With the creation of the American Heritage Project in support of VC’s newly opened New York Boutique, there has been renewed interest in historic timepieces with American connections. Most ubiquitous perhaps are the Corps of Engineers silver-cased pocket chronographs from 1918 to 1920.
The official archives revealed that the American Expeditionary Force signed a contract with Vacheron & Constantin in May of 1918 for 5,000 watches to be delivered to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. This was an extremely ambitious undertaking for the manufacture and, in fact, the entire contract was never fulfilled. When the last deliveries were concluded in 1920, only 3,289 V&C timepieces were received by the Corps.
For a detailed discussion, please refer to the earlier posts; The Watch That Went to War, Parts I and II.
With this update, I’d like to present the three different chronograph movements used for the series, with a surprising discovery.
There exists an obvious difference in movement finish and construction during the production run of these Corps chronographs. Indeed, they can be differentiated by movement serial numbers, as follows:
380xxx with ½ plate, rhodium finish and capped column-wheel:
381xxx with curved finger bridges and gilt finish:
382xxx to 386xxx with straight finger bridges and gilt finish:
The earliest 380xxx series and final 382xxx-onward watches exhibited traditional V&C architecture, which can also be found in their commercial chronographs of the period. The outlier are the middle-period 381xxx movements and their unusual-for-V&C curved finger bridges.
Acknowledging the ambitiousness of the AEF contract, it would be reasonable to suspect that an outside supplier was recruited to help, but who? After examining dozens of movements over the past few years, a clue finally presented itself with this 381890 movement:
Clearly the pressures of production and delivery had their effect not only upon V&C, but also on the outside provider. With this example, and others I’ve since found, the proprietary signs of the original ebauche supplier were not completely obliterated. Notice the distinctive cartouche within which the movement serial number is engraved. Further note “+ 54714” barely visible on the main plate, between the bridges.
The cross symbol signifies a Swiss patent or brevet. This particular patent 54714 was published on the 17th of June, 1912, for a “Mécanisme de commande perfectionné de la roué de compteur dans les mouvements à chronographe-compteur” or an improved stop-watch control mechanism. The applicant was Paul Nardin Successeurs.
When founder Ulysse Nardin died in 1876 at the young age of 53, he was succeeded by his only son, Paul-David. The company name was changed in 1886 to Paul-D. Nardin, au Locle and again in 1905 to Maison Paul-D. Nardin, successeur d'Ulysse Nardin, au Locle. Following the death of Paul in 1920, the company became Ulysse Nardin SA in 1922 and remained in family hands until 1983. The manufacture was the largest supplier of marine chronometers in Switzerland and fully up to the standards required by Vacheron & Constantin.
The intricate relationship between Swiss manufactures is always fascinating. I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief peek into the past.
This is great stuff. Thank you for this update and for your detective work.
As you stated, "The intricate relationship between Swiss manufactures is always fascinating." The same could be said about the development of the cal. 1003 (VC) and cal. 2003 (AP) (see the thread below) and JLC's role in developing the movement and how the companies were related over the years. This is fascinating stuff.
By the way, did the chronograph pushers vary on the different models of this pocketwatch. I have typically seen a small "button" to the left of the main crown on the Corps of Engineer pocket chronographs, but were there any that did not have this extra "button" ( I am not sure that it is a pusher to activate the chrono -- I have a feeling it is not) but just had the pusher as part of the crown? Or was the pusher only located in the main crown? And did this variation if it existed correspond to the several different movements that illustrate your post? I recently saw a photo of one of these pieces without that small "button" to the left of the crown and I wondered if it was "correct" or not.
respoThis message has been edited by respo on 2011-12-06 11:57:54
All of the V&C chronographs were "pin-set", which identifies the little button you noticed to the left of the crown. Normal winding was accomplished with the crown but setting the time required that you first depress the pin which engaged the hands to be set through the crown. Chrono was start/stop/reset using the crown button.
Initially I thought the movement with "brevet" markings was a franken, as you will notice its layout is reversed and not completely identical to the other, more typical, 381xxx movement. Then I came across another with similar markings and examined these more closely. After researching the previous articles on Corps of Engineers watches, I now believe that initially Ulysse Nardin was contracted to supply chronograph ebauches conforming with V&C design specs, however, with their lagging deliveries I believe they granted UN permission to also use their own stocks which were appropriately re-branded for V&C.
To conclude this examination of the Corps of Engineers pocket chronographs, I'd like to address a semi-ersatz version marked on the cuvette as "Examined By Vacheron & Constantin Genève". As previously discussed, the delivery order for pocket chronographs was extremely ambitious and V&C never did fully complete the requested number. While Nardin's ebauches were marked as V&C pieces, these "Examined By" watches did not extend that pretense.
Even the dial, while conforming to other Corps of Engineers models in every other aspect, is quite obviously missing the prestigious appellation "Vacheron & Constantin".
On the commercial side, V&C had a long tradition of providing what they called "second quality" timepieces under a different brand name beginning with Girod-Colombey in 1819 up to the Trident brand in 1902. This practice evolved to supplied pieces marked "Fabrique Pour Vacheron & Constantin". These "Examined By" chronographs are clearly a military equivalent!
The silver cases are indeed provided by the same supplier as the "normal" Corps of Engineers watches; Huguenin Freres (HF). They seem to be utilizing excess stock as the EXAMINED BY script appears squeezed into position above Vacheron & Constantin as an afterthought; not even of the same gothic style.
It is the movement that gives it all away. Bearing the trademark of Valjoux, the caliber 42 is an adequate workhorse. Taking the "Examined By" label at face value, one assumes that some sort of post-production quality inspection was undertaken to assure the military recipients that each timepiece was worthy of it's important tasks.
My lingering question is whether these "Examined By" versions were counted in the total production numbers demanded by V&C's contract with the American Expeditionary Force? I suspect so...