Feature: £3,000 vs £12,000 vs £40,000 chronograph
The hand wound chronograph is perhaps the foundation of a high-end watch company’s ability to demonstrate its prowess, a complex, intricate assembly unencumbered by a rotor weight hiding the mechanical wizardry going on inside. There’s no better palette upon which to exhibit the art of fine watchmaking—but can you tell the difference between one that’s more affordable and one that’s very expensive?
Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch 3573.50.00
When it comes to Swiss, hand wound chronographs at the entry level, there’s not much competition. It took the Swiss a quarter century to find a way to fit an automatic system into a chronograph movement without it being too thick, and it isn’t going to give up on that convenience too easily. A hand wound watch, practically speaking, is an inconvenience, requiring manual intervention ever few days to keep it running where an auto needs nothing of the sort.
For many, it’s one hassle too many—for a few, it’s a connection to a mechanism that’s something to be savoured. Giving life to an otherwise motionless assembly of parts has its own strange sense of satisfaction attached. It’s like cleaning a record or developing film. It wasn’t until 1969 that the chronograph earned its freedom from that manual interaction, and so it was too late for Omega’s Speedmaster Professional, which was already on its way to the moon.
Unlike the Speedmaster’s closest rival, Rolex’s Daytona, it has managed to hold on to its manually wound chronograph into the present day. Sure, there are many versions of the Speedmaster with the latest, greatest, automatic, silicon, double-barrelled, co-axial masterpiece—but for those few who want to remember things the way they were, Omega still makes the Moonwatch in pretty much the same spec it went to the moon in—give or take.
Pay a few pounds more and you get a sapphire case back and an upgrade from the calibre 1861—an evolution of the original 321—to the more finely decorated 1863 that we see here. At around £3,000, a third of the price of a modern Daytona, it may not be the cheapest chronograph, but there’s not much else cheaper that offers this kind of view. It’s only once you see it that it becomes clear how much the auto work hides, a latticework of parts layered in tolerances so fine it looks like it could never work without jamming.
But work it does, and it looks rather good while doing it, too. Deep in the movement, the baseplate gets a traditional engine-turned pattern, designed to catch fine particles in the microscopic grooves and keep them away from the oily bits. The prominent bridges and cocks are striped for much the same reason, smaller parts straight brushed for a uniform appearance. Screw heads are polished to keep them clean and free of debris, as are the edges, bevelled and bright so as to leave no delicate corners. It’s a starting point that’s got virtually no competition at its price point—but what about the next tier up?
Breguet Classique 3237
Sitting comfortably between our more affordable benchmark and skies-the-limit options, we have this, the Breguet Classique 3237. Classique, by name, classic by nature, because this is a chronograph that doesn’t just hark back to the 1960s, but several centuries prior, its design heavily influenced by the French watchmaking of the period. The coin-edge case and guilloché dial are the kinds of details that got founder Abraham-Louis Breguet into watchmaking all those years ago, and so the company continues to honour that aesthetic to this day.
But it’s not the front we’re interested in, it’s the back. Once again, we see a complicated mess of organised chaos bordering on Rube Goldberg territory, a chain of reaction of parts that somehow takes the click of a pusher and translates it into the rotation of a hand. It’s a very similar layout to the Omega, the process refined over the centuries into the most efficient combination of parts, placement and procedure.
Looking closely, however, determines more than just a shared architecture. Some digging reveals more. You see, before being purchased by the Swatch Group, Breguet bought a movement manufacturer called Lemania, whose 1940s hand-wound chronograph calibre, the 2310, it wanted to use in its watches. It’s the swan-neck regulator version, the 2320, that you see here in this £12,000 Classique 3237.
But the development of Lemania’s 2310 wasn’t a sole endeavour—it was actually a commission from another watch manufacturer that wanted a movement thin enough to feature in its new sports chronograph, the Speedmaster. Yes, that’s right: this is the same movement as the one in the Speedmaster. Well, sort of, because the 2310 that Omega used—under its own name, the 321—was tweaked to make it more affordable to produce. That’s what became the calibre 861 and 1861 you see today.
Before you take to your pitchfork, however, it’s worth understanding that movement-sharing like this was more the rule than the exception. The in-house movement is a surprisingly new concept, especially at this scale of complication—think of it like the Mercedes engine inside the Pagani Zonda—it needs a big company with big financial backing to develop an engine like that, something a small, artisanal manufacturer could never hope to accomplish.
No, what the artisanal manufacturer brings to the table is the finish. Despite a Pagani having a Mercedes engine in it, it’s the manual labour that goes into making it pretty that racks up the price, and the same is true here. A polished finish isn’t just a polished finish—you want it glasslike, so smooth it’s almost invisible. The graining should be so fine it looks like silk. And you don’t just pick and choose which parts you want to look nice; you make them all look like that.
Patek Philippe 5170J
Breguet isn’t the only manufacturer basing its movements on the Lemania 2320. Vacheron Constantin is another, applying its own Geneva-seal quality finishing to the classic chronograph; so too did Patek Philippe, up to and including the predecessor to this 5170.
But since the Swatch Group has been reining in the use of its movements, everyone’s had a bit of a rethink. Breguet, being owned by the Swatch Group, can continue as is; Vacheron Constantin came to an agreement that allows it to build the movement from scratch in-house; Patek Philippe decided to design something very similar and make that instead.
It was only 2010 when this 5170 surpassed the previous 5070, the Lemania-based CH 27-70 dropped for the new CH 29-535 PS. Despite it being a ground-up movement, there’s a lot in the architecture that remains very similar to the outgoing movement—that is to say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
Of course, world class finishing dominates, the kind that nicely sums up the difference between a vector image and a rasterised one, maintaining that crisp, flawless detail no matter how closely its inspected. Think of the paint on your car; it has that uneven, ‘orange peel’ texture when you catch it in the light, whereas the paint on a Rolls Royce doesn’t—but only because Rolls Royce painstakingly polishes it smooth, by hand. That’s the level of attention to detail we’re talking about here.
But an entry point of around £40,000 gets you even more than that: while Patek Philippe was reengineering the Lemania for its own purposes, a few improvements were made along the way. As well as being thinner by a quarter-millimetre, the power reserve was upped fifteen hours and an instantaneous chronograph minute counter developed, ridding the minute hand of its slow transition in favour of an immediate snap.
Patek Philippe even went to the immense difficulty of profiling the teeth on the coupling wheels with an asymmetric profile to smooth out the stutter when they interlock. Each of those teeth, once profiled is—you guessed it—hand finished.
The whole thing is an exercise in insanity, a pursuit of perfection so fine that it is scarcely believable. Every detail is considered, deliberated, obsessed over until it reaches a pinnacle unobtainable with any consideration to budget. This is a watch purchased to appreciate unshackled limitlessness.
If there’s one thing to be learned here, it’s that it can very often be the smallest things that make the biggest difference. To a casual, untrained eye, each chronograph here could be deemed the equal of the others; it’s upon studying the detail that the differences emerge. The Omega is an excellent example of a hand wound chronograph with heritage, prestige and beauty, but with skill, patience and a whole lot of time, the Breguet—and the Patek Philippe even more so—demonstrates just how special a watch can really be.
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