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The Good Life

Split Seconds Count

From rad to retro, 2014 chronographs advance the stopwatch function that is horology’s most popular complication
By Laurie Kahle | From Michael Strahan, November/December 2014
Split Seconds Count

With this year’s unveiling of the RM 50-01, a manual winding tourbillon chronograph with a mechanical G-force sensor in a case made of light and resilient NTPT carbon paired with red gold, Richard Mille once again flaunted his talent for conceiving otherworldly horological machines carrying stratospheric price tags—$940,000 in this instance. The piece is a tribute to its namesake Romain Grosjean, the French/Swiss Lotus F1 driver (Mille sponsors the team). While one could dismiss the usefulness of a tourbillon on the track, and even debate the practicality of a G-force device (despite its supercool Bond-like quality), the ever-popular chronograph, which is essentially a stopwatch, has been associated with racing almost since its inception. The qualifier “almost” is a relatively new development.

In the spring of 2012, watch experts were intrigued when a historic watch surfaced in a Christie’s auction in Geneva. The piece by Louis Moinet (1768–1853)—the French watchmaker, artist, and astronomer—was designedto track the passage of stars, planets and planetary moons. He described the pocket watch, called the compteur de tierces (thirds counter), in his 1848 watchmaking treatise Traité d’Horlogerie. The timepiece, which resembles a modern stopwatch, could measure elapsing time to one-sixtieth of a second (known at the time as a third or tierce) with the central hand, while elapsed seconds and minutes were shown on separate sub-dials, and hours were displayed on a 24-hour dial. Given that one-tenth of a second was considered the limit of precision in those days, Moinet’s watch was a technical tour de force. Two buttons control stop, start and a reset function, which was another advancement. The ultra-high-balance frequency of 216,000 vibrations per hour, or 30Hz, was also unfathomable at the time, considering that most modern watches typically run at 4Hz.

Stampings on the case designate that the watch was completed in 1816, six years before his contemporary Nicolas Rieussec received the patent for his chronograph device, which previously had been considered the world’s first. Jean-Marie Schaller, the owner of the current Louis Moinet brand, which produces small numbers of exquisite high-horology pieces inspired by the work of its namesake, managed to take the treasure home for about $68,000.

While the heavens drove Moinet, Rieussec had a more terrestrial motivation: horse racing. Louis Philippe, the last king of France and a passionate horse racing fan, tasked Rieussec with building a device for timing racehorses on Paris’ Champs de Mars. Rieussec’s invention combined a clock movement, two ink-filled nibs and two rotating white enamel discs that were set into motion at the starting gun. One disc was calibrated for 60 elapsed seconds and the other for 30 elapsed minutes. As each horse crossed the finish line, Rieussec pushed the button to put marks on the discs, which allowed him to determine the running times. He dubbed the machine “chronographe à seconde” (seconds chronograph), derived from the Greek words chronos (time) and graphein (to write), given the ink component.

This nuance was not lost on the German pen maker Montblanc when it moved to acquire the rights to Rieussec’s name. In 2008, the Richemont-owned brand launched the Nicolas Rieussac collection of chronograph wristwatches reminiscent of the original invention with two rotating discs under fixed pointers serving as subdials tracking the passing seconds and minutes. This year’s addition to the lineup, the Homage to Nicolas Rieussec ($34,400 in red gold and $11,500 in steel) is a monopusher chronograph, which elegantly allows you to control all the chronograph with one button at 8 o’clock. Limited to 193 pieces in rose gold and 565 pieces in steel, the watch also features a second time zone with a skeletonized hour hand, date, and day/night indicator at 9 o’clock.

The first patents for “wrist chronographs” were filed in Switzerland in 1909, around the time Henry Ford launched his Model T. Longines is widely credited with producing the first with its 1913 13ZN monopusher chronograph. Breitling was another early pioneer. It introduced a monopusher in 1915 and later developed separate pushers for controlling stop, start and reset functions, laying the foundation for modern chronograph design.

This year, Longines paid tribute to its first chronograph with the Column-Wheel Single Push-Piece Chronograph Heritage ($4,600, as shown) modeled on its 1913 milestone watch. Available in three versions in steel or rose gold, the retro chrono is powered by the L788 Caliber, developed by ETA exclusively for Longines. Like its early 20th-century predecessor, the movement is equipped with a column-wheel. This device, considered a badge of superior quality, ensures smooth operation and prevents damage to the mechanism should you push reset while the chronograph is running. The use of a column wheel also indicates that the movement is an integrated design, rather than constructed with a separate chronograph module mounted on a base movement.

At De Bethune, a relative newcomer to the industry established in 2002, founders David Zanetta and Denis Flageollet honor watchmaking’s forefathers while striving to invent and advance the art with modern materials and technical advancements much like the craft’s early visionaries did. This year’s DB28 Maxichrono monopusher chronograph expresses these ideals with its traditional round case fitted with De Bethune’s patented floating lugs, made of hand-polished, oxidized zirconium, on springs to conform to the shape of your wrist.

