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Feature: Restarting the Clock

James D. Malcolmson

Four years ago, 33-year-old Stefan Ihnen, a movement development engineer at IWC in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, faced the most daunting technical challenge of his career: creating the company’s first modern integrated chronograph movement. While completely absorbed in this endeavor, Ihnen may not have been aware that several of his peers across Switzerland were trying to accomplish the same feat for their respective companies. In the last 18 months, in addition to IWC, Chopard, Patek Philippe, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget, and Panerai all have introduced chronographs that were made in-house.

For Good Measure: In-house-developed integrated chronograph movements power IWC’s Da Vinci Chronograph in platinum (left), $47,000, and Jaeger-LeCoultre’s titanium AMVOX2 Chronograph (right), $14,950.

A chronograph, typically designed with three subdials and a pusher on either side of the crown, measures intervals of time in a manner similar to a stopwatch. The pushers start and reset the timing function, though even manufacturers admit that those who purchase a chronograph will rarely engage the timing mechanism. Still, the chronograph is one of the most difficult movements to build and to perfect, and this complexity has stifled the creation of new movements.

Modular Momentum: Rather than develop its own integrated movement, Audemars Piguet invested in a well-built module system for its sold-out, limited-edition Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Rubens Barrichello chronograph in platinum, $78,500.

Until recently, manufacturers simply would avail themselves of the ready supply of chronograph movements produced by ETA, Frederic Piguet, and Lemania—all of which the Swatch Group owns. Among the most popular of these movements has been the Valjoux 7750 (now made by ETA), a highly effective 1974 design that triggered the surge in chronograph production.

But the era of the easy-to-make chronograph may be drawing to a close. Swatch Group chairman Nicolas Hayek has threatened to restrict the supply of movements, and, more significantly, his ubiquitous chronograph mechanisms have become victims of their own success. "Watch collectors are absolutely sick of ETA movements," says Barbara Simonian, owner of Westime, a watch retailer in Los Angeles. "They recognize that the companies who have succeeded in making their own chronographs are really on the ball."

Racing Forms: Chronograph designs can range from sporty and modern to elegant and classic. Clockwise from top: Louis Vuitton Tambour LV Cup Regatta chronograph, $8,150; Carl F. Bucherer Patravi Chronograde in steel, $12,200; Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph in steel, $16,500; Glashütte Original PanoMaticChrono in rose gold, $43,500.

Many of the newest chronograph movements are integrated, meaning that the watchmakers design them from the ground up as chronographs instead of placing separate chronograph modules on top of base movements. These integrated designs often incorporate a column wheel, a mechanism that precisely directs the chronograph’s functions. The column wheel is one of the traditional hallmarks of a high-quality chronograph.

Feminine Precision: Women’s chronographs blend technical movements with timely style. Blancpain Women Camelia Flyback chronograph in stainless steel (left), $10,100; Hublot Big Bang Cappuccino Gold (right), $22,900.

However, a chronograph’s quality is measured by its construction as well as its parts. "You must create equilibrium to make a good chronograph," explains Stephane Belmont, product development manager at Jaeger-LeCoultre, which utilizes its caliber 751 movement in its Master Compressor Chronograph and last year’s AMVOX2 Chronograph. "The levers and springs for stopping and resetting have to be perfectly synchronized, and there have to be equal amounts of friction in the movement when the chronograph is running and when it is stopped."

Sport Utilities: Rugged models look sharp while tracking elapsed times. Clockwise from top: Zenith Port-Royal Open Concept with black titanium case, $14,700; Girard-Perregaux Sport Classique Laureato EVO³ Chronograph in titanium and rose gold, $12,500; Panerai Luminor Chrono Daylight in steel, $8,700. (Click image to enlarge)

At IWC, Ihnen addressed the friction issue in an imaginative fashion. "We used one of the levers for the coaxial hours and minute counter to add friction like a brake when the chronograph is not running," he explains. "This way the watch will perform the same whether the chronograph is running or not."

Of course, building an integrated movement is not the only way to make a high-performance chronograph. Audemars Piguet, for instance, defends its modular systems, noting that they perform faster than column-wheel models. Modules also enable small brands, such as Carl F. Bucherer and Parmigiani Fleurier, to create distinctive chronographs without expending the money and effort needed to develop an entire movement.

Resources

Audemars Piguet, 212.688.6644, www.audemarspiguet.com
Blancpain, 877.520.1735, www.blancpain.com
Carl F. Bucherer, 800.395.4306, www.carl-f-bucherer.com
Chopard, 800.246.7273, www.chopard.com
Girard-Perregaux, 877.846.3447, www.girard-perregaux.com
Glashütte Original, 866.203.8699, www.glashuette-original.com
Hublot, 800.536.0636, www.hublot.com
IWC, 800.432.9330, www.iwc.ch
Jaeger-Lecoultre, 800.552.8463, www.jaegerlecoultre.com
Louis Vuitton, 866.884.8866, www.louisvuitton.com
Panerai, 877.726.3724, www.panerai.com
Parmigiani Fleurier, 949.489.2885, www.parmigiani.ch
Patek Philippe, 212.218.1240, www.patek.com
Piaget, 877.874.2438, www.piaget.com
Vacheron Constantin, 877.862.7555, www.vacheron-constantin.com
Zenith, 866.273.3477, www.zenith-watches.com

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