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The North American flagship showcases the Swiss maison’s watchmaking expertise for more than 265 years, while also celebrating the watchmaker’s ties to the U.S.
A glowing facade features a glass-and-brass design inspired by Vacheron Constantin's Maltese cross emblem. Inside the two-story, 4,500-square-foot space is a unique-to-New York experience of fine watchmaking, with curated selections like “Les Collectionneurs” and “Les Cabinotiers,” as well as a rotating art program visitors won’t find at any other Vacheron Constantin location.
As the brand’s president of the Americas, Alexander Schmiedt, told Whitewall recently, the flagship is imagined as an embassy, rather than a traditional point of sale. With special touches large and small, it’s an immersion into craftsmanship and innovation, and an ode to the spirit of Vacheron Constantin and the city of New York.
The watchmaker’s first foray into the U.S. market was through an agent in New York, way back in 1832. Just over a century later, it was a favorite of names like Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and the Rockefeller family. It also inspired the now-classic, cushion-shaped American 1921 driving watch, which celebrates its hundredth anniversary this year.
Given that, Chris Burden’s Metropolis II was the perfect piece to kick off the first art exhibition within the flagship. Permanently installed at LACMA, its maze of winding roads, zipping cars, and towering buildings was the perfect inspiration for the current installation, created in collaboration with the late artist’s estate.
To learn more about the flagship, special collections, and commitment to art, Whitewall spoke with Schmiedt and the executive director of the Chris Burden Estate, Yayoi Shionoiri.
WHITEWALL: How does the new North American flagship honor Vacheron Constantin’s history with New York?
ALEXANDER SCHMIEDT: Very early on, Jacques Barthélémi Vacheron had the vision to bring Vacheron Constantin’s watches around the world. The U.S. was early on in the global expansion, in the mid-1800s and the point of entry was New York. This year it’s a perfect moment to open the flagship. It’s the one-hundredth anniversary of the American 1921, the driver’s watch made in the very dynamic period in the 1920s linked to New York—this metropolis, cosmopolitan, big city, where the radical changes of the time arguably happened the most. It’s probably one of the most iconic watches of Vacheron Constantin.
WW: What was envisioned for the experience of the flagship?
AS: The flagship is an extension of the manufacture in Geneva. And we wanted to create a space that is specifically rooted to New York.
We have three to four visual concepts for the store each year that will always link the maison and the city, or America in a larger sense. The first one we chose is the Chris Burden installation, inspired by Metropolis II, honoring this bustling innovation and dynamic of the city, of which New York is one of the most enigmatic, always reinventing itself. And you have all these cars of Metropolis II running on these kinetic carpets, which of course makes a beautiful link to the American 1921 driving watch.
WW: The flagship will also feature the curated selection of timepieces, “Les Collectionneurs.” Can you tell us more about that?
AS: “Les Collectionneurs” is a very innovative concept of Vacheron Constantin. It is an expanding collection of historical pieces which have significance to the maison—in terms of design, technically, or for the era. Some of them we keep for our own collection, but some of them we completely restore in our ateliers, and we give them a two-year warranty like a new piece.
Lovers of vintage watches—a very cool segment of the market— can purchase them, and New York is the only place in the world where you will find the collection. We have six pieces of stock there ranging from the 1910s to 1950s, each telling a really unique story.
WW: And what can collectors expect from the bespoke “Les Cabinotiers” offerings?
AS: “Les Cabinotiers” represents Vacheron Constantin’s one-of-a-kind handmade unique creations. You can either have something made to order or you can purchase from the one-of-a-kind collection made each year. It’s a small capsule collection that we create and present to clients under a certain theme. Normally, you will never find them in a boutique, except for New York, where we’ll always have some selection on display. That makes this experience very special.
WW: Can you tell us about how you connected with Chris Burden’s estate and how this was a fitting collaboration for the inaugural visual experience in the flagship?
AS: Chris Burden’s artwork was very much about pushing the boundaries of art, of the physical and imaginative, and it is the same thing Vacheron Constantin does in watchmaking. It was almost natural. One of the starting elements was the cars running around Metropolis II. And we wanted to have the same thing in the flagship, animating the space with sound.
WW: Yayoi, can you tell us about how the conversation with Vacheron Constantin began?
YAYOI SHIONOIRI: There were a series of conversations, and as we continued to work we realized that there were so many similarities between the creation of fine art on the one hand and the art of watchmaking on the other. For example, things like a laser-focus commitment to one’s practice and discipline. Another one would be the drive to create objects that might seem impossible in the idea phase but become actualized through ingenuity, creativity, an immense amount of hard work and dedication, and a belief in what could be possible. So finding those similarities as we continued to work was really wonderful.
WW: And how did you arrive at the source of inspiration, Metropolis II? Can you tell us about this piece and its place in Chris Burden’s overall output?
YS: Chris Burden created Metropolis II in 2010. It’s installed at LACMA, courtesy of the Nicolas Berggruen Charitable Foundation. It’s turned on a couple of times during the day with an amazing group of kinetic sculpture conservators and technicians who help the artwork run. It’s always exciting to get to watch the artwork turn on, the sound of the machine, the anticipation of watching the cars go up to the top of the sculpture and then whiz their way down. There seems to be really an alignment for this project with Burden’s practice at the intersection of art, science, and technology and a common love of the city.
As a conceptual artist, Burden was always really interested in ideas and pursuing them in an actualizable form. His artistic output is quite varied. The beginning of his career he started in performance and used his body as the subject and material for his work. Then he moved eventually to sculpture and to larger-scale site-specific installations. Metropolis II comes at that site-specific installation of his practice and is really an ode to the idea of a city—the speed, energy, excitement, and optimism. We wanted visitors to the store to feel immersed in that feeling of excitement when you are in a big city.
WW: Given that this is the first brand collaboration for the estate, has working with Vacheron Constantin and being immersed in the ideas around watchmaking offered another lens through which to see Burden’s work?
YS: Choosing Vacheron Constantin as our first partner on this new adventure felt really appropriate, to have a new generation of new audiences, curators, and historians work with Burden’s material. One of the things that he was always interested in was figuring out how things worked. And figuring out whether there was a limitation, whether it was physical, mechanical, or even sometimes sociopolitical, trying to identify those limitations as he saw them and try to overcome that. There are, in fact, several artworks in his body of work that deal particularly with the mechanics of compasses and of watches as well. And so, in some ways, I think this feels really fitting that we were able to partner with a watchmaker and a storied historical watchmaker with the estate.