aljoux 72, El Primero, ETA 7750, Lemania 861, Longines 13ZN: all these calibre references are well-known in the watch industry for powering some of the most famous chronographs out there – vintage Rolex Daytonas, Longines, Zenith El Primero, Breitling Chronomat and Omega Speedmasters. But what about the other manufacturers that tried hard and sometimes failed to come up with their own version of what a chronograph should look like, and run like?
Before the era of computer-assisted design and cutting technologies with nanometre precision, designing a calibre from the ground up was a complicated enough task already. However, crafting one with a chronograph function was much more of a hassle, and very expensive to boot.
Consequently, few brands took up the challenge of building their own calibres, to try to outsmart the competition. Some succeeded better than others. Here are five worth mentioning.
This company was founded in 1866, in the small town of Saint-Imier in the Bernese Jura, also known as the birthplace of Longines, Breitling and Heuer. At the end of the 19th century, the company added some modifications to the chronograph calibre invented by Alfred Lugin, the founder of Lemania, which increased its credibility in the marketplace and to led its later becoming one of the leaders in terms of sports timekeepers and chronographs during the first half of the 20th century. Every sport had its own dedicated timer: rugby, water-polo, football, basketball and even boxing.
- Excelsior Park counter for Handball and Football games
- © www.dellaroccagioielli.it
In 1918, Jeanneret-Brehm et Cie, which had previously produced watches and movements under different names and companies, finally became Excelsior Park.
The list of different types of chronographs and sports timekeepers is long, so let’s focus on a specific calibre, developed in 1938: the 12/13, later known as the calibre 4 family. Produced in mono- or double-pusher configurations, the chronograph was sold under the name Excelsior Park but was also supplied to other watch companies such as Gallet & Co, Zenith and Girard Perregaux. The movement family offered a 30-minute or 40-minute counter, and came with the option of a 12-hour counter.
- Zenith & Girard Perregaux chronographs using the Excelsior Park calibre 4
The calibre 4 series were nicely built and well-finished column wheel chronograph movements, easily recognisable by their sculpted bridge.
A particularly intriguing feature of the calibre 42 was its unusual shape. Most chronograph calibres are round, but this one had an oval design, forcing the watch case to match its shape, a feature exclusive to Excelsior Park.
- The strangely shaped Excelsior Park calibre 42
- © www.cliniquehorlogere.ch
The brand unfortunately disappeared in 1984, and it’s now the perfect example of a brand that deserves a renaissance.
Today, you can find decent examples of Excelsior Park branded chronographs starting at 1,500 CHF, climbing to 10,000 CHF for a rarer reference.
In 1891, three pious brothers founded Angelus in the watchmaking hotbed of Le Locle, in the canton of Neuchâtel.
Their ambition for Angelus was to make it a high-end watchmaking specialist. Accordingly, Angelus issued several patents for pocket chronographs, repeaters and alarms. In 1925, their first wristwatch chronograph was launched. The monopusher chronograph borrowed the VZ calibre, a reliable and technologically advanced movement, from movement manufacturer Valjoux.
- The Stolz brothers
In parallel, the company developed its own in-house chronograph movement, the calibre 210. The company rapidly started partnering up with other watch manufacturers, including Zodiac, with whom they created the smallest 8-day watch movement, and Panerai, which borrowed several Angelus movements.
Let’s focus on a specific calibre, the Angelus SF 217, an in-house chronograph movement that was used and designed for the Chronodato models. Issued in the midst of WW2 (1942), the Chronodato was the first chronograph featuring a full calendar, in other words displaying the day, the date and the month. The watch became a bestseller in Switzerland and Angelus capitalised quickly on this success by advertising it as the centrepiece of their collection.
With a lifespan of more than 10 years, the Chronodato family was issued with various styles of dials, cases and case materials. The layout of the dial was smart and elegant: the day was displayed in a small aperture just above the 6; the month was symmetrically located just under the 12, and finally the date was subtly revealed around the periphery of the dial in a clockwise manner by a red arrow hand. The 17-jewel column wheel calibre was one of the most complicated chronographs out there, bringing the brand credibility and fame, and forcing Valjoux to react quickly to come up with the Valjoux 72 C calibre a few years after the SF 217.
The brand then updated the SF 217 with the equally beautiful Chrono-Datoluxe, adding a moon phase complication and removing the day aperture. Nevertheless, the competition was now ready and well-equipped, and the model wasn’t as successful as its predecessor.
Like Excelsior Park, Angelus wasn’t able to survive to the massive hit of the quartz crisis, and disappeared in the 1970s. Relaunched recently with a different philosophy and a modern approach, the brand is now competing in the niche market of ultra-complicated watches.
Being complex to maintain and unique in their layout and design, Chronodato chronographs are today hard to repair, as parts are becoming scarce. Their poor resistance to dust and humidity, due to the pushers used to operate the calendar, make it particularly difficult to find them in mint condition.
However, you can still come across decent examples between 2,500 CHF and 4,000 CHF, a relatively interesting price if you take into consideration the history of the brand and the complexity of the calibre.
TO BE CONTINUED... In part II, we will tackle three other watch manufacturers that, like Excelsior Park and Angelus, defied the well-established chronograph suppliers/brands by building their own in-house chronograph movements.