Enthusiasts of mechanical chronographs didn’t always have it this good. Today’s market offers countless varieties, from affordable entry-level models to highly complicated in-house models. And here’s the best part: We finally have a variety of movement prototypes again, restoring the diversity of calibers once decimated by the quartz crisis and the subsequent unprecedented industry consolidation. Particularly in the case of chronographs, enthusiasts long had to make do with the ETA Valjoux – or dig deep into their pockets. While the Valjoux is no doubt an outstanding movement, its dominance and ubiquity on the market have left enthusiasts rather unenthused.
The trend toward in-house movements is on the verge of bringing this erstwhile diversity deficit to an end. Even exclusive movement manufacturers are once again making affordable chronograph calibers more widely available. This means that brands that don’t produce their technology in-house can advance into affordable price regions without having to rely solely on well-known movements from industry leaders.
At the same time, the demand for vintage timepieces remains strong, though it’s nearly impossible to give an overview of all the movements in this sector. There’s no better time to get to know some of the most prominent chronograph movements of the past decades. Not only can you learn a thing or two about older timepieces, but also some manufacturers continue to build or rebuild these movements in more advanced, modified forms. In this article, I’ve selected five examples in this category that we’ll examine more closely to understand what makes them so unique and relevant today.
Let’s begin with one of the heavyweights among the historical chronograph calibers: the Lemania 2310. Strictly speaking, this movement is no longer historical, as it has once again become a contemporary in the market. But more on that later.
Produced by the movement manufacturer Nouvelle Lemania, the caliber came onto the market in 1942. The company has since become a part of Breguet – much to the chagrin of many collectors, given that Lemania once supplied a large swath of luxury watchmakers. Omega was directly involved in the development of the 2310 and used it under the name Omega 321 in the early Speedmaster models. Adding refinements typical to its brand, Patek Phillipe introduced this caliber as the CH 27-70. Vacheron Constantin developed a slightly improved variation on the Lemania 2320, known as the caliber 1141, and later introduced the 1142. To date, Vacheron Constantin continues to produce the 1142 in-house – for instance, in their Harmony Chronograph. You can also find movements based on this classic at Roger Dubuis and Breguet.
Using an image of the Omega 321, we can break down the construction of the 2310. This is what’s known as a column-wheel caliber (you can find the eponymous component in the top right corner of the image). A horizontal clutch engages the chronograph mechanism with its pivoting clutch wheel and characteristically fine-toothed central wheel. The shape of the chronograph bridge varies depending on the specific brand’s version of the movement: The Omega 321 has a U-shaped bridge, while Patek’s CH 27-70 features a V-shaped bridge. Despite these obvious distinctions, the movement’s overall architecture is the same across all versions. The distinctive shape of the zero-reset mechanism on the right side of the image is also identical across variations of the Lemania 2310.
If you’re interested in the Lemania 2310, you don’t necessarily have to resort to vintage models or modified successors. Since 2019, the manufacturer has reintroduced the Omega 321 in small numbers, remaining utterly faithful to the original movement. You’ll find it, for example, in the Speedmaster reference 322.214.171.124.01.001. To learn more about the comeback of this legendary movement and its technology, read this article.
The 3019PHC by Zenith was the first incarnation of the well-known El Primero, one of the competitors in the race to create the first automatic chronograph. The construction is a true legend, due in no small part to the incredible story surrounding Zenith employee Charles Vermot. No longer seeing a future for mechanical chronographs during the quartz crisis, Zenith’s American owner at the time ordered the destruction of the company’s blueprints and tools. Vermot, however, secretly hid the machines in an attic – an act of resistance that later proved to be the right decision. With the renaissance of mechanical watches, the El Primero was back in demand, and even Rolex occasionally turned to variations of this caliber for the Daytona. While Zenith no longer provides movements to third parties, the further advancements to the El Primero continue to enjoy widespread popularity in the brand’s extensive chronograph collection.
You can easily identify the 3019PHC by its automatic rotor, which features a distinctive curved cutout. Furthermore, you can also recognize the so-called “high beat” movement acoustically. It has a frequency of 5 hertz (36,000 vibrations/hour), which is much faster than that of more common escapements with a frequency of 3 or 4 hertz. High escapement frequencies have several advantages, including increased overall stability and the ability to measure finer intervals – in this case, tenths of a second.
Pre-owned timepieces outfitted with the 3019PHC are not difficult to find. One particularly charming example is the Zenith El Primero “TV Screen” – a 70s classic, which faintly resembles an old-fashioned cathode-ray tube television.
If you’re more comfortable with new purchases, Zenith also offers contemporary calibers based on the 3019PHC. For instance, the manufacturer has redeveloped El Primeros from the caliber family 4000 and outfitted these with silicon components. More recently, Zenith released revolutionary calibers like the El Primero 9004, which boasts two escapements and can measure times to one 100th of a second.
The Caliber 11 – also known as Chronomatic – was the Zenith El Primero’s “opponent” developed by the companies Breitling, Heuer, Hamilton-Buren, and complication specialists Dubois Dépraz. Accordingly, the caliber can be found in watches from these three brands.
