Why I Bought It: Vintage Mathey-Tissot Type 20 Big Eye Chronograph
While I’m primarily drawn to contemporary watches, and in particular the work of today’s leading independent watchmakers, from time to time I find myself irresistibly drawn to a piece from a bygone era. Sometimes, as with my Patek Philippe Reference 1526, this happens very much on the spot, but from time to time the process unfolds over time.
This is the story of my pursuit, and eventual capture, of a classic vintage watch: a Type 20 “big eye” flyback chronograph manufactured by Mathey-Tissot.
Why – and how – I bought it and how it fits
I’d been aware of the “big eye” look for a while, but through the lens of contemporary watches as I’d had opportunities to handle examples of Breguet’s recent Type XXI and XXII offerings and found them intriguing. The real eye-opener, though, was a friend’s vintage Type XX seen at a lunch gathering of our NorCal Gang several years ago; there was something about the boldness of that piece that really got my juices flowing.
In 2016, I had the opportunity during a pre-auction preview with Phillips to handle an important Breguet Type XX example believed to have been presented to three-time Formula One world champion Jack Brabham by his sponsor Esso and engraved accordingly on its case back.
The watch was in very good condition and the provenance was exciting, but what I still remember is the fantastic, crisp-yet-smooth feel of the chronograph actuators and the authoritative clicking of the winding mechanism of the watch’s Valjoux 225 movement. I was completely hooked and resolved then and there to add one to my assortment.
Sadly for me, that watch sold far above my budget. But I had another swing at Phillips’ famed “Winning Icons” auction of October 2017 at a second excellent example – which sold for even more than the Brabham watch.
I was starting to think I’d have to give up on my quest when in 2018 I learned something that savvy vintage collectors had known all along: the vintage Breguet-labeled Type XX watches (and the Girard-Perregaux examples as well) were manufactured by Mathey-Tissot, who had also made a small number of the same references under their own name. The best news: these pieces labeled with the brand of their actual maker sold for half, or less, the prices at auction enjoyed by the Breguet-branded pieces.
So in December of 2018 I found myself at Christie’s in New York bidding on a Mathey-Tissot Type 20 against noted vintage dealer Eric Wind, who pushed well past the high estimate with his bids until I finally yielded. Foiled again!
That watch was very much on my mind over the subsequent months (as was the realization that in principle, at least, one should always be able to outbid a dealer at auction as they need to build in their own margin on top of the price they pay) until recently when Wind contacted me to let me know that a different – and potentially even more mint – Mathey-Tissot watch was available. This time I made no mistake and given the quality of this example I’m very pleased that I waited.
In terms of my pal Terry’s collection portfolio classification, this one is a Foundational piece for me – a watch that can be a core element of a collection over the long haul – and it also sits pretty close to the frontier with the Fun category, although its value and historical importance keep it on the Foundational side of the line.
Why it’s not a Type XX – but I don’t care
I’m not going to take you through the historical origins of the Type XX as a French military specification taken up by several manufacturers, including Mathey-Tissot; there are a number of excellent pieces of scholarship on the topic you can check out, including a thorough retrospective of the Breguet-branded pieces to the current day and a quite comprehensive explanation and inventory of the known three-register Type XX watches that I’ve pored over a number of times.
That said, once I began posting a few photos of my “Type XX” watch on Instagram I started receiving messages from vintage enthusiasts pointing out their objections to my characterization. While the original military Type XX specification seems to be lost to history (as confirmed by a good friend with close links to Breguet), the Type XXI spec seems quite clear: to meet the specification the watch should have two registers for running seconds and minutes rather than the three registers (including an hour totalizer) such as the one on my watch.
Watch for a forthcoming piece by Quill & Pad’s resident flieger expert Bhanu Chopra, which should clear up some of this nomenclature.
Some folks even suggested that to be a “Type XX” the watch had to be an actual military-issue watch and that civilian versions like mine weren’t worthy of consideration. While I’m generally a fan of watch arcana and love to discuss it with my friends, I’ll leave it to the experts on this topic to hash it out. Whether you call my watch a Type XX, a Type 20 (as some literature characterizes non-Breguet labeled pieces), or just a big eye flyback (the flyback chrono being a feature that is part of all Type XX watches), it’s a great watch.
Why I love it
A lot of my rationale for loving this piece is woven through the narrative above, but there are a few key points to highlight behind my fondness for this particular watch.
Valjoux Caliber 225: The Type XX series watches were manufactured with a variety of flyback movements over time; the Brabham watch that I fell in love with utilized the Valjoux 225, a modified Valjoux 22 with the addition of a flyback function and hour subregister, and my watch has the same caliber ticking away inside.
