[Editor’s Note: We published a truncated version of John DeVore’s “The Grand Finale: the Race for the First Automatic Winding Chronograph”, in the Spring Issue of The Occasional. Due to space considerations in the magazine’s format, we could only publish a more condensed version of John’s fascinating article, so we decided to present his entire article here. Enjoy!]
By John DeVore
I’ve been fascinated by the complexity, ingenuity, and beauty of chronograph watches since I was a kid. As I got older the focus of my interest became a particular moment in horological history, 50 years ago: 1969, grand finale of the golden age of watches.
In 2019, with globally synchronized clocks integrated into every cell phone, it’s difficult to imagine a world that relied on the mechanical wristwatch for most time-keeping tasks. But throughout the first half of the 20th century watch brands built their reputations on the reliability and accuracy of their tool watches.
Breitling made its name among pilots with their chronographs [footnote 1] that featured built-in slide-rules for calculating flight plans in the ’40s and ’50s. Zenith produced some of the most trusted military watches, their chronometers [footnote 2] winning accuracy competitions at the annual Concours Chronométrique in Neuchâtel, Switzerland. By the early 60’s Heuer had become synonymous with auto racing, its timers, chronographs, and branding appearing at most Formula 1 and sports car races. And 50 years ago, on July 20, 1969, the Omega Speedmaster Professional was crowned “King of the Tool Watch” when it landed on the moon [footnote 3], elevating the “Speedy” to the chronograph by which all others shall be judged.
1969 is in fact the most significant year in horology for a number of reasons. Standing with Omega’s achievement in the Apollo program was another milestone that defines this grand finale. 50 years ago marked the end of a race between Seiko, Zenith, and a team led by Heuer that included Hamilton and Breitling. It was a race to build the first automatic winding chronograph wristwatch, and the finish line would stretch across all of 1969. Depending on the exact wording of the contest, any of the three contestants could (and will, to this day) legitimately claim victory in this race.
More interesting to me than the order in which each team crossed the finish line are the resulting spectacular watches and how three distinct approaches produced them. The underlying movements that power these watches speak to fundamental differences in the companies that spawned them. By the late 1950’s chronograph sales were in steady decline due to the popularity of diving watches and ever slimmer time-only dress models, both of which were increasingly made with automatic-winding movements. Led by the development of the diver’s watches and their bold, high-legibility dials, tool watch design was coming into its own and chronographs were breaking out of the subdued, dressier style of the 50’s with size and color. But it was clear that the automatic chronograph was an important next step and it presented a serious technological challenge.
The most famous of these automatic chronographs are the dramatic Heuer, Breitling, and Hamilton watches powered by the Cal. 11 “Chronomatic” movement [footnote 4]. Brietling and Heuer were the most recognized makers of chronographs up through the 1950s so it was natural they would be interested in bringing an automatic winding version to market. Less natural was that they would join in a partnership to do so, as they were serious rivals.
In the late ’50s Charles-Edouard Heuer, president of his family’s eponymous company, explored the idea of an automatic chronograph. Heuer was not a “true manufacture”, i.e. they didn’t design and manufacture their own movements, instead relying on third-party solutions. Charles-Edouard’s idea was to take an existing automatic movement and bolt on a chronograph module. But adding a chronograph complication to even the slimmest base movement of the time would have resulted in something too bulky to be viable.
Then in 1962 Buren introduced the Cal. 1280, a micro-rotor [footnote 5] automatic movement a record-breaking 3.2mm thick. ’62 was a turbulent year for Heuer–the family nearly lost control of the company, but by December Charles-Edouard’s son Jack had wrangled a controlling interest in the company his great grandfather had began in 1860. Using his experience founding the New York branch of Heuer he applied a radical American sensibility to branding and style that defines the company to this day. All the iconic Heuer watches came from Jack including the Autavia, the Monza, the Carrera, and the Monaco.
The Buren Cal. 1280 had not escaped Jack Heuer’s notice, and in 1965 he approached Dubois-Depraz, a company specializing in the design of add-on complications. These were modules that could be bolted to existing base movements giving a time-only watch a date or moon-phase display…or a chronograph function. By the time Heuer came calling, Dubois-Depraz had already investigated the slim Buren movement, so in ’66 the project was underway. To help finance the project Jack needed a partner and called his friend Willy Breitling, president of his family’s company. A bit of New York charm and salesmanship and the Chronomatic partnership was born.
Later that same year, that partnership received a surprise addition when Hamilton Watch Company bought Buren and joined the team by default. The Swiss Watch industry is small and highly interdependent so word was out about what Zenith and the Chronomatic group were up to. It was clear that both teams wanted to be the first to market with an automatic chronograph. Also clear, befitting a company so closely tied to racing, in the final sprint to the finish line the Chronomatic group prioritized winning over quality.
