Just as there are sports cars, supercars, and hypercars, so in watchmaking there are complications, grand complications, and watches like the Berkley. This behemothic 63-complication, 2,877-component pocket watch is the focus of attention on the Vacheron Constantin stand at the annual Watches and Wonders fair in Geneva. And the custom-made piece is already being spoken about as the most complicated watch ever made.

This was exactly the same claim that Vacheron Constantin made in 2015, when it took the wraps off the reference 57260, a monster truck of a timepiece that boasted 57 complications. At the time, it was rightly regarded as a masterpiece and the watchmakers responsible — Micke Pintus, Yannick Pintus and Jean-Luc Perrin — deservedly won the special jury prize at the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie in Geneva that year.

However, the watch was barely seen by anyone besides a few journalists, before disappearing into the collection of its mystery purchaser. Almost a decade later, the approach is a little more open: the latest watch is on public display at this week’s fair, and the mystery buyer, of both models, now has a last name: Berkley.

Indeed, it seems Berkley is taking a leaf out of the book of collectors from the late 1800s who commissioned ever more complicated watches from a handful of Swiss makers. Years before Berkley took delivery of the 57260, he was already planning the next watch that would eclipse it.

An intricately designed Vacheron Constantin pocket watch with an open face, showcasing a detailed astronomical chart, various dials, and a visible tourbillon mechanism
The Berkley pocket watch features 63-complications . . . 
An intricately designed Vacheron Constantin pocket watch with an open face, showcasing a detailed astronomical chart, various dials, and a visible tourbillon mechanism
. . . . 13 of which are for the Chinese perpetual calendar that deals with the irregularities of years and lunar months with different durations, and a fluctuating first day of the year

Vacheron has form in the field of complications, as well. Two of the best are the 11-complication piece given to King Fuad I of Egypt in 1929, while another pocket watch with 14 complications and a five-year production period was owned by his son, King Farouk. But, impressive though these are, they seem like a mere throat-clearing exercise compared with the Berkley.

The scope of the new timepiece is remarkable. The brief introduction to it prepared by the brand runs to nearly 6,000 words and breaks down the complications into categories: time measurement and regulation have nine complications; the Gregorian perpetual calendar accounts for seven; there are nine astronomical complications; the split seconds chronograph has four; there are seven complications in the alarm; and there is a grand sonnerie, which features eight complications. There are a further half a dozen sundry complications listed only as “additional” functions.

a round and luxurious gold pocket watch with a highly detailed face
King Farouk’s Vacheron pocket watch

The 13 remaining complications are perhaps the most impressive. They relate to the Chinese perpetual calendar, which has to deal with the irregularities of years and lunar months with different durations, and a fluctuating first day of the year. To achieve this, the watchmakers — the same trio who created the 52760 — devised three mechanisms to control the cams and gears on one of the movement’s two additional mechanisms. Berkley clearly has a thing for calendars, as one of the highlights of the 57260 was the Hebraic perpetual calendar.

The Berkley is an extreme example of the appetite for personalisation and individuality that rules at the top of the collector market, where the words “pièce unique” have a special magic. Of course, Vacheron has a long history of making unique and bespoke timepieces but, over the past 20 years or so, this has been formalised into a department called Les Cabinotiers. “As the industry has witnessed over the past years, the overall demand for complicated and métiers d’art timepieces has increased; this is also true for Les Cabinotiers,” says chief executive Louis Ferla, for whom this special atelier has cultural and reputational importance.

“Vacheron Constantin is, and should remain, a belle and haute horlogerie maison recognised for its strong knowhow both in craftsmanship and complications. Our aim is to create timepieces that quicken our clients’ heartbeat.”

For those clients with the imagination and the money — the latter a topic Ferla refuses to discuss — Les Cabinotiers operates, in effect, as a manufacture within the manufacture. “The Les Cabinotiers offer is testimony of the creative liberty of our designers, watchmakers, and artisans,” says Ferla. “This is what our clients look for.”

This creative liberty finds its expression in a variety of ways: it could be a mechanical complication such as the Berkley or it might be a combination of the decorative and applied arts of watchmaking such as the Westminster chime which featured remarkable engraving and miniature enamel painting recreating a Vermeer masterpiece.

When Ferla became chief executive in 2017, he put additional resources at the disposal of Les Cabinotiers, so as not to adversely affect the wider production of the maison. “Les Cabinotiers workshop is an autonomous workshop within our manufacture, fully dedicated to the creation of unique pieces, whether bespoke or not,” he explains. “It includes designers, engineers, watchmakers. Consequently, the development of Les Cabinotiers timepieces doesn’t impact the creation of new models within our core collection. The department has its own R&D planning and its own rhythm.”

That said, there is from time to time a trickle-down effect from the research taking place on special projects. For instance, during the development of the reference 57260, the work that was undertaken on developing the triple-axis tourbillon “gave birth”, as Ferla puts it, to the calibre 1990 a twin-axis tourbillon with double retrograde time information. “When we develop new movements and or innovate, we always think about implementing it across tiers and collections,” says Ferla.

Fewer than 50 pieces come out of the Les Cabinotiers workshops each year. “The wait time for a timepiece depends on the project. For example, the Berkley was an 11-year project, the Westminster Tribute to Johannes Vermeer was an eight-year project,” says Ferla. “The minimum today can span from 18 to 20 months, most are four years”. Watches must be in keeping with the culture, heritage and codes of Vacheron Constantin, he adds.

At this level there is no manual to consult to determine what is and is not a Vacheron Constantin, so from time to time a committee convenes to consider the eligibility of projects. Among those who sit on this board is the maison’s style and heritage director Christian Selmoni, a human encyclopedia of Vacheron’s 269-year history.

What does the watch’s eponymous owner think? Sadly, he does not grant interviews, so we can only infer he is pleased with the results. I ask Selmoni whether there was anything Les Cabinotiers had been unable to achieve. “No,” he says. “I assume that we answered all his requests and potentially exceeded his expectations with a total of 63 complications.”

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