Who created the first automatic chronograph wristwatch?

1969 was a year to remember.

It was the year Led Zepellin released their first album, the year Ho Chi Minh died, and the year Boeing 747 took its maiden flight to the skies.

Perhaps, most remarkable of all, on 20th July, Apollo 11 landed on the moon and men set foot onto the lunar surface for the first time, leading to the United States’ emergence as champions in the space race against the Soviet Union.

One watch was critical in their safe return back to earth and you can read about it here.

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Neil Armstrong – first man to walk on the moon

In the years preceding 1969, a different kind of race was underway in the horology world – that of creating the first automatic chronograph.

Chronograph wristwatches have existed since the 1910s but they all had to be manually wound. Now, there is a separate story as to who created the first manual-wind chronograph wristwatch but arguably (as is always the case in horology), Longines gets the credit.

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Image via carsandwatches. First chronograph wristwatch in the world. Interestingly, the chronograph is operated (start, stop, reset) through the crown alone at 3 0’clock. To set the time, instead of puling the crown out as we normally do, you had to press the pusher at 2 o’clock which will switch the function of the crown.

In the early 60s, 3 parties began to work on creating an automatic chronograph – Zenith, Seiko and a consortium called ‘Chronomatic’ consisting of Heuer, Breitling, Buren-Hamilton and Dubois-Depraz.

Belligerent One – Seiko

Starting from 1963, Seiko has been actively involved in Swiss chronometer competitions held in Geneva and Neuchatel, sending their watches to compete in accuracy against major Swiss brands (with amazingly good results, I might add). 

It was only natural for them go about doing something (again) that could beat the Swiss. By the way, this was before the Quartz Crisis in which they ended up screwing the entire Swiss watch industry.

Their research led to the Seiko 6139, which was also referred to as the ‘speed timer’ due to its single chronograph sub-dial at 6 o’clock capable of timing only up to 30 minutes.

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There are plenty of colour variations and these watches are highly collectible today. Most importantly, it’s affordable: between SGD 500 to SGD 1,500 depending on model and condition.

Belligerent Two – Heuer/Brietling/Buren/Dupois-Deprav (the Chronomatic consortium)

Back in Europe, the Chronomatic consortium came into existence due to a partnership between different companies with different weaknesses, and in other words, complementary strengths.

Heuer’s chronographs were already a hit in the racing industry. You can read more about their rise to stardom here.

Buren owed a patent for the thinnest micro rotor – the most important component in automatic watches that rotates with the movement of its wearer’s wrist, hence, the term, self winding.

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Micro rotor in gold at 8 o’clock.

Dubois-Deprav, though not a watchmaker, had a niche in adding complications to base movements, and have been called upon by different brands to work on their watches.

A partnership was formed between the 3 parties but there was just one problem: money. Foreseeing that the development costs of an automatic chronograph would eventually empty their collective pockets, Jack Heuer made a call to Willy Brietling.

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An early Brietling dual dial chronograph

While Heuer was the clear leader in racing chronograph, Breitling – with its working history with scientific and industrial companies – had carved out a place for itself, eventually becoming the quintessential pilot’s chronographs. Furthermore, there was synergy in a cooperative effort due to Heuer’s strong foothold in the US but weak position in Europe; a reverse situation for Breitling.

Their clandestine operation was codenamed ‘Project 99’. In 1969, Heuer introduced 3 of their iconic chronograph models – Carrera, Autavia and Monaco – equipped with the Chronomatic movement.

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Ain’t it a beauty?

 

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Belligerent Three – Zenith

On the other side of Switzerland in Le Locle, a lone watchmaker was tinkering in its factory.

Like Seiko, Zenith was a true manufacture producing all its movements in-house. However, its mainstay had always been in military watches of whom the German army (among others) was a client, not chronographs.

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1940s military watch. Luminous material has eroded onto the dial.

 

In 1960, Zenith acquired the Martel Watch Company – known for its chronograph movement production – and with its new-found capabilities, decided to join in the race against (then) unknown competitors.

Also in 1969, the Zenith El Primero A384 was unveiled to the world. It is easily my favourite piece among the 3 in terms of design and technical capabilities. There is also a subsequent story of how all El Primero movements were nearly destroyed but saved by a defiant employee (more on this next time). It is also the only automatic chronograph movement introduced in 1969 still being used in modern watches today.

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The (almost) perfect chronograph dial configuration. If there was no date window, this would be the ultimate design.

 

 

Who came first?

There is no straightforward answer to this one; it boils down to what ‘first’ means to you. I’ll lay the facts and you can decide on your own who you want the first to be.

10 Jan 1969 – Zenith showed a working prototype of its El Primero movement in a small press conference in Switzerland. The naming was straight to the point: El Primero = Number One

3 March 1969 – The Chronomatic consortium unveiled ‘Project 99’ at a huge press conference in Switzerland and New York. This was followed by more conferences in Asia and the Middle East.

April 1969 – At Basel World, the Chronomatic group had hundreds of samples of its watches while Zenith had a few.

May 1969 – Seiko launched the 6139 in Japan (details of whether these were commercial pieces or pre-production watches are murky)

Q3 1969 – Serial production and distribution were in full force for the Chronomatic group

Q4 1969 – Zenith El Primero watches started serial distribution

Late 1969 – Seiko 6139 distribution worldwide

In all likelihood, it appears that Heuer and gang should take the credit as their watches were the first (documented) to achieve global distribution.

Zenith made the announcement first with a working prototype, does that count? It’s your say.

Seiko could have been the first though it wasn’t documented and distribution was primarily within Japan (same case for Grand Seikos; when the Japanese build something amazing, they always keep it within their country for some strange reason).

Well, do all of these matter? It doesn’t to me. What’s important is that we now have historical pieces from all 3 companies debuting in 1969 to learn about and collect.

 

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