Because the collision of the Buren Cal. 1280 and the Dubois-Depraz 8510 module, which became known as the Cal. 11, was not integrated, it was quite thick at 7.7mm. One of the most distinct “features” of the Cal. 11 is the crown on the opposite side of the case from the chronograph pushers, making it awkward to set the watch with your right hand. In order to make the bulky modular movement as thin as possible, the base cal. 1280 and the 8510 module had to be facing in opposite directions. The Cal. 1280 was flipped in the case putting the crown on the left side, while the chronograph pushers on the 8510 remained on the right.
Functionality was modest compared to manual chronographs of the time. With only two subdials it did not have a running seconds hand, there were minute and hour totalers at three and nine o’clock, and a date window at six. This didn’t stop the marketing juggernaut of Jack Heuer, though, and on March 3 1969 lavish press events were held in the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, the Pan Am Building in New York City, as well as in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beirut to introduce the revolutionary new timepieces.
The most telling indication of a rush-to-finish comes from the day the first Heuer Chronomatic was delivered to a customer. Production began in the summer of ’69, so in August the first lucky customers received their watches. Just an hour later, recalls Hans Schrag, then the head watchmaker for Heuer US, customer number one in New York returns back with his Chronomatic for repair. It had stopped working, making the Chronomatic the first automatic chronograph watch to require service. The movement was so underdeveloped that before the year was over the Cal. 11 was overhauled to the 11-I, and re-engineered to the Cal. 12 in 1971.
The watches of the Chronomatic group are quite varied, as should be expected coming from three different companies. The weirdest are from Hamilton, in particular the wide-body Fontainebleau and the mad three-crown, two-pusher Count-Down GMT, and they tend to be the least expensive of the Chronomatics. The Breitlings are more conservative, and are much in keeping with the brand’s previous chronographs, featuring their “navigation computer” slide rules and busy, information-dense dials. The Heuers are the most iconic of the group, and fetch the most money on the vintage market by far. They were mostly updated (i.e. enlarged to fit the Cal.11) Jack Heuer designs, and had great style. With the Autavia and Carrera was a new square dial watch, the Monaco, described by Heuer as avant-garde in their ads, and immortalized on the wrist of Steve McQueen in his 1971 movie Le Mans.
“The Dark Horse”
Less publicized is Seiko’s story. In 1969 the Japanese watch company was not the industry powerhouse it is now, but rather a scrappy and innovative manufacturer with an approach different from its Swiss contemporaries. From its beginning in 1892 Seiko sought to control every element of the watches and clocks it built. Unlike companies in the Swiss industry, where density bred specialization and makers of mainsprings, moving parts, or dials and cases supply the components for many brands, Seiko kept everything in-house, even growing their own artificial sapphires for their jeweled bearings.
By 1950 Seiko was the leader in its home market and known for their dependable, accurate watches. By the early ’60s it was ready to take on the rest of the world. Its first submission to the prestigious chronometer trials in Neuchâtel, Switzerland was in 1963: a quartz Crystal Marine Chronometer clock that nabbed 10th place in category, the first time a non-Swiss manufacturer had ever finished in the top ten.
Inspired by the respectable showing, Seiko submitted movements to the wristwatch category the next year but did poorly, their top movement only hitting 144th place. They regrouped and the next year one movement managed a 114th place finish and in ’66 a ninth place, with the company placing third in the overall manufacturer’s ranking that year. In 1967 a movement grabbed the fourth place spot, and Seiko won second place in the manufacturer’s rankings, right behind Omega. The Swiss watch industry could see the writing on the wall and cancelled the trials for good that year [footnote 6].
It was also in 1967 that Seiko began work on two new movements, the 6138 and 6139 automatic chronograph calibers. The company had released its first chronograph only three years before in honor of the 1964 Olympics held in Tokyo. That cal. 5719 was a basic, manual-winding mono-pusher that relied on a rotating bezel to track anything beyond one minute. The simpler of the new movements, the Cal. 6139, crossed the finish line in 1969. It was an elegant design considering it was completed in just two years: A compact, integrated movement with a full-sized center-mounted rotor that could wind the mainspring in either direction, a vertical clutch, and classic column wheel activation. It had a single subdial at six o’clock, and so could only time events lasting 30 minutes or less, and had quick-set bilingual day and date windows at three.
The watches that were produced with this movement are wonderfully colorful and diverse. Because they were inexpensive, there are many examples out there on the used market. While few of them were perfectly maintained, they are quite reliable and can often be found in decent condition for little money with only one model ever commanding prices close to $1000: the 6139-6002, known as the “Pogue” after US astronaut Colonel William Pogue who wore it to Skylab in 1973, making it the first automatic chronograph in space.
