strap must be felt to be truly appreciated.
The beautiful, scalloped guilloche pattern radiates outward from the circular turned sub-seconds dial, creating a subtle chiaroscuro that changes dramatically when viewed from different angles. Upon very close examination, the guilloche proved less than completely symmetrical along the vertical axis, shifted ever so slightly in the counter-clockwise direction. While I've seen other examples that show the same tendency, it is not something that I find troubling or distracting. Thankfully, the only writing on the dial aside from "Swiss Made" at the bottom edge, are the words "Vacheron Constantin, Geneve"  printed on a slightly raised, chamfered tablet underneath the applied Maltese Cross. The perfectly proportioned crown is graced with the Maltese Cross hallmark as well.
The hour and minute hands are made of white gold and fall away gently from their centerlines. Half of each hand is mirror polished while the other half is frosted, making them remarkably easy to find and identify in a variety of lighting conditions. The second hand appears to be black polished steel, seemingly charcoal at times while reflecting brilliantly at others. The sword shaped hour and minute hands echo the lines of the Maltese Cross, further alluded to by the wedge markers and the stylized lugs.
The back of the Grande Classique features a strikingly large, sapphire crystal display window that shows off the gorgeous calibre 1400 movement and a guilloche, white gold spacer ring. The 9-ligne movement is on the small side for a 36-mm watch (just under 8-mm thick including the slightly domed sapphire crystal). It is understandable that this first manual wind movement from Vacheron Constantin in many years would be small enough to allow for many varied implementations; the smaller size making it suitable for use in a ladies watch or a rectangular case with little modification.
With 20 jewels, the manual wind movement is decorated with Geneva stripes and hand applied anglage, boasts adjustment in five positions and the lauded Geneva Seal . Many of the conditions of the Geneva Seal are visible (under careful scrutiny) through the display back. The visible steel surfaces, including the distinctive Geneva stud cover, are all highly polished and the polished screw heads have beveled rims, chamfered slots and polished countersinks . The power train is fully jewelled with polished sinks and the spokes of the wheels are visibly chamfered.
Surprisingly, the countersinks around the jewels were not perfectly formed. There was a rough edge around each of the visible jewels  (with the exception of the capped escape wheel and balance). The fourth wheel jewel even had a burr around it , left over from an improperly finished hole before the jewel was set. This type of cosmetic flaw is not unheard of in movements of this quality even while the functional finishing of the critical working surfaces remains impeccable. Embarrassingly, this burr is on the fourth wheel bridge, right next to the Geneva Seal. This is an isolated example in my experience as other calibre 1400s I've seen do not share these flaws.
The back is secured by four white gold screws and its removal reveals an o-ring fitted into a vertical groove in the case back  that fits snugly into the inside edge of the case band. The 14 K white-gold spacer ring has a matte finish on its non-visible surfaces and is fixed to the case band by two screwed case clamps  while the movement is attached to the ring by recessed screws.
Upon removing the movement and spacer from the case, it can be observed that some material has been milled out of the inner edge of the case band to lighten the case . With the substantial spacer ring, the watch is appropriately hefty and the machinework inside the case is of the highest quality as befits the superlative quality of its exterior.
Underneath the dial, the movement is decorated almost as thoroughly as the top-plate. Typical of the bottom-plate decoration of a fine watch movement, it is completely perlaged, and the steel dial train bridge and set bridge are straight grained on top with polished, chamfered sides. There is a slight chamfer  around the milled out recesses for the dial train and keyless works but it is cursory when compared to the lovely anglage of the top plate.
Under the peculiarly shaped dial train bridge are the minute wheel and the two intermediate hand-setting wheels . The hour wheel has a beautifully polished ring near its hub, as does the minute wheel which revolves around the cleverly placed third wheel jewel . In many movements, the third wheel jewel is placed under the minute wheel. This makes it difficult to access (for inspection or lubrication) and susceptible to any debris that might come off of the minute wheel teeth. The choice to place the jewel directly in the center of the minute wheel is quite ingenious and alleviates these concerns. Unfortunately the incomplete countersinks from the bridge side of the movement were visible here too.
The keyless levers are beautifully grained on top with straight, highly polished sliding surfaces and highly polished chamfered edges on the non-functional edges . The Geneva Seal prohibits the use of wire springs, necessitating the charmingly shaped set-lever return spring. While these are wonderfully executed, the underside of the distinctive set-bridge had a less refined finish . Traditionally, the under-sides of all the keyless parts are polished as they are functional surfaces and the polishing minimizes friction and wear. The under-sides of the rest of the keyless levers are polished, making the reason for the less finished underside of the set-bridge all the more curious.
Turning the movement over, we can admire the bridge layout of the Vacheron Manufacture cal. 1400. The shapes of the bridges are almost entirely traditional and very Genevois in style. The crown wheel, barrel, second wheel and third wheel are all secured under one large bridge of voluptuous curves, punctuated by a beautifully shaped and perfectly executed click spring. Interestingly enough, the graceful curves around the second and third wheel jewels insinuate a correlation between the torque on the respective wheels and amount of material present around them. This approximate proportionality, a purely aesthetic consideration not dictated by engineering concerns, is a nice touch, but the anglage here was not perfectly executed and gave the bridge in this example a slightly uneven appearance.
