50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: In the Age of QuartzBy Darren Ho
The story of the automatic chronograph continues with the arrival of daily beater chronographs in the age of quartz. (Above: Heuer Kentucky, one of the first to use the Valjoux 7750. Read about it in Calibre 11’s ‘Ultimate Guide to the Heuer Kentucky, here.)
In our last article on the most important automatic chronographs since 1969, we looked at the first two generations of automatic chronographs that were produced. These were, with exception, mostly short-lived chronograph movements that were in production for a few years. The key exceptions were the Zenith El Primero, Lemania’s 5100 and the Seiko 701X.
In this article, we’ll look at the survivors of the apocalyptic quartz crisis and the chronographs the lived through or came along after it.
The Daily Beater Chronographs
The ’70s marked a challenging period for mechanical watchmaking with the introduction of Seiko’s Quartz-Astron on Christmas Day, 1968. Following that, a slew of inexpensive quartz watches began to enter the market, and accompanied with a high Swiss franc exchange rate, resulted in the diminishing of the industry rapidly over the next decade.
One of the few movement developers to continue to work on mechanical watch designs was Valjoux. The company had been known for its column wheel chronographs, some with calendars and in bicompax format, and others in a tricompax format, across the 20th century. The 7750, which was released in 1974, was different with its three-plane, cam-and-lever switched system, also known as the coulisse-lever escapement.
The chronograph plate sat over the mainplate and calendar, with a lever-driven cam that activated the chronograph functions. Valjoux’s movement was popular in that it could be easily modified with the oscillating mass for branding, decoration and with different display options. It could also be mass produced, unlike the column wheel which could not be machined. (Incidentally, the development of the 7750 stemmed from an important hand-wound chronograph calibre, the Venus 188.)
Valjoux’s 7750 continues to be produced today under its owner, ETA SA. It’s also known as the ETA 7750 and comes in three different grades. In fact, until recently it was the most commonly used chronograph movement around. When ETA announced that it would be ceasing the sale of movement blanks to external firms, that resulted in a slew of brands creating their own movements or establishing new standard movements for sale.
Another notable movement that sets an impressive record is Frédéric Piguet’s calibre 1185. It continues to hold the record as the thinnest automatic column wheel chronograph movement around. First introduced in 1987, the automatic function for the movement was essentially an add-on to the ultra-thin calibre 1180 that the manufacturer had introduced. The 1180 measured just 3.95mm thick, and the 1185 took over the ultra-thin reign from Seiko measuring just 5.5mm thick. In comparison, the famed Lemania 2310 stands at 5.57mm in thickness, and it’s a hand-wound movement.
Furthermore, just one year later, F. Piguet introduced the 1186, an automatic split-second version of the movement. After the brand was integrated into the Breguet brand, along with Lemania, it continued to produce and find life in Swatch Group brand Blancpain as well as externally, in Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Chronographs. The AP calibre 2385 is indeed based on the 1185, as is the Vacheron Constantin calibre 1137 and Breguet’s calibre 576.
While Frédéric Piguet’s movement may not be commonly found in regular chronograph timepieces compared with say, the Valjoux 7750, it was still a far more common sight than others around at the time. More notably, it was incredibly powerful and compact, making it suitable for ultra-thin and dress chronographs.
The resurgence of the mechanical watch industry came later to Japan, and due to other challenges with its economy as well as a rapidly modernising society, Seiko only returned to producing mechanical watches and specifically, mechanical chronographs near the turn of the 21st century.
The 6S77 emerged in 1999 as the second chronograph from Seiko with a column wheel but a special rocking pinion that engaged and disengaged the chronograph wheels. It was coined the “Magic Lever”. That made the movement easier to manufacture, though for some time, it was kept exclusive to Seiko’s premium Credor line.
The 6S77 was rather odd in that it offered a small seconds counter at 9, 30-minute totaliser at 12 and 12-hour totaliser with date window at 6. It was an unusual configuration which didn’t feel very intuitive, but remained a steadfast performer. Subsequent versions of the movement would be supplied to various other watchmakers.
Check out the other articles in our series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the automatic chronograph:
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: Who Came First?
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Second Wind
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Drive In-house
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: Race to be the Best