Alternative AestheticBy Israel Ortega
Traditionally, popular complications such as chronographs, calendars, sonneries and even the lauded tourbillon — which is not a complication per se, but a regulating device — have a stranglehold on the watch community’s attention. Yet this is often at the expense of other watchmaking evolutions and innovations, such as regulator watches or watches with a regulator style dial, which often fall into this latter category of somewhat neglected creations.
What exactly are regulator watches? They are, strictly speaking, not complicated watches since they do nothing more than show the time in a distinct manner. A regulator watch is typically a watch that has one large hand in the center indicating the minutes, with the hours and seconds shown on separate smaller subdials. This curious aesthetic — where the hours, minutes and seconds are segregated on the dial — has afforded contemporary watchmakers opportunities for artistic creativity and technical innovation. Nevertheless, regulator watches have remained relatively uncommon and are rarely the stars of the show in watch launches.
But in the last two years or so, things have changed somewhat. Regulator watches have gained significant visibility, thanks to the remarkable resurgence of Swiss watch brand Louis Erard and its artistic exploits. The brand has given life to a handful of beautiful special editions, with the standouts being its collaborations with renowned independent watchmaker Vianney Halter and architect-turned-watch-designer Alain Silberstein. However, it should be recognized that the great motivator of this style of watches is, in fact, Chronoswiss — the brand has been synonymous with regulator watches since the late 1980s.
Established by German watchmaker Gerd-Rüdiger Lang in Munich in 1983, with its current CEO and owner Oliver Ebstein assuming proprietorship in 2012, Chronoswiss was the brand that perfected the regulator wristwatch format.
The Chronoswiss Régulateur
Chronoswiss drove the wrist-worn regulator’s development in the 1980s, thanks to the efforts of Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, the German watchmaker and founder of the house initially based in Munich. In 1983, Lang founded the brand with an eye on watchmaking innovation while staying rooted in centuries-old horological traditions. At that time, the effects of the Quartz Crisis were still being felt. Lang desired to recover the genuine savoir faire of mechanical watchmaking. Happily, he had the resources — parts, tools and will — to begin. But it was in 1987 when he changed the course of Chronoswiss with the appearance of its first wristwatch regulator.
That year, Lang debuted the Chronoswiss Régulateur, a watch with a dial quite out of the ordinary — “deconstructed,” some would say — where instead of having the hands anchored around the same central axis in the middle of the watch, each would be in separate places: the hours in its own small subdial at 12 o’clock; in the center, the usual minute hand; and at six o’clock, the small running seconds.
This arrangement was not a mere one- time occurrence but a miniaturization and reinterpretation of certain types of clocks of yesteryear. The removal of the hour hand from the center to bring it to the top of the dial had its origin in the large, standing mechanical regulating clocks used by the watchmakers of the late 18th century to adjust their timepieces. This was their logic: to set the watches and assess their accuracy, they required a time reference that was easy and quick to read, i.e. a “master” clock. By stripping the master clocks of the central hour and seconds hands, they would be able to see the minutes at a glance and set the time accurately without the other two hands getting in the way. And that’s it, really — the reason behind the quirky design of the historical regulators was to have maximum and speedy readability.
For his first Chronoswiss regulators, Lang used large mechanical calibers — both Enicar and Unitas — which he modified to achieve the differentiated display. In 1987, the first Chronoswiss Régulateur produced in series was powered by a hand wound movement. Shortly after, in 1990, Lang launched Chronoswiss’ first automatic Régulateur, employing the caliber 122, which was based on the Enicar caliber 165. As they say, the rest is history: Chronoswiss had established itself as the ultimate — and, back then, essentially the only — creator of regulator wristwatches.
After spearheading the development of regulator wristwatches, the then Munich-based house of Chronoswiss continued to pursue opportunities to perpetuate its expertise. A new milestone of success occurred in 2000 with the appearance of the Régulateur Tourbillon and then, in 2001, with the arrival of the Chronoscope, a regulator-design chronograph. Lang continued to develop special, limited versions of his watches, making Chronoswiss a sort of cult brand, albeit with confined visibility. Over the years, the aesthetic purity of the original Régulateur has been joined by other features that are a testament to the brand’s desire for continued innovation. However, the iconic onion-shaped crown from 1987 is still there, along with the straight-sided case with coin-shaped knurling, the curved wedge-shaped lugs and the blued steel hands.
The year 2012 marked the beginning of a new era at Chronoswiss with the retirement from the public scene of Gerd-Rüdiger Lang and the acquisition of the brand by the Ebstein family — headed by Oliver Ebstein — who brought Chronoswiss to Lucerne, Switzerland, and strengthened it to continue its history as the great creator of regulators.
Since then, regulators have been the lifeblood of the company. Although the Chronoswiss range is varied and rich in art and mechanics, the offer is over 70 percent concentrated on regulator watches. Within the current Skeltec, Heritage, Artistic and Sirius collections, we do find timepieces with the standard three-hand layout in various executions. Still, the regulators sustain the offer, doing so through numerous references with complications that have taken the regulator style to new aesthetic and functional territories.
