Time On Our Hands: Chronograph Shootout

The popularity and prevalence of chronographs might just make one think that it is an easy watch complication. Everyone from Hamilton and Tissot on up the line to the loftier likes of Patek and Lange & Söhne have one in their lineups.

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The popularity and prevalence of chronographs might just make one think that it is an easy watch complication. Quartz chronos are common on wrists from Portland to Portland, and even on the mechanical side of things, everyone from Hamilton and Tissot on up the line to the loftier likes of Patek and Lange & Söhne have one in their lineups. Something about the asymmetrical cases — those buttons poking out from under a shirtsleeve — and the gauge-like dials with tachymetric scales and multiple subdials seems irresistible to men everywhere, who are perhaps drawn to the instrument aesthetic or just a desire to play with their watches. After all, what other timepiece is as responsive and gives as much tactile pleasure as a chronograph?

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The truth is, the very nature of what a chronograph does is what makes it so difficult to produce. The basic movement keeps the time like any other watch, converting energy from the mainspring to measured pulses from the escapement at the end of the gear train. But press that chronograph start button and you’re asking the movement to start tracking elapsed time entirely separately from the timekeeping. The chronograph not only has to function independently from the primary functioning of the movement, it also has to rob the movement of energy to do it while not affecting the watch’s accuracy — no small feat. The difficulty in this is evidenced by the relative paucity of new chronograph movements. Sure, Lange has one, as do Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling and a handful of others. These companies’ movements came at great expense of both time and capital, and were only made possible after years of research and development.

Most of the chronographs sold today with a “Swiss Made” on the dial rely on a base movement, the Valjoux 7750, that was introduced when Nixon was in the White House. This movement has been popular because of its ruggedness, its ease of construction and modification, and its relatively low cost. Still, the 7750, while a fine movement in its own right, is typically passed over by those for whom the mechanical chronograph transcends a machine and becomes a piece of art. Its chronograph functions are controlled by a small gadget called a “heart piece limiter,” which is sturdy and less finicky to build, but lacks the precision, tactile feel and responsiveness of the other, more refined “column wheel,” which is found in higher-end chronographs. The column wheel, as its name describes, is a small wheel in the movement that has vertical “wedges” protruding, so that it resembles the turret of a castle. Pressing the chronograph buttons rotates this wheel by one position each time (start, stop, reset) and engages a lever that makes the watch function at its master’s bidding.

While we didn’t intend to play favorites or choose a “best” from the trio, comparisons were inevitable, and a part of the fun.

So when we recently got our hands on three of the best available in-house built automatic column wheel chronographs from three legendary companies — Zenith, OMEGA and Girard-Perregaux — it presented an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We’ll call it a shootout — loosely. While we didn’t intend to play favorites or choose a “best” from the trio, comparisons were inevitable, and a part of the fun. Before we get started, let’s review what they all have in common.

All three are sports watches. This doesn’t mean they’re intended to be worn on the squash court. “Sports watch” is a rather outdated term from a time when watches served a purpose beyond creating office wrist envy: they were worn for auto racing, scuba diving and sailing. Often they would be swapped out on Monday morning for a smaller, dressier watch though today, all of these chronographs would be considered “dressy” by most people used to seeing digital running watches on wrists.

All three make use of in-house, or manufacture, column wheel movements, meaning they were conceived of, designed and built entirely within the walls of their parent companies’ factories. These movements are a source of pride for the brands and they rightly represent a high achievement.

All three are self-winding, or automatic, movements. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal today, the introduction of the automatic chronograph was a huge milestone in 1969, when several companies, including Zenith, raced to be first to market. Ironically, while it is arguably more difficult to add the self-winding components to a mechanical chronograph, today collectors and watch buffs still consider hand-wound chronos the peak of beauty. We won’t argue with that; it’s a different shootout for a different day. Today we’re only concerned with automatics. So without further ado, here are the watches.

Zenith Stratos Flyback Striking 10th (Tribute to Felix Baumgartner)

The Stratos Flyback, which we took to calling “Felix” for brevity during our time with it, received a lot of attention last fall when it became the first watch to break the speed of sound, worn open to the elements on the wrist of its namesake Austrian daredevil when he leaped from a balloon and free fell 130,000 feet. So much is this chronograph tied to Baumgartner’s feat that the man’s visage is engraved on the caseback. But there is more to the watch than its 15 minutes of fame. It is, in fact, a direct descendant of Zenith’s El Primero movement, the first full-rotor integrated automatic chronograph. It can also track elapsed time down to 1/10th of a second.

The El Primero movement, so named for its groundbreaking introduction in 1969, is a legendary movement and by far the graybeard of our group. Changed little in its 44 years of life, versions of it have been used by TAG Heuer (as the Calibre 36) and even by Rolex for several years in its Daytona. What sets the El Primero apart is the speed at which it runs. The oscillating balance wheel swings back and forth an astounding 36,000 times per hour: 5 Hertz, or 10 times per second. This is where the “Striking 10th” part of its name comes from.

