A while back, I wrote an article on my top 5 iconic chronograph watches. Some of you readers wondered why Zenith wasn’t in there. Quite simply, it didn’t make my personal Top 5. However, I do love the Zenith El Primero movement, and think that its reputation as a great chronograph caliber is well-earned. So, to make it up for some of you fellow watch nerds out there, here I focus specifically on chronograph movements rather than watches.
One of my late, watch-loving friends had a special appreciation for chronographs and even ended all his e-mails with, “Chronographs, like most finer things in life, only improve with time.” If you want to know more about chronograph movements, and certain specific calibers, from a collector’s point of view, I recommend you read the interview I did with him several years ago (click here). Although it does not include the latest chronograph movements, it is still a useful article covering many important aspects of chronographs.
Another great read that I can recommend if you want to learn more about chronograph movements is the book Chronograph Wristwatches – To Stop Time, written by Gerd-Rüdiger Lang (founder and former CEO of Chronoswiss) and Reinhard Meis. The book dates from 1993 and offers good – albeit very technical – descriptions of the various chronograph movements out there.
My personal Top 10 contains in-house manufactured movements as well as mass-produced movements from manufacturers such as Lemania. You will also note that I’ve included types with both column-wheel and lever mechanisms. Other considerations include aesthetics and other attributes, all based on my experience in watch collecting over the last 15 years.
1. Zenith El Primero
The Zenith El Primero was introduced in 1969 and the first two versions were Caliber 3019PHC (with chronograph and date) and Caliber 3019PHF (with triple date, moon-phase, and chronograph). This first automatic chronograph movement ever is a ‘fast ticker,’ with a frequency of 36,000 vibrations per hour (vph). Most chronographs at the time of its introduction were ticking at 18,000 vph or 21,600 vph. The 36,000 vph makes it possible to time intervals to 1/10th of a second. The El Primero movement as we know it today is an evolution of the very first Caliber 3019 movements. Over time, we’ve seen several brands other than Zenith using El Primero chronograph movements, including Movado, TAG Heuer, Ebel, and even some Rolex Daytonas (though Rolex made some adjustments to it). If you are really into chronographs, you need at least one watch with this movement inside it.
2. Lemania 5100
You don’t have to be a movement expert to see that this one is a rather ugly specimen. It has no column-wheel mechanism and it even has some plastic parts inside. The reason that I put this particular movement at number 2 is that it is a no-nonsense workhorse, with central second and minute chronograph hands (for easier reading), a 24-hour hand, and a day-date feature. This movement was discontinued a few years ago, which apparently brought a few chronograph collectors nearly to tears. Tutima is one of the brands that has used it for a very long time, even after the discontinuation of its production. Other brands that have used the Lemania 5100 include Omega (which calls it Caliber 1045), Sinn, Fortis, Porsche Design, and Alain Silberstein. Lemania also created its own chronograph watches in the past that contained this movement. Word is that Fortis, Sinn and Tutima used this particular movement because it was the only one at the time meeting military requirements for chronograph watches. (Photo from Watchconcept.com).
3. Lemania 2310
Another Lemania, but very different than the 5100. This Lemania 2310 is perhaps better known under Omega’s “Caliber 321” label, which was used in the very first Omega Speedmaster watches (click here). However, Omega wasn’t the only brand to use this Lemania column-wheel chronograph caliber. Even Patek Philippe used it for some of its chronograph watches, renaming it Caliber CH27-70. Of course, the Patek Philippe CH27-70 looked very different from the Omega Caliber 321 in terms of its finish, but both are based on that very same Lemania movement. Speedmaster fans crave the original Caliber 321, which Omega replaced in 1968 with Caliber 861 (also based on a Lemania movement), which had a lever mechanism instead of a column wheel. (Photo courtesy of SteveG)
4. Rolex 4130
Before 2000, Rolex used hand-wound Valjoux Caliber 72 chronograph movements, and modified Zenith El Primero movements, for its Cosmograph Daytona watches. In 2000, Rolex introduced the successor to its Caliber 4030 movement (based on the El Primero), Rolex Caliber 4130. Fully developed and manufactured in-house, this automatic chronograph chronometer movement is solid as a rock and cleverly engineered. Rolex was able to reduce the number of components with a new, patented solution for the chronograph mechanism. The extra space has been used to house a larger mainspring, which increased the power-reserve capacity from 50 to 72 hours. A watchmaker from a local Rolex service center has also told me that the Daytona is quite easy for them to service thanks to this movement’s construction.
