In our article a few weeks ago, we had an overview of the chronograph complication, and briefly mentioned that the column wheel chronograph is generally considered to be the higher-end variant. Today, we’ll have a closer look at this specific iteration.
For this bit of history, we don’t have to go back too far, actually. There was a race back in 1969 to create the first automatic chronograph. This race was amongst the Swiss, of course. Surprisingly, Japanese company Seiko was also in this race without realizing it. It was at the 1969 Basel fair, though, that Mr. Hattori (Seiko’s owner) found out that they were indeed in that race after he spoke with Jack Heuer. While Seiko didn’t present theirs at Basel, they tested in Japan in the summer and fall of 1969, and then introduced it to the American market in 1970. We’ll touch more on Seiko’s efforts in a bit. First, back to the Swiss.
One of the first examples of an automatic chronograph with a column wheel came from Zenith, in the form of the El Primero ( in the picture above, the column wheel is at the top, just right of center). In French, this toothed wheel carries a more impressive name – roue à colonnes. This could remind you in some way of architectural columns, which I suppose you could see in the teeth. While we’re used to most watch components working primarily in a single plane, the column wheel has it’s teeth jutting out perpendicularly from the plane of the watch movement. It’s through this component that the presses of the chrono pushers are transmitted, whether it be start, stop, or reset.
In 1969, as I mentioned, the El Primero was one of the first automatic chronographs to hit the market. In addition to that, it also beat at a very high rate – 36,000 vph – which served to improve accuracy. This all combined to create what many consider to be a classic chronograph movement, as well as one that was good enough to be included in many other brands’ watches – including Rolex. If 1969 saw some truly interesting innovations in the chronograph world, 2013 is definitely a kindred spirit.
At this year’s Baselworld, Girard-Perregaux introduced their own in-house column wheel movement. Unlike the El Primero, this is a hand-wound model, calling to mind even more the heritage of the movement. There is a very cool twist, however – they’ve included a function to make the minute counter a jumping one. Necessary? No, but it does make for a more accurate reading of the timing.
Christophe Claret also introduced a column wheel chrono this year, which was overshadowed by two other features of the movement. First off, it features a constant force mechanism. Second (and what I personally find to be the coolest bit), the monopusher is tied to a chiming function. In other words, every time you depress the pusher, a small chime is sounded. Again, not necessary, but it’s another differentiator, and I suppose an audible cue to help prevent accidental presses.
But enough about the Swiss – what about the Japanese? As I mentioned earlier, Seiko created an automatic column wheel chronograph movement back in 1969, the caliber 6139. Following in those footsteps, the 100th anniversary Ananta chronograph model contains the caliber 8R28, which is of course a column wheel chrono. This one contains a three-pronged lever (setting it apart from the Swiss examples), which helps to ensure that the chrono hands stay synchronized. Apparently, many models (that don’t have this type of lever) will exhibit a behavior where the hands “jump” a little bit when you activate the pushers.
And if you want a vote of confidence as to how good Seiko’s chronograph designs are, consider this: TAG Heuer actually uses Seiko’s TC78 movement as the base for it’s own TAG Heuer Caliber 1887. This particular movement isn’t a column wheel example, but it is a chronograph, and is an example of how the Swiss value the inventiveness that Seiko has been producing. Sure, whatever Seiko you and I may be picking up may not be the same as a TAG, but it’s fun to think that the minds that came up with the movement in your watch also helped to drive some higher-end models.
If you’d like more information on this topic, definitely check out this article (link) over on WorldTempus, where they go into greater detail on the various movements I covered here.
All images courtesy of WorldTempus