Within the broader spectrum of the industry, the fight to develop a powerful, reliable and mass-producible chronograph is key to the game. But in the realm of the high watchmaking, the competition is different. Here it’s not a game of volume, but one of sophistication. While Breguet held an edge over everyone else since it owned the Lemania manufacture, and its sibling in the Swatch Group, Blancpain, held Frédéric Piguet, the other players were driven to catch up with these two brilliant movement designers.

Patek Philippe was the first to really act on this, as Philippe Stern actively focused on building up the company’s in-house capacities, something that Thierry Stern has furthered. The Lemania-based CH 27, though already a legendary beast, still had its roots in Lemania. The need to reduce that reliance on Lemania pushed Patek Philippe to design its own in-house chronograph, one that in fact debuted as a hand-wound chronograph in a ladies’ watch. The CH 29 was a rare creature in that it had a lateral coupling system.

Patek Philippe CH 29-535 PS
Patek Philippe CH 29-535 PS

But just a year later, the CH 28 was released with a column wheel and vertical clutch and a self-winding operation that made it a staple for Patek’s chronographs. The key difference in a vertical and horizontal clutch is in the way it engages the gear train. In a horizontal clutch, the running seconds shifts laterally to engage the chronograph seconds, which can result in a jarred meshing and thus a “wobble” in the chronograph seconds hand when starting. The drag can further affect the amplitude of the movement, which results in inaccurate timekeeping. A vertical clutch has its wheels integrated into the entire gear train so they are constantly engaged.

Patek Philippe CH 28-520 C
Patek Philippe CH 28-520 C

The benefits of a vertical clutch is that precision is practically guaranteed, even if it’s less elegant to watch. But the added bonus is that a chronograph’s sweep hand can double as a running seconds hand. That made the movement a perfect choice to deliver a classic Patek design: the single counter, dual-hand chronograph totaliser that makes the Nautilus Chronograph reference 5980 one of the most desirable in the world.

Patek Philippe Nautilus Chronograph ref. 5980
Patek Philippe Nautilus Chronograph ref. 5980

The CH 28, along with Thierry Stern’s push to lead Patek Philippe to sportier watch models, allowed for the creation of a rare Patek timepiece — the reference 5960 annual calendar chronograph in steel. (I’m pretty sure that the watch sold out at the Baselworld fair in 2014 when it was released. A black dial was released in 2018. Both models ran out in 2018.)

The CH 28 demonstrated that not only could Patek deliver incredible hand-wound movements that bore its rarefied Patek Philippe Seal, it could also compete with other fine watchmakers in sporty watches. The Aquanaut Chronograph reference 5968 came along last year to great fanfare and was immediately pounced on.

Patek Philippe Aquanaut Chronograph ref. 5968
Patek Philippe Aquanaut Chronograph ref. 5968

The success of Patek Philippe propelled Vacheron Constantin to work on the same endeavour with its caliber 5200. Up till 2016, the brand’s caliber 1142 that was based off the Lemania 2310 reigned supreme within the brand’s repertoire of movements. But around 2010, Vacheron Constantin began to streamline its production, with the specialised Les Cabinotiers range now centered around special editions and made-to-order watches, and its Plan-les-Ouates manufacture expanding. That meant the brand had the resources to develop something new.

Vacheron Constantin cal. 5200
Vacheron Constantin cal. 5200

It was also around this time that the brand began to establish its plans for commemorating an important occasion — the upcoming anniversary of the Overseas collection in 2016. While the Overseas line was introduced in 1996, its beginnings started much earlier in a special Vacheron Constantin watch. The reference 222 was made to commemorate a unique historical date, the 222nd anniversary of the maison’s continued existence.

Vacheron Constantin 222 from 1977. (Image: Christie’s)
Vacheron Constantin 222 from 1977. (Image: Christie’s)

Designed by a young Jorg Hysek in 1977, the year which the Royal Oak really took off, the industrial, sporty design of the 222 made a significant statement in Vacheron’s history, and at 37mm, was a massive watch. It was also unique with its hexagonal-linked tapered bracelet design. When the brand once again sought to create an elegant sports timepiece in 1996, the 222 was naturally its starting point.

