As you may know by now, eBay has been sponsoring the development of our Bench Sessions content series that we’ve had on the go these past couple of months. While our two prior installments focused on techniques that go into the production of watches—our first feature was on dial manufacturing, and our second was on finishing techniques—this time around we thought we’d dig into one of the industry’s most common and popular complications. Chronograph watches can vary a fair bit from one model to the next in terms of aesthetics, but mechanically speaking the fundamentals are effectively the same. You’re looking at a stopwatch-style mechanism that’s either stacked onto or integrated into a mechanical watch movement. How did they come to be? How have they evolved over time? What designs or ways of executing a chronograph are more effective/practical/complex than others? There’s once again a lot to get into here, so let’s get at it.

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Chronograph Terminology

When looking at terminology, we’re not going to dive into every little nitty gritty lever, cam, and gear involved in a chronograph’s operation. If you want a well shot nitty gritty breakdown of components, the video below will give you a good starting off point. Our intent below is to cover the basic components that you’re more likely to hear referenced in conversations with fellow enthusiasts, rather than in deep dives with watchmakers.

Pushers: Starting at the very basics, pushers are your means of activating, stopping, and resetting a chronograph. In “standard” configuration, a chronograph is fitted with a pair of pushers, often found on the right side of the case above and below the crown. Granted, once you get into split-seconds chronograph, monopushers, and others, that configuration can change. Seen in a variety of shapes, including the typical pump pushers that look a bit like a flat-topped mushroom, these designs will vary either for ease of use in particular conditions, or for water resistance. Looking at the latter, we will occasionally see screw-down pushers. These are designed with a threaded locking sleeve that screws down, preventing the pushers from being operated when under water.

Subdials: Again variable based on configuration, subdials are used to indicate the recorded time of the chronograph in a clear and efficient manner. Most commonly chronographs will either be two-register or three-register, where one or two of the subdials will be used to indicate the hours and minutes of chronograph operation (the additional subdial will be for running seconds if applicable). On rare occasions, a watch designer will forgo subdials and use centrally operated hands to indicate the chronograph’s running seconds and minutes.

Clutch (vertical or otherwise): Much like the clutch in your car that provides the link between the engine and transmission, a clutch in a chronograph movement acts to engage and disengage the chronograph from the running geartrain in order to time the requested event(s). There are two ways that clutches work. A Lateral clutch will mesh a pair of gears that are side by side on the same plane. With a vertical clutch on the other hand, the gears are already engaged, and a pair of levers are used to separate the “plates” that control engagement and disengagement. Though it’s argued that a vertical clutch is the superior and more efficient way of providing accurate chronograph start/stop function, in terms of practical use they’re pretty much apples to apples. Yes, a vertical clutch will help avoid that “jumpy start” to chronograph activation, the difference in accuracy is down in the 10ths of a second range. Human reaction time isn’t perfect to begin with, so the difference in readings will be more closely tied to the fingers operating the pushers than it will be to the difference in mechanical engagement.

Column Wheel: Part and parcel with a vertical clutch, the small castle-shaped gear known as a column wheel is a part of the workings of chronograph operation that provides a smooth and soft engagement of its clutch. It’s harder to manufacture than a cam—its lesser heart-shaped alternative that’s more common at the entry level—and its prominent position behind an exhibition caseback make it the calling card of a premium-level chronograph.

Integrated Chronograph: This seems self-explanatory to some, but an integrated chronograph movement is one where the chronograph function is built into the movement from the ground up; its components are integrated into the caliber’s overall layout. There are a couple of schools of thought regarding why an integrated chronograph is better than a modular one, but these don’t always hold water. In theory you can build an integrated chronograph movement to be thinner than a modular unit can be but that’s not a guarantee. The modular ETA 2894-2 is thinner than the integrated Valjoux 7750. The fact that some of the biggest name brands in the industry (including Audemars Piguet) have gone back and forth between modular and integrated chronographs is a testament to the benefits of both methods.

Modular Chronograph: A modular chronograph, in contrast to its integrated sibling, is a chronograph module stacked on top of an existing geartrain. There are two key advantages that come with modular chronographs. First, watchmakers are able to assemble the module independent from the base movement, meaning that you can theoretically expedite the manufacturing and assembly timeline when dealing with larger volumes. Second, repairs on chronograph-specific issues are generally considered easier to execute with a modular movement design.

Rattrapante / Split-Seconds Chronograph: This is where things start getting interesting. The principle behind a split chronograph is to allow for lap timing, while continuing to time a complete event. You can often spot these based on there being an additional pusher on the watch case. A pair of stacked chronograph seconds hands will travel around the dial in unison, activated and reset by the conventional chronograph pushers. Using the split pusher will pause one of the two seconds hands will stop, allowing you to record the time interval. Pressing that pusher again will allow that hand to snap forward and “catch up to” (rattraper in French) to its sister hand.

