In what should really be a narrow field, there are few watchmaking faux pas more excruciating. Some have been heard to suggest that the Vacheron Constantin Ref 222 was designed by Gérald Genta, the giant of 20th century watch design, who brought us Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, Patek’s Nautilus and IWC’s Ingenieur SL.
However, these days fewer hold onto the misconception than once did, due no doubt to the great horological emancipation of the last decade that has flooded the virtual landscape with watch talk. Instead, it’s now widely and correctly accepted that Vacheron’s luxury sports watch, released in 1977, was in fact the work of the East-German-born designer Jörg Hysek.
Hysek would have been on the cusp of manhood when Genta’s Royal Oak was unveiled in the spring of 1972 and was no doubt influenced by it. He would go on to design for a raft of other brands, including his own, but history may yet record his greatest act as the Ref 222, a watch that continues to energise perceptions of one of the grande dames of Swiss watchmaking. His design was firmly of its period, which in watch terms was defined by disruption and experimentation, often with contrasting forms that broke free of 1960s sunny roundness.
It was also the decade when the Swiss watch industry went to war with the rest of the world. To counter the corrosive effects of the new-fangled electronic technology entering the market, the old-school Swiss brands turned to free-thinking creatives like Genta and Hysek to make them watches with the kind of visual punch that would knock back the competition – and help ensure their survival.
What followed was a reorientation of the Swiss watch industry. When Audemars Piguet came to market with its steel Royal Oak in 1972, complete with an octagonal bezel, exposed screws and a price tag that dwarfed most gold watches, it gave consumers a new question to answer – what did they want from a Swiss watch?
If, the Swiss logic went, you wanted a device that could tell the time, the world was your oyster. But if you wanted a recherché design object produced to exceptional standards and in low volumes, you needed the old guard. The parallels with today’s smartwatch market are uncanny. The new paradigm meant steel could be luxurious, exclusive and expensive. The shift was simple, but with it the Swiss struck gold. Luxury steel sports watches were a kind of hybrid, sporty and yet somehow ennobled by the concept behind them. And buyers loved them.
It was into this world that the Ref 222 arrived, timed to coincide with Vacheron’s 222nd anniversary in 1977. Its form was bold and architectural, too. It had a fluid silhouette, with steep lugs that integrated seamlessly into the case and bracelet, and a scalloped bezel. It had hour and minute hands, a date window, and the same base LeCoultre calibre used by Audemars Piguet and Patek for their luxury sports watches. Ergonomic, casual and yet elite, it broke new ground for Vacheron Constantin.
It was a short-term project, though. Only 500 of the original run were made in steel, 120 in bi-colour and 100 more in gold. But it paved the way for what was to come. In 1996, Vacheron Constantin introduced a new sports watch, the Overseas. Like its precursor, Overseas had an integrated case and bracelet design, but it was less angular, softer on the eye. The bezel was adapted, too, and now mirrored the facets of the Maltese Cross, Vacheron’s emblem.
Over the next two decades, Vacheron would continue to adapt the design and add functions, and then, in 2016, it gave the collection an overhaul. In came a new six-point bezel – still inspired by the Maltese Cross – interchangeable straps and bracelets, and a sapphire case back, chosen to showcase Vacheron’s in-house movements, brought into the line for the first time.
The collection has grown steadily since, right up to this autumn, when Vacheron freshened up the line again with a striking blue and pink gold version of the Overseas Self-Winding. The 41mm three-hand date model is delivered with a pink-gold bracelet, and alligator and leather straps, and as before, the owner can switch between these with the sort of tool-free ease local jewellers frown on.
Somehow, no matter how innovative, the Overseas has never felt as outlandish as the Ref 222. That could be indicative of how much harder it is to surprise us these days, but more likely it’s simply sign that the Overseas has become a bona fide classic. And no, it’s no faux pas to say so.