All Over The Map: A Collectors’ Guide To The Vacheron Constantin Mercator

All Over The Map: A Collectors’ Guide To The Vacheron Constantin Mercator

One of the most unusual and interesting 1990s Vacheron Constantin watches you can find.

One of the most unusual and interesting 1990s Vacheron Constantin watches you can find.

Our final live auction of the fall 2023 season is here. The PHILLIPS New York Watch Auction: NINE takes place on December 9 and 10, at our New York headquarters. The auction includes more than 150 of the world's finest watches – and naturally, there are a number of fantastic pieces from Vacheron Constantin, including an intriguing example of the famously offbeat Mercator.

– Logan Baker

The Don Pancho might have been one of the final alternative time display watches created by Vacheron Constantin in the first half of the 1900s, but it wasn’t the last one they made that century – not by a long shot. Vacheron returned to its roots and began to embrace alternative time displays once more in the 1990s, and it’s here where you can really start to see an evolution in Vacheron’s contemporary approach to watchmaking.

Lot 57: A 2004 Vacheron Constantin Mercator ref. 43050-000J-9070 in 18k yellow gold with polychrome cloisonné enamel “Portugal” dial. Available during the New York Watch Auction: NINE. Estimate: USD $25,000 - 50,000

Outside the Don Pancho, the Mercator is likely the most famous retired Vacheron Constantin watch to utilize a retrograde display. Introduced in 1994 and inspired by the original Bras en l'Air pocket watches from the 1930s, the Mercator series utilized a double retrograde timekeeping system for the hours (jumping) and minutes (dragging), with gorgeous dials made of enamel or hand-engraving.

The first Mercator watch (ref. 11992) was introduced as a tribute to Gérard Mercator, a 16th century Flemish geographer, on the 400th anniversary of his death. The watch’s dial featured an interpretation of one of Mercator’s world maps. The design of the hour and minute hands was intended to invoke the appearance of a compass, continuing the cartographic theme.

Fifty Mercator watches were initially produced – 38 of the 50 were in 18k yellow gold and featured a dial with a map showing Africa, Europe, and Asia, while the remaining 12 were cased in platinum and featured North and South America on the dial. The enamel work was handled by Jean and Lucie Genbrugge, a Belgian artisan couple, and it’s said it took them up to 12 days to complete a single Mercator dial. Jean Genbrugge was also a watchmaker, and he’s credited with actually developing the entire Mercator concept, after approaching Vacheron with the idea in the early 1990s.

A circa 1997 Vacheron Constantin Mercator ref. 43050/000P in platinum that sold during the Phillips Hong Kong Watch Auction: XVII for HKD $381,000, in November 2023.

The Mercator soon proved to be so popular that it entered serial production at Vacheron Constantin. Special edition variations with exclusive dials were made for different markets and regions, including Japan, Germany, France, Hong Kong, China, Portugal, and North America. There was even a series of prototypes created showing Romandy, the French speaking part of Switzerland that Vacheron Constantin and most of the Swiss watch industry calls home.

The Mercator ended up remaining in production for exactly a decade, and Vacheron has confirmed that a total of 638 examples were built between 1994 and 2004. Not all variations of the Mercator featured enamel dials, some of the more affordable versions utilized acid etching to create the cartographic motif. A small number of known examples were even produced on special commision without the presence of a map projection on the dial at all, including one well-known unique piece that has a bright red Ferrari on the dial.

All Mercator examples are outfitted with the ultra-thin self-winding caliber 1120, based on a Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920 ébauche.

That said, all Mercator examples utilized the same movement – the ultra-thin self-winding caliber 1120, originally based on a Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920 ébauche – which was modified to incorporate a bi-retrograde mechanism for the hours and minutes.

The Mercator has been an under-the-radar neo-vintage gem for most of the time since its production run ended, but interest in the model has picked up in recent years. A total of 10 examples have appeared at PHILLIPS to date, with the best result coming during the New York Watch Auction: SIX, in June 2022, for a platinum example featuring an “Americas” dial that was produced in a small run of 10 pieces in 2004 right before the series was discontinued. It sold for USD $132,200.

A yellow-gold example from 1996, fairly early in the Mercator's lifespan, featuring an engraved map of the Americas is included in the upcoming Geneva Watch Auction: XVIII, and a platinum model from 1997 featuring an engraved projection showing Europe, Asia, and Africa map projection is included in the Hong Kong Watch Auction: XVII.

A Vacheron Constantin Mercator ref. 43050/000J prototype with a Swiss Romandy map on the dial that sold for CHF 76,200 during the Geneva Watch Auction: XVII, in May 2023.

Vacheron was emboldened by the success of the Mercator, Heures Sautantes, and Saltarello as it entered the 2000s. The Geneva watchmaker maintained its course, and has since added alternative timekeeping displays to effectively all its current collections. They’ve done it so frequently and so broadly that it doesn’t feel especially unusual or out of place like it might have in the 1930s or 1990s. It's clear that Vacheron’s pursuit of mechanical excellence has never wavered; in fact, I believe it’s only been enhanced through their consistent focus on unexpected ways to display the time.

You can learn more, place a bid, and view the entire New York Watch Auction: XVII catalog right here.

About Phillips In Association With Bacs & Russo

The team of specialists at PHILLIPS Watches is dedicated to an uncompromised approach to quality, transparency, and client service. Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo holds the world record for the most successful watch auction, with its Geneva Watch Auction: XIV having realized $74.5 million in 2021. Over the course of 2021 and 2022, the company sold 100% of the watches offered, a first in the industry, resulting in the highest annual total in history across all the auction houses at $227 million.

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About Logan Baker

Logan has spent the past decade working in watch-focused media, reporting on every aspect of the industry. He joined Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo at the start of 2023 as the department's Senior Editorial Manager. He splits his time between New York and Geneva.

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