50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Drive In-houseBy Darren Ho
The 21st century quickly brought on big changes, primarily the challenge that many brands faced seeing as ETA was no longer intending to provide blank movements to everyone for modifying. That prompted many to begin producing in-house movements, and for those who had their own, to increase production capacities.
Jaeger-LeCoultre was a late-comer to the in-house chronograph game but they brought their A-game to the competition. The caliber 751 was its first column wheel, vertically coupled chronograph with a healthy 65 hours of power reserve and an excellent price point to compete with its peers. It also hit all the right spots, with a relatively slim 5.7mm waistline, running at 4Hz and a dual-register display.
It’s one of the few chronographs out there that has skipped out on the hacking seconds and so only shows the hours and minutes. In fact, the original timepiece even abandons the date window, so as to keep the display well-balanced and clean. A virtue, to be honest, rather than a blemish on its record.
But its real value and promise today lies in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s quality control system, with the 1,000 Hours Master Control certificate issued with the chronograph timepiece. After all, if timekeeping is the ultimate purpose of a chronograph, accuracy lies at its core.
Other brands issued their own in-house movements around the same time frame. Breitling’s B01 calibre came about after the brand established a new manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds and decided they needed to build their own movement. The brand had historically focused on modifying ETA and Valjoux movements to their internal and COSC standards, but with ETA’s announcements, they needed a new way of creating a better chronograph.
A five-man team was established. It was first called Breitling Technology and based in Geneva, then later renamed the Professional Flight Instruments department under the manufacture. The team would develop and work on the movement designs each week, and fly into Grenchen to discuss specifics with Breitling’s watchmakers every Friday for months on end. Then, after prototypes were made and testing began, the brand began to work on developing a production system that would enable it to scale the process.
The result was a highly smooth roll-out of the watch movement, with Breitling able to double its production to 40,000 units within the first year. Not only that, the watch itself was a sturdy beater. It had a generous 70 hours of power reserve and plenty of torque to spare, meaning it could add on modular complications without performance worries. The movement ran at 4Hz with a column wheel, vertically coupled chronograph, flyback function and an instant date change. It was also highly accurate, with users claiming it maintained a +/- 2 seconds a day performance, considerably higher than COSC standards.
But to look at just how reliable the movement is, one needs to look no further than to Tudor. The Swiss watchmaking sibling to Rolex announced its first chronograph timepiece in recent years with a Breitling B01 movement base, and given Tudor and Rolex’s relentless demand for precision and performance, the fact that Tudor has chosen to partner Breitling surely demonstrates its quality.
Along with the rest of the industry making a serious move to develop in-house chronograph capacities, the then-Richemont backed ValFleurier manufacture assisted in the development of chronograph movements for several of the Richemont brands, most notably Cartier’s 1904-CH MC. Introduced in 2012, it was the first serialised Cartier in-house movement within just a dozen years of establishing its manufacture in La Chaux-de-Fonds.
It was a truly impressive accomplishment by Carole Forestier-Kasapi, who had also spent those dozen years demonstrating Cartier’s high watchmaking mastery, many of which have won Revolution awards over the years. The twin-barrel, column wheel and vertically coupled chronograph runs at a brisk 4Hz and holds a power reserve of 48 hours. The double barrels ensure that the torque in the mainspring is maintained during the span of the power reserve, and a bi-directional winding system keeps it at optimum wind. The same calibre was used as the basis for Piaget’s 1160P, used in the Polo S Chronograph and Panerai’s P.9100.
Another longstanding chronograph maker is TAG Heuer, and its caliber 1887 was introduced on its 150th birthday, its name a nod to an early milestone. The caliber 1887 featured both a column wheel as well as an oscillating pinion, which was invented by Edouard Heuer in 1887 (hence its name) as an alternative to the column wheel. The oscillating pinion could be mass produced, unlike the column wheel, which made it easier to produce greater numbers of chronographs.
The calibre was not without its own controversies. One sharp-eyed journalist noticed that the movement’s design bore close similarities with a Seiko SII movement, the TC78. This was quickly addressed by then-CEO Jean-Christophe Babin, who clarified on the record that the brand had legally acquired Seiko’s intellectual property and developed the new movement based on that caliber. He also made it clear that TAG Heuer had spent years and lots of its time and personnel to develop the caliber so that he did consider it a new in-house movement.
Regardless of how one may feel about the official position, we applaud Mr. Babin’s honesty then for making it clear how the movement development came about. And since the calibre 1887 remains an outstanding movement, who knows if the brand will do more with it in the future, even though the new Heuer 01 calibre has been introduced?
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: Race to be the Best