Why The Reference 4217 Matters
The reference 4217 is effectively a second generation descendant of early Calatrava-style wrist watches from Vacheron Constantin. The 4217 features the Caliber 454 center-seconds movement. (Reference 4073 is the same with a sub-seconds Caliber 453.) The first generation Calatrava-style watches began to appear in the 1930s as the company began to work with Jaeger LeCoultre base movements in order to serially produce more modern wrist watches for a changing market. Those earlier references that predate the 4217 include the 2871 and a few models that are not clearly specified by reference numbers. The 4217 began production sometime in the early to mid 1940s.
You can read more about the relevant changes in Vacheron Constantin’s production methods in my essay explaining Why Vacheron Constantin Dress Watches of the Twentieth Century Are Undervalued.
The 4217 has not been Vacheron Constantin’s most popular or celebrated time-only watch, then or now. In fact, this model really doesn’t represent Vacheron’s house style of the mid twentieth-century, which is characterized more by fancy tear-drop and cornes de vache lugs, stepped cases, ultra-flat models featuring Caliber 1001 and 1003, and so on. Reference 4217 is by no means a lesser watch than anything else Vacheron Constantin produced at the time, but it is perhaps less distinctive—largely because it so closely resembles the Patek Philippe Calatrava.
To learn about what makes a watch a Calatrava, please see my essay What Is A Calatraval Anyways? The short version is that the Calatrava was Patek Philippe’s creation, and that many imitations emerged swiftly in its wake, such that we now generically refer to this style from any brand as a Calatrava. It is, however, imprecise language, as so much of the collecting community’s lingo is. Technically speaking, Reference 4217 is not a Calatrava, but it is certainly in the style of Patek’s Calatrava. Do not be surprised to find the 4217 listed as a Calatrava, even though it is not.
By the 1940s, both Patek Philippe and Vacheron were making slightly larger Calatrava-style watches, and this is evidenced by the nearly-34mm case diameter of the Reference 4217, which is a bit larger than the first generation of Vacherons in this style.
Breaking Down The Vacheron Constantin Reference 4217
Years of Production 1940s-1970s
Using the case numbers of the various models surveyed, production of Reference 4217 begins sometime in the early to mid 1940s, this based on solid documentation of examples from 1944. The latest model I found dates to 1975, is in stainless steel, and represents the very latest we could find. The bulk of available examples date to the late 1940s and 1950s. This aligns with the fashions of those decades, as does the termination of this model in the early to mid 1970s.
Size – 33.7mm x 10mm
You will see the 4217 listed from between 33mm up top 36mm, but the actual diameter of the outer case is just above 33.7mm. This variation in size listing likely is due to a combination of including the crown (~35mm), human error, and perhaps intentionally listing it as larger to appeal to a wider consumer base. To my knowledge, the size never varies from one Reference 4217 to the next.
Case Materials, Markers & Makers
Eighteen karat (750) yellow and pink gold make up the bulk of available examples with steel appearing somewhat commonly, and 18k white gold (750) less commonly. In the 1960s a smattering of platinum models showed up. The Platinum models carry case numbers beginning with 12xxxx, which is entirely out of sequence; we don’t know why.
Beginning in the 1940s, you’ll find Reference 4217s with case numbers beginning with 277xxx, and by the end of the 1950s you’ll find numbers around 37xxxx. The 1960s case numbers we found begin with 382xxx.
Case makers include Antoine Gerlach SA (Key4 hallmark) and C.R. Spillman & Co. SA (Anvil136 hallmark). The earliest listing of the reference number 4217 inside the caseback was in the late 1950s. Which casemarker was used for the different years isn’t entirely clear, and it’s normal to find them intermingled even within one year. It is likely that cases were produced in bulk and used up over the decades. Cases were likely numbered at the time the watch was produced, and not when the case was produced.
Movement – Caliber 454 (and possibly 453)
The 4217s surveyed for this guide use the center-seconds Caliber 454 movement, but some sellers mistakenly list Reference 4073 as 4217; 4073 uses the same case, but features a sub-seconds and Caliber 453. It is easy to find these watches references intermingled incorrectly, so be aware. To learn more about these movements please see our guide to Time-Only Movements from Vacheron Constantin of the 20th Century.
As with all Vacheron Constantin references, the dials vary wildly, often with very few of each dial type being produced. To learn more about why Vacheron varies the dials so wildly, read my essay Why Vacheron Constantin Dress Watches of the Twentieth Century Are Undervalued.
