From when he joined in January 1992 as Purchasing, Planning and Manufacturing Director to his current position as Artistic Director, held since late 2010, Mr. Christian Selmoni has both seen and been at the forefront of many changes at Vacheron Constantin. I sat down with him during Watches & Wonders 2014 to talk not just about matters artistic, but also about the challenges of balancing tradition and modernity.
Q : You joined Vacheron Constantin in 1990 as Head of the Planning and Purchasing department, became involved in product design and development, manufacturing, and then increasingly in the creative parts of Vacheron Constantin – the creation, development, and marketing of new collections. In 2010 you became the Artistic Director, responsible for the Metiers d’art, special orders, and with what seems to be a more broad ranging role. When you started at Vacheron, did you ever dream that you would be there for so long and that you would move so far away from where you started?
I think I have been very lucky, I arrived at a very special moment. I was working in financial services in the late 1980s when a friend contacted me and asked if I wanted to join Vacheron Constantin because interest in watchmaking was coming back.
I came from a family of watchmakers, so I thought why not? We were about eighty people at the time, and are now 1,100. The funny thing is that when I was a child, six or seven, my parents had a lot of art books. I looked at a lot of books about painting, the history of paintings. In those days parents fairly much decided what you did. My parents wanted me to be a manager, which I became.
I was a specialist in purchasing, visiting suppliers. It was interesting to see how a watch was developed, and gradually little by little I became interested in product development. I was involved in the product team but all the design of Vacheron Constantin at this time was sub-contracted. At the end of 2001 I was production director, which was very challenging, and I really wanted to specialise in product development. I then had the opportunity to create a product department of three people and we stopped the sub-contracting. It was very challenging, but the more I worked with these, the more I connected with what I loved as a child. It was like a circle, life bringing you back to things that were important to you.
I do not consider this as a job, I still gain a lot of pleasure from it. My family have been watchmakers except my sister and I. I have always been surrounded by watches; my grandfather worked at home and I learned a lot from watching him.
Q : You’ve spoken before about how important it is to balance, design, and technique when creating new watches, and also of how important it is to listen to customers and collectors. How challenging a balancing act is it to juggle all of these?
I think it’s very important to be consistent. I think we have a great heritage. In this company there has always been technical watchmaking, and decoartive watchmaking. Above that this is a brand with something special in terms of diversity of taste and shapes, but always elegant.
One important part of my job is to follow this path and to make sure the elegance, refinement, balance and design is always there. Discussions with collectors and customers are important but you should keep the vision clear. You can’t get distracted by trends that aren’t consistent with the brand design and heritage.
Q : For Vacheron Constantin, how long does it take to launch a new collection? How much longer do the pieces like the Metiers d’art, the Fabuleux Ornements of this year for example, take from idea to realisation?
I would say that it depends. Metiers probably have the longest lead time. If we were cooking or inventing a new dish we have to take time to make sure it’s all right. In the case of Fabuleux it was a couple of years from the initial sketches. It’s funny because the marketing team wanted a particular type of women’s watch, but we decided to think of something different. It took three years. The most challenging part was how to implement the decorative part. For the Chinese ornament it was very challenging to find the stones in particular. Sometimes with a project you don’t know why but sometimes everything goes okay, sometimes you run into unexpected difficulties.
Q : You are a ‘Maison’ that to a large degree still has a very traditional reputation and image, based on an immensely rich horological history. Innovation and design development whilst staying true to your roots – how is this managed? For example when the Quai de l’Ile was first launched, I remember quite a few people being incredibly surprised, as it was so different to the Vacheron that they knew.
How to manage innovation and tradition – Vacheron Constantin’s style/ heritage; you have to be faithful to it, so there isn’t room for ‘disruptive designs’. With the Quai de l’Ile we were moving out of the 250th anniversary when we did our best in the field of classical watchmaking. We thought it was a good moment to have a modern version of the classical style of Vacheron.
In 2005 we were at the apex of watchmaking with Richard Mille, Urwerk, MB&F etc. This is a style of watchmaking that I personally like. We were trying to imagine something modern but without losing the traditional, so we thought of a see-through dial in a modern package. We could implement an innovation in an area where no-one went before. This took us almost three years, with a lot of difficulties. Once you try to transfer technologies it can be very difficult. Our issue was very much on the technical side of things, setting up the entire system.
Today Quai de l’Ile is still a future for us. It is still a niche because the comeback of classicial watchmaking has been huge for us and is still a strong trend. There is still room for innovation and modernity for us, besides Quai d’Ile we have probably made more innovations in the decorative arts.
Q : The Metiers d’art watches are in some ways some of your most bold and adventurous watches. Is there anywhere that Vacheron would not go with this collection both conceptually and in terms of materials etc? For example the indigenous mask series involved the use of 3D imaging, something not traditionally associated with Vacheron, and you’ve had lacquer dials.
You mentioned Metiers d’Art Masques. 3D scanning and then printing and then creating a sculpture were innovative. I think that Vacheron Constantin collections have mature established design codes, so Metiers is a creative playground within the brand. We have an in-house workshop for artisans, to maintain the traditional arts of Vacheron. We are busy with how we can adapt these old crafts into the 21st century, to use our creativity to create products that are contemporary.