Monopusher Chronograph: Again somewhat self-explanatory here, a monopusher chronograph uses a single pusher to perform all functions of starting, stopping, and resetting the chronograph’s timing process. This design was that jumping off point of chronograph design, yet it has resurfaced in modern watchmaking in modest doses.

Regatta Timer: If you see a chronograph that either has a 5-minute countdown at the beginning of its subdial, or that uses five round cut-outs on the dial that change color every five minutes, that’s a regatta timer. Sailing races start based off of a countdown period, and these chronographs were developed with the intent of timing this period accurately.

Now that you’ve got a basic handle on the lingo, let’s dive into how chronographs came to be in the first place.

In The Beginning—Pocket Chronograph and Beyond

The first real chronograph, before a chronograph was to be known as a chronograph, was built by Louis Moinet in 1816. Designed for use when making astronomical observation/research, the unique timer was built to run at a frequency of 30Hz, and could measure time in increments of 1/60th of a second. Aside from a few rare exceptions this high frequency is pretty much unheard of. Remember, the “high beat” El Primero runs at 5Hz.

While this Louis Moinet creation was more of a one-off, the first chronograph to be properly marketed and sold as such was made in 1821 by Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, watchmaker of the French King Louis XVII. In this case, the king requested a timing device to time horse races that led to its creation. This unit was built into a wooden housing, and thus skews the lines a bit as far as chronographs in watchmaking goes.

The first real chronograph wristwatch came just shy of a century later, as Longines developed the caliber 13.33z in 1913. This first example was relatively simple in execution—manual winding, 18 jewels, 2.5Hz operating frequency (or 18,000 vibrations per hour), and most notably a monopusher operation of the chronograph function. Its pusher was built into the watch crown, and pushing it would sequentially start, stop, and reset the chronograph’s timing function. Due to this design, a hidden pusher was used to toggle between time setting and chronograph operation rather than using a pull-out crown.

The next step in this basic evolution was the use of chronograph pushers as we know them today, and it may be a surprise to hear that Breitling was behind this. There’s a bit of debate here, in a sense, as Breitling’s first completed chronograph using a single pusher separate from its crown launched in 1915. Meanwhile, Patek Philippe had already been working on something similar; the process to build the first split-seconds chronograph began in 1903, however the brand did not formally unveil this masterpiece until 1923. As you’ll see shortly, this is by no means the first time that claims of “first position” are contentious.

The last evolution in this early chain was the Breitling No. 100 Chronographe-Compteur. This marked the arrival of the separate start/stop and reset pushers in chronograph manufacturing that lives on in the category to this day.

Now, we know that there are a lot of other legendary chronographs that crop up in between this and the next category, but if we were to take a detour down the Speedmaster, Daytona, Patek, etc. rabbit hole, well, those are never ending stories all on their own. That in mind, let’s hop ahead to the end of the 1960s.

The Automatic Battle

As previously noted, brands often like to battle it out for claims of being first to do anything, and the title of “first automatic chronograph” is one such debate. In what can effectively be called a David versus Goliath type scenario, as Seiko silently forged ahead with their own automatic chronograph caliber as the Swiss giants—Zenith, and the Chronomatic Group (comprised of Heuer, Breitling, Buren/Hamilton, and Dubois-Depraz)—were battling it out with one another in hopes of being able to hold rank as the “first” automatic chronograph on the market. Jeff Stein of OnTheDash did an excellent job of documenting this competition in detail, but based on all of the currently available information, here’s how it all shook out.

If we look at this as “who had a working prototype caliber first”, that title can fairly go to Zenith and the El Primero, which was first publicly shown in January of 1969 to a select group of journalists. The Chronomatic’s unveiling came in a more grand form in March of the same year. That said, there were far more pre-production working Chronomatics to go around, and this led to serially produced pieces being available in the market by the summer that year. These were split between the aforementioned brands, and in Heuer guise became known as the Caliber 11. Meanwhile, production versions of the Zenith El Primero Chronograph were not commercially available until October.

Meanwhile, though some claim a bit of grey area, based on the serial numbers and available information, the Seiko 6139 automatic chronograph was delivered in the Japanese market in May of 1969. In my books, first delivered to consumers does give grounds to title of first. To others, the first that was globally available should hold said title, so in that case the Chronomatic references of Heuer, Breitling, and Hamilton-Buren would be the winners. On account of its naming of “El Primero”, we’ll still give Zenith the fact that they were the first to officially show off their prototype watches. To be fair, the titles of “thinnest watch” have been handed out based on Baselworld and Watches & Wonders announcements these days, so by today’s standard Zenith’s claim should be fair game.

