Imagine a time before quartz watches, when the technology of timekeeping was still springs and gears made in workshops in the Swiss mountains. While the Americans and Russians were racing to put men into space, a different sort of race was going on between watch companies sprinting toward the milestone of the first self-winding, or automatic, chronograph. No matter how you frame the discussion, the debate over who created the first automatic chronograph is a heated one. One path to clearing confusion is to say that Zenith produced the very first Swiss-made, fully integrated automatic chronograph — the El Primero.
Three top chronographs go head to head
The popularity and prevalence of chronographs might just make one think that it is an easy watch complication. Everyone from Hamilton and Tissot on up the line to the loftier likes of Patek and Lange & Söhne have one in their lineups. Something about the asymmetrical cases — those buttons poking out from under a shirtsleeve — and the gauge-like dials with tachymetric scales and multiple subdials seems irresistible to men everywhere.
So when we recently got our hands on three of the best available in-house built automatic column wheel chronographs from three legendary companies — Zenith, OMEGA and Girard-Perregaux — it presented an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We’ll call it a shootout — loosely.
Zenith has had its share of ups and downs. After decades of success making watches for everyone including Mahatma Gandhi, the brand may have reached its zenith (sorry) in 1969 with the release of the El Primero chronograph, arguably the world’s first full-rotor self-winding chronograph. The ’70s and quartz bottomed out the brand, but it has since recovered. We break down Zenith’s Stratos Flyback Striking 10th ($9,500), released in tribute to the Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, the man who would jump from a balloon 130,000 feet above the Earth — with this watch on his wrist.
Time to Drive
Wheels and gears, second hands and tach needles, power trains and power reserves. Men have always been fascinated by time, speed, accuracy and power — and the beautiful combination of high-end timepieces and exotic roadgoing automobiles captures these obsessions appropriately. And whether the watch of choice is used to measure lap splits or to simply echo the same kind of quality and heritage as his car, you can be assured that careful time was taken to select both. We match up some of the best in timekeeping and automobilia in Gear Patrol style.
Rock You Like a Hurricane
There are a slew of complications that are easy to overlook if you’re not in the market for a watch that costs as much as a nice starter home in Phoenix, but some are interesting enough to merit spending a few minutes gawking at. The Zenith Academy Christophe Colomb Hurricane ($280,000) has not one, but two complications that clear this bar, so lest we leave you unprepared should you hit the Powerball, read on.
The fastest watch in the world
John Glenn strapped a Heuer stopwatch to his wrist; Scott Carpenter wore a Breitling chronograph; and everyone knows the story of Omega’s Moonwatch. Now it’s Zenith’s turn to join the list of legendary space watches. When Felix Baumgartner stepped off that skateboard-sized platform this week and plummeted to Earth while millions watched, you may have…
This article is Volume 2 in our special Icons series for Timekeeping, written by our guru Jason Heaton. In case you missed it, be sure to catch our first Icons article, Volume 1: Super Compressor Dive Watch. 1970 was a year of great ups and downs for the mechanical chronograph. The vaunted Omega Speedmaster helped…
Complications? Yes. Complicated? Let's discuss.
The follow-up to our last Timekeeping feature (The Dive Watch, Deconstructed), Jason Heaton delves into the hallowed world of the Chronograph. There is no other type of watch that requires as much interaction from its wearer as the chronograph. Even at rest a chronograph dutifully waits, its sweep hand standing still, alert and vertical, inviting…