Tick List

Movement
Calibre: El Primero 4057 B
Frequency: 36,000vph (5 Hz)
Jewels: 31
Power reserve: 50 hours

Functions
Hours, minutes, small seconds, chronograph (1/10th seconds, seconds, minutes), flyback

Case
Material: Stainless steel
Diameter: 45.5mm
Case Back: Steel screw-in with Felix Baumgartner engraving
Crystal: Sapphire
Water Resistance: 10 ATM (100 meters)

Dial
Silver metallic with overlapping subdials
Lumed hands and hour markers

Strap/Bracelet
Rubber with foldover deployant clasp

Splitting time that thinly means a higher level of precision, and Zenith takes full advantage. This watch has a central sweep hand that swings around the dial once every ten seconds, unlike other chronographs that make the lap in a leisurely 60. Stopping the running chrono allows for read-off of elapsed time to the tenth of a second, using that sweep hand along with the seconds and minute counters. While this is an astonishing feat for a mechanical watch, it ignores the fact that human reaction time (and your clumsy fingers) is far too slow to measure time that narrowly. Still, it’s fun to play with, watching the hand skip around the dial. As if this so-called “foudryante” complication weren’t enough, “Felix” is also a flyback chronograph, so that pressing the reset pusher while the chronograph is running immediately zeroes and restarts the timer, saving you the trouble of three separate button actuations. Not that it is unpleasant to push the buttons, which are predictably crisp thanks to the column wheel under the hood.

The Stratos Flyback is a big watch, in fact the biggest of the three we tried. At 45 millimeters, it wears like a dive watch, a size further accented by the fat ratcheting bezel. The bezel gives the watch even more virile swagger, entirely befitting its most famous BASE-jumping owner, but its engraved sapphire inlay is highly reflective and surprisingly hard to read. With the screw-in crown, rectangular pushers and thick rubber strap, this watch felt the most “sporty” and capable of the three chronographs. It was also the least comfortable to wear thanks to its top-heavy case, monstrous dimensions and the tiny deployant clasp, which is, to date, the most finicky we’ve tried. Still, given its colorful looks and space-jumping backstory, it was the watch we put on the most, if only for its inevitable conversation-starting capabilities.

Learn More: Here

Girard-Perregaux Chrono Hawk

Girard-Perregaux is a company reborn. A proud watchmaking maison that can trace its history back to 1791, G-P has a long and storied legacy but struggled to find its feet after mechanical watches rebounded in the past two decades; meanwhile, its peers, Vacheron Constantin, Patek and Audemars Piguet, enjoyed more visibility and success. But recently the company has turned out some impressive timepieces, reinvented itself as a more youthful brand, and has set the industry on its ear with the introduction of not one but two breakthroughs in 2013: its first integrated manual wind in-house chronograph and the revolutionary Constant Escapement, which is arguably the most important watch of the year. But as sports watch guys we were happy to see the Hawk lineup refreshed with an updated Sea Hawk diver and the Hawk Chronograph.

Tick List

Movement
Calibre: GP03300-0073
Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
Jewels: 61
Power reserve: 46 hours

Functions
Hours, minutes, small seconds, chronograph (seconds, minutes)

Case
Material: Stainless steel
Diameter: 44mm
Case Back: Sapphire see-through, secured with screws
Crystal: Sapphire
Water Resistance: 10 ATM (100 meters)

Dial
Cream dial with raised honeycomb texture
Lumed hands and hour markers

Strap/Bracelet
Curved leather/rubber with foldover deployant clasp

Despite G-P’s prowess as a movement maker, what is most immediately impressive about the Chrono Hawk is its appearance. This watch doesn’t look remotely like the other two chronographs — nor like any other watch on the market today. The steel case is severely curved to fit the wrist with nontraditional lugs and an integrated leather and rubber strap that flows from it smoothly. The bezel is octagonal (harking back to the shape of the Laureato, one of G-P’s best known timepieces) and sandwiches a boldly prominent rubber gasket between it and the case. The sapphire crystal is domed, completing the overall seamless, streamlined look. The off-white dial has a three-dimensional honeycomb texture, offsetting the twin chronograph counters and the black outer ring. The orange-tipped seconds hand lends a tiny splash of color, creating a clean, minimalist and decidedly modern look to the watch. This won’t appeal to traditionalists, and the Hawk may not be the most versatile watch, but this boldness is perfectly fitting for a flag bearer of a reborn brand.

This design also made the Chrono Hawk incredibly comfortable to wear in spite of its considerable weight. The adjustable foldover deployant was easy to use and highly adjustable. Of all the watches we tried, this is the one we didn’t want to take off, even wearing it to time a lunch-hour run, during which it was unobtrusive, more than can be said for most mechanical watches during exercise. Of course, runs over 30 minutes couldn’t be timed since the dial’s twin-counter symmetry, and the movement itself, means it lacks an hour totalizer.