Some five years later, another chronograph caliber entered the ring that continues to impact the watchmaking landscape to this day. Enter the Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph, which evolved from its manually wound 7733 and 7734 successors. It’s really the ubiquitous caliber in the category to this day, dubbed as a workhorse by many for its relative reliability and ease of servicing. It really is the ETA 2824 of chronographs, and while it’s not fancy or overly well finished, its longstanding legacy as the go-to caliber for just about any brand under the sun unable or unwilling to produce their own movements speaks volumes.

The Quartz Gap and Modern Innovations

Much like a few of the other topics we glossed over, the Quartz Crisis is another topic in of itself that we are not going to dive into here but suffice it to say that after the 7750, things got a bit dark before long when it comes to mechanical watchmaking. The 7750 still trucked along, as did the El Primero, the Caliber 11, alongside efforts from Omega and Lemania which went through their own varying degrees of turmoil. Lemania, who we haven’t really touched on yet, though they’re responsible for some fantastic calibers including a number of Patek Philippe references and the tool-focused central minutes caliber 5100 (used in a number of references from Sinn, Tutima, and Omega, among others) Unfortunately Lemania folded in the early ‘90s and was acquired by Breguet during a growth period of the Swatch Group.

With limited resources to put into R&D and a limited supply of available calibers, the chronograph market was pretty sleepy through the ‘80s and ‘90s. The 7750 remained the most common choice, seen alongside Dubois Depraz chronographs for the most part. The rare exception came somewhere in the mid to late ‘90s as Jaquet SA developed their own modules, capable of mirroring the 3-6-9 sundial configuration seen in the El Primero, which by then was also powering the Rolex Daytona. Long story short (and a story that we’ll also be discussing another time), some shady business involving those calibers, the fake watch market, and a few other dodgy elements led to the dissolving of that business, which would then become La Joux-Perret.

As the modern market has continued to evolve over the last decade, the game has changes substantially. There are now in-house manufactured chronographs in the market from Rolex, Breitling, Parmigiani Fleurier, F.P. Journe, A. Lange & Söhne, and several others. There are also more supplied options than before, which come from everyone from Seiko and Sellita at the entry level, through to Vaucher Fleurier (the independent movement manufacture owned by Parmigiani Fleurier). It’s quite the different ball game, but in reality there hasn’t been a whole lot of change. Escapements change, general layouts change, but with rare exception, few chronographs have really flipped things on their head.

One such movement is the Agengraphe by Agenhor SA, now used in chronographs by Moser, Singer watches, and Fabergé—an eclectic bunch to say the least. Looking at the caliber from either end, it’s clear that this is by no means a “standard movement. From the back you would assume its manually wound, but in reality its rotor rests between its time display and the top layer of the movement. Its display is also a bit of an oddity in certain applications. In the case of the Singer Track 1, the three central hands are used to mark elapsed time of the chronograph. Whereas the time is displayed via a pair of rings on the perimeter of its dial.

Our final example circles back to the race of the automatics, oddly enough, with the two contenders who now are both under ownership of the LVMH group. I’m referencing both examples because we know that R&D is shared between brands, and if not for one, we would not have the other. The first watch in question is the TAG Heuer Mikrograph. First launched in 2011, this was a very expensive and very scarce watch from the brand, featuring a pair of balance wheels—one for the running time and one for its absolutely bonkers 1/100th of a second chronograph. To accomplish this, not only was the main balance running at 5Hz (the high beat rate of the El Primero), but the chronograph balance would run at 50Hz. It was a technical marvel in its day, but one that many assumed was a fun little technical exercise and nothing more.

Fast forward to 2017, and it seems we were all wrong. With the relaunch of Zenith’s Defy collection, now known as the Defy21, this caliber was basically redrawn in Zenith guise, for series production, with a sticker price around the $10,000 USD mark depending on the reference in question. This is a far cry from the $50k plus mark that the 150 examples of the Mikrograph commanded, and though its case is a bit of an acquired taste for some, there’s definitely loads of appeal in terms of complex watchmaking for the money. Yes, $10k is still a lot compared to most “standard” chronographs, but this is no standard chronograph either.

What Comes Next?

The way the market has been going lately we’re quite eager to see where things go in terms of movement design and availability. The independent watchmaking scene is going a bit crazy these days, and there’s a greater demand for more unique timepieces than there has been in ages. If this trend continues, there’s hope for more creation, more innovation, and hopefully new and different ways to move the watch world forward.

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