Wrist presence: At 38.5 mm (my measurement seems more like 38, but I’ll defer to the literature) this isn’t a huge watch, and you might expect the black dial and pronounced bezel to make it wear small. But it seems entirely contemporary in size and heft when seen on the wrist, and the chunky profile view is really attractive to my eye.
Three registers: From what I can tell, there are many enthusiasts who prefer the two-register look, but I specifically wanted a three-register piece.
Condition, condition, condition: When it comes to vintage, the top collectors are always preaching condition as the key to long-term happiness. I’m guessing that’s true, but in the case of this particular watch, its excellent overall condition is a big plus in several ways. I’m not a fan of the “tropical” or “spiderweb” dial looks, and so I don’t have to squint each time I look at the watch face to shield my eyes. And the crisp condition of the case, crown, and bezel allows me to enjoy elements such as the distinct contours of the lugs.
Fifteen-index big eye, propeller hand: Not all Type XX style watches feature the “big eye” look in which the chronograph minute counter is significantly larger in diameter than the running seconds. Among the big eye watches, some have 30-index minute totalizers (often with the 3, 6, and 9 minutes elongated) with a thin chronograph minute hand rather than the 15-index subdial with propeller-shaped hand that I much prefer. While I’m on hands, some Type XX pieces have Dauphine hour and minute hands rather than the syringe hands on my piece – I’ll stick with mine.
Early production: Perhaps this is a personal quirk, but my watch’s serial number places it at the early end of the production of Mathey-branded pieces, and I quite like that. The serial number is plainly visible in crisp relief on the case back; if you’re wondering why I haven’t shown that until now, it’s because there’s nothing much going on back there.
I usually spin off the back of my solid-backed watches to give you a look at the movement, but in this case I’m somewhat wary of having any contact with the radium contained in the case and so gave up on opening the watch after giving the back a half-hearted twist. And, yeah, I see the dent – nothing’s perfect!
Maker’s mark: Perhaps I’ll be accused of making virtue out of (financial) necessity, but I prefer having a Mathey-Tissot labeled piece rather than a Mathey-Tissot watch branded as Breguet or Girard-Perregaux. There’s a bit of an insider twist that I like, and it’s worth enduring the “gee, that looks like a Breguet” comments that pop up any time I post a photo on social media.
Sometimes the small foibles of a new watch are apparent immediately, and other times they take a while to emerge. So far, I’m not finding much to dislike about this piece! I suppose that in a perfect world, the bezel would click rather than glide smoothly, but that’s just being picky. And I’d love to see the formerly luminous indices really glow, but that only happens when I hit the radium bits with my UV light.
There’s also the matter of the 15-index chronograph minute register on a watch whose Valjoux 225 movement has a 30-minute chronograph. There’s a decent amount of online discussion about this, but among others alphahands.com notes, “I believe that given the relatively high number of pieces we see with 15-minute design but running at 30 minutes, that these are original to the watch (same holds for the other brands of Type XX . . .).” Eric Wind also views this as correct, and I’m inclined to trust my experts; it is an interesting anomaly, though.
If anything, the excellent condition of my watch is one of its few limitations; I’d love to be out there beating it around, but I’ve seen a Breguet-dialed watch with a crack across the dial and am a bit wary of causing any similar damage. And I’d hate to put a big dent into the lugs or case band.
That’s a risk I’ll have to accept, though, as I find this piece calling to me from the watch drawer quite often and it’s tough to resist!
I’ll look forward to your comments on this piece, flyback aviator chronographs including the Type XX, Breitling AVI, German fliegers, and others, and your own experiences with buying and wearing more ruggedly designed vintage watches in the comments section below.
In the meantime, happy wearing!
For more information, check out www.thespringbar.com/blogs/guides/breguet-type-20-civilian-generation-1-2-and-3.
Quick Facts Mathey-Tissot Type 20 three-register chronograph
Case: 38.5 mm, steel case with rotating coin-edge bezel; domed plexiglass crystal; closed screw-on case back
Dial and hands: pebble-grained black dial with lightly grooved subdials; white-printed brand name, logo, and markers; luminous painted radium hours and major chronograph minute indices; white-painted hands with luminous-treated syringe hour, minute, and chronograph second hand
Movement: manually wound Valjoux Caliber 225; 40-hour power reserve; 18,000 vph/2.5 H frequency; column wheel flyback chronograph with semi-instantaneous chronograph minutes
Functions: hours, minutes, subsidiary seconds; chronograph seconds, 30-minute (15-index) and 12-hour chronograph subdials
Price: 2018 auction price for comparable Mathey-Tissot three-register watch $22,500 (Christie’s)
Production years: circa 1959 to 1960s
* This article was first published on October 9, 2020 at Why I Bought It: Vintage Mathey-Tissot Type 20 Big Eye Chronograph.
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