50 Years Of Automatic Chronographs And The Recent Debuts From Zenith, TAG Heuer, And Seiko Commemorating The Milestone Invention(s)
As many serious watch fans are aware, 1969 marked the introduction of the world’s first self-winding chronographs. These were presented by five major industry players: Zenith with its El Primero, Seiko with the 5 Speedtimer, and an illustrious group consisting of Breitling, Heuer/Leonidas, and Hamilton/Büren with a movement called Chronomatic Caliber 11 that it had jointly developed.
This breakthrough of convenience in watchmaking was probably one of the most important inventions in the last century because it meant a powerful market advantage for the brands hoping for great economic success. It came shortly before the so-called quartz crisis that would almost end the century-old Swiss watch industry. But that is a different story for a different day.
The 1969 automatic chronographs made their debuts at different times throughout the year, though the manufacturers were all in competition to be first.
Although this took place only half a century ago, it is already entwined with myths and legends – all involved parties were extremely secretive about their plans, especially with each other.
Fifty years later, we can fittingly tell this story in five chapters.
Background: ready, set, automatic chronograph
It seems fitting that the invention of the automatic chronograph, the very wristwatch whose technology was designed to measure time intervals, was a race in itself.
Until then, it had not been possible to combine the advantages of automatic winding with the complex functions of the chronograph. In the context of the 1960s, a decade that was characterized by spectacular motor races, a boom in the automotive industry and increased mobility, the Swiss watch industry tried to keep up with this fast-moving zeitgeist.
The development of this movement had become kind of a holy grail.
The task: not an easy one
Even today, the conception of a chronograph movement is considered premier league and it often takes years to accomplish. Why is that?
The crux of the matter is that the movement needs much more energy to move the chronograph second and minute hands than just displaying the time, therefore requiring a much more powerful winding mechanism.
Also, when it came to movement design, watchmakers had to break new ground in combining the two complex mechanisms in the best possible way. Additionally, they had to integrate considerably more components, most importantly a large rotor and winding system within the small dimensions of a wristwatch case already full with chronograph mechanics.
This quest kept watchmakers in several research and development departments quite busy back in the 1960s.
The players: 2 major Swiss brands, 2 movement specialists, and a Japanese giant
As has become public today, Zenith began its efforts in 1962, hoping its first automatic chronograph would be ready for the manufacture’s centennial anniversary in 1965, but it took four more years to reach its goal than originally planned.
Project 99 was the code name of a syndicate combining chronograph manufacturers and brands working together toward this goal: Breitling, Heuer/Leonidas, and Hamilton/Büren.
Legend has it that Gérald Dubois, who at the time headed the technical development at Dépraz & Cie., an important movement manufacturer founded in 1901 and based in Le Lieu in the Vallée de Joux, contacted Willy Breitling in 1965 about the idea – and the owner of the Grenchen-based brand was instantly hooked.
How difficult the task was is underscored by the fact that the two parties decided to get even more companies on board: Heuer/Leonidas and Buren, a movement manufacturer who then belonged to American company Hamilton (Hamilton now belongs to the Swatch Group and is headquartered in Switzerland).
Amid great secrecy, the alliance began the project in 1966 after agreeing how the costs would be divided. Project 99 was underway, and the name of the movement to be developed was Chronomatic Caliber 11.
The technology: 3 movements, 3 different approaches
Although the task facing the three competitors was the same, each pursued its own technical approach. Zenith set standards not only in terms of the winding, but also in terms of precision: the El Primero was not only the first integrated column-wheel chronograph movement with automatic winding, it also beat at an unprecedented frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour (5 Hz).
This high frequency allowed measurement to one-tenth of a second for the first time. With its integrated architecture, unmatched accuracy and a power reserve of 50 hours, the El Primero would soon gain the reputation of being the best chronograph caliber of all time.
Proof is the fact that some large watch manufacturers subsequently equipped their own chronograph wristwatches with the El Primero, among them even Rolex. The brand utilized a modified version in its chronographs from 1987, however with a reduced frequency of only 28,800 hourly vibrations.
The allies of Project 99 pursued a different approach built around a modular construction and a planetary rotor, which Buren had developed under the leadership of its technical director Hans Kocher in 1954.
The chronograph mechanism by Dubois Dépraz was mounted on a plate affixed to the top of the movement with an oscillating pinion coupling the chronograph to the gear train.
A consequence of the movement’s architecture with its integrated micro rotor was that the crown had to be positioned on the left side of the case.
