The chronograph is one of the most desirable complications around.
And it's an expensive and time consuming process to research and develop a chronograph movement in-house, especially an automatic one.
As a result, the history of the chronograph is quite fascinating.
To put it into perspective, the first automatic movement was developed by Parrelet or Breguet (depending on whom you ask), back in the 1700's.
Harwood developed the first commercially viable and reliable automatic movement in the 1920's.
But the first automatic chronograph movement wasn't created until 1969 and it was a joint effort.
It was a three-way race between Zenith/Movado, Heuer/Breitling/Hamilton, and Seiko.
At the end, Zenith was the winner with their c.3019 PHC (which they eventually named 'El Primero' to rub it in, which means 'The First' in Spanish).
Heuer was second with their c.11, and Seiko followed in 3rd.
Before 1969 and that group of movements, all chronographs were manual wound movements. And most watches made, regardless of brand tended to use the same movements made by the same movement-only manufacturers.
For example, JLC, Heuer, Rolex, and many, many others used Valjoux chronographs a lot. The Valjoux 72 the most famous/best of the batch.
Lemania, Valjoux's arch rival, was used by Omega, Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, etc.
Longines, quite impressively had their own in-house chronograph back then, and there were a couple other manufactures like Venus, etc. as well.
But since 1969, many of the truly high end watch companies had begun making their own in-house automatic chronographs.
And when considering An ultimate chronograph (that is not a vintage El Primero), two watches really stand out:
Patek Philippe 5170 ($90k) - there are few things more magical than owning a chronograph made by Patek Phillipe. And their 5170 has to be considered one of the greatest ever. As usual, it's gorgeous. Not just the face of the watch, but the movement as well. Mechanically it's a masterpiece. A definite step up than it's predecessor the 5070 (and that's saying a lot!).
A. Lange & Sohne Datograph ($90k)/double split ($113k) - this is my winner, and for good reason. Not even Patek, at this non-grand-complication level can match the overall completeness, or symmetry of this watch. I honestly don't care if it has the split chronograph or not (the split is just an added 'Wow!'). It really is hard to improve on the way the Datograph blends a clearly vintage look and feel, with a clearly contemporary look and feel. To me, that may have been the tipping point vs. the Patek.
If you're looking at some vintage options, things change quite a bit.
As mentioned above, with everyone using more or less the same 2 or 3 or 4 movements, it wasn't difficult to make a great chronograph watch.
Consider the fact that the only practical difference between a 1960's Heuer Carrera 2447 and a 1960's Rolex Daytona is the dial, and you get the idea.
In those days they didn't really 'modify' those movements as some companies might modify a modern Valjoux 7750 today (if anyone says they did, they're wrong!).
With this in mind, the best of the best (not most valuable - I'll discuss value of vintage watches in a later post), is the manual Omega Speedmaster, which used the legendary Lemania-based 321 manual chronograph with column wheel ($4k-$20k depending on reference). Today, it has evolved into the contemporary c.861/1861 (a complete and total steal at under $3k).
To learn more about why the manual Speedmaster is one of the greatest watches ever made (period!), click here.
But, if you're looking for the most *valuable*, then the only choice from the vintage world is the Rolex Daytona from the 60's.
An exotic dialed Daytona (a.k.a. The Paul Newman Daytona), will fetch well over $125k. And a regular 1960's Daytona will still require more than $25k. Some stupidly rare examples have even begun to approach $1 million (Yes, there are a lot of dumb dumbs out there).
In fact, I'd say the vintage Daytona from the 1960's is not only a truly beautiful watch, it's also the most desirable Rolex ever made (if you have any sense of style at all).
Of course, if it's a vintage automatic you're after, then the Zenith El Primero ($4k+) is a clear favorite.
Any Heuer (Monaco, Carrera, etc) with their c.11 ($2k-$11k), is the only other automatic consideration... like the one I used to have.
Next week, the Ultimate Sport Luxury Watch.