The appeal of a good vintage chronograph isn’t too hard to quantify; they epitomize a bygone era, a pre-digital time when mechanical accuracy mattered and served a purpose beyond merely measuring the passing of hours. The Space Race, actual racing and the pursuit of scientific endeavor — chronographs played an integral role in all these human achievements. Their wonderfully evocative nature should come as no surprise. But this level of nostalgic wrist appeal comes at a price, which is becoming a difficult barrier to entry as desirable models from well-known brands skyrocket in price. Speedmasters, Carreras and their ilk are becoming increasingly unattainable for people who want to dip their toes into vintage chronographs.
Luckily, there’s still value to be had; you just have to open your search filters and look a little harder. Lesser known and currently defunct brands made some incredibly cool watches, which can be had for less than marque brands. The trick, as with everything in life, is knowing what to look for.
Vincent Brasesco, manager of vintage and pre-owned timepieces at Analog/Shift has some advice on that front: “First things first — no matter the budget, the most important thing in buying any watch is, do you like it? So, always start there. Don’t be afraid to look at some of the private-label brand watches that used high-quality base movements from Valjoux or Venus, and had more exciting design elements than the bigger brands of that era. Watches like LeJour, Yema and Tradition all are well-built pieces but still fly under the radar — for now.”
This advice is echoed by Alistair Gibbons, founder of ATG Vintage Watches and author of Chasing Time: “Brand names have become far more important now because of social media, when actually collectors should look to the watch’s movement. Many lesser known makers used exactly the same movements as, say, Breitling or Heuer.” Checking out the internals of a vintage watch is always a good place to start, but hunting down more than introductory information about these sparsely researched watches involves a little more due diligence than simply googling a reference number.
So we’ve done a little digging of our own and come up with nine options that offer plenty of period-correct design, legit heritage and sheer wrist appeal without the hefty price tag. That’s not to say that our hypothetical budget of USD 3,000 is a paltry sum, but it’s an amount that’s by no means out of reach.
Bulova Deep Sea Diver
Bulova is a great brand with a rich history of strong design and innovative technology. It’s something the current custodians of the brand are waking up to, if the steady stream of smart re-editions is anything to go by. While Bulova is most famous for its Accutron technology, issues around the ongoing serviceability of Accutron movements mean that they can be hit or miss at best. Luckily the movement in this 1971 Deep Sea Diver is entirely analogue; a manual Valjoux 7733 to be precise.
Why it’s Cool
First things first, don’t trust that depth rating on the dial, for so many reasons. Aside from that, this 38mm watch shows precisely the sort of age you’d expect for a piece of this vintage. The blue bezel has a lovely soft ghostly patina, and the dial is characterful without looking tired — equal parts charm and rigor. Expect to pay around the USD 2,000 mark for this little charmer.
Breitling might be a bit of a surprise inclusion in this mix. Because while the brand is one of the go-to’s in the world of vintage chronographs, pricing on their older models tends to be a little richer than our hypothetical budget. Unless, of course, you’re talking about the Aerospace. This watch, introduced by Breitling in 1985, is a bona fide icon.
Why it’s Cool
The Aerospace is a purpose-built watch incorporating the latest technology in the form of a quartz movement and an ana-digi display. Packed with features including calendar, chronograph, second time zone and an alarm (all operated via a single crown), this watch could do it all. Thanks to those rider tabs on the bezel and the fact that it was often seen in titanium and gold, it made for quite a style statement. Plus its smaller size and light weight make it a dream on the wrist. Expect to pay around USD 2,000, but keep your eyes out for limited editions and custom dials.
Concord Depth Gauge
Concord is a watch brand you don’t hear too much about. They had a moment in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with some notable ultra slim quartz pieces, but high prices and changing tastes put the brand on ice. Thankfully, there’s nothing slim or quartz about this watch, a bright and uncommon chronograph that incorporates a depth gauge.
Why it’s Cool
So many reasons. The cushion case is large, at 43mm, giving it plenty of contemporary wrist appeal. And then there’s that yellow color scheme. Really, though, it’s the depth gauge that takes this ’70s manual winder to the next level. This Concord appears to use a capillary tube style depth gauge, which sees a channel milled into the thick crystal, with a water inlet at the three o’clock position. As the depth increases, pressure pushes water further into the channel, allowing the depth to be accurately read off the fixed aluminum bezel. These watches don’t come up too often, so expect to pay between USD 2,000 to USD 3,000, depending on the condition.
Dugena is one of the defunct chronograph makers of the ’60s and ’70s you might actually have heard of. That’s because Heuer made the German brand’s chronographs from that time. These days we’re so used to the narrative of in-house brand isolationism that it’s easy to forget that back in the day, makers were more willing to diversify revenue streams by this sort of white-label watchmaking.
