The Birth of the Mercator
Combining twin retrograde hands in the form of a compass, the Vacheron Constantin Mercator 43050 was released in 1994, to mark the 400th anniversary of the death of Gerardus Mercator. A pioneering geographer and cartographer, Mercator is most known for inventing the map projection which has evolved into the world maps we use today. In his own day, he was also a notable maker of globes and scientific instruments, as well as an accomplished engraver and calligrapher.
The Mercator was the brainchild of Jean Genbrugge, an accomplished enamelist and watchmaker, who came up with the project alongside his wife, Lucie. A great admirer of Mercator’s work, Genbrugge chose to create a wristwatch which honoured the cartographer’s legacy. He approached Claude-Daniel Proellochs, the CEO of Vacheron Constantin at the time, who is said to have been instantly captivated by the project, which began a long-standing relationship between the watchmaker and the executive. During the 10-year lifespan of the model, it is understood that only 638 pieces were produced, which averages out to less than 64 pieces a year.
An Unusual Design
When it was first introduced in the last decade of the 20th century, the Mercator 43050 was one of very few classically styled watches which featured an unconventional time display. It combines two retrograde hands, in the shape of a compass, which display the hours on the left hand side and the minutes on the right hand side. The two hands glide across the dial, then instantly change when the hour transitions, with the minute hand jumping from 60 to 0, and the hour hand making a more subtle jump as well.
Made out of solid gold, the dial features a map of Europe, Africa and Asia, which was first drawn by Mercator himself, centuries ago. The dial is engraved with the shape of the different continents, and then carefully filled out with black enamel by Jean and Lucie Genbrugge. The small details found in the intricate design make the Mercator a pleasure to look at closely and wear. A mystical sea creature appears at 9 o’clock, while the mountains of Europe are subtly represented as small slopes. As is to be expected, all the wording is in Latin, with phrases such as “Antarticus” or “Tropicus Cancri” appearing throughout. At 4 o’clock, you can find a subtle homage to the pair which first envisioned the project, with a "J&L Genbrugge" engraving, a rare feature for a watch from an established manufacture such as Vacheron Constantin.
The yellow gold case features a stepped bezel and straight, flared lugs, reminiscent of those found on some vintage pieces, such as the Patek Philippe ref. 2499. At 36mm in diameter, and with a remarkably thin profile, the Mercator sits comfortably on the wrist. The stepped bezel and lugs lend a classic aesthetic to an otherwise distinctive and unusual dial layout. The hallmarks on the caseback are crisp and defined.
For the Mercator, Jean Genbrugge developed a retrograde mechanism to fit on top of the existing Vacheron Constantin Caliber 1120, which was derived from the celebrated Jaeger-LeCoultre 920. Subsequently, Genbrugge’s retrograde mechanism modified and adapted by Vacheron Constantin watchmakers, in order to make it more efficient for serial production.
This Caliber 1120/2 features 36 working jewels, has been adjusted to five positions, and also integrates an oscillating weight mounted on an unlubricated ceramic ball bearing, with one segment of the weight made out of 21-carat gold. The rotor is hand engraved with “1594 - Gerardus Mercator - 1994”.
The watch is accompanied by its outer box, inner wooden box, manual, servicing leaflet and Certificate of Origin and Warranty. The paperwork confirms that the watch was first sold in May 1996, in Japan, which is interesting considering the small island country is displayed on the golden dial.
The watch comes on our Zürich taupe leather strap, alongside a yellow gold deployante buckle from Vacheron Constantin, as well as a brown alligator strap from Vacheron Constantin. Though all the functions work properly and timekeeping is satisfying, it is offered with a complimentary service through Vacheron Constantin.
If sold within the United Kingdom, this Mercator will be subject to 20% VAT.