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Counting Up One Chronograph at a Time

by multimill
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This year, it heralds a new age of the chronograph, even though it is not the first to sally forth in the post-pandemic era. We offer an extended exploration of the time-writer, which will continue in subsequent issues. For a magazine that specialises in wrist-borne time keeping instruments, the chronograph holds a distinctive appeal. Not only is this complication one of four considered major features in traditional watchmaking, it is also one of the most popular as far as the wider world of wristwatches goes (according to Federation of Swiss Watchmaking). Of those four high watchmaking complications, it is the only one to have broad commercial appeal and thus available in the greatest range of qualities. This is not simply a matter of price and quality, for example, because more affordable and accessible tourbillons – one of the most distinctive of the aforementioned high complications – are available but have never quite been embraced outside of enthusiast communities.

Perhaps one limiting factor here is that the wider world has no idea what a tourbillon is, and it is not actually a function that one can interact with. By way of contrast, the chronograph requires interaction, and even proffers (typically) two pushers that invite handling. Pure functionality is a poor explanation for the appeal of the chronograph though. One of the world’s most symbolically important examples of fine watchmaking, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona is a chronograph, and its appeal has little to do with the complication. Perhaps now more than ever, the Daytona is shorthand for the entire luxury sports segment. By association, the chronograph also finds itself elevated beyond pure functionality, and catapulted into the realm of myth and legend.

For that matter, the most historically significant watch to go beyond this world is the Omega Speedmaster, which is also a chronograph. So even in terms of extreme functionality, the traditional chronograph still commands the highest degree of desirability. Who would not want to have a piece of kit that served the astronauts of Apollo 13 so well. Again though, the symbolic value of the Speedmaster far outweighs its value as a chronograph. Whatever the case might be, this all goes a long way towards establishing the chronograph as a standard- bearer (for the medievalists and fantasy enthusiasts out there) for traditional watchmaking.

Charming In Concept

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona 2023 in Oystersteel

In no small part, this explains why we decided on this aspect of traditional watchmaking that forms the chief part of our technical special this year. The other reason is of course the fact that so many brands have debuted impressive chronographs in the last few years culminating in a bumper crop this year. If you followed our, or any other, coverage of Watches and Wonders Geneva this year, the preponderance of new chronographs in 2023 makes the wave obvious and undeniable. Having said that, the perspicacious collector and enthusiast will be quick to point out that the Omega Chrono Chime is perhaps the most significant development in the world of chronographs. It does feature the heretofore unheard-of marriage of the chronograph and chiming complications, but we would (and do) argue that this is more a beautiful statement meant for very few wrists. In this way, it is not that different to the stunning Roger Dubuis Monovortex Concept watch, except that this watch is not available for any wrist.

This gives us the opportunity to establish some boundaries for this story, which is our first deep dive into the chronograph in many years. The last was in 2020, for those keeping score, and we reference it here too. While we could have turned out a story on how the chronograph mechanism itself works, we avoided the temptation…sort of…for now. Just as we did in our series on the mechanical escapement, our research quickly revealed just how many pages we would have to dedicate to the subject. Instead, this section in this issue will serve as a re-introduction to chronographs, which may become our next long-running series. Unlike the escapement, the chronograph tends to reliably attract all manner of executions, after all. In this opening salvo, we speculate that the reason for this diversity and experimentation is the ability of brands to showcase the innovation (whatever it might be) and thus charge for it.

The Roger Dubuis Concept watch is the perfect example of this, with the Geneva brand offering a version of this watch, the Excalibur Spider Flyback Chronograph, for sale. This contrasts immediately with the escapement, which users cannot interact with (mostly), and whose operation is too fast for the naked eye to catch. Grand Seiko does offer the SLGC001 Tentagraph this year, married to the automatic calibre 9SA5, which sports the new dual impulse escapement, but this earlier innovation is actually given a chance to shine by the Tentagraph. With this chronograph, Grand Seiko can and does charge for its watchmaking prowess.

