Overlooked – The World’s First Blacked Out WatchBy Wei Koh
Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention — a concept certainly not lost on a young Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, otherwise known by the nickname “Butzi”, when he found himself along with all other members of the Porsche dynasty cast out of all executive roles in the family company. This decree came from his father “Ferry” Porsche, son of the company’s founder Ferdinand Porsche, who had become so exasperated by the constant in-fighting with his sister Louise Piëch’s side of the family that he decided to unilaterally remove all of his father’s descendants from management duties. Butzi, who had — amazingly enough — designed the Porsche 911 which debuted at the 1963 motor show and would go on to be the single most enduring and iconic act of automotive design the world would ever know, suddenly found himself unemployed. But ever the scrapper, he immediately set up Porsche Design Studio (initially in Stuttgart before he moved it to Austria) and set about creating products that would redefine their respective industries.
Porsche’s Chronograph 1, as its first offering was called when launched in 1972, was one of the most radical re-imaginings of the sports chronograph. Its dial was matte black with white indices and subdials, and a red seconds hand — it looked essentially like the speedometer and tachymeter in the Porsche 911 dashboard. It had a flat crystal, a large tachymeter — of course — integrated into a flange surrounding the dial, and was configured with a 30-minute counter at 12 o’clock, a 12-hour counter (key for endurance racing) at six o’clock and continuous seconds at nine o’clock. Day and date were provided in a set of apertures at three o’clock. In the context of sporting chronographs, it was a massive amount of information.
The ability to provide all this information as well as a 4Hz vibrational speed, ultra-efficient winding and reliability, was thanks to an all-new movement called the Valjoux 7750, which was designed by a brilliant engineer named Edmond Capt. Capt was tapped by Valjoux to rapidly create an integrated automatic chronograph movement to respond to the release of the Zenith El Primero and the Calibre 11 in 1969. Capt used the manual-winding 7773 movement as the starting point, and with the help of a new technology called the computer, he was able to create a movement that replaced the column wheel with an oblong cam and was much easier and cheaper to industrialise. Even though the Porsche Design Chronograph 1 was “launched” in 1972, the first examples reached customers by 1973 and represent some of the very first watches in the world to feature this radical new movement. The Valjoux 7750 even had a quickset day and date indicator, the first of its kind in a sports chronograph. Now think about this in the context of the early ’70s. Seiko had launched the Astron and initiated the Quartz Crisis three years earlier, yet Butzi Porsche insisted on a mechanical chronograph featuring this new and advanced movement, and a new surface treatment that had never been used on watches before: physical vapour deposition, better known as PVD.
While black watches are commonplace today, in the context of 1972, a black watch was shocking. Butzi was known to have experimented with different treatments, including auto painting techniques, but in the end, it was only PVD, which vaporises metals and binds them to the surface of the watch case, that worked well enough for him. Although the technique reaches back to 1852, it was only perfected in 1968; and while it is fragile in comparison to the DLC coating available today, at the time it was incredibly groundbreaking. The fact that Butzi Porsche chose this treatment for his watchcase some 20 years before Panerai used PVD-treated cases in its Pre-Vendome Luminor Marinas, speaks of how visionary he was.
Of course, Porsche was not a watchmaker. To collaborate with him on his watch, he chose Orfina, a Swiss company owned by an Italian racecar driver named Umberto Maglioli who had finished his career with — you guessed it — Porsche Racing. Very early models have the name “Orfina” above the day-date windows while later models have the distinct and attractive Orfina logo above these windows. Below the date-day indicator are the words “Porsche Design”. To me, these amazing Valjoux-powered Porsche Design Chronograph 1 watches have incredible historic significance. They were the first serially produced black watches and had matching black bracelets (a bead-blasted steel version was also offered). Their dial design was radical in its straight-up utilitarian racing instrument look, and they were one of the very first watches to feature the legendary Valjoux 7750. Finally, they were designed by the genius behind the Porsche 911.
But around 1975, something happened that compelled Butzi Porsche to have to create a new version of this watch. Now fully reeling from the decimation by the Quartz Crisis, Valjoux ordered Edmond Capt to destroy everything related to the Valjoux 7750. Instead, he would, like Charles Vermot at Zenith with the El Primero, hide all of the tooling. This gives you an idea of how dire the prevailing outlook was for mechanical watchmaking, and yet, instead of switching to quartz engines, the amazing Butzi Porsche would double down on mechanical timekeeping. With the supply of Valjoux 7750 movements coming to an abrupt end (the movement would only be revived in 1984 by Théodore Schneider for the Breitling Chronomat) he and Maglioli turned to another mythical maker of watch movements named Lemania.