For the 20th anniversary of the Overseas collection, the brand similarly wanted to make an impact, and rolling it out with a new in-house series of movements made perfect sense. An in-house chronograph was essential to the collection and they pursued it rigorously. The 4Hz, 263-component chronograph with column wheel and vertical clutch stood out even among its peers for several reasons, one of which is the unique craftsmanship found in the movement itself.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chrongraph (2016)
Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chrongraph (2016)

The caliber 5200’s column wheel is unique in the history of well-crafted column wheel chronographs. While most column wheels bear the classic turret design that enables the movement to switch from one function to the next smoothly and without the two-step trigger often experienced in cam-based chronographs, Vacheron’s bears a haut de gamme Maltese cross in the center of the column wheel. It’s breathtaking, and incredibly effortful to create. It’s one reason why this series chronograph movement bears the famed Geneva Seal.

Vacheron Constantin cal. 5200

But that’s not all. The movement is surprisingly compact, and its operation smooth like a 25-year-old Scotch. At 30.6mm in diameter and 6.6mm in thickness, it has the potential to fit into a dress watch as well as a more compact Overseas case, should that possibility ever arise. If there’s the possibility of creating an annual calendar chronograph timepiece within the Vacheron Constantin universe, you can bet it will be the caliber 5200 powering it.

The one most renowned watchmaker that still builds its timepieces based on supplied ébauches is Audemars Piguet, but that’s also changed this year. For the longest time, AP’s renowned Royal Oaks and Royal Oak Offshore chronographs were powered by its calibers 2385 and 2126/2840 respectively. These were based off the Frédéric Piguet 1185 and the Jaeger-LeCoultre 889/1 with a Dubois-Dépraz module respectively. The 1185, as you may recall, holds the honor of being the slimmest automatic chronograph. It’s a remarkable movement, impressive on multiple levels.

But Audemars Piguet’s focus on complete autonomy, thanks to the strategy of François-Henry Bennahmias, made developing an in-house chronograph a priority. According to the brand, Bennahmias in 2013 got his management team together and locked them in a room, saying “no one leaves the room till we have agreed on the important choices and laid the inspiration for the development of a new chronograph movement.”

That was fulfilled this year with the caliber 4400 (Audemars Piguet also introduced the base caliber 4300) in the CODE 11.59 line. We’ve covered more on the watch here and you can catch a video of our founder Wei Koh speaking with Bennahmias at SIHH 2019 for the collection here. The movement features a column wheel with vertical clutch with an escapement running at 4Hz. The flyback chronograph has a variable inertia balance and bi-directional winding using 2 reversers – a solution first applied in the 4101 caliber with the AP escapement. Power reserve stands at an ample 70 hours.

Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 chronograph
Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 chronograph
Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 chronograph

We were hoping that we would see the AP escapement emerge in the chronograph caliber, to be honest, but the brand has stuck with a standard Swiss lever that’s supported by a transversal bridge rather than a balance cock. What that suggests is that this movement is designed for rugged performance. What it implies is that we’ll be seeing the movement in the Offshores soon, and hopefully the RO chronographs as well. It would be exciting to see, and though the movement is slightly bigger than the 2385, it is compact enough to fit into the RO chronos.

Clearly this isn’t an exhaustive list of automatic chronographs in the industry, and there’s plenty more we haven’t covered. But what’s clear in the focus on developing fine chronographs is that while there’s plenty to choose from, they originated from the same roots, and continue to push the limits on precision timekeeping measurements. The El Primero remains a prized heavyweight in the game, but its competition is rapidly catching up.

Check out the other articles in our series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the automatic chronograph:

50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: Who Came First?
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Second Wind
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: In the Age of Quartz
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: The Drive In-house
50th Year of the Automatic Chronograph: Race to be the Best