When Vacheron Constantin CEO Juan-Carlos Torres saw the early signs of the rising demand for unique timepieces, he decided to relaunch the company’s centuries-old Atelier Cabinotiers in 2006. Dominique Bernaz was the obvious man to head up this exclusive project. The charismatic private clients director and head of this bespoke division tells us about his diverse background in high-end retail and the ultimate, personalised service.

Dominique Bernaz
Dominique Bernaz

How bespoke can you go? That’s the first question I asked Mr Torres. If he wanted me to take care of ‘bespoke’ then what exactly did he mean? How bespoke can it be? He said ‘No limit’. So no limit. You want your own calibre, we do it. So if you are the client then you challenge me on the product and I will challenge you on the price. If you want your own calibre it’s of course not going to be €200000 or €300000, it’s more like €2-million, €3-million or €5-million. It’s all possible but expensive.

When did you relaunch this service? We did this in 2006 but the Atelier Cabinotiers is something we’ve always done in the past. Luxury at the beginning of the 20th century is haut couture. What is haute couture? It’s bespoke. Hermes and Louis Vuitton in the 1900s is bespoke. It’s not like a boutique with models. They make something specially for you.

Exactly what we’ve been doing. We’ve been doing this through 19th Century up to the 1940s but after World War 2 it disappeared. In the 1980s when mechanical watched came back into fashion, manufacturers decided that bespoke was a little bit too difficult. Manufacturers decided to make limited editions. So from the mid-80s into the 90s, limited editions made sense because there were very few of them. However, by the early 2000s there were many so it didn’t mean anything any more. The result is that the demand for unique pieces, bespoke was really present.

We received requests but had nobody to take care of this so that’s why we restarted the division.

Reference 57260, the most complicated pocket watch in the world
Reference 57260, the most complicated pocket watch in the world
Image: Vacheron Constantin

What is the Vacheron Constantin USP? Why do clients come to you for a unique piece? Many manufacturers offer personalisation but you have no choice of the case, the calibre. You just  chose a small detail on the case or a new dial, which is fine. I’ve nothing against this, we even do this. The clients come to us because we go one step further. We can develop a unique calibre. Look at the Reference 57260 pocket watch. It’s a double-dial horological masterwork conceived over a period of eight years by three master watchmakers. It’s entirely original with 57 complications, several of which are new and unique.

Luxury is being redefined? For some it’s time, others it’s freedom of choice. How would you define luxury? Extreme luxury can be this (bespoke). Going over the limit. I worked in boutiques for four years. Very often I’d see a customer coming in to change the bracelet on a watch they received as a gift. For them to chose between a leather strap of a crocodile strap, leather was just a strap, crocodile is luxury. It’s about choice. It doesn’t have to cost €5-million. Right behind the word ‘luxury’ is the word ‘quality’. Luxury is exceptional. For some people it’s an understatement. For others it’s the opposite. My job is to find out what your definition is.

What is the most exciting bespoke piece you’ve overseen to date? The story of the Reference 57260 is interesting. It’s the longest development in bespoke. Officially, it took us eight years but in reality it was 10. When we launched, I went to Mr Torres and said I need watchmakers, designers, technicians. He said ‘no, that’s not how I see it. I need clients, orders first then you’ll get all of that’.

Was this also your first client? Yes. Since I was lucky enough to have been a sales person in retail — the most interesting position — I have a pretty good network and know a few major collectors. I went to an auction in Geneva, as I regularly do, and I see this guy who normally sends someone else to the auctions to buy on his behalf. He bought a Vacheron Constantin so I went over and present myself. I congratulated him on his purchase and said that if it ever required servicing he should not hesitate to come to me. I also told him about our new service and if he ever thought of getting something special he knows where to come. He said funny enough he wanted to have the most complicated pocket watch of the 21 Century. I asked if he was serious. We had a deal in two minutes.

With the Atelier Cabinotiers you are combining a strong brand story with a very unique customer story? Through your prior experience in retail, you understand the environment but with online shopping things have changed and when people go into a physical store they want more ‘experience’. How do you see retail evolving, particularly for luxury watch brands? One word I hate is ‘experience’. Can you tell me what that means? I’ve been taking care of clients for over 40 years and I would replace the word with ‘service’. I give a service that is something they cannot buy. It is different for one client to another. Some just want to talk. So I talk. Some want to show you what they have. At the end of the day we should never forget that today a watch is just useless as far as reading time. You have your iPhone, in the car, on the fridge, on the street. It’s the experience, the process of buying the watch that should be a pleasure. I make it a good time for my clients. It’s not difficult and it’s not new. It’s centuries old.

For collectors at this level. How would you best describe VC and why your clients come to you? It’s the service. What I’ve taking about. You know all the competitors. Luxury brands can be everything but they can’t be arrogant. Without the client we do not exist. It’s all about the service.

Our marketing guys are always telling me that the client needs to be at the centre and I say, guys it’s always been that way. We just forgot about it for some time. We need watchmaker to make but with no client there is no business.

Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, an astronomical watch with 23 complications
Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, an astronomical watch with 23 complications
Image: Vacheron Constantin

I assume you work across the company with all teams in R&D. Is this the watch industry equivalent of Formula 1 racing where the ideas and technology developed are shared across other platforms and in production models? When we worked on the Reference 57260 there are many things we developed that we want to apply to the general collection. Not the actual complication, because the size is different, but the principles will be used. For a watch like this we also had to develop special materials because parts are heavy.

The Celestia is also in Les Cabinotiers. The problem with commissioned watches is we can’t do any marketing unless the client agrees so we needed to focus on Reference 57260 and this year we introduced two unique pieces (only one of each): Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, an astronomical watch with 23 complications; and Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860, a watch equipped with a grande and petite sonnerie as well as a minute repeater.

These two were not commissions but are out of the brain of one of our watchmakers who is fascinated by astronomy. It opens a new vision. We will reuse the calibre from each watch but they will come with a different material, dial, engraving.

For enquiries contact RLG Africa +27(0)113172637 or visit vacheron-constantin.com

Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860, a watch equipped with a grande and petite sonnerie as well as a minute repeater
Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860, a watch equipped with a grande and petite sonnerie as well as a minute repeater
Image: Vacheron Constantin
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