Picture someone going about their daily business. How often do we see them stop to use their chronograph? It’s a tell-tale gesture, that fleeting press of a button that sets the chrono hand in motion; so rare, unreal almost, we might rub our eyes in disbelief. And yet when it comes to the chronograph watch, we have a seemingly endless choice. We love it for its history, which ties in with the advent of modern sport, as much showmanship as sportsmanship. The question of its inventor has been tossed back and forth; we wax lyrical over the skill those pioneering watchmakers showed when endowing it first with one then two pushers; its ever-faster calibres have been elevated to legendary status. So what if the chronograph’s useful purpose is inversely proportional to the problem of obesity in the world. We continue to wear it with pride, simply because we can…
The chronograph becomes a measure of the watchmaker's skill rather than a timepiece chosen for its functionality.
Exercise in style
It is this sense of pride to which Montblanc appeals, having delved into the past of the now fully integrated Manufacture Minerva in search of a legitimacy for its revamped TimeWalker line. Minerva made a name for itself as early as 1908 as a manufacturer of watches with chronograph functions and stopwatches. In 1916 it became one of the first to produce a high-frequency movement that could measure 1/100th of a second. It is this same trailblazing spirit, tied in with the world of motor racing, that Montblanc is bringing to the fore with its gently vintage TimeWalker line. Its audience: “modern performers who like to express their achievements, ambitions, masculinity, style and personality in their choice of wristwatch” (no less!). Awaiting them: a Chronograph Rally Timer Counter, inspired by a 1930s stopwatch by Minerva and which converts into a pocket watch, a dual-timer in the form of the TimeWalker Chronograph UTC, an automatic and, the star turn of this collection for superheroes, the Chronograph 1000. Equipped with two separate going trains, and with one balance running at 360,000 vibrations/hour (50 Hz) for the chronograph to mechanically measure 1/1,000th of a second, it is undoubtedly, to quote Montblanc, “a feat of horological engineering”.
One need look no further to understand that at this level of precision, the chronograph becomes a measure of the watchmaker’s skill rather than a timepiece chosen for its functionality. The same could be said of the regatta watch. Not that this sport lacks any of the necessary appeal to make it the centre of grandiose competitions: the America’s Cup is a case in point. Yet outside the tiny circle of sailing enthusiasts who could conceivably need to follow a countdown while manhandling the winch, the regatta watch is of only hypothetical interest. So what? With more and more watch brands making eyes at the competitors in the prestigious 35th America’s Cup, what better way to win them over than a regatta watch?
As partner to the Cup and to two of the teams taking part (Oracle Team USA and Softbank Team Japan), Panerai came to SIHH with a new version of its Luminor 1950 Regatta. Ulysse Nardin, sponsor of Artemis Racing, upped the ante with its Regatta watch: the bidirectional seconds hand runs counter-clockwise during countdown then, as soon as it reaches zero, automatically changes direction to time the race. Zenith is another strong contender. As a recent partner to Land Rover, which sponsors Ben Ainslie Racing, the inventor of the famed El Primero chrono could join the fray.
Regattas aside, the chronograph has proved its worth first and foremost on dry land. At which point the distinction must be made between the chrono as a practical “tool” and as part of a grande complication, a coveted and some would say overused denomination for a timepiece incorporating multiple complications, one of which traditionally has to be a chronograph. Once again, these are more often demonstrations of expertise than purely functional timepieces; Cyrano de Bergerac’s “fruitless quest” that is always worth fighting for.
Such a quest can but elicit our admiration, particularly at Vacheron Constantin with its Traditionnelle Chronograph Perpetual Calendar, or at IWC and its Da Vinci Tourbillon Retrograde Chronograph. The apotheosis can be found at A. Lange & Söhne whose Tourbograph Perpetual Pour le Mérite combines a tourbillon with fusée-and-chain transmission, a split-seconds chronograph and a perpetual calendar with moon phases. Here, the chronograph lends an almost playful touch to watches that command respect for the extraordinary rigour they impose. They are a flight of fancy in a world of cams and gears.