It may be argued that among the holy triumvirate of Swiss watchmakers, Vacheron Constantin bridges the gap between Patek Philippe’s insistence on classical design and Audermars Piguet’s embrace of edgier, modern designs and materials. Vacheron seems able to balance the fun that can be had with watchmaking with the traditions of classical watchmaking. With over 250 years to look back on, though, no one can fault the brand for revisiting some of its most iconic models (especially given the watch community’s love of not just vintage watches, but their modern reissues). Such is the case with the Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921—a new iteration of which was added to the Historiques Collection in 2021 and is further considered herein.
The model upon which the Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 is based was not originally made in 1921. The Historiques American 1921, originally released in 2009, is in fact an amalgam of two similar watches from 1919 and 1921. The 1921 model—celebrated by the model herein— was a revisiting of the 1919 model. While both featured a cushion case, Vacheron made tweaks to release what would be dubbed the American 1921 in…America. They spun the crown to 1:30, reoriented the dial accordingly, and made the dial itself more elegant: the 1921 model skipped the plump railroad numerals and bold hands in favor of printed Breguet numbering and slim Breguet hands. Despite the common categorization, neither watch was “officially” designed as a driver’s watch. In the 1920’s, though, the automobile was becoming more popular, more available, and more enjoyable. The rotated dial of the American 1921 allowed the time to be easily read while gripping the wheel (at the time, most steering wheels were large and unwieldy, meaning they were held at 7 and 5 instead of 10 and 2). The moniker has stuck, and now almost any watch with a rotated dial gets dubbed a “driver’s watch.”
The Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 is full of peculiarities, some obvious, some less so. The 40mm, 18k white gold cushion case may draw comparisons to Panerai from some, however any such comparisons are as misplaced as they are obvious: the 1919 model predated Panerai’s use of the case style by almost two decades. Beyond that, aside from a VERY loose similarity in shape there’s nothing to compare. The American 1921 is slim, compact, and refined, whereas those words are seldom if ever used to speak of any Panerai creation.
The current offering is polished on every surface, including the convex case top, which keeps it consistent with the intended elegance of its forebears. The first thing one notices—and the hallmark of the model’s case—is the branded crown at 1:30, positioned in line with the 12 o’clock numeral. Much more subtle is the slim curved lugs, with scroll ends and, curiously, false round bolts on the outside. With a flat, polished, screwed-down caseback, the Historiques American 1921 sits at a wafer-thin 8mm. The entire package is attached to a brown leather strap with a Maltese Cross tang clasp.
The dial is the star, though one that doesn’t outshine any other feature. Seen through a domed sapphire crystal, frosted silver plays host to a rotated 12-hour dial with highly stylized Breguet numerals, printed in black and capturing the Art Deco era of the original models. At 4 o’clock (or I suppose 3 o’clock on this dial), a sunken subsidiary seconds may seem typical at a glance, but note that it’s oriented normally against the 45 degree rotation of the rest of the dial. It’s hard to imagine what the rationale was here: it disrupts the entire gimmick of the watch, and if you’ve got this watch on wrist, it means you need to read it at two different angles. There’s also no mechanical reason to keep the seconds dial unrotated. Moving on, at 12 o’clock we find the brand name and an applied white gold logo. Surrounding both the main dial and the subsidiary dial are railway-style chapter rings. Tying it all together are glossy Breguet hands.
Powering the Historiques American 1921 is the Vacheron Caliber 4400 AS, a manual winding movement with a 65-hour power reserve. It’s on display through a sapphire caseback, where one can see the deceptively simple movement decorated with anglage, perlage, and Côtes de Genève. If the visual beauty isn’t sufficient enough to demonstrate the quality, one can always check the Poinçon de Genève—the Geneva Seal—located at 11 o’clock and certifying the caliber of the finishing.
The movement was developed in 2008 in advance of the original release of the Historiques American 1921 and is offset from the typical central axis by 45°, allowing for the unique configuration on the dial side. The caliber is made up of 127 components, features a flat balance spring, vibrates at 4hz, and is regulated in five positions.
Versus the Competition
There are a couple of directions to go here, but Panerai isn’t one of them. No, the Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 is primed to do battle with the likes of Cartier and Patek Philippe, among others. If one was considering going a touch more traditional, and slighter on the wrist, the Patek Philippe Calatrava 5022J is a classically styled watch in a diminutive 18k gold case that measures 33.3mm. Just like the Historiques American 1921, the watch features printed Breguet numerals and a subsidiary seconds, with almost identical hands.
Perhaps more closely aligned, in part to being far more scarce in the market and more of a “if you know you know” brand, the Urban Jurgensen Reference1140L doesn’t have a canted dial, but in trade it offers soldered teardrop lugs, Breguet numerals, and some of the sexiest hands in classical watchmaking. You don’t get the “trinity” cachet, but that’s also not really the reason you’re looking at the American 1921 either.
Swinging to the other side of the spectrum, the Cartier Tank Asymetrique has a dial rotated 45 degree and a sleek, tilted rectangular case in 18k gold. Like the Patek, its smaller, at 26.5mm, and like the Vacheron, it has vintage styling and would serve well someone looking for a driver style timepiece.
If you find appealing the idea of winding through country roads in a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost, then zipping back to the big city and spending the night in a smoky jazz club sipping a sidecar, then the Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 is for you. But really, jokes aside, the 1921 is an incredibly charming watch with quirks and character, without being loud or obnoxious about it. It’s a conversation piece, though one that has to either be sought out by a keen eye, or presented with intent. Pair this with its impressive build quality and finishing, and you’ve got the perfect “alternative” dress watch for someone who has grown weary of all the Calatravas and Datejusts in the world.
The Vacheron Constantin Historiques American 1921 offers the increasingly uncommon opportunity for the owner to transport him or herself back to a different era, simply by strapping on a classically styled watch with a literal twist. Roadster and flapper girl not included.