Take away the “u” and you have “gilt by association”. That’s a way of describing the elevation to solid-gold status imparted by any connection with the leader in a particular field: the tyres on a winning F1 car, the guitar strings used by Slash… or the movement in the manual-wind Rolex Daytona Cosmographs.

With the recent million-dollar-plus sales of Daytona Paul Newmans and the now mythical Albino, the Valjoux 72 that powers them has been, metaphorically speaking, deified. Calibre-worship manifests itself in a number of ways, but the most obvious is the effect it has on the marketplace, especially for enthusiasts motivated by movement types rather than the watches which house them.

Yes, there are collectors for specific calibres, connoisseurs with a passion for, say, Patek Philippe’s Calibre 12, or the Lemanias that powered Omega Speedmasters and Patek’s ref. 1463s.

The Valjoux 72 — arguably the finest manual-wind chronograph ever — ranked highly among historical movements even before last year’s astronomical auction results.

As far back as 1949, the Valjoux 72 and its calendar-equipped variant, the 88, were praised in one of watch lore’s seminal works and an industry bible listing all Swiss movements: AF Jobin’s La Classification Horlogère des Calibres de Montres et des Fournitures d’Horlogerie Suisses.

By that time, its base calibre was over 35 years old and the family of movements that grew up around it would survive another 25, until its demise in 1974. While production numbers are impossible to calculate, there’s good news for the collector: in all its variants, the total quantity is near to 750,000.

Its origins can be found in the base calibre, the Valjoux 22, first issued in 1914. This 14 lignes movement featured a column wheel, as would remain throughout the life of the series, one or two pushers and a 30-minute counter. It ran at 18,000bph. Its progeny would eventually support every major chronograph variant, ultimately with a five-hander perpetual calendar derivative, in Peter Roberts’ Concentrique.

When manufacture didn’t matter
In the 21st century, we are in the midst of a shift when all watch companies, however small or underfunded, have to consider making their own movements. It is, therefore, worth recalling that, prior to browbeating by “manufacturistas”, few watch houses made all their own movements — especially chronographs. Indeed, the lifespan of the Valjoux 22/23 to the last variants of the 72 corresponds precisely with the birth of the wristwatch as a commercially viable alternative to pocket watches and the (brief) demise of the mechanical watch in the face of quartz.

At the behest of chronograph specialists such as Gallet, the Calibre 13 that preceded the Calibre 22 of 1914 acquired a second pusher and model name change. The resultant 22 was a slightly oversized calibre at 14 lignes. The reduction to 12 lignes gave us the 23, while the actual Calibre 72, which appeared in 1938, would fit in between them at 13 lignes.

As size clearly doesn’t matter, what transformed the 23 into the 72 was the addition of a 12-hour counter, thus providing the platform for what is arguably the preferred layout for chronographs: two pushers and three subdials, one each for real-time seconds and 30-minute and 12-hour counters.

Enthusiasts, though, thrive on variants. In addition to a miniature version used by Gallet, the Calibre 69 with diameter of a mere 10.5 lignes, the Calibre 72 proved to be an ideal platform for additional functions. It acquired a simple, full calendar in 1946 and a suffix making it the 72c; this would find its way into models from Zodiac, Gallet, Girard-Perregaux and many others, reaching the height of its desirability in, most famously, the Rolex “Jean-Claude Killy” triple-calendar chronograph.

“Calibre 72” actually refers only to the base edition, and watch geeks love being able to rattle off the triple-digit numerology that accounts for every alteration.

They fall into two main groups, 23Xs for Calibre 23s with extras, and 72Xs for Calibre 72s with added features. Common to both is the rate at which the movements beat: the 18,000bph was upped to 21,600bph around 1969, which accounts for the manual-wind Rolex Cosmographs after that date.

While some variants are truly minor, the key models to explore include the aforementioned 72c with simple but full calendar and the 88, effectively a 72c with full calendar and moonphase.

