If you’re already familiar with the work of Vianney Halter, then you’ll know that a watch with his name on it is never ever going to be considered as conventional, and so while the Grand Voyageur by Vianney Halter is typically outgoing and colourful too, there is a little more than meets the eye about this watch.
In the world of the watch collecting connoisseur, the announcement of a new model from Vianney Halter these days is almost enough to stop a train in its tracks, such is the rarity of such an occasion, combined with the revered esteem in which the French independent watchmaker’s name is held. That unconditional respect for the man and love for his creations is duly merited, as Halter is one of a very small number of true creativists who possess the ability to express the ideas which form in their mind’s eye and realise them in the metal.
As author of contemporary icons such as the fantastical Deep Space Tourbillon, the wonderfully zany but deadly serious Antiqua, or the subtle but profoundly complex Classic Janvier, Halter’s CV is populated with acclaimed masterpieces, each of which are unmistakable, ethereally eclectic smile generators, and seem to have come from another world, which in a way they have.
However, as with many of his increasingly in-demand independent watchmaking peers, Vianney Halter has found himself with a common problem, and that is having the time to create one of his own pieces for his own pleasure. With annual production measured in the half-dozen, and always customer’s orders to fill, Halter has rarely had the feeling of ownership as he has pretty much always had to release his babies and send them out into the world. Sure, there are prototypes, which are typically created in lesser metals to prove the concept, but often lack that final and time-consuming application of fine hand finishing which elevates it into the standards of haute horlogerie. It’s probably not surprising that, considering their potential historic significance, these too are highly desirable pieces among collectors.
Still, it would be almost absurd for a watchmaker not to be able to wear a watch him or herself, especially when plying their trade at the shows and expos we used to have (this being written in the year of COVID-19), and it is at this point where the ‘new Vianney Halter’ watch makes its entrance.
The Grand Voyageur by Vianney Halter is the watch in question here, and there are a couple of interesting things to mention about it. Firstly, if you were to have met him at any of the shows or afterwards in a restaurant over the past decade, and indeed longer, you are quite likely to have seen something very similar to it on his wrist, so to say it’s ‘new’ is not actually 100% true. Secondly, while it is unquestionably envisaged, conceived and designed by the man himself, and comes complete with a typical Halter twist, it is not actually from the same bloodline as his thoroughbred hand crafted classics. But if these little factoids seem to make it sound somehow like a bad thing, or portray it as some kind of pale imitation, well, it is not. Emphatically. If the Grande Voyageur is good enough for Vianney Halter’s personal use, be in no doubt that it is good enough for us mere mortals.
One of Halter’s great gifts is his ability to make so obvious the sources of the ideas which inspire him, while still making his watches unique and individual in their own right . It is genius I’m sure. You only have to look at the Deep Space Tourbillon and you are teleported away off into the vacuum of Kubrick’s airless world in 2001 A Space Odyssey. Antiqua, Janvier and Classic all have a flavour of Jules Vernes’ retro-futuristic steampunk in their aesthetics, and in the Grande Voyageur once again there is little left to the imagination in either its name or its design as to where its influence comes from. With its pronounced hi-vis yellow hands and the tick-tick jump of the seconds hand with a hoop three quarter’s way up its length, and the massive chapter ring with yellow indices and numerals which grow in size as they progress around the dial, it is a watch which is designed for instant legibility; everything a day-tripping traveller might need in fact, and if you’re familiar with the big public clocks found in train stations throughout the SNCF’s French rail network, the connection is hardly subliminal.
As the son of a SNCF conductor himself, who provided for his young family by making a home in two retired wagons close to Paris, Halter has grown up with the railways a constant presence in his youth, and as an emerging watchmaking talent twenty years ago at the turn of the new millennium, fate would bring him into a friendship with Jean-Yves Mariez, the designer of that iconic station clock. Combining their spheres of experience to design a wristwatch which captured the essential attributes of a traveller’s friend timepiece, together with the signatures of Vianney’s flamboyant expression and imaginative technical innovation, the result was this watch called the HTO Grande Voyageur. And it has been around since at least 2006.
The version announced in May 2020 is not very much changed from the original, and one very good and simple reason for that is because with a design classic nothing much needs or should be tinkered with. The round 40mm stainless steel case is based on a railway wagon’s bogey, with its round lug ends like four wheels extended away from the body of the watch and the crown like a brake wheel, which are obvious once you know about them, and add to the charm of the piece.
The dial is layered, with a cutaway mid section which opens onto bright red base elements, with a ring for the name and branding, as well as a date window, elevated above a drilled dial floor, providing a deep three dimensional effect as it sits below the broad black chapter ring which is marked with yellow indices and numerals. The yellow hands are almost industrial in their functionality; the hour hand short, stubby and sharply faceted, the minutes squared, and like the seconds, disappearing under the chapter ring, but the vivid colour scheme and impactful contrasts lift any sense of mundane practicality and transforms the whole into a piece of modern art.
The jumping seconds hand would suggest that behind it all is a quartz movement, but all is not as it seems. Turned over and a sapphire caseback reveals a spinning rotor which is the giveaway feature of a self-winding mechanical movement, and in truth it does not immediately make sense. The answer to the puzzle is the ETA auto-quartz movement which is intrinsic to the overall thinking behind the Grand Voyageur as a watch, and is an ingenious combination of mechanical and electronic technologies, which means that while the power source is kinetic and comes almost exclusively from the movement of the watch being worn on the wrist, the rotor also drives a miniature on-board generator which feeds into a capacitor which can keep the watch going for an astonishing one hundred days.
While the 2020 Grand Voyageur may not be by the actual hand of Vianney Halter, in the same way as Antiqua, Deep Space or Trio are, there is no question of how much of Vianney Halter is in the watch, and there is another very notable aspect to weigh up too. The price.
The Grand Voyageur is priced at CHF17,500, and while that is still not an inconsiderable amount, when compared with the prices in the region of upwards on 200k which his most famed pieces cost, it represents an entry of less than ten per cent of that admission fee to have a piece with the Vianney Halter name and logo on the dial, and also being one with an authentic personal association.