Interview: Julien Marchenoir for Vacheron Constantin

We discuss Vacheron Constantin's amazing success in time with Marketing Director Julien Marchenoir, a man who frequently says his job is to look to the future while always respecting the glorious past of the company

Vacheron Constantin is a fearless trailblazer in watchmaking, something for which it ought to receive due credit. The company is also very old – established in Geneva in 1755 – and it gets plenty of credit for this amazing fact. Vacheron Constantin is the oldest continuously operating Swiss watchmaking company, meaning it has never taken a break from actively producing and selling watches; World Wars, the Great Depression and various crises – including the quartz one – tried and failed to keep Vacheron Constantin from working.

To be sure, this is inspirational stuff and could lead directly into a discussion of the impact of Vacheron Constantin’s famous motto: Do better if possible and that is always possible. It was in fact this motto that brought us face-to-face with Julien Marchenoir, the Marketing Director of Vacheron Constantin, who has also been the Heritage Director at the company. He of course has excellent perspective on the history and legacy of Vacheron Constantin.

“This (motto) pushes us to develop the company and it has been really key in the history of Vacheron Constantin. I think this philosophy has kept us from collapsing during difficult times in the world’s history. You know, when you enter into Vacheron Constantin it is like a big sword (of Damocles) hanging above your head… It is enormous pressure for sure,” said Marchenoir.

Interview Julien Marchenoir For Vacheron Constantin

Artisans working on engraving a dial for the Métiers d’Art Florilege Queen watch. Marchenoir points to the scarcity of such artisans for the strictly limited production of the Métiers d’Art collection

The company Jean-Marc Vacheron founded certainly has a powerful legacy but this very legacy sometimes hides its heritage in innovation. For example, Vacheron Constantin appears largely to be on the sidelines of the silicium revolution while its many rivals have rushed to stake claims on various innovations.

At the same time, Vacheron Constantin has pioneered an unparalleled approach to watchmaking and anti-counterfeiting with the Quai de l'Ile collection and, long before this, the manufacture arguably led the way in the Great Depression by making and selling watches in steel.

Now, it is worth remembering that Vacheron Constantin was a pioneer of revolutionary materials in its manufacture movements; the company began research into anti-magnetic materials for watchmaking in 1862. Knowledge of the past reveals other surprises in this regard, as evidenced by the aluminium movement Vacheron Constantin made in the 1930s for a special series of pocket watches. If you do not believe it, just look at the brand’s archives or take a look at our own photo essay on the subject.


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Métiers d’Art Florilege Queen watch

It is certainly true that Vacheron Constantin marches to the beat of its own drummer, heroically unconcerned with gimmicks and trends. We have seen this in the recent past with the aforementioned Quai de l'Ile and, in 2013, with the Métiers d’Art Florilege Collection. Overall, the Métiers d’Art Florilege Collection draws its motifs and pays tribute to the botanical illustrations from the work of 18th century physician Robert John Thornton called The Temple of Flora (1799). Vacheron Constantin is paying close attention to history in its own time, once again.

An individual such as Julien Marchenoir also pays attention to history and indeed has played an important part in the contemporary history of Vacheron Constantin, a brand and company he calls “classical – timeless – and not too contemporary, but still contemporary.” Let us take a brief look at his personal history.

Marchenoir joined Compagnie Financiere Richemont Group in 1999 as assistant to the international marketing director based in London; he functioned in this capacity for two years. The great and legendary Franco Cologni, then chairman of Cartier and of the watchmaking division, asked Marchenoir to join him and join he did. In fact, Marchenoir recounts that he participated in the busy work of integrating Jaeger-LeCoultre, IWC and A. Lange & Sohne into what would become the Richemont Group that we all recognize today.

During the preparations for Vacheron Constantin’s 250th anniversary (2005), Marchenoir became project manager and found he liked working in the trenches, embroiled in direct operations, so stayed with the brand after the celebrations. He took on the marketing and communications portfolio, previously handled by the Vacheron Constantin CEO directly (at that time, the late Claude Daniel Proellochs, now Juan-Carlos Torres).