Unlike the Zenith El Primero, the Caliber 11 disappeared from the market forever over the course of the quartz crisis. Vintage timepieces from Breitling, Heuer, or Hamilton are still available, however. Moreover, the selection is quite diverse, ranging from icons like the Heuer Monaco to exceptional designs like the Hamilton Chrono-Matic Fontainebleau.
It’s worth noting that TAG Heuer offers a “Caliber 11” in their modern portfolio, but it is just an ETA or Sellita movement with a Dubois Dépraz module. When in doubt, look for the automatic rotor – in a real Caliber 11, it is hidden from view.
If you remove the steel case back of a watch containing an original Caliber 11, everything seems to indicate a manual caliber with a cam switch and horizontal coupling when, in fact, you’re looking at an automatic movement. Since the Caliber 11 has a modular design, its micro-rotor sits beneath the chronograph mechanism. The movement is a modified version of a caliber from the Buren Watch Company, which was the first manufacturer to patent the micro-rotor. With the barrel and rotor hidden by the module, only the base movement’s balance wheel is visible.
Two features, in particular, can make it easier to identify this caliber. Its two largest bridges, the smaller of which is nearly square, are unmistakable. Additionally, in timepieces with this caliber, the placement of the crown and chronograph push-pieces is noteworthy: While the latter sit at 2 and 4 o’clock, as usual, the crown is on the left-hand side at 9 o’clock.
The Lemania 5100 belongs to a category of movements specifically designed as an economic compromise rather than as a collector’s item. If watch lovers today are not already turned off by this movement’s rustic looks, then they certainly will turn up their noses when they catch wind of the numerous punched-out parts and plastic components.
The movement premiered in 1974, making it the youngest caliber in this article. Its simple construction was intended to rival other affordably produced chronograph movements that were available at the time. Following in the footsteps of Zenith, Heuer, and Seiko, who had all introduced self-winding chronographs five years prior, the Lemania also features automatic winding. While this is a caliber with integrated construction – meaning without a base movement and a separately attached module – its chronograph mechanism is still hidden behind a plate. Today, no movement manufacturer would deprive a watch wearer of this view, but in the Lemania 5100’s heyday, display case backs were not widespread. Besides, there’s not much to see in the first place. Only the balance wheel and a single separate gear bridge can just be made out underneath the rotor. At the same time, this pared-down look is the calling card of the 5100.
Despite all these apparent shortcomings, the Lemania 5100 has won over the hearts of collectors. There are a handful of reasons for this: For one, the movement has proven incredibly robust and shock-resistant. During one of the Spacelab missions, astronaut Reinhard Furrer could be seen wearing a black-coated Sinn 140, which at the time still used the Lemania caliber.
The main reason behind the myth of the 5100 lies in a function very rarely found among affordable chronographs: a central minute counter. The arrangement of the subdials at 6, 9, and 12 o’clock immediately calls to mind the Valjoux 7750. However, the 7750 only displays chronograph seconds centrally, while the minutes have their own subdial. The 5100 boasts a total of four central hands on one axis. Together with a stop-seconds counter, the chronograph’s minute counter allows for intuitive, accurate reading of stopwatch times.
With the discontinuation of the 5100 and subsequent dominance of the 7750, chronographs with a central minute counter became a sought-after rarity. The high demand continues unabated to this day. If you come across a model with this uncommon feature, it will usually be an ETA-redesign or a luxury in-house timepiece.
An obscure movement called C01.211 is the only thing that remains of the 5100 under the aegis of the Swatch group. It appears in affordable Tissot models. Unfortunately, the makers of this budget caliber opted against the central minute counter and for a plastic escapement – hardly a worthy replacement for fans of the original movement. Luckily, vintage timepieces with the 5100 can still be found at affordable price points, and replacement parts are available. If you’re interested in this charming watch movement, try looking for the models from Sinn, Heuer, Omega, or Fortis.
Purchasing a vintage chronograph with a highly sought-after movement is rarely a bargain. This general rule also applies to the older Venus 175 by the Fabriques d’Ébauches Vénus from the 1940s. However, just like with the Omega 231, this caliber has since reentered production, albeit under less prestigious conditions. Strictly speaking, it has been resurrected twice, in both cases by the Chinese company Tianjin Seagull. Licensed in the 1960s as the chronograph caliber manufacturer for the Chinese army, Tianjin Seagull produced the movement using Venus’ original machines. At the turn of the 21st century, production recommenced in the wake of the mechanical watch renaissance. For around $370, you can purchase an impressive redesign of the original military chronograph, equipped with a transparent display case back and sapphire crystal upon request.
A glimpse at the backside of the watch reveals a classic chronograph movement with manual winding, a column wheel, and horizontal coupling.
Despite its low price, the current version of the Venus 175 doesn’t look too shabby. Thanks to the missing rotor, you can get a good view of the entire mechanism with the eye-catching, bright blue column wheel. A closer look, however, reveals obvious traces from the production process in the ST 19, which is what the company calls this reissue. Nevertheless, the improvements in details, such as the inclusion of more jewel bearings, round out this movement.
If the optics of Seagull’s own vintage-style chronograph aren’t your thing, you still have a handful of other options with this budget caliber. Confidence in the Chinese market is growing, and microbrands especially are embracing the opportunity to offer affordable chronographs alongside their low-cost three-hand models.