Seiko’s vision also included an integrated construction with column wheel, central rotor, and vertical clutch. However, the Japanese giant’s Caliber 6139 also featured a specialty: the brand’s “magic lever,” introduced in 1959 to increase the efficiency of the winding mechanism.
Mounted directly on the rotor shaft, this ingenious mechanism taps all the energy produced by the oscillating weight, regardless of the rotor’s direction of rotation. A day-date display with quick correction was also included.
The winner of the race
The question of who ended up on which level of the winner’s podium cannot be answered unambiguously from today’s perspective.
The first prototype of Zenith’s El Primero was introduced to the press in early 1969, while Breitling and Heuer presented their development a bit later, on March 3, 1969, with simultaneous presentations in Geneva and New York.
However, the largest number of functioning prototypes at the Basel fair in spring of 1969 belonged to the Caliber 11 conglomerate.
Seiko, on the other hand, scored with first deliveries shortly after the trade show took place in this history-charged year. Seiko was not an exhibitor in Basel at this time, only joining the fair in 1986 as it was not open to companies outside Europe prior to that.
Commemorative automatic chronographs of 2019
Many watch enthusiasts have eagerly anticipated these brands’ efforts to commemorate the invention(s) of the automatic chronograph, and indeed 2019 has been a busy year for some of them.
Here are three brand-new models introduced in honor of the half-century anniversary.
Zenith Chronomaster 2: a new generation of the iconic El Primero
Zenith topped off its year-long celebration of the lauded El Primero with a new generation of the high-frequency movement – the El Primero 3600 – which powers two limited edition versions of the Chronomaster line.
Remaining true to the “DNA” of the original, the redesigned movement features an integrated construction incorporating a lateral clutch, column wheel, and ball bearing-mounted central rotor. The ever-present high-frequency of 5 Hz/36,000 vph still allows the chronograph to measure one-tenth of a second.
However, the revamped movement also offers an increased power reserve of 60 hours, and the red central chronograph hand makes a full sweep around the dial in just ten seconds with each jump indicating one-tenth of a second on the 100 graduations placed around the dial’s flange.
The redesigned bezel is made of black or blue ceramic, and the crown positions have been redesigned: as is common in most modern watches, the quick-set date is now adjusted in the first position, while the time is set in the second. The original El Primero caliber’s mechanism worked the other way around.
Apart from these new features and a more modernized and modular architecture the new caliber is consistent with the original, once again highlighting its superior performance.
However, it is not just the sophisticated insides that make the Chronomaster El Primero 2 a textbook modern chronograph, it is also its refined appearance that is elegant and sporty at the same time with a light titanium case and water resistance to 100 meters.
The skeletonized dial, allowing a view into the movement fully reveals the date mechanism and serves as a beautiful backdrop for the distinctive El Primero counters in blue, anthracite, and light grey.
The red second hand makes for another vibrant color accent as does the blue bezel in one of the two limited editions. The rhodium-plated and faceted hour markers are very finely executed, almost sculptural, thus highlighting the depth of the architecture.
Even more intriguing details of the watch’s heart can be admired through the exhibition case back, with the star-shaped oscillating weight taking center stage.
For more information, please visit www.zenith-watches.com/en/chronomaster-el-primero-chronomaster-2.
Quick Facts Zenith Chronomaster 2
Case: 42 x 12 mm, titanium
Movement: automatic Caliber El Primero 3600, 5 Hz/36,600 vph frequency, power reserve of 60 hours, officially certified C.O.S.C. chronometer
Functions: hours, minutes, subsidiary seconds; date, chronograph
Limitation: two editions of 250 pieces each
Price: €9,600 / $9,600
TAG Heuer Monaco Heuer 02: revving it up
Back in 1969, the Chronomatic Caliber 11 probably made its most spectacular entrance in Heuer’s Monaco.
The Monaco, named after the Grand Prix Formula One motor race held annually on the principality of the same name’s circuit, did not only feature one of the first automatic chronograph movements, but also the first waterproof square case, a feature that back then was only technically possible for round cases.
Ever since then, the Monaco has maintained its charismatic, water-resistant square case, which has been particularly sought after by motorsport timepiece enthusiasts.
What has changed, though, is the “motor.” Since its revival in the mid-1980s, the watch has been powered by an ETA or Sellita caliber equipped with a chronograph module from Dubois Dépraz.