Why it’s Cool
If we’re completely honest, this very nice example, with its instantly recognizable panda-style dial with blue accents is likely outside of our fictional budget. Still, it’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Dugena’s sports chronograph offerings, which can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. But really, Dugena is a great way to get a taste of that automotive chronograph funkiness.
If you knew about Ikepod before May 2020 you were a fairly serious watch or design nerd; the brand was hardly a household name. But, in May 2020, GQ America had a photograph of Kanye West on its cover, and on his wrist — you guessed it — was a solid gold Ikepod Hemipode.
Why it’s Cool
Ikepod was founded in 1994 by Oliver Ike and Marc Newson, the industrial designer. Newson went on to be a frequent design collaborator at Apple (you can certainly see Ikepod design influences on the Apple Watch). This pedigree means that the Ikepod Hemipode is a genuinely original piece of design. With a pebble-like case and fascinating interplay of a minimal aesthetic combined with functional maximalism, it makes for a fascinating watch. Pricing is in the USD 2,000 to USD 3,000 range, though thanks to Mr. West, people are finally starting to pay attention to this ’90s oddball.
LeJour “Broad Arrow” Chronograph
In many ways, LeJour epitomizes those ’60s and ’70s watch brands that thrived on a diet of automotive and dive-inspired sports watches, only to crash, full force, into the Quartz Crisis of the ’80s. Even though the name isn’t quite in the “household” category, there’s a bit of a story behind the name; LeJour was a subsidiary of French brand Yema. From the 1960s, their chronographs for the US market were assembled by Heuer.
Why it’s Cool
Certainly, there’s more than a passing similarity to Heuer on this “Broad Arrow” Chronograph. The 38mm case has long straight lugs and is a pleasing size. Inside is an ever-reliable Valjoux 7733, but, as with so many of these watches, it’s the dial that gets the pulse racing. The faded bezel, the arrowhead hour hand and the giant lollipop on the red seconds hand are all delicious ’60s details, which make it a perfect piece of nostalgia. These watches come in a range of different bezel/dial variants, and aren’t too hard to find in the USD 2,000 to USD 3,000 range.
If you think chronographs have to be overly complex, cluttered affairs, I’d like to introduce you to the Omega Chronostop. With its one pusher and distinct lack of chronograph registers, this 60-second timer really stretches the definition of what a chronograph is. First introduced in 1966, the Omega Chronostop was produced until 1974, in various cases, styles and dials. Over the years this chronograph-lite has become an excellent entry-point into the world of accessible Omega, and vintage chronographs in general.
Why it’s Cool
The Chronostop is cool because it’s quirky. Sure, a stopwatch that can time up to a minute isn’t super handy, but it is undeniably fun. This particular 1967 example is even cooler because it’s a “driver” model, with the 12 o’clock positioned where 3 usually is. This Chronostop is designed to be worn under the wrist, for greater readability when behind the wheel of a car. And then there’s the lightly tropical grey dial and orange highlights. Delicious. Omega Chronostops can be found from USD 1,000, with more unusual and attractive offerings (like this one), fetching close to USD 3,000.
Seiko 6139-6002 “Pulsation”
In 1969 Seiko raised eyebrows in Europe by releasing their first automatic chronograph, right alongside Zenith with their El Primero and Heuer, Breitling et al. with the caliber 11/Chronomatic. Not only did the Japanese firm manage to make an automatic chronograph at the same time as the Swiss, but they charged considerably less for it, making the integrated, column wheel 6139-powered watches exceptionally competitive.
Why it’s Cool
Fifty years on and Seiko’s pioneering chronograph still manages to be competitive on the vintage market. While prices have gradually crept up in recent years, they’re still typically selling for less than USD 1,000. For that sort of money, you can get a lot of watches, like this 1970 6139-6002 “Pulsation”, an uncommon model with an internal pulsation bezel, and a rich chocolate brown dial. As with many vintage models offered over a long period, there’re many variants in the 6139 family, so it’s always a good idea to do your research. But that’s at least half the fun.
Tissot Seastar Chronograph
Tissot, that venerable maker of well-priced timepieces, has a long and rich history of sports timekeeping. So it should come as no surprise that they have an equally strong legacy of no-fuss, reliable sports watches, like the Seastar. This long-lived line evolved with the times, making for some truly diverse styles. But one of the high-water marks has to have been the chronographs of the 1960s.
Why it’s Cool
Isn’t this everything you could possibly want in a vintage chronograph? A strong silhouette, 38mm case and a look that manages to perfectly capture the spirit of 1960s sports watches, with its tropical oxblood dial, chunky handset and blue and orange highlights and reliable Lemania manual wind. All for something in the region of USD 1,500 to USD 2,500. Even if you’ve got a collection packed with blue-chip names, it would be hard not to fall for this Tissot.