3 High-End Chronographs That Are Cheaper Than You Think
The average price for a luxury watch these days is around £5,000, a number that has been steadily climbing over the years and one that doesn’t seem to quite represent the value that it used to. Gone are the days when the average salary could buy a person the average luxury watch—let alone something truly high-end. But all is not lost, because there are still some secrets that not everyone knows; with that being said, here are three high-end chronographs that are cheaper than you think.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Compressor Chronograph 1758470
We’re off to a flying start with one of watchmaking’s most influential brands, Jaeger-LeCoultre. It’s a partnership of names on par with Charles Rolls and Henry Royce, James McDonnell and Donald Douglas—within the frame of watchmaking, there are few double-barrel brands that have made such an impact.
If your interest in watches is to own a brand that isn’t just high-end, but one tightly weaved into the very fabric of the industry, Jaeger-LeCoultre is the one to go for. You know how there are manufacturers that just keep popping up wherever you look? Take Bosch, for example. Yeah, the people who make your washing machine or lawn mower or whatever. The same company manufactures radars, engine control units and microsensors, too.
Just like Bosch, Jaeger-LeCoultre is one of those companies that just can’t say no to a production challenge. In fact, the company is as much an engineer as it is a watchmaker, developing not only the watches it sells, but the equipment used to make them, too. In the pursuit of making watch movements that were smaller and thinner than ever before, it was required for Antoine LeCoultre to invent the Millionomètre, the first instrument capable of measuring a micron—that’s the size of a bacterium. This was in 1844, a decade before the invention of the telephone.
Again, like Bosche, it’s Jaeger-LeCoultre engineering that finds itself at the heart of the industry time and time again. The calibre 920, for example, with its crazy over-engineered ruby rollers and beryllium rail, found itself in watches of not just one, but all three of the top watchmakers, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Audemars Piguet. But Jaeger-LeCoultre doesn’t just work for others, fitting its own pieces with exceptional complications like the tuneful Westminster chime and the mind-bending gyrotourbillon.
The Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Compressor Chronograph is no less an engineering triumph than would be expected of such an illustrious company. This may all sound very sycophantic, but if anything, it’s downplaying just how seriously Jaeger-LeCoultre have overbuilt this watch. Rolex’s calibre 4130 chronograph movement, that has two hundred and one parts; the Master Compressor Chronograph’s calibre 751? That’s got two hundred and eighty.
Watchmakers have a love-hate relationship with Jaeger-LeCoultre for this very reason, filled with respect and admiration for the brand’s pursuit of excellence, yet turned to loathing by the effort it takes to service one. But that’s nothing compared to actually making one; Jaeger-LeCoultre tests the calibre 751, as it does many of its calibres for one thousand hours. Not ten, not one hundred—one thousand. If you planted a tomato vine at the beginning, there’d be fruit on it by the end.
This quite frankly insane approaching to building watches continues with the case, which gets a sealed crown and pushers to achieve its one hundred metres of water resistance. Not unusual in itself, until you realise that the parts that screw down to compress the rubber seals are actually collars, which unlike threaded seals, are very quick and easy to twist into place, with even a handy indicator letting you know when they aren’t sealed.
It’s a lot of watchmaking from a big-name watchmaker, and it should cost a lot of money. Well, it does, but not as much as you’d perhaps expect; around £4,500 will net you one of these, which, when you think about the sheer effort that goes into making them, is a bit of a bargain.
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero 03.2040.400/69.C494
A Rolex Daytona costs £10,500. Well, that’s the least you’ll pay. Hard to believe it was once a watch that was given away by jewellers as an incentive to buy stuff people actually wanted. Well then, how much would you pay for the watch that finally made the Rolex Daytona popular? Don’t worry—it’s a lot less. Way less, in fact.
As for the Daytona, it was in 1988 that Rolex finally managed to make a model that caught the public’s attention. But it was no easy path to getting there; Rolex was no manufacturer of complications—it wasn’t even making its own movements at all back then—and so it needed a supplier to provide a chronograph calibre for its new watch.
Valjoux had filled that void in the past with the ubiquitous calibre 72, but this time Rolex wanted something a bit more special. How’s the world’s first integrated automatic chronograph movement, the El Primero, for special? Sounds like just the job. Bit of a problem, however, because the company that made them, Zenith, had gone into administration and chucked the plans, the parts, the equipment—all in the bin.
It was a tragic end to one of three movements that vied for the position of the first automatic chronograph ever. It was a tragic end to a watchmaker that had been in production since 1865, that had broken so many records and won so many accuracy competitions. It was no more. Well, it would have been, were it not for belligerent employee Charles Vermot.
Vermot had worked at the chronograph manufacturer Martel—that’s the firm Zenith purchased so it could acquire the know-how to attempt the challenge that was the El Primero—for most of his working life. He assisted in making this automatic, high-beat, column-wheel paradigm-changer a reality, but it was that reality that would be the downfall of Zenith.
