In the early days of sailing, it was extremely challenging for ships to determine their position at sea once they lost sight of land. Their navigation methods didn’t account for environmental factors like wind or current, and oftentimes, all of these inaccuracies caused ships to be thrown off course. At the time, it was relatively simple to determine latitude, but the same couldn’t be said for longitude.
The “Longitude Problem” was a global epidemic. So much so that in 1714, the British government announced that it would award a large prize to anyone who could solve it. Enter John Harrison and the marine chronometer. The self-trained carpenter and clockmaker entered the competition with a handcrafted clock that could keep accurate time at sea. It wasn’t good enough to win the award, but the Board of Longitude took notice, and over the course of the following 40 years, he perfected the technology over multiple iterations and eventually claimed his prize.
Throughout the following centuries, the technology contained in Harrison’s marine chronometer was improved and miniaturized, to the point where Swiss companies such as Ulysse Nardin were supplying foreign navies (such as the U.S. Navy in the late 19th/early 20th centuries) with super-accurate pocket chronometers for use in navigation.
By the mid-1900s, radio navigation systems started to replace marine chronometers, but the emphasis on ultra-accurate timekeeping continued to evolve through Observatory Trails. Marine chronometers were submitted to European observatories and put through stringent accuracy tests over the course of several weeks. These trials fizzled out at the onset of the quartz crisis in the 1970s. However, the development of marine chronometers was far from over. Around the same time, the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) formed. Today, COSC certification continues to be highly coveted among watchmakers.
Today, despite the “chronometer” moniker in the name, a “marine chronometer” need not necessarily be chronometer-certified, as the name tends to be indicative more of an aesthetic than anything else. Many of these watches tend to feature white dials with black printing (often with Roman numeral indices), which replicates the look of porcelain-dialed marine chronometers from the 18th through the 20th century. They often feature sub-seconds dials for accurate time-keeping, blue steel hands and an onion-shaped crown, though there are of course exceptions. Prices range from the relatively affordable to the positively outrageous, but if you find yourself in love with the aesthetic, there’s a watch out there for you.
Steinhart Marine Chronometer 44 Roman
Although Steinhart may be a relatively new brand, it takes care in celebrating watchmaking’s past with its designs. In fact, Steinhart has become famous for its homage watches (which are admittedly polarizing), one of which is a Marine Chronometer. The brand specifically developed its Marine collection in honor of John Harrison and his work on the first marine chronometer. Steinhart follows the guiding principles of legibility and accuracy very closely with each detail — especially in terms of value, its interpretation of a modern marine chronometer is hard to beat.
Movement: ETA Unitas 6498-1
Water Resistance: 5ATM
Martenero Edgemere Reserve
Martenero may not have the century-old traditions of a brand like Ulysse Nardin, but it’s creating equally worthy marine chronometer-inspired watches. The brand first launched the nautically driven Edgemere collection in 2016 — two years later, the Edgemere got an update that pushed its marine chronometer influence even further. The Edgemere Reserve is an enhanced version of the original model with the addition of a power reserve complication and 24-hour sub dial. Like the model’s overall design, the power reserve complication hails from early marine chronometers.
Movement: Miyota 9132
Water Resistance: 30 meters
Stowa Marine Classic Chrono
Stowa also has a long tradition of making marine chronometers — the brand’s earliest examples date back to the deck watches produced in the late 1930s for the German navy. Stowa’s modern Marine collection draws inspiration from these early portable evolutions of the marine chronometer. Models like the Marine Classic Chrono are characterized by their accuracy and legibility, with distinctively clean dials and large hour markers. They offer a classic chronograph look with a dose of nautical inspiration.
Movement: Valjoux 7753
Water Resistance: 5ATM
The IWC Portugieser is arguably one of the most universally loved marine chronometer-inspired models on the market. The watch first made its debut in the 1990s, but its design drew from one of the brand’s previous models, the Portugieser Rattrapante Chronograph. For decades, the Portugieser has remained largely unchanged. Each element of this model works together in perfect harmony, creating the quintessential chronograph. The simplicity of its highly legible dial and two vertically aligned registers create a handsome yet subtle marine chronometer aesthetic.
Movement: Caliber 79350
Water Resistance: 3 Bar
Ulysse Nardin Marine Torpilleur
Ulysse Nardin has a rich history of marine chronometers. The brand’s founder specialized in them, and during the late 19th and early 20th century, Ulysse Nardin supplied dozens of naval forces around the world. However, the brand’s marine heritage was dormant for many years until the its 150th anniversary in 1996 when it debuted a limited edition Marine Chronometer wristwatch. The model was such a success that it evolved into its own collection. One of the latest additions, the Marine Torpilleur, features a dynamic design that pays homage to the brand’s past and present.
Movement: Caliber UN-118
Water Resistance: 50 meters
Wempe Chronometerwerke Power Reserve
Similar to Ulysse Nardin and Breguet, Wempe’s roots in maritime navigation run deep. One of the brand’s subsidiaries, Hamburger Chronometerwerke, manufactured marine chronometers in the early 1900s. Production fell off during WWII but picked back up in the new millennium, and the vintage timepieces serve as the inspiration for the Chronometerwerke Power Reserve. Both the model’s design aesthetic and its functionality illustrate a nautical theme, and elements like the power reserve complication, which, as we mentioned previously, is also derived from the marine chronometer, further emphasize Wempe’s attention to detail in making this an authentic marine chronometer for the wrist.
Movement: Caliber CW3
Bell & Ross Instrument de Marine
Bell & Ross unveiled the Instrument de Marine collection in 2016. The line consists of a trio of models each inspired by eighteenth and nineteenth century marine chronometers, which were mounted and housed in wooden boxes. Here, the brand strives for a nice balance of contemporary and retro design elements — you’ll notice Bell & Ross’s iconic square shaped case, this time constructed out of unique materials that give a nod to the marine chronometer’s heritage. The combination of Indian rosewood, bronze, and titanium harks back to seafaring vessels and ship clocks of the past.
Movement: Caliber BR-CAL.313
Water Resistance: 100 meters
Like Ulysse Nardin, Breguet has a storied past with marine chronometers. The brand’s founder placed a special emphasis on the development of their chronometers, and it paid off. By 1815, the firm had become the official watchmaker of the French Royal Navy, supplying them with marine chronometers. The Marine collection, which has been the Breguet’s flagship sports watch since its debut in 1990, commemorates the brand’s longstanding history with precision watches optimized for the high seas. However, in 2018, the line got a complete overhaul, with larger proportions and an even sportier design.
Movement: Caliber 777A
Water Resistance: 100 meters
Glashütte Original Senator Chronometer
Glashütte Original draws on the history of marine chronometers in the iconic watchmaking town for which the brand was named. (Glashütte was known for its production of marine chronometers in the later period, during the mid-1900s.) A century later, Glashütte Original introduced the first Senator Chronometer in 2009. The model served as the modern archetype of the traditional marine chronometer with slightly larger proportions, and though the latest incarnation is a bit more contemporary, it’s still a classic watch through and through.
Movement: Caliber 58-01
Water Resistance: 5 Bar
A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph Perpetual Pour le Mérite
A. Lange & Söhne launched the first Pour le Mérite timepiece in 1994 following the brand’s long awaited rebirth after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It took just over a decade before Lange introduced a second model into the collection, but ever since, it’s continued to add impressive new additions. The Tourbograph Perpetual debuted just a few years ago at the annual SIHH exhibition in 2017. This model is the most complex variation in the line, with an impressive array of complications, including a chronograph, moon phase, tourbillon and perpetual calendar.
Movement: Caliber L133.1
Water Resistance: 30 meters
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