One of the big-name trio of brands at the pinnacle of luxury watchmaking, Vacheron Constantin’s new chronograph is a true connoisseur’s piece, reports Chris Hall.

Watch aficionados often speak of “the big three” – the triumvirate of manufacturers that have been producing world-class watches in-house for well over a century; that have unmatched expertise in the many crafts and technical skills needed to master every element of watchmaking; and that can count billionaire industrialists, great thinkers and world leaders among their clients.

Each has a name synonymous with opulence and luxury – Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin. (Some people would place the likes of A Lange and Sohne, Jaeger-LeCoultre or Breguet in the same list to make a big four, five or six, but each of these lacks either the unbroken history or the heavyweight prestige, if not the technical ability.)

Such is the status of these names that even if you’re not a fully paid-up watch geek, you may know that Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe have edged out in front of Vacheron Constantin of late – although, in truth, the problem began more than 40 years ago when Audemars released the Royal Oak and Patek the Nautilus, in 1972 and 1976 respectively. Waiting lists for these today are the stuff of anguish for collectors; new models change hands for huge premiums and vintage references have no trouble running into six figures.

Vacheron Constantin produced a similar model, the 222, in 1978, but it was never produced in serious volumes; the industry ran into enormous trouble at the same time, and when it bounced back in the 1990s, Vacheron was sluggish to revive it (it eventually came back as the Overseas) or introduce anything that could rival Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Offshore or Patek Philippe’s Aquanaut.

Today, Vacheron sits atop the Richemont Group’s roster of watch brands, has a gleaming new factory just outside Geneva, and in 2015 made headlines with its creation, for an anonymous New York collector, of the most complicated watch of all time – a hockey puck-sized marvel that took eight years to make and cost north of ten million US dollars.

There’s no doubting the brand’s mastery, and yet it seems unable to match the desirability of its peers. It must be particularly galling that both Audemars Piguet and Patek Philippe are now talking of the success of their seventies icons as a problem, with the former launching a new model in January this year aimed at moving customers on from the Royal Oak, and Patek chief executive Thierry Stern carefully restricting the production volume of the Nautilus (which only stokes the yearning for those that do get made). Audemars recently passed the US$1 billion mark in annual sales, while Patek’s are estimated to surpass US$1.5 billion; a nice problem to have.

It’s not as simple as lacking a hero product, however. Experts have long talked of Vacheron Constantin as a sleeping giant, but while the vintage watch market overall has gone crazy in the past five years, Vacheron’s back catalogue is yet to show any sign of having “a moment”. As for the modern range, time will tell whether the introduction of the entry-level Fiftysix collection will be the tonic; so far, the reaction has been muted.

What the brand has a particular talent for is making watches that stop the connoisseur in his or her tracks, and these come predominantly from its Historiques range (like much of the industry, it has clocked that there is hay to be made evoking past glories). I would go so far as to say that this select collection is one of the prettiest concentrations of mid-century watch design there is; certainly, it will be seeing some of my Euromillions money when the time comes.

The latest addition is called the Cornes de Vache (proof that all things sound nicer in French; it means “cow horns” and relates to the shape of the lugs). A mightily faithful reimagining of a chronograph from 1955, it was first brought back four years ago but now exists for the first time in stainless steel – a good chunk cheaper, therefore, although such things are relative (£32,900, compared with £48,700 in rose gold). What’s more, I actually think it’s more attractive, thanks to the delicate use of red text and its rich maroon Serapian leather strap. Inside is one of the all-time great chronograph movements, hand-wound and finished to the nines. In a word: irresistible.

All of this leaves me conflicted. Anyone capable of making this deserves to be lauded and I’d love to see Vacheron enjoy the success the other two have had. But something in me knows that if it did, it might not make so many pieces like this, and that they might not be as tasteful. Is it too much to hope it can manage both?