I have long professed my love for Lemania, in particular because of its chronograph calibre 2310 that forged the base of the famous Omega Calibre 321 that equipped every Speedmaster that went to space. But my second favourite movement created by this incredible manufacture is the ultra-radical calibre 5100. When launched in 1974, the Lemania 5100 looked like it had stepped out of an alternate universe. It was created specifically to be the most reliable, shock-resistant, legible and cheapest movement you could find. As such, there was not a simple bridge or plate that was milled — it was all stamped. Further, it made extensive use of Delrin a high-tech plastic. Delrin was used for the day and date wheels, the switching cam and the chronograph clutch plate in this incredible movement. Even its balance wheel was mounted on a shock-absorbing Delrin plate, and all around the movement was a Delrin buffer to isolate it from the impact of shock on the watchcase. Finally, the movement used a vertical clutch, which meant that the chronograph could be left on indefinitely with no adverse effect on isochronism. The rotor is seated on a hard iron bearing and held in place with a push fork. Like the Valjoux 7750, the Lemania 5100 runs at a decidedly modern 4Hz, and the day and date are quickset. All this means that you could take your Lemania 5100-equipped chronograph and use it to smash open coconuts or clamshells in a desert island scenario, and it wouldn’t lose an iota of accuracy. Indeed the Lemania 5100 is the movement that powers the Omega Speedmaster, which Omega expert Chuck Maddox referred to as the “Holy Grail” for the extraordinary performance package it represents.
But the dial side of the Lemania 5100 brought about a subtle but important redesign in the Orfina Porsche Design Chronograph 1. The movement is distinguished by a central minute counter co-axially mounted on the cannon pinion with the chrono seconds hand. The chrono seconds hand remains red, but the minute counter is white, features a “lollipop” and is read off the same indices as the minutes. As such, it is a 60-minute chronograph counter. At 12 o’clock you have a subdial that shows time in 24-hour format while the 12-hour chrono counter and the continuous seconds are found at six and nine o’clock respectively. The confusion is that this watch (more specifically known as reference 7177 and 7178) is also called the Porsche Design Chronograph 1.
Note that these watches were made in civilian as well as military versions for various air forces, including the West German Bundeswehr. In the case of military watches, the Orfina logo was replaced with the word “Military”. Also these watches usually came equipped with a Bund-style two-piece leather strap instead of a bracelet. Further, as they were to be used in the cockpit, oftentimes the tachymeter was replaced with a 12-hour scale for enhanced time-reading legibility. Finally, all military Porsche Design Chronograph 1 watches fall into the Lemania 5100 model reference and not the Valjoux 7750. One important detail to look out for is that the minute counter hand on the military version is blacked out with a red/ orange plane-shaped pointer. Military models usually have extensive engraving on the caseback.
The entire Orfina era of the Porsche Design Chronograph 1 lasted from 1972 to 1978. The switchover from the Valjoux 7750 seemed to have occurred around 1974–’75, which coincided with the launch of the Lemania 5100. In 1978, Porsche Design would start their collaboration with IWC, which resulted in some equally famous watches, but the Orfina watch holds a special place in my heart as the original timepiece created by Butzi Porsche and that is interlinked with two of the most important movements ever created.
On the silver screen, the Porsche Design Chronograph 1 was worn by Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs Kramer, Martin Shaw in The Professionals but perhaps most significantly by Tom Cruise in Top Gun. The fact that this watch was selected as the timepiece of choice for Naval Aviator Lieutenant Pete “Maverick” Mitchell was a perfect fit, considering that the Lemania-based references were selected as official equipment by several air forces around the world (although, he seemed to be wearing a civilian version of the watch). What is exciting was that after filming for the first Top Gun wrapped up, the original Maverick Porsche Design watch sat in producer Jerry Bruckheimer’s safe for 34 years before it found its way back to Tom Cruise’s wrist for the new film, Top Gun: Maverick, to be launched this year.
However, it was another pilot — specifically a Formula 1 pilot — the legendary Mario Andretti, whose career was most synonymous with the Orfina Porsche Design Chronograph 1. Andretti wore his watch all throughout the 1978 season. The story goes that after the Brazilian Grand Prix, Andretti went for a stroll on Ipanema beach and promptly fell asleep. During his nap, someone stole his beloved Porsche Design Chronograph 1. When news of this reached Butzi Porsche and Umberto Maglioli, they promptly sent him a replacement watch which he wore to five more first-place finishes that season and it was on his wrist when he became the Formula 1 Champion at Monza.
Today, these amazing watches are almost half-a-century old, and yet the story they tell about the incredible vision of Butzi Porsche and an insistence on mechanical timekeeping even during the darkest hours of the Quartz Crisis, resonates stronger than ever. Amazingly, these watches can still be had for relatively accessible prices. Both Valjoux and Lemania models seem to hover around 3,000–4,000 USD, with a 25-percent premium for military models.