Brand Awareness is the Goal at Vacheron Constantin

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PLAN-LES-OUATES, Switzerland — Mechanical timepieces are a testament to endurance, so with longevity in the Swiss watch industry comes a great deal of prestige.

By that standard, one company far surpasses the competition. Founded in 1755, Vacheron Constantin is the world’s oldest continuously operating watchmaker. The accomplishment is especially impressive in light of the Swiss industry’s turbulent history in the second half of the 20th century, when the advent of Japanese quartz technology put scores of mechanical watchmakers out of business.

At the height of the tumult, in 1981, Juan Carlos Torres, then 25 years old, joined the company as an accountant. “We were 55 people at this time,” Mr. Torres, now the brand’s chief executive, recalled during a recent interview at Vacheron’s headquarters in the Geneva suburb of Plan-les-Ouates. “We are close to 1,300 now. That’s a different perspective, eh?”

The size of the work force isn’t the only thing that has changed during Mr. Torres’s tenure. He has weathered two dramatic shifts in ownership: In 1988, the Ketterer family, involved with the firm for 50 years, sold it to Sheikh Ahmed Zaki Yamani, a former oil minister of Saudi Arabia and an avid watch collector. The sheikh then sold the company in 1996 to the Vendôme Group, later renamed Compagnie Financière Richemont, owner of such prestige watch and jewelry makers as Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre and Panerai.

Appointed to the top post in 2005, during Vacheron Constantin’s 250th anniversary, Mr. Torres, known as Charly by his colleagues, guided the company during a period of intense growth in the Swiss watch industry, spurred by the mechanical watchmaking renaissance of the 1990s. Not even the financial crisis of 2008 could dent the demand for Switzerland’s high-end timepieces, exports of which peaked in 2014 at 22.3 billion Swiss francs, or $23 billion at the current exchange rate, on the strength of the Chinese market.

Now, however, the Swiss industry is in the midst of its worst crisis since the 1970s, the result of issues including global currency shifts and the Chinese government’s crackdown on extravagant gifts for officials.

In November, Richemont announced that sales at its “specialist watchmakers” from April through September had fallen 17 percent, from the same period in 2015; it does not disclose sales by individual brand.

“It’s a crossroads for watchmaking,” Mr. Torres said.

However, after 35 years with Vacheron Constantin, the chief executive is convinced that change is not always the best strategy: “Stick to your roots, stick to your people,” said Mr. Torres, a carpenter’s son born in Barcelona.

His one major concession to that philosophy has been a commitment to developing in-house manufacturing. “When I was deputy C.E.O., I started a policy of verticalization,” he said. “Now we control all the components, all the sourcing of the brand.”

Mr. Torres wearing the Vacheron Constantin Overseas Ultra-Thin Perpetual Calendar watch in white gold.

Matías Costa for The New York Times

In 2005, Mr. Torres initiated a 10-year-plan to have 100 percent of the company’s mechanical watch production — about 25,000 pieces annually — certified with the Hallmark of Geneva, a prestigious seal bestowed on timepieces that go through a rigorous certification process to meet standards for aesthetic detail and timekeeping precision. Only mechanical watches assembled and adjusted in the Swiss canton of Geneva are eligible.

The introduction of the revamped Overseas sports watch collection this year completed the move to in-house manufacturing, which required an expansion of the brand’s movement components workshop in the Vallée de Joux in 2013, as well as its factory in Plan-les-Ouates, completed in 2015.

The multimillion-dollar investments reinforce Mr. Torres’s long-term commitment to manufacturing independence. But they have come at a difficult time.

Still, Mr. Torres said that despite the decline in sales to the Chinese mainland — Swiss exports to the region are down 9.6 percent from January to August, compared with the same period in 2015 — the Far East remains a promising market. “Honestly, we are more hurt by the terrorist attacks in Europe, because Chinese are not traveling there anymore,” he said. “But they continue to buy, and, most important, they’re buying more in China.”

And Mr. Torres is eager to establish a larger foothold in the United States, leading with Vacheron Constantin’s presence in Los Angeles, where the brand has held several high-profile events, including a 2015 soiree at the Pacific Palisades home of the television producer Ben Silverman and a cocktail party at the Peninsula Hotel in September, co-hosted by the watch website Hodinkee.

“We started in Los Angeles three years ago, selling not only to Chinese but to big collectors, people who have a lot of money, especially in I.T.,” Mr. Torres said. “These Facebook guys, they all want to have something tangible, not virtual.”

Despite the buzz around the revamped Overseas line — introduced in 1996, the sporty wristwatch is Vacheron’s rejoinder to Patek Philippe’s Nautilus and Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak — the brand has forged much of its reputation in America through its Patrimony collection of classic dress watches.

While many Swiss brands are introducing more accessibly priced models to woo younger buyers, Mr. Torres insists that Vacheron will never produce a quartz-regulated or steel Patrimony while he’s at the helm. He said that the brand, which carries an entry price of $14,900 (for the customizable Quai de l’Ile model), performs best in the $30,000 to $60,000 range and that timepieces “above $200,000 are very well accepted.”

That proved especially true last year, when the company completed a commission for a private collector. Reference 57260, the world’s most complicated timepiece, is a pocket watch with 57 functions and 2,800 components packed inside an 18-karat white gold case nearly two inches thick. Mr. Torres declined to specify its price, but the piece, which required eight years of development, reportedly cost more than $5 million.

The elaborate watch represents everything Mr. Torres has achieved at Vacheron Constantin: “He brought everyone together under one roof, making proper movements, proper complications, proper design and style,” said Alexander Linz, founder of Watch-Insider.com. “But the next big challenges are to bring all these messages to the end consumer, to make them believe in the story of Vacheron Constantin and believe in the link between the future and past.”

Mr. Torres acknowledges that the biggest task before him is driving awareness of the brand, which lags behind its rivals in consumer recognition. “All these efforts will take time,” he said. “But if you can take eight years to create a watch, you can wait five years to increase awareness.” After all, endurance is Vacheron Constantin’s strong suit.

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