Much of life sounds better in French. Be it dinner à la carte or a ménage à trois, somehow our neighbours the other side of La Manche coin it best.
So it is with Vacheron Constantin’s Historiques Cornes de Vache 1955, a devilishly handsome hand-wound chronograph that has just been added to the grande maison’s core collection in steel for the first time. Translated, ‘Cornes de Vache’ means ‘cow’s horns’, which sounds more farmyard fire sale than classical Genevan luxury – which this watch undoubtedly is.
The reason for the bovine moniker is that the watch, which is based on a 1955 original, has fluid, teardrop-shaped lugs that closely resemble a cow’s horns, a fairly common motif in mid-century watch designs. At launch, it was called simply Ref. 6087, picking up its corneous nickname somewhere along the way, although as is often the case, no one seems entirely sure when.
Nicknaming cult watches is a collector pastime. Rolex is the paramount example, its legion of devotees numbering the Pepsi, the Great White, the Hulk and even the Fat Lady among its myriad references. The custom not only gives those enthusiasts a language that identifies them as members of a watch-obsessive fraternity, it adds a little mystique, too.
Ref. 6087 was an important watch, chiefly because it was Vacheron’s first water-resistant chronograph, a significant development because water-damaged mechanical chronos were particularly difficult and expensive to repair (as they still are). At the time, Heuer – as it was before the Tag prefix was added in 1985 – made all its chronographs water-resistant for precisely that reason.
Its first life was short. The design slipped into the archives in the mid-1960s, marking the beginning of a chronograph production hiatus for Vacheron that would last until 1989. In 2015, Phillips auctioned what they believed was one of only 28 known examples of the original yellow gold Ref. 6087 ever made, for the equivalent of £83,500 at today’s rates.
One suspects that will prove to be a good bit of business, because that same year Vacheron introduced the Cornes de Vache 1955 into its Historiques sideline, an esoteric corner of its collection where it rebirths archive designs using contemporary movements and materials. Typically, vintage-inspired novelties spark renewed interest in the pieces they’re based on, not least if they’re rare and produced by one of the finest watch houses, as is the case here.
Since it was established in 2006, Historiques has brought us some of Vacheron’s most coveted modern-day pieces, including the Triple Calendrier 1942, the cushion-shaped American 1921 driver’s watch with its off-set dial, and the gloriously ascetic Ultra-Fine 1955, all named after the years they were introduced. Collectively, they shine a light on Vacheron’s exceptional design heritage.
The revival model of 2015 landed in Vacheron’s 260th anniversary year, the same year it announced the 57260 pocket watch, the most complicated watch ever made, with 57 complications. Despite that bullish headline, the Cornes de Vache more than held its own, much more so than the brand’s Harmony line, released the same year, but which has enjoyed far less airtime since.
The new piece wasn’t exactly a do-over of the original. The lugs remained, albeit cut slightly closer to the case, and the dial was given a new lick of paint with the counters tighter together, and the addition of a tachymeter scale that made it feel more informal than the original, more industrial even. Vacheron also increased the case from 35mm across to a more contemporary 38.5mm, slotting a modernised (and beautiful) hand-wound chronograph movement inside it.
The first reiteration was in platinum. A year later, it was followed by a piece in pink gold. And then in 2017 Vacheron collaborated with the online watch magazine Hodinkee to produce a limited series of 36 steel pieces with a slate grey dial that reportedly sold out in half an hour, despite the $45,000 (£35,000) price tag. That, if it were needed, confirmed the huge bias for Vacheron’s design.
The steel piece introduced this autumn is the natural complement to this triumvirate. It has a couple of novel details besides its case material, namely a two-tone dial with red minutes, and a strap produced by Italian leather specialist Serapian, owned by Vacheron’s parent company Richemont since 2017.
It is a beautiful piece, but to give the last word to the French, the Cornes de Vache proves luxury steel watches are de rigueur, and that if you’re looking for a dress watch à la mode, you could do far worse than settle for Vacheron’s chronograph nonpareil.