5. A. Lange & Söhne L951.6
The hand-wound Caliber L951.6 by A. Lange & Söhne powers the brand’s Datograph Auf/Ab timepiece and, as you can see from the photo, has an incredibly high level of finishing and craftsmanship. The balance bridge has that traditional Glashütte finish (hand-engraving) and all the movement parts are meticulously finished as well. All the parts — even the balance spring — are manufactured in-house. This particular movement consists of 451 parts, which means assembly is surely a painstaking job for Lange’s watchmakers in Germany. Although I have much respect and admiration for all Lange movements, the one in the Datograph Auf/Ab (“Up/Down”) movement is definitely one of my favorites.
6. Omega Caliber 9300
In 2011, a few years after the introduction of its in-house-developed-and-produced Caliber 8500-family of movements, Omega introduced the Caliber 9300 chronograph movement, which was also entirely developed and manufactured in-house. This impressively large caliber has the brand’s renowned co-axial escapement, a column-wheel mechanism, and a silicon balance spring. The movement has a 60-hour power reserve. So far, Omega has only used Caliber 9300 in its Seamaster Planet Ocean chronographs and Speedmaster Caliber 9300 watches, including the Speedmaster “Dark Side of the Moon.” Caliber 9300 has a two-register layout in which the subdial at 3 o’clock shows both the recorded hours and minutes. This subdial can also be used as a second-time-zone indicator if used cleverly. A review on the Omega Speedmaster 9300 can be found here.
7. TAG Heuer Caliber 1969
Remember the uproar when it was revealed that TAG Heuer’s Caliber 1887 movement was based on a Seiko chronograph caliber? Even though TAG Heuer modified it, and is producing it in Switzerland, the word “Seiko” lit a fire under some diehard Swiss-watch fans. Recently, TAG Heuer introduced another new chronograph movement, Caliber 1969. The caliber number refers to the year that TAG introduced its first mechanical, automatic chronograph movement, Caliber 11. And it should be noted that this movement has nothing to do with the more controversial Caliber 1887. It is a tricompax chronograph (subdials at 9, 6 and 3 o’clock) and has a power reserve of 70 hours. There are no watches available with this movement yet, as TAG Heuer just recently announced it and officially opened the production facility. I can only hope it will do a perfect re-edition of some of the classic, vintage Heuer watches that used the Caliber 11 movement in the past.
8. Patek Philippe CHR 29-535 PS Q
This movement, Caliber CHR 29-535 PS Q, was developed in-house by Patek Philippe. It is hand-wound and was used for the first time in Patek’s Reference 5402P (I wrote about that watch here). The movement consists of 496 parts and features not only a chronograph with split-seconds function, but also a perpetual calendar, placing it firmly in Patek Philippe’s Grand Complications collection. It is a relatively small movement compared to the others here (30 mm diameter) but quite thick. The finishing on all the parts is magnificent. Patek Philippe has filed for a patent on its new split-seconds lever construction. An amazing movement that is unfortunately — like the A. Lange & Söhne chronograph movement that came in at #5 — available only for a fortunate few.
9. Seiko Ananta Spring Drive Movement (Caliber 5R86)
I recall that, at one point, Seiko‘s Spring Drive movement got so much publicity that people who inquired about my watch hobby were under the assumption that all watches wound by the motion of the wrist were called “Spring Drive” watches. Seiko did an excellent marketing job on that. The Ananta Chronograph was a Seiko watch that really caught my eye, with its Caliber 5R86 movement. Instead of a traditional escapement, the Spring Drive system uses a combination of a balance wheel, electro-magnetic energy, and a quartz oscillator for optimum accuracy; it uses a rotor to wind the mainspring. As you can see, the finishing is superb. If you can live without the traditional tick-tock of a purely mechanical movement, give a watch with this Seiko movement a chance.
10. Breitling B01
Following in the footsteps of Omega and TAG Heuer, Breitling also felt the urge to design and develop a chronograph movement in its own facilities. Breitling introduced its B01 chronograph movement in 2009. Before that, Breitling, like many other watch brands, used mainly ETA/Valjoux chronograph movements, along with an occasional Lemania. The Breitling B01 movement is fully developed and manufactured in-house and has a column-wheel chronograph system. It has a 70-hour power reserve and a traditional tricompax layout. It was first introduced in the Chronomat, but since then Breitling has also installed versions of it in a number of its other watches, including the Navitimer 01, Montbrillant 01 and Chronomat 44.
What are your favorite chronograph movements (not watches)? Please share them with us by leaving a comment.
This article was originally posted in 2015 and has been updated.