Looking at our 1969 finish line however things are less simple. According to Jack Heuer, Itiro Hattori, then president of Seiko, came up to him in April at the Swiss Watch Fair in Basel, Switzerland to congratulate him on his launching of the “world’s first automatic chronograph.” As Jack recalls, there was no mention of Seiko’s own achievement. Whether this is Mr. Heuer remembering incorrectly or Mr. Hattori being overly deferential is hard to know, but it’s widely believed that Seiko was selling its Cal. 6139 powered “Speed-Timer” watches by May of 1969, and there are verified serial numbers on some 6139s that indicate they were sold in March.
So at the very least, with no fanfare whatsoever, Seiko beat the Chronomatics to market by several months, and possibly even had watches out to customers before the Basel Fair in April. By the time the Chronomatic group had released their fixed Cal 12, Seiko had 4 different automatic chronograph movements on the market in dozens of different watches.
As a company, Zenith was dwarfed by the Chronomatic partners: Hamilton, Breitling, and Heuer all sold more watches. A trademark dispute blocked sales to the US where Zenith Radio owned the name. Moreover they were a watchmaker’s watch company, a true “manufacture,” designing and building their own movements and far more concerned with engineering than with market share and publicity.
Zenith’s reputation for accuracy was rivaled only by Omega in the first half of the 20th century. They began work on an automatic chronograph in 1962, intending to debut it in ’65 during the company’s centennial, but like many smaller companies battling with cash flow and resource allocation, Zenith missed the deadline. They kept at it though, inspired by the challenge.
In contrast to the Cal. 6139 and Cal. 11, the Zenith Cal. 3019PHC, dubbed “El Primero,” [footnote 7] is enormously ambitious, ceding neither functionality nor elegance. It’s a fully integrated chronograph movement with a classic three subdial layout: minute totaler at three, hour totaler at six, running seconds at nine o’clock, and a date window at four that would instantaneously change at midnight. A full-sized rotor wound the mainspring to an impressive 50 hour power reserve, controls were actuated by column wheel, and the escapement ran at a very high 36,000 vph allowing timing accuracy to 1/10th of a second, all in a package only 6.5mm thick.
If that weren’t enough, in 1970 Zenith released the Cal. 3019PHF El Primero, adding a triple-date and moon phase display to the watch while only increasing the size of the movement by 0.1mm. The Zenith El Primero watches were not as varied in the beginning, with just two cases and three dial variants (though many new designs followed in the early 70’s), but they are very elegant designs and could wear either sporty or dressy. These first El Primeros command quite a high price–the most iconic variant, the A386 “Tri-Color”, fetching as much or more than the Heuer Monaco.
“If a tree falls in the forest…”
While Zenith and the Chronomatic group were well aware of each other’s ambitions, it seems to me that Zenith rightly believed they were farther along than their rivals across town in 1968 but were unable to imagine how quickly (and prematurely) Jack Heuer would be able to rush the Cal. 11 to market. On January 10th, 1969 Zenith and marketing partner Movado [footnote 8] had a small press conference to reveal working prototype El Primero watches and the event was noted in a some local and regional Swiss media. The contrast to the global media blitz of the Heuer announcement two months later is highlighted by the 1969 edition of the Swiss Watch And Jewelry Journal, self described “Official Organ of the Swiss Watch Fair.” Six full pages, plus the cover are devoted to breathless coverage of the “ingenious and revolutionary” Chronomatic Cal 11. including full ad-copy style essays by the president of the Swiss Federation of Watch Manufacturers and the heads of all the companies in the Chronomatic group.
Then on page 146 in the Jeweler’s World News Round Up section, you might notice item number two: “Two Watches In One,” a couple of paragraphs on Zenith’s achievement. Zenith was first to (quietly) show working automatic chronographs to the public but last to bring them to market, finally making El Primero watches available in October of 1969. Two months later on Christmas day 1969 Seiko dropped the Astron, the first large-scale production quartz watch, and everything changed.
The effects of quartz on the watch industry were seen quickly. Over the next decade more than half of the Swiss brands would disappear, with many that remained mere corporate zombies wearing their historical names like cheap halloween costumes. While a consortium of Swiss manufacturers had jointly developed a quartz movement in the ’60s, they did not embrace the technology, considering it a gimmick rather than a revolution and missing the importance of how inexpensive it would become to produce.
This did not escape the notice of the rest of the world however. While the US watch industry had been soundly beaten by the Swiss years before, the need for micro circuits and the electronic manufacturing expertise that quartz movements required suddenly gave American companies a huge competitive advantage.
One of the largest of these, Zenith Radio, decided they were going to get into the quartz watch business. Zenith (Watch) was under enormous financial strain from the cost of developing the El Primero. Zenith Radio bought Zenith Watch in 1971 with the intention of turning it into a global quartz watch brand. They were so obsessed with this “forward looking” plan, viewing movements like the El Primero as obsolete dinosaurs, the company made the decision to cease all mechanical watch production, close the Martel movement factory, and liquidate all related assets, selling the tooling for scrap and clearing out all paperwork connected with it.