Second Thoughts

Grand Seiko Evolution 9 SLGC001 Tentagraph

If nothing else, consider that the chronograph gives the mechanical watch a defensible reason behind having a sweep second hand. Even in the days before the Quartz Revolution, the presence of a large second hand was something of an extravagance. It might even have been vulgar, especially when one considers that a proper dress watch needs only two hands. A subdial might be acceptable (just to know that the watch is running) but a dominating central second hand was almost ridiculous (because no one needs to know time to the nearest second at all times). Of course, today things are different, and the sweep second hand has a function – it tells people that you have a mechanical watch. That alone is worth untold marketing dollars, and speaks to status as a functional element. So too is the chronograph a statement of prestige, even as it brings added functionality to the table for avid collectors.

This is why the first-ever chronograph from MB&F is notable, to use a recent example that is not actually a 2023 model, and why the Roger Dubuis Flyback is on the very crest of the aforementioned wave. These statement pieces make a virtue of their technical content in the splashiest way possible. This might not be for Patek Philippe or the late watchmaker Roger Dubuis himself but the present reality for both Geneva brands, as different from each other as an iron fence in winter is cold, finds them pushing forward boldly into new territory for fine watchmaking.

And now, for a bit of a fourth-wall break… As some of you will know, I am perhaps not the best writer to cover the subject of chronographs, given that they are outside my own collecting parameters and I do not like the “time pressure” character of the complication. On the other hand, it does give me a degree of objectivity that I found useful in actually pursuing the story. But what is this complication anyway, to judge it on its merits? Perhaps now is as good a time as any then to turn to what exactly a chronograph is, what it does, and how it goes about doing it.

Working Definitions

Parmigiani Fleurier Tonda PF Sport Chronograph

We note here that for that last bit, this section confines itself to mechanical mechanisms only. Thus we will also not be getting into such matters as the various scales that accompany many chronographs. Nor will we dive deep into the flyback function nor the split seconds chronograph. Even within the confines of this self-imposed limitation, the section ballooned beyond the established strictures of the Autumn issue, so we will not be getting into the how and whys of digital chronographs at all, even in future issues. There is one notable exception though, and that concerns analogue chronographs with quartz movements, given that the chronograph portion is effectively the same as in the mechanical version. What the chronograph is and does, to address our first two points, is so simple we can dispense with it in one sentence: The chronograph tracks and records elapsed time, as we note repeatedly throughout this section. That is all of what it is, and all of what it does.

As for how it does what it does, that will take up a good part of this section, starting here with the gears, springs, levers and pinions that make up the entire system. In a few words, the mechanical chronograph is an entirely separate train of components that interacts with the main timekeeping train on demand, to perform its function. This contrasts strongly with the tourbillon, as mentioned briefly, but also the perpetual calendar, which bakes in mechanical memory with en passant function. When one activates the chronograph via the start pusher (more on this later), the chronograph mechanism engages with the main movement. Without that user-driven start, the chronograph just sits within the movement, disconnected from the rest of the action.

TAG Heuer Carrera Plasma Diamant d’Avant Garde, photographed by Jaya Khidir

For the purists amongst you, who will definitely be reading this story, here is a definition from authority. Specifically, this is what the Dictionary of Horology has to say about just the basic chronograph:

A watch with hands showing hours, minutes and seconds, together with a mechanism controlling a chronograph hand mounted in the centre of the dial. By the operation of push-pieces, the chronograph- hand can be set in motion, stopped and returned to zero. It completes one revolution per minute; a minute-counter hand counts the revolutions, i.e. the minutes, usually up to 30.

Another interesting take on this definition comes from the US National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors:

A modern chronograph is a regular watch that has an additional mechanism that can measure time intervals. For this it needs four components: (1) a timekeeper, (2) seconds counting mechanism, (3) a coupling mechanism (usually a clutch) connecting the timekeeper with the counting mechanism, and (4) a return-to-zero mechanism.

The above definitions exclude some executions, such as the Porsche Design digital-display chronograph, the chiming chronograph and the Roger Dubuis Excalibur Chronograph. Well, our own one- liner covers all three of those too so well done us. Nevertheless, you should expect some surprising complexities here, and that is part of the fun, we argue.

This article was first published on WOW Autumn Issue #70

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