View all articles

Review: Vacheron Constantin Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin

We all know the story of how the big three got their sports watches, don’t we? All designed by the same guy, Gérald Genta, in the 1970s? Well that’s not exactly true—at least not for the Vacheron Constantin Overseas. To showcase one of the latest additions to the Overseas family, the Perpetual Calendar Ultra Thin, we take a look back and find out what really happened all those years ago.

It’s easy to see why the myth that Gérald Genta designed the Vacheron Constantin 222, as it was then known, came to be. It was a tumultuous time for the Swiss watchmaking industry, and it seemed that, in 1972, after coming dangerously close to shutting its doors forever, Audemars Piguet had the answer.

Like the utterly bonkers 1975 Lamborghini Countach, the Audemars Piguet Royal was designed with one thing in mind: not heritage, not complication, not reservation, but excess. It was an era of growing wealth and luxury, and what better way to show it than with a handmade watch so outrageous it probably didn’t even need a name on the dial.

Seeing Audemars Piguet’s change in fortunes following the unprecedented success of the Royal Oak’s release, that was the same conclusion Patek Philippe came to, IWC as well. Both hijacked Genta’s talents to build them the same watch as Audemars Piguet to the same brief—or basically as close as they could get without ending up in court.

Being the oldest and most traditional brand of them all, however, Vacheron Constantin remained defiant. This was a company eighty-four years older than Patek Philippe, one hundred and twenty years older than Audemars Piguet, and it had a reputation of tradition and classicism to maintain. The mighty watchmaker held out as long as it could, but in 1977, not being immune to the same fate, it was forced to yield, and so released the 222.

The Vacheron Constantin 222 was discontinued in 1985

The Vacheron Constantin 222 was discontinued in 1985

The 222 had the same styling as Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak, Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and IWC’s Ingenieur SL, even the same movement, the Jaeger-LeCoultre calibre 920—of course it had to have been designed by the same man, Gérald Genta. It wasn’t so much a myth as a completely reasonable extrapolation—especially since the brand would neither confirm nor deny.

But Vacheron Constantin’s resilience forced it down a different path. Born in East Berlin, a young Jörg Hysek’s journey to designing the 222 started when his family narrowly escaped lockdown behind the Berlin wall, moving to Geneva in 1960. As a student, he pursued an interest in sculpture and micromechanics, travelling to England to attend the London Academy of Art. He dabbled in watchmaking, but the artistry of design was where his passions lay, and when he returned to Geneva in 1975, he sought himself a job.

But the industry he returned to was one in turmoil. His dreams of making his mark in the sculpture of watches looked to have ended before it had even begun. There was, however, one last option, a watch so important it would save one of the oldest watchmakers in all of Switzerland: Project 222.

You can imagine how galling it must have been for Vacheron Constantin to concede its once mighty name to the trends of a moment. This is likely why, where Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe, the two comparatively younger brands, openly acknowledged their intent, Vacheron Constantin sought to veil its intentions under the cover of a name unknown: the young, fresh-faced Jörg Hysek.

The Vacheron Constantin Overseas was first introduced in 1996

The Vacheron Constantin Overseas was first introduced in 1996

The 222 was built under the cover of secrecy, and the details of its development, despite the watch’s success, remained unknown until fairly recently. Even when the watch was launched it was almost with resentment, only 100 gold models produced, 500 total. It was barely even given a name, with advertisements stating merely, “Deux cent vingt-deux de Vacheron Constantin”, referring to the brand’s 222 years of continuous production. It was a hard pill to swallow for the top three, but hardest of all for Vacheron Constantin.

With hindsight, it was the watch, as it was for Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe both, that allowed Vacheron Constantin to continue building on its already illustrious history. The 222 was actually discontinued in 1985, not even a decade after launch, presumably having done its job carrying the company through troubled times and into more favourable ones, but after another decade’s hiatus, there was something of a change of heart.

Despite being a blip on the company’s overwise gargantuan history, it was hard to discredit the importance the 222 carried for Vacheron Constantin—without which there may have been no Vacheron Constantin at all. So in 1996, the familiar shape re-emerged, only this time given a proper name of its own: the Overseas.

Today that name is one of the brand’s most beloved and most successful, and its lines have aged gracefully with time. Of the three it is without doubt the most elegant, the most refined, having smoothed the hardest edges found on the Royal Oak and Nautilus. Clever integration of the brand’s Maltese Cross logo into the bezel and bracelet links also adds depth to the design.

The calibre 1120 QP/1 perpetual calendar movement—found within the Vacheron Constantin Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin—is just 4.05mm thick

The calibre 1120 QP/1 perpetual calendar movement—found within the Vacheron Constantin Overseas Perpetual Calendar Ultra-Thin—is just 4.05mm thick

Here in Ultra Thin Perpetual Calendar form, it is at its most cohesive with Vacheron Contantin’s two-and-a-half centuries—plus the rest—of backstory, reuniting the watchmaker’s fame for complication and elegance with the seventies shock treatment that is the chunky case and integrated bracelet. The funny thing is that although it looks like a chunker of a sports watch, it’s actually just 8.1mm thick, despite carrying the calibre 1120 QP/1 perpetual calendar—which in itself is just 4.05mm thick.

It’s a liquid smooth combination of classic and contemporary, and despite there existing an ultra thin variant of the Royal Oak and Nautilus, both with perpetual calendars—with the Audemars Piguet sizing up at a scant 6.3mm tall—the Vacheron Constantin approach feels more in keeping with the name on the dial. It may not be of Genta origin, but in that sense it carries more of the spirit of the brand than the other way around, avoiding the pitfalls of becoming the brand itself.

It’s hidden in the details, notably in the layout of the sub-dials. The moonphase at six, date at three, day at nine and month and twelve is straight out of the pages of Vacheron Constantin history, not least the four-year cycle month display, which is often refined in a more modern split between a single year cycle and a separate leap year indicator. Here it’s kept as it was because, well, we don’t buy these watches for what they can be, we buy them for what they once were, and it’s clear that Vacheron Constantin knows that.

Even the calibre itself retains historical significance, still based on that original Jaeger-LeCoultre 920—albeit with the addition of a perpetual calendar mechanism—still carrying the name it bore when it first joined the Vacheron Constantin family in 1977, proudly wearing the hallmark of Switzerland’s most finely decorated watches, the Geneva Seal. All in all, it’s actually a rather nice medley of brand collaboration that pays its respects to a period of vulnerability that allowed these fine watchmakers to continue existing today.

If you find yourself in the rather handsome position of choosing between the seventies ultra thin perpetual calendars from one of these three brands, first off—savour the moment. These are watches born of long eras of growing success followed by an insanely fast period of reinvention, and all three deserve full and complete consideration. If you want the one made by the oldest brand of them all, however, the one made by the brand that fought the good fight the longest, that best honours the pages of history completed prior to its existence—then that’s one myth busted and only one clear winner.

Looking for a Vacheron Constantin watch? Click here to shop now