Traditionally, fourth wheel cocks are secured by only one screw. Using a bridge with two screws to secure the fourth wheel keeps the architecture from being entirely traditional. The placement of the second screw also makes the relationship between the fourth wheel bridge and the main barrel/train bridge a little awkward, especially around the recessed movement screw. Overall the bridge layout is quite attractive and perfectly appropriate for this simple manual wind movement.
With the barrel and power train bridges removed, the finishing of the hidden portions of the mainplate left something to be desired . The milled recesses for the barrel, balance and wheels are nicely perlaged as is the exposed portion of the plate near the click, but the portions hidden underneath the bridges were covered with light scratches, a curious finish at best. The mating surfaces on the underside of the bridges were also unfinished as can be seen around the delightfully hidden crown wheel .
The barrel and power train have the same highly polished ring  that is found on the dial train wheels. Finishing on the all important contact and motion/load bearing surfaces are consistently excellent. The gear-teeth are perfectly formed and nicely polished and the spokes of the wheels are chamfered and the surfaces decorated with circular graining . The pinions, arbors and pivots are all highly polished and beautifully formed, as one would expect in a high-grade movement.
The click of the Vacheron Constantin calibre 1400 is an elaborate and perfectly executed piece . Like the keyless levers, it demonstrates the kind of time honored craft that Vacheron Constantin is capable of. While the outside of the barrel is decorated on both sides , only the bottom portion of the inside of the barrel is polished . Polished surfaces inside the barrel insure a smooth, even flow of power and the satin finished underside of the barrel cover seems an oversight in this context.
Beating at 28,800 vibrations per hour, the escapement of the cal. 1400 is nicely executed and entirely traditional. It features a Geneva stud and a locking plate  for the adjustable stud carrier, both dictated by the Geneva Seal (the latter is dictated only if a movable stud carrier is used). The outermost coil of the hairspring is pinned to a steel stud that is in turn secured to the balance cock. A Geneva stud is cylindrical with a wide, round head that is held in place by a highly polished cover and two screws. The advantage of such a hairspring attachment is that it allows the hairspring to relax into a naturally centered position before it is locked in place by the stud cover. A perfectly centered hairspring is a necessity for optimal positional performance and the Geneva stud is also an exhibition of craft in its construction.
The flat, Nivarox 1 hairspring is attached to the balance staff by a crimped, Greiner style collet  and has an exaggerated dogleg for the regulating pins. Such a dog-leg was once thought to be a compromise to suit the regulator but has been found to provide a flat hairspring with superior positional performance and isochronism if properly formed. The regulator is nicely executed but I find its presence to be a little out of place in such a high-grade watch. While it is possibly a nod to tradition, a free-sprung, adjustable mass balance (as Vacheron Constantin has used at times) would offer more permanent adjustments even if requiring more time and skill to properly regulate and poise.
The pallet bridge is a truncated circle with two inward facing lobes  that serve as banking for the pallet fork, banking pins being forbidden by the Geneva Seal. The escape wheel and pallet fork  are typical of modern high-grade watches. They are nicely finished if lacking the fine touches once lavished upon them. They are of course perfectly finished on all their functional surfaces.
As much as anything, this particular watch leaves me scratching my head. The exterior is exactly what one has come to expect from Vacheron Constantin. It is a gallant design of many fine details that renders a dazzling whole and the quality and workmanship of the case, dial and hands are impeccable. While one might hope for a movement less constrained by tradition (a free sprung balance would be nice), the architecture is eminently appealing and the majority of the execution is as good as can be expected from human hands, and certainly so from a serially produced watch.
At the same time there were a few lapses in the execution. That the countersinks around the jewels were incomplete was a minor production error although the resulting burr around the fourth wheel jewel should not have passed quality control. It is good to remember that this is an early example of the calibre 1400 and countless refinements to the manufacturing process may have been instituted since the production of this particular movement.
Leaving the mating surfaces of the bridges and main-plate unfinished is a decision that can be rationalized on some level. There is a long-standing tradition in Swiss watchmaking of finishing the hidden surfaces differently than their visible counterparts and these mating surfaces certainly qualify. The finishing underneath the set-bridge and barrel cover are mysterious to me though. Although these surfaces are not critical to the performance or longevity of the watch, to leave them less finished on components that were otherwise immaculately executed is hard to understand.
It is my feeling that VCVJ was experiencing some growing pains as they converted what was a complication specialist firm with few equals into a true manufacture of entire movements. If this is the case, their obvious talents and abilities will doubtlessly see them through the difficult transition, leaving Vacheron Constantin with movements that befit the consummate fineness of their trappings and match the house's grandeur in every regard.