The investment needed to develop the El Primero was so high, that even before it was released, Zenith was at breaking point. Unlike its competitor, the Chronomatic, which had been developed as a joint effort between Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton and a few others, the El Primero was funded entirely by one manufacturer—and that manufacturer was feeling the pain. Despite several cash injections, Zenith failed, and the company went under.
But Vermot wasn’t having any of it. His work of a decade was to be simply thrown away like it had never happened. So, he did what most employees do when the company they work for goes bust; he stole a bunch of stuff. But not just a few bits here and there; he took every drawing, every tool and every part the company had for the El Primero and he stashed them in the attic. There were even complete movements in there, all stored away where no one could find them.
Almost a decade later, and news got out that Rolex was looking for a new movement. Had it not been for Charles Vermot’s unwavering disobedience, Zenith wouldn’t have been able to provide the answer Rolex was looking for. And so, the El Primero found a new home in the 16520 Daytona, what was to become one of Rolex’s best-selling watches of all time, and indeed the saviour of Zenith as well.
All that history tied up into just one movement, a mechanism developed with such care and dedication that it bankrupted the company that paid for it and forced the employees who made it to go rogue. For around £4,500, that’s a lot of credibility for the coin.
Breguet Type XXI Flyback 3810ST/92/9ZU
Where would someone even begin to express just how important Breguet is to watchmaking? I don’t mean that in the sense that it’s a struggle to think of anything, quite the opposite. So much of what we take for granted in the watches we wear and in the watches we lust after is thanks to Abraham-Louis Breguet.
The man was so prolific it hurts. Recounting his accomplishments and comparing them to your own is a sure-fire route to despair. For a man whose father died when he was ten, who was taken out of school when he was twelve, whose mother and step father died when he was in his twenties, leaving him to raise his younger sister by himself, whose maths teacher was murdered, who was marked for the guillotine in France, who had to flee to England in disguise to avoid his death—he didn’t do too badly for himself.
Imagine being so good at something that someone else who’s also really good at what you do sends their own son to be your apprentice. Never mind that John Arnold—yes, the same John Arnold who popularised the term “chronometer”—was more than capable of teaching his own son, he sent his first-born to learn watchmaking from Abraham-Louis Breguet instead.
It’s easy to see why: Breguet had an intellect that was quite simply unmatched by his peers. His work stunned royal after royal, including Marie Antoinette, whose commissioned piece would become perhaps the most revered watch ever made, containing a clock, perpetual calendar, minute repeater, thermometer, chronograph, power reserve, shock protection, chime and independent seconds. Work started on the watch in 1782, and it took fifteen years to make, completed over a century before Patek Philippe’s Supercomplication—and indeed before Patek Philippe had even been founded.
The list of Breguet inventions is almost limitless. Think the perpetual movement was invented by Rolex? Breguet had invented a reliable automatic winding system a century-and-a-half earlier—and it was even called the Perpétuelle. How about the gong, a thin strip of wire that circumnavigates the case of a minute repeater? They used much bigger bells before Breguet came along and invented that. Breguet hands, as used by all the top watchmakers, including Patek Philippe? Breguet’s work, obviously. Balance spring overcoil, which controls the rate the mainspring unwinds; also known as the Breguet overcoil because guess what? Yep, Breguet once again. Oh, the tourbillon’s his as well, amongst a whole load of other stuff, no big deal.
It seems like the kind of brand that would be considered one of the best, perhaps even top three in the world. It’s not, for some strange reason, but it’s certainly well up there, and well out of reach to the mere mortals whose ears are pricked by the words “bargain” and “cheaper”. But wait—perhaps there is an opportunity to actually own a watch that rubs shoulders with the Patek Philippes and Vacheron Constantins of the world. Perhaps the Breguet Type XXI can be that watch, available to you and I for over £500 less than a Rolex Submariner.
The Type XXI may be based on a Breguet pilots’ watch from the 1950s, but that doesn’t mean the military heritage robs it of its Breguet-ness. That classic French-inspired styling abounds at a quality that far belies the prices at which these watches can be acquired, and the Lemania-based flyback chronograph calibre 584Q embarrasses anything this complex within at least a £10,000 radius. Given the choice of owning something a bit more pedestrian, or a watch from one of the true masters of watchmaking, which would you choose?
Bargain may be a relative term, but for what these three watches offer, they truly give more than they ask. If watches could be generous, the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Compressor Chronograph, Zenith El Primero and Breguet Type XXI would be the philanthropists of the bunch, weighed down with history, complexity and acclaim like nothing else at the price point. So, if you’ve got around £5,000 burning a watch-shaped hole in your pocket, don’t settle for average; you can set your sights a little higher than perhaps you first thought.
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