Generally, the dials vary with the fashions of the decades in which they were produced, with applied Arabic and Roman numerals appearing more (though not exclusively) in the 1940s. Baton markers appear more commonly starting in the latter half of the 1950s. However, this is by no means any rule to follow, as Vacheron really did make all kinds of dials—sometimes radically different ones—within the same year.
Later iterations sport the Maltese Cross applied logo, these appearing to be from the 1960s and 70s, and it is also during this time that we see some examples without the minute track at the outer edge of the dial. Again, dial variety is normal with all vintage Vacherons, and this can make spotting redials difficult. Fonts can hold clues, but even those can vary a bit.
Some 4217s were offered with art cloisonné enamel dials, and these have fetched six-figures at auction.
How to Assess Condition
Assessing Dial Condition
Most of the dials were finished in nitrocellulose varnish, which you can learn all about in my essay on the topic here. These varnishes tend to yellow with age, giving the dials a lovely old-school charm and warmth. This deepens the gold-toned dials, warms the silver dials, and generally gives these watches a great vibe. As a material testament to the high quality of Vacheron’s work, most of the dials have remained quite clean, rarely developing spots and other unsightly blemishes.
One way to spot a re-dial on a Reference 4217 (and really any older watch) is to notice if the dial lacks that special look of yellowed nitrocellulose varnish. This isn’t always easy to do in person, let alone from internet images, but over time your eye will develop a knack for spotting refinished dials.
It is my opinion that there are very few refinished 4217s because (1) their owners tended to take care of their watches and (b) because the craftsmanship was so high that they didn’t develop the kind of blemishes that would inspire a refinishing job in the first place. Again, not a hard rule here, but generally Reference 4217 dials tend to look pretty good after all these decades.
Because the movement slides around just a little inside the case, it is normal for most 4217s to show a tiny bit of wear at the very outer edge of the dial, and generally speaking some wear along the edge is acceptable. Do your best to distinguish wear from water damage, however, which is a no-go in my opinion.
Assessing Case Condition
The sides of the mid-case of a Reference 4217 should be brushed along the length of the watch (laterally). It may be possible that some were polished, but I don’t think so. If you notice a fully polished mid-case, chances are something isn’t right—but, again, there may be exceptions I’m not aware of.
The transition between the brushed sides of the mid-case and the top of the lugs should be very sharp. Additionally, the lugs should be pretty thick, so if you see very thin or blurry lugs, you’re likely looking at an overly polished Reference 4217.
Assessing Movement Condition
As with any older watch, the condition of the movement is always a quandary. If you know and trust a dealer or private seller, chances are you’ll get a straight answer. Otherwise, it’s a crap-shoot.
You can read about how to see through BS about condition in my essay here, and you can learn about reading time-grapher results from our resident expert David Flett here.
The good news about the 4217 is that the Caliber 454 are excellent movements, based on excellent Jaeger LeCoultre base movements, and they can usually be made to run within chronometer tolerances. A visual look at the movement may or may not tell you much, unfortunately, but if you see anything that looks overtly dirty or broken, we suggest passing on that watch because any nasty condition tends to speak to nasty treatment. Generally, however, as with the dials, the Vacheron 454 tends to hold up well.
The Value of the Reference 4217
I’m writing in 2023, and refuse to give the impression that there is some fixed value to these watches. I’ve recently paid as little as $4000 dollars for a very clean, all original Reference 4217 from the 1950s, but I’ve seen interesting steel examples fetch five figures. White gold models, being more rare, seem to cost more on average, and platinum models are, as one might expect, more still.
Generally speaking, however, Reference 4217 tends to cost much less than equivalent models from Patek Philippe. Again, you can read my essay on why that is here. I’ve often joked that if a Reference 4217 said Patek Philippe on the dial, it would cost four times as much, which is roughly a true statement at this time.
For what my opinion is worth, I believe there are very few watches that offer so much value on the vintage market today. This is partly due to the relatively small size—though everyone who tries on my Reference 4217 remarks on how large it wears. I believe the low value is also due to the inability of Vacheron Constantin to gain popularity due to making so few of any one dial variant. Compare the Reference 4217 to any Rolex reference or even the Patek Philippe Calatrava, and you’ll see my point.
If you have any information or corrections to add to this guide, please contact me directly and I will do my best to keep the accuracy here improving as I learn more.
A Note On The Images
Most of these images were taken from internet sale and auction listings. To learn the source of each image, please right-click on the image and read the file title, where you will find the source of the image.