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Feature: The $500 Chronograph That Saved The Industry

When it comes to chronographs, the word ‘Valjoux’ comes with a dazzling aura of respect and reverence. Why? Because the list of watch brands that have relied on this legendary movement maker over the years reads like a who’s who of industry titans.

Rolex, IWC, Tudor, Longines, LeCoultre, Breitling and a raft of obscure and long-defunct brands have used Valjoux’s chronographs. And in the vintage market of today, watches that are powered by any of its numerous calibres are snapped up quicker than toilet roll in a pandemic.

Over the decades, Valjoux chronographs—both automatic and manual—have proved to be hardy timekeepers. They encapsulate the very best of Swiss precision engineering: reliable, accurate and long-lasting.

But one movement has proved the hardiest of them all—although it came a gnat’s hair away from being consigned to the history books. This is the story of the ubiquitous Valjoux 7750.

Built For Adaption

Until 1973, Valjoux’s most popular chronograph movement was the manual Calibre 7733. After the success of Movado and Zenith’s ‘El Primero’—the world’s first automatic movement— and Seiko’s Calibre 6139A, which both arrived to much fanfare in 1969, Valjoux naturally wanted their own automatic chronograph movement.

Initially the plan was to adapt the existing Calibre 7733, a tried-and-tested manual movement that had been in production since 1969. A 24-year-old engineer, Edmond Capt, who had learnt his craft during a year at Rolex, was tasked with the job but it proved too tricky.

A modified Valjoux Calibre 7750 seen through the exhibition caseback of a Chronoswiss watch

A modified Valjoux Calibre 7750 seen through the exhibition caseback of a Chronoswiss watch

Capt was then commissioned with designing a new calibre that was conducive to being manufactured on an industrial scale, cheaply and in different versions. Notably, he did this by using a computer, one of the first times one had been used to develop a watch movement.

The use of a computer meant some of the production processes could be simulated—as opposed to building the physical parts and trying them out— resulting in vastly reduced development times. These days, all watch movements are designed this way.

Another Quartz Victim

Capt designed this movement in a way that it could, with a little tweaking, also be used as a manual movement. Also, the 12-hour counter could be dropped—meaning two sub dials instead of the more conventional three. A full calendar and moonphase display could also be easily accommodated.

Significantly, the 7750 eschewed the standard column-wheel movement and used a coulisse lever escapement. This is where levers push an oblong cam back and forth to start, stop and reset the chronograph function.

A Heuer Pasadena chronograph from 1981 powered by a Valjoux Calibre 7750. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

A Heuer Pasadena chronograph from 1981 powered by a Valjoux Calibre 7750. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Despite its efficiency and relatively cheap production costs, the 7750 became yet another victim of the burgeoning quartz crisis and it was discontinued due to poor sales. A disgruntled Capt, after all his painstaking design efforts and hard work, was told to wrap things up.

Capt Disobeys Orders

Much like Charles Vermot at Zenith, who secretly stashed the tools and machinery that made the El Primero despite being told to get rid, Capt quietly hid away the components used in the production of the 7750.

Whether it was a sentimental reluctance to dump something he had worked so hard on or the foresight to see a future for mechanical watchmaking through the dark fog of the quartz crisis, Capt’s decision to disobey orders was something that would provide a huge boost to mechanical watchmaking a decade later.

With Valjoux’s only automatic chronograph consigned to the scrapheap of history (or so everyone thought), it was left to Lemania and Seiko to carry the flag for automatic chronographs. Everyone else had thrown in the towel.

The Comeback Kid

In the mid-1980s, the first green shoots of a comeback for mechanical watches began to emerge. In this time of cautious optimism, brands were reluctant to invest in their own in-house column-wheel chronographs, which required considerable design and manufacturing resources. So they began to look around for an alternative chronograph movement they could buy externally.

Breitling used the Calibre 7750 during the mechanical revival in the mid 1980s. Image courtesy of Bonhams

Breitling used the Calibre 7750 during the mechanical revival in the mid 1980s. Image courtesy of Bonhams.

Luckily for Valjoux, and the industry, Edmund Capt’s actions a decade before meant that Calibre 7750 could be easily put back into production. The movement promptly found its way into countless mechanical chronographs used by brands from Tissot to Breitling, TAG Heuer to Omega.

Modern Watches With A Calibre 7750

The 7750 has since become not only the world’s most popular self-winding chronograph movement but the world’s most popular mechanical chronograph movement full-stop.

Today, the movement, now made by the Swatch Group’s ETA, which took over Valjoux, is found in both vintage and brand-new watches, though probably modded slightly in the latter case.

Vintage watches with old Valjoux 7750 movements can be picked up at the bargain price of around $500. Contemporary watches powered by a Valjoux 7750 include Hamilton’s Khaki Aviation X-Wind, Montblanc's Star 4810 and Longines' Hydroconquest Chronograph.

This Montblanc Star 4810 model from 2018 is just one contemporary watch that uses a Valjoux Calibre 7750

This Montblanc Star 4810 model from 2018 is just one contemporary watch that uses a Valjoux Calibre 7750

Think about it: a movement from a company that’s supplied IWC and Rolex— but for a fraction of the price. It’s one of those rare and irresistible industry bargains—and a chance to wear a piece of game-changing horological history on your wrist.