50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: Race to be the BestBy Darren Ho
In our previous articles on the history and significance of the automatic chronograph (see links below), we covered its early rise and development, and the rapid evolution of the modern chronograph. In this installment, we look at some of the finest self-winding chronographs that exist in watchmaking today.
At the turn of the millennium, the jolly green giant that we know as Rolex introduced its first in-house, column wheel, vertically-coupled chronograph calibre, the 4130. It was a notable and important move as prior to this, the Zenith El Primero movement (in Rolex lexicon, the calibre 4030) had powered the chronograph watch. The earliest models of the Cosmograph Daytona were fitted with a hand-wound Valjoux 72, but by 1988, automatic chronographs were a common sight.
This was in part due to Rolex’s Perpetual movement having made automatic winding an ubiquitous function in watches, and an increasing volume of automatic chronographs hitting the market thanks to the Valjoux 7750. But Rolex was also looking to completely verticalise its production, so that it would be able to deliver products that reached the level of performance it expected. (This has in turn led to an increasing prominence of El Primero Rolexes on the pre-owned market, check out our article here on it.
A third reason was that Zenith could not keep up with Rolex’s demand for movements. The growth of Rolex and demand from consumers outstripped all supplier capabilities. Daytona demand had surged and waiting lists extended to years — a situation that’s not unfamiliar today.
What’s exciting about the calibre 4130 was that Rolex designed it with a specific intent: to create a great chronograph with as few components as possible, and with a new hairspring, the Parachrom. This meant, in real terms, a slimmer and leaner chronograph watch, and a record for creating a chronograph with one of the fewest components then at 201 components.
Other enhancements included combining the totaliser controls into a single module that made regulation easier, and keeping the movement running at 4Hz rather than the 5Hz of the El Primero. Both allowed Rolex to maximize the power reserve to a healthy three days. The Parachrom hairspring, made from an alloy of niobium and zirconium, also offered anti-magnetic properties.
Rolex’s move spurred others into developing improved in-house calibers as well. After all, chronographs come with numerous design and development challenges, from having to deal with coupling “bounce” to flyback dampening, as well as timekeeping accuracy when the chronograph is both activated and ambient.
Omega had begun making bigger and bigger waves during this period, in part due to its successful serial production of George Daniels’ co-axial escapement into an automatic caliber 2500, but also because of its success in expanding its renown via the Bond franchise. It was also focusing on developing its know-how in watchmaking (backed by ETA SA, naturally) and while the Lemania-based calibre 1861 was well-recognised as a performer, it wanted to deliver a chronograph with a co-axial escapement as well, which would benefit the end-user in multiple ways.
It took over a decade, but in 2011, the brand revealed the calibre 9300, a Co-Axial Chronograph movement that debuted in the Speedmaster Co-Axial Calibre 9300 and Seamaster Planet Ocean Chronograph. The movement featured a silicon hairspring and a two-register display, with minute and hour totalisers on the right counter and small hacking seconds on the left. Twin barrels provided a 60-hour power reserve and a column wheel control with vertical coupling, rendering the chronograph operation smooth and stable.
But that wasn’t the end of the deal for Omega either. In 2015, the brand introduced a new certification standard with METAS (the Swiss Federal Institute for Metrology) known as the Master Chronometer, which combined standard watch testing with higher magnetism exposure tests on multiple occasions, thus ensuring that their movements would deliver accuracy consistently in our electromagnetic-filled world today. The following caliber 9900, essentially a revised 9300 with Master Chronometer certification, offers an impressive performance with fewer servicing needs, thanks to the Co-Axial escapement.
Another watchmaker that took the in-house development to heart was IWC. The Schaffhausen-based brand began to develop its movement production capacities seriously during this last decade, and in 2016, it released its caliber 69000 series of chronographs. Since the movement was designed to functionally reduce the brand’s reliance on ETA-supplied movements, it was based to some extent on the Valjoux 7750 in order to minimize design changes to cases so that a smooth transition could be carried out.
The movement bore a high-end column wheel and vertical clutch design, with a bi-directional pawl winding system on the rotor and offered a 46-hour power reserve. In fact, it has the exact same measurements as a Valjoux 7750, but with a column wheel control rather than a lever-and-cam operation. Two models of the movement have been introduced, one with a three counter layout and the second with a two-register format.
The three counter design is found in the 69370 (now 69375) caliber, with a small hacking seconds at 6 o’clock, and hour and minute totalizers at 9 and 12 respectively. A date window at 3 adds to the dial. The 69355 caliber ditches the date and hour totaliser for a cleaner design and format. It does one better than Rolex’s calibre 4130 with 200 components; however, it does have a shorter power reserve.
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: In the Age of Quartz
• 50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Drive In-house