For its fiftieth anniversary, many Monaco fans, including me, had hoped for a great authentic commemorative edition to be introduced at Baselworld, a square one with a bright blue face and familiar red chronograph hands and accents.
But TAG Heuer had other plans. At Baselworld 2019, the brand announced plans to launch five special editions, each one limited to just 169 pieces, throughout the year. Each edition commemorated one of the Monaco’s five decades through eye-catching details bristling with the unique style of each decade (see the first three in First 3 TAG Heuer Monaco Limited Editions In Celebration Of 50 Years Of The First Automatic Chronograph).
All of them were received with great enthusiasm, not only by Monaco fans. With the introduction of the Monaco Caliber 11 Limited Edition 2009-2019 at the end of October – the fifth and final of these limited edition watches – the Monaco year seemed to have come to an end.
However, in late November TAG Heuer had one last surprise up its sleeve: the first Monaco ever with a genuine manufacture caliber, christened Monaco Heuer 02. With its square case retaining the 39 x 39 mm diameter and its vibrant blue, sunray-finished dial with two square chronograph counters, the new version replacing the previous ones is a Monaco in the best sense.
Taking a closer look reveals many new features and the technical evolution, though. The most obvious ones are the crown and the chronograph pushers on the right side of the case. Remember, one hallmark of the original timepiece had been the placement of these elements on the left side.
Most importantly, the dial reveals the major technical innovation: for the first time, the Monaco measures elapsed time up to 12 hours in addition to the minutes and seconds. Also new is the running seconds indication at 6 o’clock right above the date.
The Caliber Heuer 02, an integrated movement with column wheel and vertical clutch first introduced in the Autavia line in 2017, stars inside the case. With a height of 6.95 mm and a diameter of 7.3 mm, it offers a lengthy power reserve of 80 hours and is fitted with a blackened skeletonized rotor visible through the sapphire crystal case back.
For more information, please visit www.tagheuer.com/en/watches/tag-heuer-monaco-calibre-heuer-02-automatic-chronograph.
Quick Facts TAG Heuer Monaco Calibre Heuer 02
Case: 39 x 39 mm, stainless steel
Movement: automatic manufacture Caliber Heuer 02, 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency, power reserve of 80 hours
Functions: hours, minutes, subsidiary seconds; date, chronograph
Seiko Automatic Chronograph 50th Anniversary Limited Edition SRQ029J1: a fitting tribute to the original
Of all the brands involved in the invention of the automatic chronograph, Seiko was the one that did not make a big fuss about it – most likely because the first quartz wristwatch in history, which Seiko also introduced in 1969, far overshadowed it.
Still, Caliber 6139 outfitted with a column wheel and vertical clutch as well as the Magic Lever, holds a firm place in the brand’s history.
To mark the anniversary, Seiko recently launched a beautiful commemorative piece in its Prospex line under the somewhat long name Seiko Automatic Chronograph 50th Anniversary Limited Edition.
Reference SRQ029J1, as Seiko fans will undoubtedly call it, features a tricompax layout instead of the original bicompax on its interesting silver Panda-style dial.
The two subdials indicating the chronograph functions are executed in black, corresponding to the color of the tachymeter scale surrounding the dial. Maintaining the balanced layout, the round date window is positioned between 4 and 5 o’clock.
The color choice and finesse of the execution of all elements make not only for great legibility, but also results in a very sophisticated appeal, not unlike the style from premium brand Grand Seiko.
Speaking of Grand Seiko, the stainless-steel case with a super-hard coating features that sub-brand’s signature Zaratsu polishing to produce sharply defined edges and distortion-free mirror finishing. It is powered by Seiko Caliber 8R48, an integrated chronograph movement with a vertical clutch and column wheel.
Launched in 2014, this movement sports Seiko’s unique three-pointed hammer and a heart-shaped cam that ensures perfect synchronization of the chronograph functions. As is the case with most Seiko watches, it is resistant to magnetic fields up to 4,800 A/m.
For more information, please visit www.seikowatches.com/us-en/products/prospex/srq029j1.
Quick Facts Seiko Automatic Chronograph 50th Anniversary Limited Edition SRQ029J1
Case: 41 x 16 mm, stainless steel with super-hard coating and Zaratsu polishing
Movement: automatic manufacture Caliber 8R48, 4 Hz/28,800 vph frequency, power reserve of 45 hours
Functions: hours, minutes, and subsidiary seconds, chronograph, date
Limitation: 1,000 pieces