A single button paired with the crown controls the chronograph with five stacked hands mounted coaxially at the center of the dial, that display elapsing time. A sapphire crystal case back reveals the architecture of the engine, the Caliber DB2030 fitted with De Bethune’s absolute clutch system, which leverages the advantages of both horizontal and vertical clutch systems while allowing the different chronograph counters to operate semiautonomously with reduced friction. A patent is pending on the chronograph mechanism’s design with its three different clutch systems operating three semi-independent timing systems controlled by three column-wheels.

Famous Chronographs

When The Swatch Group announced in 2011 that its powerhouse movement supplier, ETA, would stop selling to non-Swatch brands, the industry quaked. ETA’s Valjoux 7750 had been the go-to automatic chronograph base caliber for decades.
The period from the late 1960s until 1970s was a chronograph heyday—resulting in the development of some of the best-known movements, including the Chronomatic Caliber 11 (produced through a partnership involving Breitling, Heuer-Leonidas, Hamilton-Buren and Dubois-Depraz), Seiko’s 6139, Lemania’s 5100 and Zenith’s El Primero (the first integrated automatic chronograph movement, hence the name which means “The First” in Spanish). The Chronomatic Calibre 11 with a module construction and Zenith’s El Primero debuted within months of each other in 1969.

Sadly, this golden age of mechanical chronographs came to an abrupt end in the mid-1970s with the onset of the quartz crisis, which decimated the mechanical watchmaking industry with a flood of cheap, accurate, battery-powered watches from Japan. Production of the 7750 halted in 1975. Despite orders to destroy the dies and equipment used in its manufacturing, local management refused to do so and hid the valuable resources so the 7750 could be resurrected some day. Production resumed in 1985.

Of course, the Swatch Group’s announcement that it would no longer supply competitors was of no concern to Zenith, whose El Primero debuted in 1969 as Neil Armstrong made his famous leap. Later that year, Zenith equipped its high-frequency column-wheel chronograph with a moon phase and triple calendar in a movement that came to be known as the Caliber 410. The El Primero’s high rate of 36,000 vibrations an hour endows it with 1/10th of a second precision.

Zenith had retired its trusty 410 workhorse in 2000, but this year it revived the classic for a 500-piece limited edition, the El Primero 410 in steel ($10,900) in a modern 42-mm size with a dial layout that projects the retro spirit of its 1970s ancestors. The sapphire case back provides a window onto the El Primero Caliber 410, with its 390 parts.

And like the Valjoux 7750, the legacy of the El Primero might have been quite different were it not for one man, Charles Vermot, a Zenith engineer. During the 1970s in response to the crisis, production of the El Primero ceased for nine years. At that time, the Zenith Radio Corporation, an American firm, owned the company, which was redirected to producing quartz watches. They also ordered that the old machines, calibers and tools be sold for scrap. Like his peers at Valjoux, Vermont refused to stand by and watch the senseless loss of a century of watchmaking know-how. He secretly began recording and hiding essential tools, presses and machines, while detailing the production process in carefully notated documents. By 1984, with mechanical watchmaking reviving and Zenith under new ownership, Vermot’s courageous act allowed the company to resume production of its famous caliber. Today, Zenith is owned by the luxury conglomerate LVMH and its movements power timepieces from a number of sister brands.

Flyback Chronographs

Harking back to Rieussec’s invention, flyback chronographs are designed for timing rapid succession events, such as laps in a race. Built for speed, a flyback chronograph allows you to stop timing an event, return to zero and instantly restart timing with a single push of a button. With a standard chronograph, this same operation requires three successive pushes. Longines holds the 1936 patent for the first flyback chronograph, the Caliber 13ZN.

Pilots in particular appreciated this streamlined operation, and flyback chronographs were a popular complication in the growing numbers of aviation timepieces that were essential navigational tools. Bell & Ross’ new vintage-flavored BR 126 Sport Heritage Flyback GMT pays tribute to this history with a flyback chronograph paired with a handy GMT for today’s globetrotters.

While flybacks often outfit brawny, sporty watches, Chopard and Glashütte Original introduced resolutely classical designs with new movements this year. Beneath the dial of Chopard’s elegant L.U.C 1963 Chronograph ($44,440) beats the brand’s first in-house and manual-winding L.U.C 03.07-L column-wheel movement with flyback function. The absence of an oscillating weight allows you to study the intricacies of this intricate mechanism in full view through the case back. Limited to 50 pieces in 18-karat rose gold, the L.U.C chronograph also bears the prestigious Geneva Seal, signifying that it meets several demanding criteria in its production, thus assuring high levels of finishing and quality.

