Before the Porsche Design Chronograph 1, there were no watches with black cases. It's hard to imagine today, what with the preponderance of cases clad in black PVD- or DLC-coated steel, or even produced in materials like ceramic or carbon. Black watches are sleek and serious-looking, and they've become staples of streetwear, military-chic and high-end watchmaking. They've even snuck onto the silver screen; the Chronograph 1 was famously worn by Tom Cruise's character in the 1986 film Top Gun.
The Chronograph 1 was the brainchild of Ferdinand Alexander “Butzi” Porsche, best known for having designed the Porsche 911. In 1972, when he decided to leave the auto company his grandfather founded, he launched his own design firm, Porsche Design, by debuting this unprecedented watch. It was meant to match Porsche’s cars, and also to apply automotive design principles to a wristwatch.
The 1970s were a time of transition, experimentation and wild design, but even if you wanted to make a black watch, there hadn't so far been a good way to achieve it. Enter physical vapor deposition, or PVD, which had been used in the automotive and aviation industries to atomically bond a thin layer of material to the metal beneath rather than simply coat it like paint; by the ’70s, it was finally becoming available in a form that could be applied to watches.
There's a good reason why Porsche Design chose black for the Chronograph 1
Black looks cool on just about anything, but the idea behind using the color was practical: legibility. Just as in the gauges and instruments of cars and airplanes, black trim functions to avoid diverting one's gaze. High contrast with white hands and indices offer easy reference without distraction, which the watch is meant to do for drivers. Looking badass is a bonus.
The automaker connection and world-first tech let this watch stake a claim in the horological history books, but it wouldn't have become an icon if the design weren't also on point. Butzi's Bauhaus training manifests in the Chronograph 1's austere minimalism, functional form and the shock of red of the stopwatch's seconds hand. It recalls auto racing — or, more specifically, a Porsche’s dashboard.
For the first several decades of its existence, Porsche Design partnered with watchmakers for the actual production of its watches. The earliest iterations of the Chronograph 1 feature Porsche’s own name on the dial alongside watchmaker Orfina; the brand would later partner with IWC and Eterna on more innovative timekeepers. Since 2014, however, the brand has taken on many aspects of watch production itself, so those co-branded dials are a thing of the past.
For 2022, Porsche Design is marking its 50th anniversary by recreating the watch that started it all. Side by side with the original model, it's slightly chunkier, but remarkably faithful in almost every way. It's also produced in titanium, referencing another Porsche Design landmark: when it made one of the earliest watches in the material with IWC in 1980. Even at 50, the Porsche Design Chronograph 1 looks as fresh today as it did in 1972.
Porsche Design Goes Hollywood
The Chronograph 1’s appearances on famous wrists aren’t limited to ‘80s military movies. Dustin Hoffman wore one in the 1979 film Kramer vs. Kramer, and race car driver Mario Andretti often wore one behind the wheel. And, of course, it’s on Tom Cruise's wrist again in 2022’s Top Gun: Maverick, the sequel to the iconic film.