Another development that distinguished a 23 or 72 from an earlier type was date display with rapid changes starting around 1969. The 235 and 725 featured a return-to-zero function, the 720 had 12-hour and 24-hour counters, the 721 provided a “tides” complication as found in the Heuer Seafarer (earlier examples used the slightly larger Calibre 71 at 15 lignes), and those produced for Rolex possessed Breguet overcoils and MicroStella balances.

Stalking the wild Valjoux
Vintage watch authority Justin Koullapis of The Watch Club says, “If you come across an unfamiliar chronograph, you can tell at a glance if it is likely to have a Valjoux 72-family movement: the space between the crown and the upper chronograph pusher is markedly less than the equivalent space below.

Put a fingertip into this gap for tactile confirmation if you don’t trust your eyes. Of course, do check the actual movement markings for definite confirmation before peeling off a stack of notes for a watch with uneven gaps.”

With about 750,000 movements produced, Koullapis can list “at least 17, or possibly 19 manufacturers and watch brands that have used a Valjoux 72 and its derivatives in their chronographs, from Eterna to Longines to Wittnauer to Wakmann. This doesn’t include those that employed the calibres 22 and 23, nor the Valjoux 72’s successors.”

In a roster of otherwise-unrelated makers, Koullapis notes that values vary wildly, despite the presence of the 72. “Only a handful with Valjoux 72-bearing models can be said to be in any way ‘important’ in the realm of wristwatch collecting.

The Navitimer on the left uses a Valjoux 72 movement, clearly identifiable as a result of the difference in gaps between the pushers and crown.

“Yes, I am certain that, to choose a random example, Certina’s Chronolympic has a zealous following, and crisp examples probably change hands for goodly sums within the Certina-loving cadre of the watch-collecting community, but I warrant that even the best won’t blip the price radar when compared to a Heuer with the same calibre, which won’t register anywhere against a first-series Breitling Navitimer. That, in turn, is unmentionable in the same breath as a Rolex Daytona Paul Newman.”

In every field of collecting, there has always got to be a “best”. In the realm of vintage chronographs, he ventures: “The ‘best’ happens to be the Rolex Daytona, and other, notionally similar watches don’t get a look-in. What would be interesting is to ponder whether the Daytona would still have attained the same illustrious status had Rolex chosen to use a different movement, say, one by Venus, Landeron (perish the thought), or maybe Lemania?

“Their precise choice of movement has definitely had some effect on today’s collectability and value, but this is impossible to quantify. Given their obsession with reliable, sturdy and dependable quality, there would be no chance that the Daytona would ever have appeared with anything like a Landeron movement.

“The Valjoux 72 offered the opportunity for technical improvements. For example, the Daytona went on to have a free-sprung balance and variable-inertia balance applied to it, something hardly worth the trouble unless the calibre was up to the consistency and reliability required of such high-brow improvements.”

Regarding the question of quantity, Koullapis points out that: “For all the talk of the Daytona’s rarity — absolutely true, on a comparative scale — Rolex needed a calibre that could be produced in sufficient quantities in order to serve their vast market. Valjoux was a first-class choice, being able to service the prevailing market demand for decades at a stretch with consistent quality in evidence throughout.”

In the end, Koullapis believes that the Daytona’s success and the Valjoux 72’s fame are interwoven. “Neither would have attained quite the heights without the other. This ‘Rolex effect’ has led to many of the high-ish prices of some of the other watches with Valjoux 72s.

As recently as the early 2000s, 1960s Heuer Carreras would change hands between dealers for little more than £300. In tandem with the Carrera’s steady (but modest) price rise, I can remember people starting to ask whether a given old Heuer had a Valjoux 72 movement. Rolex made it famous, and the price followed naturally.”

In contrast to the Heuers, Koullapis feels that the Valjoux 72-equipped Breitling Navitimer has attained its importance, “by dint of sheer time served and genuine rarity. It’s been said that the calibre was too expensive for Breitling’s market needs, so that by the late-1950s, the Navitimer in all its forms was entirely given over to the Venus 178. A stint of Venus shortages in the early 1960s apparently gave rise to a few later Valjoux 72 Navitimers that are peculiarly out of sequence with its peers.”