Glashütte Original’s Senator Chronograph Panorama Date ($31,500 in red gold and $55,600 in platinum) features a new in-house automatic movement with a simplified column wheel mechanism composed of fewer individual parts. Designed to be both compact and robust, the Caliber 37 movement uses a bidirectional winding rotor to deliver a 70-hour power reserve on a single barrel. The timepiece integrates a central stop seconds hand, 30-minute and 12-hour counters with flyback mechanism, small seconds counter with power reserve indicator, and Glashütte Original’s oversize Panorama Date display. Telltale signatures of the German watchmaking center’s particular style include the rotor and chronograph bridges mounted on a Glashütte three-quarter plate; a Glashütte stripe finish on the automatic bridge and blued screws.

Faced with the prospect of losing access to ETA movements and being able to obtain only limited numbers of El Primeros from its LVMH sister brand Zenith, TAG Heuer decided to develop and build its own integrated chronograph movement working off Seiko’s 6s37 and reengineering it. The Caliber CH1887, which launched in 2010, powers this year’s Carrera CMC Concept Chronograph ($11,300). Jack Heuer designed the original Carrera in 1963 and named it after the grueling Carrera Panamericana Mexico Road Race. This modern incarnation of the classic is made with a lightweight and robust carbon composite that has been used in aerospace and Formula One racecars and required special manufacturing processes. The asymmetrical bullhead case with black titanium carbide crown and pushers at the top is the same design as 2012’s award-winning Carrera Mikrogirder with 5/10,000th of a second precision. TAG has cemented its motorsport image by partnering with F1 Vodafone McLaren Mercedes team and its World Champion driver Jenson Button, Audi Sport in the Le Mans 24 Hours and endurance races, and the Automobile Club of Monaco for the Monaco Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, Graham has doubled down on its race-inspired Silverstone RS collection with the Silverstone Endurance 24 Hour ($14,580) a double chronograph featuring a separate 24-hour counter geared for endurance racing. Pushing the single red rubber chronograph button at 2 o’clock activates the main lap-time measurement tracking minutes and seconds, while the red 24 HR pusher at 4 o’clock operates the second chronograph with flyback and 24-hour counter. Limited to 250 pieces, the watch directly taps into motorsport design codes—the striped date disc recalls track curbing, the seconds counter is shaped like a disc-brake and the rubber strap resembles a tire tread. The 46-mm steel with black DLC (diamond-like carbon) case is fitted with a black ceramic bezel and a red tachymeter scale for measuring speed, and it houses the automatic caliber G1751 movement with an Incabloc shock absorber.

Split-Seconds (Rattrapante) Chronograph

Pininfarina’s Sergio concept car, which debuted at the 2013 Geneva Motor Show, provided the inspiration for Bovet’s Sergio Split-Second Chronograph ($34,500), the fourth timepiece in the Bovet by Pininfarina Collection.

The split-second, or rattrapante, is used for timing events that start together but do not finish at the same time, such as two runners on a track. The mechanism has two central seconds hands that travel in tandem with the first push. A second push stops one hand to record an intermediate time while the other continues. With another push, the stopped hand catches up with the running hand, and you can continue to record additional intermediate times.

Patek Philippe made the split-seconds a specialty at the turn of the 20th century, when it earned a few patents, including one for a “double chronograph” in 1902. By the 1920s, it had miniaturized the mechanism and developed the first split-seconds chronograph wristwatch by commission in 1923. The 1930s was a golden decade for chronographs at the Geneva house, which counted 10 simple chronographs and three split-seconds chronographs in its collection. Nevertheless, Patek Philippe, which marks its 175th anniversary this year, did not launch a completely proprietary automatic chronograph until 2006. Three years later, it debuted a new manually wound chronograph, entirely developed in house, in a women’s piece, which it dubbed “Ladies First.” The following year, Patek shared it with the guys in the men’s 5170J manually wound, two-register chronograph, which replaced the 5070, powered by a Lemania base movement.

This year’s Sergio is Bovet’s first split-seconds chronograph. Rather than use a typical third push-piece for the split timing function, Bovet designed a split-second push-piece coaxial to the crown, while pushers on each side of the crown control the standard start, stop and reset timing functions.

Limited to 250 pieces, the Sergio was designed to reflect the bold futuristic aesthetic of the car, built on a Ferrari 458 Spider, as homage to the late Pininfarina patriarch who helmed the Italian firm for four decades. The multilevel dial evokes the aerodynamic bodywork with four recessed sections, and the tiny perforation details are directly borrowed from the car’s design. The Sergio also features Bovet’s Amadeo convertible system that allows you to instantly convert the timepiece from a wristwatch to a table clock to a pocket watch on a chain. Bovet’s Sergio and Richard Mille’s RM 50-01 prove that nearly two centuries after Moinet’s revolutionary pocket watch, watchmakers are still finding ways to reinvent the age-old chronograph.

Laurie Kahle is a freelance writer who specializes in covering watches and travel for Cigar Aficionado.

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