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When a brand has so much history, how much of a challenge is it to come up with entirely new things? Is it possible to look forward, in essence, without looking back?

Yes it is possible. We have close to 258 years of history at Vacheron Constantin and we want to pay tribute to it. We have to be faithful to who we are… The point is we have to know ourselves well because we have all this heritage and history. This gives us the confidence to go (forward) and explore our creativity and also to innovate. The point is that we do not create things that are ephemeral.

Heritage and history can be a trap too because if you only look back and repeat what you have already done, then you don’t create or innovate anymore. You might end up sterile, in a way. You (end up) only looking back and talking about the past. For (Vacheron Constantin), we try to do things differently but taking inspiration from our history. We are classical – timeless – and not too contemporary. It is a difficult harmony to find, but you see it in our Métiers d’Art.

We have dozens of pieces with floral motifs in our archives. Nature in general has always inspired us and many artists. Vacheron Constantin has been inspired at different times by nature and in fact, there is an exhibition (ongoing at the time of the SIHH) at the maison in Geneva about floral art that shows how floral motifs were executed through different watchmaking techniques, (illustrated) by watches from our archives.


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Vacheron Constantin has had amazing success with the Métiers d’Art collections. How has Vacheron Constantin stayed successful, in general, through the centuries?

A few things have helped us achieve our success. One is the act of apprenticeship – the act of transmitting know-how – which has been with us since (Jean-Marc) Vacheron. We have watchmakers who have been with us (for their entire careers). We are still doing this transmission today and again you can see it in the Métiers d’Art Florilege.

The other thing that helps us is this motto that you mention, “Do better if possible and that is always possible.” It is a quest for excellence and it keeps us from relaxing. We make something and it is good and we can say it is good but then we ask how we can do better; how we can move forward in what we do; how we can improve. This pushes us to develop the company and it has been really key in the history of Vacheron Constantin.

Why choose 2013 to dedicate so many fine watchmaking options for women?

Vacheron Constantin has expressed watches for women in its past of course so it was simple in terms of being true to ourselves. Now, after the so-called Quartz Crisis (in the 1970s), it was thought that women were not interested in mechanical watches, in the mechanism itself. They wanted watches as accessories where the inside is not important, (or so the thinking went). In more recent times, women have (still) probably not considered mechanics but are more concerned about questions of value. Women are buying more and more for themselves, and they find the value in mechanical movements and in traditional crafts; it gives watches value that women appreciate.

Take the Métiers d’Art Florilege. Women appreciate the true watchmaking content in these watches. There is true craftsmanship here and value; you know you are buying something that has involved hundreds of years of savoir faire and the labour of highly qualified craftspeople. It is not faddish and has true value in itself; it is time for history, time for expertise and time for creation (in terms of what goes into the collection).

Today what is important is not the demonstration for the sake of demonstration. People are looking for meaning. Watches must have a purpose outside the object itself. We are concentrating on this.

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Patrimony Traditionnelle Lady

On that note, how long does any particular watch need to be a success for it to be called a classic?

Actually, I don’t think it is a matter of (the passage of) time for a watch (or any product) to be classic. It may take time to be recognised as a classic… A classic is something that doesn’t age, doesn’t become dated; however, a classic can be reinvented. It is the right balance between past and future, but always a part of the present. This is the definition that (Vacheron Constantin) tries to achieve.

Given that there are so many new markets to supply, why not simply make more watches?

People tell us that they would love to buy more minute repeaters from us but we just don’t have the pieces in the store. Some people suggest that we double our production! Now, we have to ask ourselves what it means to double our production. We have to ask ourselves what we are able to do with our watchmakers; how many qualified ones we have, for example, because it takes a long time for them to train. You know, it takes a watchmaker 25-30 years to gain experience to enter the high complication workshop. This is enormous! Before this point, (you must remember) there are only seven watchmaking schools in Switzerland and there are only 300 or so per year we get from these when in fact we need 700. This is not only for Vacheron Constantin but for the whole industry.

Interview Julien Marchenoir For Vacheron Constantin 2

Marchenoir reminds us the skills of enamelling and the like cannot be learned at school, only by apprenticeship as in the days of old

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