Glamour aside
Regarding the comparatively high prices of some otherwise-indifferent watches that have Valjoux 72 movements: “Yes, they are enjoying some of the limelight as a consequence of the fame of Daytonas and Navitimers, but there is a more subtle force also at work: there used to be a promise by Swiss watch manufacturers that spare movement parts would be available for at least for 30 years from the end of a calibre’s cessation.

“Even if it were not for the prevailing insularity of the industry now against the supply of spares, production of this calibre ceased decades ago, and spares for them would no longer have been guaranteed anyway. There simply are very few spares around.”

Prices of watches with suitable movements are, therefore, going to go up even if only to serve as donors for better models. The elevated values of Daytona Paul Newmans cannot be sustained unless the watches can also be guaranteed to keep working. Thus, the lesser brands simply become unwitting donors.

Some of the 72’s most notorious mechanical failings lie around the keyless work. After decades of use, the brass bearing that supports the tip of the winding stem often becomes worn into a massive sloppy hole, causing crunchy hand setting and winding that may result in stripped teeth on the winding wheels and motion work. The brass bearer that limits the stem’s axial movement also wears, as does the area near the setting lever, which can make the stem prone to dropping out.

Unfortunately, the simple solution to all these problems is the same: a new main plate, which is also the least likely spare part you will ever encounter. The better type of watchmaker will have the ability to re-sleeve the worn winding stem bearing, but it’s a long and expensive process and few are the watchmakers with the skill, equipment, or inclination to perform it.

Koullapis wryly notes: “Cue a donor movement. We now begin to skirt around the realms of a discussion on ‘frankenwatches’, whose components are a mismatch from various sources. Be that as it may, donor watches are a necessity for the repair of some types of calibre, because even the manufacturers won’t touch the servicing of a lot of these old chronographs.”

Watchmaker Peter Roberts recalls: “The first time I saw the Valjoux 72 movement was as an image during the late-1960s. I was a young enthusiast browsing the horological literature at Hackney Technical College. As students, we were trying to find the watch movement available with the most complications.”

It would prove to be a pivotal moment. “Over my career, the Valjoux 72 has always been present. From that first hero worship in the text book, then in Neuchâtel at WOSTEP, and its choice as my school project watch.”

This resulted in the first Concentrique of 1972. Roberts went on to building and repairing Daytonas at Rolex, more recently using the Valjoux 72 in his Concentrique and the 23 in the Mythique. “Why is this movement so desirable? It was designed nearly a century ago. It comes from a period of classic movement designs,” says Roberts.

“It is formed perfectly in what I consider the ideal two-dimensional layout: all functions work and can be seen to work from the plan view, thus adjustment is simplified and visible. Also, this naturally helps the aesthetics, and produces a movement that it is innately possible for the layman to understand and not be too overwhelmed by its complexity.”

He points out that, technically, the basic movement — the Calibre 23 — is very powerful and strong. It is capable of driving any number of complications. It is also capable, when correctly adjusted, of extremely good time keeping and merits being hand-finished to a very high level, the beauty of the movement making it worthy of an exhibition caseback.”

Collectors not able to consider Rolex Cosmographs delight in pointing out to people that a Paul Newman and the similarly styled Universal Genève Space-Compax house the same movement. The difference is that a Space-Compax sells for £2,500. A Paul Newman will set you back 150-to-200 times as much, despite the Universal Genève being much rarer — such is the power of the Rolex name.

Sadly, unlike Zenith’s El Primero, the Valjoux 72 remains an out-of-production classic, examples of which, to the delight of a lucky few, occasionally turn up in unused form. Roberts rates the movement, alongside the Longines Calibre 30CH, as one of my two best manual-wind chronograph movements ever. But then what else can we expect from a calibre that was good enough for the man who played Butch Cassidy?