The Transformation of Louis Erard
A second watch brand that has made regulators a core part of their identity is Louis Erard. The brand has made a huge impression in recent years with its sold-out collaborations with Vianney Halter and Alain Silberstein. Founded in 1929 in La Chaux-de-Fonds, the company began as a watchmaking school, and later, in 1931, in addition to casing activities for third parties, began to manufacture and market its own watches.
The Louis Erard company maintained its specialization as a subcontractor for other houses throughout the 20th century while continuing with its own creations and innovations. Possibly the most important of its innovations relates to the development of its regulators, which occurred well into the 1980s when the brand experimented with the legendary mechanical caliber Peseux 7001, adding a power reserve indicator and a regulator-type display. Today, that modernized movement remains a brand exclusive, and we see it shining in the Excellence series of regulators. In 2003, under Alain Spinedi, Louis Erard began its new era, following a relaunch that put the regulator watch concept front and center under an accessible pricing scheme with a modern brand strategy.
Since then, the house has been known and recognized for its range of regulators. But it was in 2019 that Manuel Emch — then playing an external consultant role and today part of the board of directors — accelerated Louis Erard’s remarkable turn of reinvention through the creation of new Excellence regulators in partnership with artists and creators like Halter, Silberstein and Atelier oï. These new regulators — all part of limited editions of 178 pieces — have made the firm take off, imbuing the brand with a friendly, cheerful and accessible aura that has been recognized and praised by connoisseurs and watchmaking enthusiasts around the world.
Regulators with a Twist
As we have seen, the principle that gave rise to regulator watches was to achieve a differentiated reading of hours, minutes and seconds, as happened with their predecessors, the historic regulator instruments from over 200 years ago. But given that the raison d’être of regulators has changed from being a reference for timing accuracy to the aesthetical, it was logical that little by little new functions and indications would be incorporated to suit the tastes of the modern consumer.
To a large extent, Chronoswiss has been responsible for bringing about the evolution of regulators. As mentioned earlier, Chronoswiss developed the first regulator watch with a tourbillon in 2000. However, it took some years for other indications to be added to the dial, with the first being the date display (around 2010). More recently, Chronoswiss has taken its regulators to new heights by adding exclusive calibers to the most significant references while finding ways to embellish and enrich them with functions such as day and night indicators, large dates, skeletonized and openworked dials, retrograde seconds hands — like that of the superb Regulator ReSec — and, of course, more tourbillons. New materials and colors have been added to boot, with most available in limited yet affordable editions.
While other very important players on the horological scene have also created their takes on regulator watches, as stated at the beginning of this article, these are not commonplace watches. In the following pages, we have selected some of the most attractive attempts from the various other brands, where the concept of a regulator is seen with fresh eyes.
Regulators on Our Radar
From Tissot, Oris and Hamilton, to Franck Muller, Chopard, Breguet and Vacheron Constantin, regulator watches have found a place in both the accessible and haute horlogerie collections of a number of watch brands. While regulator watches may not be central to their brand identity (as they have been for Chronoswiss and Louis Erard), these watch companies have contributed to the range of regulators available by playing with the visuals of the concept and adding their own flavor and flair.
In 2005, Geneva-based watch brand Alpina, sister brand of Frederique Constant, presented its Avalanche Regulator, a robust cushion-shaped watch with a screw-down case and eccentric dials. In 2020, this watch found its reinterpretation in the Alpiner Avalanche powered by the automatic caliber AL-650, to the delight of those who seek affordable sports watches with differentiated designs.
The Senator Chronometer Regulator from German firm Glashütte Original is another beautiful interpretation of the regulator watch. Its manual winding caliber 58-04 includes the German horological signature of a large double date at three o’clock, balanced by a power reserve indicator at nine.
But the most impressive execution of a regulator watch from a German brand is arguably A. Lange & Söhne’s Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar “Terraluna.” This acclaimed timepiece — winner of the 2014 GPHG Calendar Watch Prize — is based on a design of intersecting circles. The regulator-style independent registers for hours, minutes and seconds are interlinked to achieve a highly technical symmetrical harmony that opens the way to the perpetual calendar and power reserve indications via a total of five apertures on the watch dial — outsized date at 12 o’clock, day of the week and month on the right and left respectively, a small round leap year display at the 15-minute mark and power reserve display at the bottom. The feast of art continues on the caseback through a display of an orbital moonphase accompanied by the incomparable hand finish of its manual caliber L096.1.
Finally, we must make way to highlight an exceptional regulator watch — the Patek Philippe Annual Calendar Regulator 5235, which first debuted in 2011 in its white gold version (ref. 5235G-001), with a rose gold version (ref. 5235- 50R-001) following in 2019. This watch is one of the most important high complications in Patek’s recent history. It uses a neat execution of the advanced caliber 31-260 (the 31-260 REG QA). Its automatic winding base beats at the curious frequency of 3.2 hertz and incorporates a Pulsomax escapement and a Spiromax hairspring made out of Silinvar anti-magnetic material. Incidentally, this 31-260 movement is also the basis of the In-line Perpetual Calendar presented in April 2021. As Philip Barat, head of development at Patek, once shared with us, developing and optimizing the movement was extraordinarily complicated. Still, its efficiency, power and technology have allowed the brand to develop the two fantastic timepieces, including the beloved 5235 Annual Calendar with the regulator-type display.