This year, we are presenting the World Time with Platinum Excellence collection (Collection Excellence Platine). Almost the whole dial has to be made of platinum. This has been extremely challenging and we had to find high end technology solutions, which I feel very comfortable with. When there are modern ways to manufacture dials supporting the design, it doesn’t harm. With Metiers our strategy is quite different – we want to demonstrate that crafts from the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries, that we can still open new doors with them, such as the guillochage in the Florilège pieces.
Q : One of the most notable aspect of the Metiers d’art pieces is the use of skills that are rare in the modern world, the decorative arts that you use for the dials. How difficult is it to ensure that Vacheron has enough artisans to continue to create these? There cannot be many who are skilled in this level of engraving, enamelling and of course the guillocheur.
Are there challenges in terms of getting the right or more people in with the skills? This is clearly a limitation for the development for the Metiers, but exclusivity is a good thing. Wood marquetry is something we have this year. In terms of the workshop, all the artisans work together, so the dynamics as well as the skills are important.
With this, it is free-hand engraving (points at a photo of the hand-engraved Traditionnelle Calibre 2253 L’empreinte du dragon). I would say that the difference between a very good engraver and an awesome engraver is that he is able to reveal the light and almost make the metal become alive. I believe this is the level we want to have. It is difficult to find such people but we have are the mentors for them.
Q : This year you launched an exceptional minute repeater, the Patrimony Comtemporaine Minute Repeater. I’ve read that there are only a very few (four or five) watchmakers in the world authorised to work on Vacheron’s minute repeaters. Is this correct?
Yes. Let’s say that we have a workshop for watchmakers, and then some of them are qualified to work in the complications workshop. Then you have the high complications workshop in which the minute repeaters are made. Between 18-25 years of experience are needed to work alone on the minute repeater, so that’s a huge investment, and few watchmakers are able to, by definition, work on such a product.
It’s the same philosophy in the Metiers collection. These watches are made in very few numbers, but we will never be a mass brand even if we grow. Such watches will always be exclusive. I have known one of the watchmakers who work on minute repeaters for the past 18 yeas, so I think he will always be with Vacheron, but if someone suddenly starts a new brand and wants to create a new product and has a lot of money then who knows?
Q : The Ateliers Cabinotiers is a special place where you create custom pieces for clients. Are the commissions generally from people who are well-known to Vacheron? Is there a workshop just dedicated to these pieces, or are they worked on by watchmakers who also work on other pieces?
I think Atelier Cabinotiers is growing. This reflects a revolution in the luxury area in which people want more and more exclusivity, and I think to do bespoke things is part of this search for luxury. The problem is at a certain moment you have to hire a team. We have two designers working on Cabinotiers. We cannot develop a team of engineers or develop technically because we cannot pay them to wait for orders. Most of the customers know Vacheron Constantin, and most orders are complicated and decorated. The success is growing but it is difficult for me to tell you how high it could be. This year we come to Watches & Wonders with some unique pieces that are demonstration pieces. It’s also showcasing the craftsmanship, demonstrating what we can do in terms of crafts and subjects, and a way for us to work on such watches as well. Unique pieces are something which are more and more interesting.
Q : You have a special forum for your collectors and owners, The Hour Lounge. What are the challenges that you face in today’s world with regards to consumer and collector interaction when feedback can be virtually instantaneous about every new watch release?
The moderator of The Hour Lounge, Alex Ghotbi, is a really passionate expert. I started to read and to look at Purists in 2001. I was saying to myself gosh these guys are really crazy, but I soon realised that they were really passionate people. I started reading a lot and realised that these people are really important. In the past I was anxious about what was written about Vacheron Constantin, but then there was so much online. So now I know some of the collectors of Vacheron and I read some topics, but I do not follow all discussions. I have never written anything at The Hour Lounge.
Q : What has been the most unlikely source of inspiration for you, for a watch idea/ concept?
This is a difficult question to answer.
Sometimes we have big expectations about certain designs, especially Metiers. Sometimes we fail, so that can be a challenge. When we talk about Metiers d’art Florilège – I think it was extremely challenging because we wanted to rediscover the way to build a watch with flowers on the watch face. So we thought about the figurative guillochage and to create a daring 3D effect. I would never have thought that we would do such a watch with flowers, but I think we did it in a way that is very important. Our idea was also to create something romantic and to build something new, to bring something new. How can you transform something common which is uncommon.
Most unlikely source of inspiration – I don’t really know. It depends. For us, sources of inspiration – the most important is human adventure in the sense that if I take the example of a jeweller, they are connected with nature. As watchmakers we are connected with human adventure and ingenuity – Japanese lacquers, Masques. This is for us, Vacheron/ art/ culture. We will continue to do that.
With a tantalising thought lingering in my head as a consequence of a random thought that Christian Selmoni shared about what might make an interesting Patrimony and a wish that we had been able to talk for a little longer about matters watch-related and otherwise, I would like to thank Mr. Selmoni for his time during a hectic schedule.
My many thanks also to Vacheron Constantin Australia for making the interview possible.
[Horologium attended Watches & Wonders 2014 at the invitation of Richemont Australia]