Speaking of the movement, the GP03300 has been a workhorse for Girard-Perregaux, found not only in several of its chronographs but also sold to, and modified by, other watch brands for their own watches. It is a fine automatic movement, efficient, accurate and finely decorated as viewed through the sapphire caseback. Pusher action is excellent, again thanks to the column wheel within, but also due to the broad rectangular buttons, which are rubber coated and easy to operate. If there’s one quibble with this movement it’s that it is not a truly integrated one. The works for the chronograph are bolted onto the base timekeeping bits, making the watch relatively tall; it also means you can’t view the column wheel or actuating levers since they are hidden beneath the winding rotor, bridges and train of the base movement. It didn’t bother us, but if you’re someone who spends as much time looking at the back of your watch as the front, read on.

Learn More: Here

OMEGA Speedmaster ’57

By now, who doesn’t know the history of the OMEGA Speedmaster, perhaps the most famous and iconic chronograph, if not watch, in the world? But that Speedmaster that everyone knows as the Moonwatch started off as an automotive watch, built and named to capitalize on the growing interest in not only sports watches but sports cars in the late 1950s. Yes, the Speedmaster began life in 1957 in slightly different guise than the rugged, sober tool of Aldrin, Shepard and Grissom. The first version had more delicate hands, lacked the crown guards of the later versions and featured an engraved steel bezel rather than the black aluminum insert so commonly pictured on the Moonwatch. It was this first Speedmaster that OMEGA sought to emulate with this year’s Speedmaster ’57.

Tick List

Movement
Calibre: 9300
Frequency: 28,800 vph (4 Hz)
Jewels: 54
Power reserve: 60 hours

Functions
Hours, minutes, small seconds, chronograph (seconds, minutes)

Case
Material: Stainless steel
Diameter: 41.5mm
Case Back: Domed sapphire see-through
Crystal: Sapphire
Water Resistance: 10 ATM (100 meters)

Dial
Sunburst metallic blue
Lumed hour/minute hands and hour markers

Strap/Bracelet
Polished and brushed stainless steel with hidden pushbutton deployant clasp

Rather than an homage piece, true to the original in every way, in this chronograph OMEGA married the best of what’s new with the nostalgia of the original. While the case shape, engraved bezel, naked pushers and crown, and slender hands recall the first Speedy, the sunburst blue metallic dial is not made for legibility in a cockpit (of a car or a space capsule), but to catch light in a dazzling fashion. The chronograph hands are red, providing eye-catching contrast against the blue. Against the steel bezel, the overall effect is truly beautiful. But look more closely. The lack of a third subdial hints at a big change. Flipping the watch over tells the story.

The in-house calibre 9300 is perhaps OMEGA’s finest movement, very possibly one of the finest automatic chronograph movements available today. It excels in every way imaginable. Its twin barrels provide 60 hours of power reserve. The silicon hairspring, developed by OMEGA, is impervious to fluctuations in temperature and virtually immune to magnetism. The column wheel provides crisp responsiveness and instant actuation. And that absent subdial? You won’t miss it, because this chronograph displays both elapsed hours and minutes on a single subdial. Reading it is like reading a clock. No more squinting at two subdials and calculating elapsed time. Oh, NASA would have loved this one, despite the fact that the incredible decoration would have distracted astronauts from their in-flight checklists. The radiating graining on the bridges is continued on the oscillating rotor to stunning effect. The movement is big too, almost bursting out the sapphire caseback, which is as domed as the front crystal. OMEGA pulled out all the stops with this movement.

The cost of this amazing movement is paid in height and weight. Though at 41.5 millimeters the Speedy wasn’t the biggest watch in our test, it is a tall watch and thus top heavy. This isn’t helped by the well-made but heavy steel bracelet, with its hidden clasp, which lacks micro-adjustment. The bracelet is held together with pins and collars instead of screws, which makes for difficult sizing. Rather than take a hammer and tap to a loaned watch, we opted to wear it on a NATO for the week. While it looked fine, it was not ideal. Still, this watch drew perhaps the most oohs and aahs from watch lovers and was the dressiest of the trio, even worn on nylon.

Learn More: Here

Conclusions

In a three-way shootout only one contender is typically left standing. But there are no losers here. While the Zenith, the G-P and the OMEGA are all in-house automatic column wheel sports chronographs, they really couldn’t be more different from each other. The Zenith is a tough guy watch, brawny and swaggering, loaded for bear with a high-beat movement, sporty styling and a celebrity action hero. The G-P is the stylish one, with its fresh, avant-garde design backed up by the reputation of its haute horlogerie builder. And the OMEGA has that killer movement shoehorned into a case straight from the height of the Cold War era that is still drop dead gorgeous.

Do they have their shortcomings? Sure. The Zenith is a beast to wear and its high-beat movement will need more frequent servicing. The G-P won’t take third-party straps and relies on a modular, albeit fine, movement. (It’s also expensive, almost twice as much as the other two.) The OMEGA is tall and heavy; its polished bracelet means it’s the least sporty of the three. But drawing comparisons between watches at this level is really like splitting hairs. Deciding which one is “best” is really a rhetorical exercise, like rating supercars or supermodels. The fact is, we’d happily wear all of them and, for one fun week in July, we did.

METHODOLOGY: We wore these three chronographs for one week, swapping them out for equal wrist time and wearing them all for a variety of activities, from running to nights at the theater to rooftop cocktails. No stratospheric free-falling was involved. No chronographs were hurt in this shootout.

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