Charles Vermot was a chronograph specialist at Zenith. Joining the company in 1960 he’d been on the team that brought the El Primero to fruition. When the order came down to destroy all documents, tooling, and machinery, Mr. Vermot desperately tried to convince the executives in Chicago that it would be a mistake, but his pleas went unanswered.
Over the next several months Charles Vermot carefully disassembled all the El Primero tooling and machinery, hid it up in the eaves of the old factory, filled binders with meticulous notes, plans and drawings, and secured himself a place of honor in horological history. The ’70s did not go well for Zenith Radio and as they spiraled down the drain with non-competitive televisions, losing both frivolous court-cases and market-share to Japanese companies, they sold Zenith Watches back to Swiss owners in 1978. Zenith Watch was in bad shape, with no clear path forward when the power of its achievement a decade before opened a door.
In the early ’80s there were few if any automatic chronograph movements available. The reputation of the El Primero was such that when small watchmaker Ebel needed a movement, they asked Zenith. Production of the movement was halted so abruptly in ’75 there were crates of unassembled parts in storage, so Zenith built new El Primero movements for Ebel for three years from this supply.
A decade had passed since the dawn of the quartz age and Swiss watchmakers began getting up and dusting themselves off. In 1982 one major player had still not updated their chronograph to an automatic movement. Sales of the iconic Rolex Daytona were tanking and the company knew they needed to modernize the watch, but these were lean times and the resources needed to design a new movement were simply not available. When new El Primeros began showing up in Ebel watches, Rolex knocked on Zenith’s door. The parts bin would never be able to meet the production demands of a new Daytona, so Zenith believed it must decline this opportunity.
Of course Charles Vermot knew better, led Zenith management up to the attic of the shuttered Martel factory, and rewrote the future of the company. Hundreds of thousands of El Primero powered Rolex Daytonas were built between 1989 and 2000 [footnote 9]. Restarting the El Primero assembly line was the key to Zenith’s continued existence, and since then the movement has been found in watches from many brands, Panerai, Bulgari, Hublot, Ulysse Nardin, Boucheron, Parmigiani, and others including, ironically, Heuer, as their Cal. 36, used in none other than the Monaco 24. The El Primero and its many derivations have been instrumental in the modern renaissance of mechanical watches and the Swiss Watch industry, and as it stands on the threshold of a sixth decade of production, its place as one of the most important movements ever made has been well earned.
[footnote 1]: A chronograph wristwatch is a wearable clock that has the additional function of a stopwatch. The simplest have a second hand that can be started, stopped, and reset, able to measure elapsed times of up-to 60 seconds. Most chronographs will also have additional indicators to show elapsed minutes and hours.
[footnote 2]: Not to be confused with the chronograph, a chronometer is a clock or watch that has passed a fairly rigorous accuracy test and been certified by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC)
[footnote 3]: …attached to the arm of Buzz Aldrin. While Neil Armstrong also had a Speedy, he left his in in Eagle Lunar Module in place of a faulty onboard clock.
[footnote 4]: The terms “caliber” and “movement” are somewhat interchangeable, at least for the purposes of this essay, referring to the actual machine inside the watch case that keeps time and moves the various hands and indicators on the dial. When referring to a specific movement, caliber is used and abbreviated, such as the Lemania Cal. 321, the Valjoux Cal. 72 or the Chronomatic Cal. 11.
[footnote 5]: The rotor is a weighted element that rotates on a bearing to convert the movements of a watch on a wrist into energy stored in the mainspring. This is what makes a watch automatic, as it will wind the mainspring automatically as you wear it. This bearing is usually centrally mounted in the movement so the rotor can be as large as possible, reaching to the edges of the case in order to most efficiently use the kinetic energy of wrist motion to wind the mainspring. A micro-rotor is what it sounds like, a miniaturized version of the above that can be mounted off-center in the movement, and recessed to keep everything thinner.
[footnote 6]: These trials were finally reinstated decades later with one change to the rules: Swiss companies only.
[footnote 7]: “El Primero” legend would have you believe, is Esperanto for “The First.” It isn’t.
[footnote 8]: Zenith let Movado use a version of the El Primero de-jeweled from 31 to 17 for sale in the US market, still forbidden to Zenith as a brand.
[footnote 9]: Rolex specified several changes to the Zenith movement for it to become the Cal. 4030; no date window was required for example, and the escapement was slowed from 36,000vph to 28,800vph to keep it more in line with other Rolex-designed movements. Rolex aficionados consider them beefed-up, Zenith fans call them dumbed-down.