Accident or design? Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921

Ben Adams
13 Jul , 2022

Perhaps the ultimate driving watch is the Vacheron Constantin ‘Historiques American 1921’ as the whole dial design is predicated on motoring. The dial and crown are tilted, so that 12 o’clock is more or less where 2 o’clock would normally be, with the crown directly on top of it. The chronograph function, by contrast, is the right way round.

But how did this happen? As is so often the case, it depends on who you want to believe: and there’s one explanation that’s considerably more appealing to the other, to the extent that it’s now passed into urban legend.

The story goes that the design was arrived at so that pioneering American motorists could glance at the time when driving, even when their wrists were resting on the steering wheel in the classic ‘10 to 2’ driving position (or more likely ’20 to 4’, as steering wheels were huge back then). At the time, many early motorists wore their watches on the inside rather than the outside of their wrists, partly to guard against flying stone chips (many cars were open-topped) and also because the outside of the wrist was often covered by a driving glove, which is also the reason why we have ‘glove boxes’ in cars…

Image Credit: Vacheron Constantin

Or there’s a less romantic explanation, which is predicated by the fact that these early watches were based on pocket watches, which of course had the crown at 12 o’clock. So that means, if you wanted to convert it into a wristwatch, you had to tilt the dial in order to fit a strap – otherwise you had to re-engineer the whole thing. Only when movements were specifically manufactured for wristwatches did the problem solve itself.

And that’s where the truth of the 1921 concept probably lies. But it’s no surprise that many people prefer to believe the first version – and with so much time and water having passed under the bridge, does it really matter now anyway?

Image Credit: Vacheron Constantin

The 1921 watch is itself a copy of the original 1919 Vacheron Constantin: with the more refined 1921 version being produced at first for the American market (hence the name). From there, it really took off – right up to the present day, when the ‘1921’ has been acknowledged as one of the all-time horological design classics. Put simply, there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

In a curious example of life imitating art – or is it the other way round? – the instruments on a racing car were often canted over to improve readability. So this breath-taking Vacheron Constantin has now become synonymous with motoring and the early days of motorsport, whatever the reality of its origins.

Image Credit: Vacheron Constantin

The ‘1921’ watch was recently reissued, 100 years after the original, so it’s a significant milestone for this tribute to the golden age of the car. A variety of styles and cases are available – including one version that swapped the crown from the right side to the left side – but whichever you choose; it needs a healthy budget: a decent example will set you back around £25,000.

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