Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting important or little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Porsche Design Chronograph 1.
“Blacked-out” this, “tactical” that…Look around today’s watch landscape and it’s hard to imagine a time when there was no such thing as an all-black watch. Maybe the idea existed before the 1970s, but it took the confluence of two forces to make it a reality: one was the necessary technology, and the other was the design brilliance of none other than the man who created the famous Porsche 911. Once Ferdinand Alexander Porsche released his Chronograph 1 upon the world in 1972, the black watch was here to stay.
It’s the color (or lack thereof?) that goes with everything, after all, and it can certainly have a compellingly serious, masculine vibe. Like so many other great inventions and innovations, it looks in retrospect like an obvious choice for watches. The Porsche Design Chronograph 1, however, is important and compelling for reasons beyond its color.
Its connection to the most famous car of one of the most prominent automakers is no contrived co-branding exercise, as so many other watches are. Ferdinand Alexander Porsche (you may call him “Butzi” or F.A.), grandson of the german car maker’s founder, designed the iconic Porsche 911 (among others), which was introduced in 1964. When he left the company and founded his own design firm in 1972, however, his first product was a watch: the Chronograph 1.
With its sharp, austere and functional design, it looks modern even today. F.A. Porsche had been an industrial design student at the Hochschule für Gestaltung Ulm school founded by none other than Bauhaus hero Max Bill. You can see the school’s influence in its purposefully monochromatic dial enlivened with a shock of red from the bold seconds hand.
There’s little debate that black simply “looks cool,” but legend has it that the idea behind the watch was twofold: one was to match the 911, and the other was based on pure functionality. It’s said that Porsche cited the legibility of gauges found in cars and planes with their white-on-black designs — they remain easy to read but don’t distract or blind the user with bright colors.
It’s also quite thinkable that the possibilities offered by then-young technology factored into his inspiration as well. The process known as PVD (physical vapor deposition) allows a thin layer of vaporized material to atomically bond to the metal beneath — as opposed to something like paint, which merely covers it. As is still the case today, much of the innovation in watch construction came from materials and tech originating in other industries, such as automotive and aviation, and developments around the late 1960s had begun to make some of this tech practical and applicable for use in horology.
Today, PVD is one of the most common ways of giving watches a colored coating, be it black, rose gold, or what have you — and it’s everywhere. If you want your Rolex “murdered out” or you’re Virgil Abloh and have some ideas on how to improve on a Patek Philippe Nautilus, there’s a cottage industry there to serve you.
DLC (diamond like carbon) is another common coating method, but some of the most interesting developments in the watch industry relate to materials that have their own color and don’t need a coating, like ceramic and carbon composites. PVD, however, has only improved in quality since the time of the Porsche Design Chronograph 1, early examples of which might show wear.
When Porsche Design introduced its first watch, it didn’t have the capacity to actually produce it, so the Chronograph 1 was at first made by a relatively obscure company called Orfina. Porsche Design actually continued for decades to partner with watch companies for production — most notably with IWC and Eterna. At different points in its life, the Chronograph 1 contained the Valjoux 7750 and the Lemania 5100 automatic chronograph movements. As of 2014, however, the brand is making its own watches under Porsche Design Timepieces AG, including those that directly reference its 1972 chronograph.
The original Porsche Design Chronograph 1 still stands out for its famous designer, its place in history, and not least for its style. So many other watches from the ’70s are considered cool today, but this is often precisely because they look so funky and retro. In contrast, the tight design of the Porsche Design Chronograph 1 looks remarkably modern and even edgy almost 50 years later. Few watches can claim a similar feat.