Feature: The World’s Greatest Chronograph
For a very long time, it was possible to count the number of manufacturers that could make a chronograph movement on one hand, and there’s a reason for that—it’s a very hard complication to make. To find the greatest chronograph, however, is about more than just what ticks inside—it’s the journey, the history, the story. With that being said, here are three of the greatest chronographs ever made.
Breitling Navitimer AB0120
Before we go any further, I’ll tell you now that we won’t be featuring the Rolex Daytona here. It’s a popular watch, extremely so, but it didn’t break any new ground and so it doesn’t make the list. You may well disagree.
That aside, the first of our greatest ever chronographs is the Breitling Navitimer. While the chances of a Navitimer finding its way onto a pilot’s wrist are slim these days, that’s not to say it didn’t once have something truly exceptional to offer that elevated it to greatness.
But it nearly didn’t exist at all, because despite the obvious benefits of an easy-access slide rule chronograph in a pre-digital cockpit, Willy Breitling, grandson of founder Léon Breitling, had dreams of his design becoming the ultimate chronograph—period.
In his mind, scientists, engineers and mathematicians would be the audience for his new timepiece, and that’s why he called it the Chronomat—the chronograph for mathematics. So, while Willy refused to acknowledge the suitability of his watch for pilots—which would require recalibration specifically for aviation use and preclude it from being the mega-watch he wanted it to be—the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association had other ideas, and so they rallied together to persuade Willy to make the Navitimer.
Begrudgingly he conceded, and the watch was revised to allow pilots to calculate rate of descent, fuel consumption, ground speed and other pilot-y things like that. But the story doesn’t end there, because the success of the Navitimer as an aviators’ watch prompted test pilot Scott Carpenter to approach Breitling with an idea.
And it was this: Carpenter wanted a version of the Navitimer dialled and geared to read twenty-four hours. But this was not for his role as a test pilot, per se—this was for his mission aboard Aurora 7 to become the second American in space. Over the course of his five-hour flight around the Earth, he would see the sun set and rise again three times, and so he needed the 24-hour clock to keep him orientated to the correct time. Willy duly obliged.
Zenith El Primero 03.2041.4052/69.C496
Zenith’s El Primero is the perpetual recipient of bad luck. Beaten to the post by a joint effort between Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton and a few other watchmakers to have the accolade of first automatic chronograph snatched from right out underneath it, ditched by Rolex after over a decade of servitude in favour of an in-house movement, and even betrayed by its owners following the order of its destruction—the most amazing thing about the El Primero is that it still exists.
On paper, it’s actually a bit of a mess: excessive parts, awkward design and fast beat make it fiddly to construct, tricky to service and power hungry; it’s no wonder that Rolex ditched half the parts and adapted its fundamental operation before fitting it inside the 16520 Daytona. In fact, with the introduction of the 116520 and the fully in-house calibre 4130, Rolex managed to find an extra day’s power reserve, arranged all the chronograph parts into the same place and even reduced the screw count from forty different types down to just twelve.
Doesn’t sound like a particularly important chronograph so far—but not everything is always what it seems. Heuer et al had indeed managed to beat Zenith to claim the title of first automatic chronograph, but this had been achieved through a little bit of cheating. Unlike the El Primero, the Calibre 11—or Chronomatic, depending on which of the partnering brands’ names you choose—was actually several movements bolted together, a base module for the time and automatic winding, and a chronograph module slapped on top.
The El Primero, however, was designed as a single machine and was therefore more compact. It also beat at a much faster rate, allowing the hallowed tenth of a second to be accurately recorded, as demonstrated by the Striking Tenth edition. If the Calibre 11 was a tractor, the El Primero was a thoroughbred racer; sure, it may be overcomplicated and a pain to service, but what cutting-edge speed machine isn’t?
Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch 3570.50.00
The other two chronographs may have made their respective marks on industry, but this, the Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch, made a mark on the world. Can you believe that this watch appeared some five years before the Daytona and twelve before the El Primero? But it did, and it basically laid down the rules for how sports chronographs should be.
There probably hasn’t been another object that’s been present at so many historically significant events—and not just present, actively contributing. It all started in 1962 when astronaut Wally Shirra used his own personal Speedmaster to complete what was only the fifth manned trip Americans had made into space.
Of course, the watch was then selected to go to the moon, and while the big story was the Speedmaster on Buzz Aldrin’s wrist as he stepped onto the pale grey surface, little attention is given to Neil Armstrong’s, which remained on board the lunar module to replace the malfunctioning electronic timer.
And then, when the oxygen tanks blew aboard Apollo 13, Jack Swigert used his Speedmaster to time the critical fourteen second burn that would either bring the crew home or send them off into the depths of space, surviving thanks to their remarkable composure and the incredible ingenuity of NASA’s ground crew.
Perhaps most poignantly, it was at a meeting of America and Russia, whose bitter rivalry had fuelled the space race and thrown the world into turmoil, that the Speedmaster would do the most for global relations. It was worn at a meeting between nations in space, with the US Apollo and Russian Soyuz modules aligning in orbit, docking together and paving the way for the international space alliance we have today.
There have been many impressive and interesting chronographs made since Nicolas Rieussec invented a way to make gambling on horse races easier in 1821, but none so much as the Navitimer, El Primero and Speedmaster. And of those three, for its contributions to science, exploration, culture and survival, it’s got to be the Speedmaster that takes the crown. Virtually unchanged in over fifty years, it’s become more than just a watch—it’s a monument to humanity.
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