Time-only watches are pretty much commonplace in the world of watchmaking, but there are times I find myself yearning for something a little bit off the beaten path, something truly unconventional. With mainstream watchmaking becoming undecidedly sterile in recent times, lacking innovation and pushing lazy new releases, one can look to the 90s where there was a myriad of activity and creativity, fuelled by the onslaught of the preceding quartz crisis. Watch brands had to be different in order to survive and that’s exactly what they did.
Despite Vacheron Constantin’s seemingly conservative and traditional approach to watchmaking, the 90s was an interesting period for the brand as they experimented with creative ways of displaying time. One of the most iconic and successful iterations of said experiment is what you see here today- the Vacheron Constantin Mercator Ref. 43050.
Diving into the origin story of this reference, the Mercator Ref. 43050 was conceived by Jean Genbrugge, an accomplished enamelist and watchmaker who was contracted by Vacheron Constantin. Working together with his wife Lucie, the inspiration for the watch stemmed from their admiration for the renowned cartographer Gérardus Mercator, who revolutionised map-making by creating the first flat projections of the globe. This essentially laid the foundation for the modern world maps we use today.
Released in 1994 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Gérardus Mercator’s passing, the Ref. 43050 displayed time in an unconventional and original way, featuring two compass-shaped retrograde hands with the hour display on the left and the minute display on the right. My favourite part about this watch is how you can hear the movement of time, as when the minute hand glides past 60 there is a satisfying ‘click’ that bounces it back to zero while the hour hands simultaneously jump perfectly to the next hour. The most satisfying ‘click’ of course comes at 12:59, when both hands retrograde back to the centre at 1:00.
The simplicity of the time display serves to unobtrusively display the main star of the show beneath it- the beautifully crafted dial depicting the world map. Underneath the compass retrograde hands lies a beautiful gold dial that depicts a historical map initially charted by Gérardus Mercator.
While standard Mercators that depict the entire world map are hard enough to find, this particular example is made even more special by the fact that it is a South East Asian edition, zooming in to Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore on the dial. Limited to twenty pieces only and sold exclusively in this region, I am particularly enamoured by this version due to my Malaysian heritage.
With the map lines beautifully engraved onto the dial, each mark is filled with lustrous black enamel, adding a beautiful sheen and depth to the otherwise flat dial. Notably, at the 4 o'clock position of the dial’s periphery, you will also find a small, subtle line of text bearing the inscription "J&L Genbrugge", a thoughtful detail that pays homage to the visionary couple who conceived and produced these beautiful Mercator watches.
Housed in a classically round 36mm platinum case, the Mercator features a stepped bezel with thick and matching stepped lugs that finishes off the decidedly monochromatic watch. The single tone of the dial and case really works well to allow the artistic map to take centre stage.
This Vacheron Constantin Mercator Ref. 43050 is powered by the Vacheron Constantin Cal. 1120M, which is essentially a Jaeger LeCoultre Cal. 920 that has been heavily modified to allow for a dual retrograde function. Displayed through its sapphire caseback, it also features a 21-carat gold rotor with a hand engraving that says “1594 – Gerardus Mercator – 1994” on the outer edge.
As far as wearability goes, the slim proportions of the Ref. 43050, with its gracefully stepped lugs gently sloping towards the edges create a gradual taper that ensures an impeccable fit on the wrist. It is a traditional case that remains original and unusual enough to not get bored of.
The Mercator was in production for a mere 10 years, during which approximately 638 pieces were ever crafted. Coming across one is a rare event in itself, and stumbling upon a unique variant like this 20-piece limited edition for Southeast Asia is an even rarer find. If you are looking for something that is both classic and truly innovative and creative, look no further.