Two key components of watch technology, automatic winding and chronograph display, were first combined by three separate companies in 1969, marking a key period of advancement for the watch industry. This “race” to develop an automatic chronograph was one of the last notable advances in mechanical watchmaking before the quartz crisis hit in the 1970's.
Automatic winding technology became mainstream in wrist watches with the 1931 introduction of the Rolex “perpetual”. In the following decades, a great deal of research and development went to perfecting this technology. Buren became a key figure with their microrotor concept, which placed the rotor on the barrel of the watch rather than adding a thick full-diameter rotor above the top plate of the movement. This enabled the development in the 1950's of a series of thin automatic watches, notably from IWC, Baume & Mercier, Hamilton, IWC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and Universal Geneve.
At the same time, “tool watches” were gaining prominence, especially chronographs, which were used for timing athletic events and motor racing. Breitling and Heuer were especially successful in the chronograph market for aviation and motor sports, respectively, along with many other brands. Dubois Dépraz was an important supplier of chronograph modules to many makers. In Japan, Seiko was working on home-grown chronographs, highlighted by a prime role in the Tokyo Olympics.
Although many companies were involved in the chronograph movement, all were hand wound. It would prove very difficult to create a compact and thin automatic chronograph movement, and no company had achieved this even as automatic watches became dominant in the 1960's. Dubois Dépraz had already begun investigating a combination of an ultra-thin Buren movement with their chronograph modules, so when they were approached by Heuer they were ready to proceed. At the same time, Zenith had begun working on an automatic chronograph to be launched for their centennial celebration in 1965. And Seiko had also quietly begun working on an automatic version of their chronograph in the second half of the decade.
The Dubois Dépraz/Heuer-Leonidas partnership was quite a conventional arrangement at the time, but it soon became quite unusual. For one thing, no one had discussed the development with Buren until it was well under way. The company did not have a sufficiently thin movement until their 1962 introduction of "Intramatic" Calibre 1281. This 3.2 mm movement could be combined with a Dubois Dépraz 8510 module to produce a sufficiently-thin automatic chronograph, so Heuer moved forward, bringing them into the project.
The effort was kept top-secret, with engineers forbidden to mention the goal of building an automatic chronograph. It was given the code name “Project 99” to keep other makers from learning of its existence.
The next major hurdle was financial. Heuer was a small company at the time, and Buren, although supported by a successful movement business and patent licensing fees from their microrotor, was facing stiff competition. In fact, Buren would be sold to Hamilton in 1966, adding another party to the mix.
But the group needed another deep-pocketed watch company to help fund development. Heuer turned to an unlikely ally Rival chronograph maker, Breitling. Jack Heuer approached Willy Breitling with a unique proposition Since Breitling was stronger in continental Europe and Heuer dominant in the UK and USA, they would work together to develop the automatic chronograph and continue to focus on these markets. A deal was struck and development began in earnest.
Much of the development effort came from Dubois Dépraz at first, with Buren repurposing an existing calibre and Heuer, Breitling, and Hamilton creating cases and branding. They also had to prepare for production, bringing in suppliers and setting up an assembly operation. By 1968, Project 99 was sufficiently developed that a number of prototypes had been created and suppliers were preparing to ramp up production for dozens of models.
Now dubbed “Chronomatic”, the consortium made plans for a major introduction at the Basel Fair in April of 1969.
Zenith was not a major player in the chronograph market, and their work at developing an automatic chronograph was stalled when it became clear they would not be able to release it in time for their centennial in 1965. But development of their calibre did continue intermittently, with a target set to introduce it at the Basel Fair in 1965. Theirs would be an integrated high-beat design running at 36,000 A/h with a full-diameter winding system.
As the larger Chronomatic consortium was preparing to go into production, word leaked to the Zenith that they would be upstaged at the event by this large and now well-funded rival. They decided to accelerate production and bring in a partner, Hamilton rival Movado. This was an attractive way to increase volume, since Zenith was unable to sell into the US market due to a naming conflict with the American Zenith electronics company.
Zenith also sought to steal the thunder of the Chronomatic consortium by announcing their product first. They organized a small press conference in Switzerland for January 10, showing a few prototypes and declaring the name of their automatic chronograph movement to be “El Primero” or “The First”. They hoped that this move would buy them a bit of time to finish preparations for production, which was set for the following Autumn.
The announcement of “El Primero” did not derail the Chronomatic group. On March 3, 1969, the consortium of Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton-Buren held press conferences at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, the PanAm Building in New York City, and Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beirut. With speakers from the FH and world media present, they announced the arrival of the automatic chronograph and showed dozens of sample products using the new movement.
The press coverage continued at the Basel Fair in April, with Heuer, Breitling, and Hamilton showcasing their forthcoming products. Zenith and Movado were unable to divert attention, and the Chronomatic calibres 11, 12, 14, 15 would go into production and be released later that year.
It appeared that Chronomatic had won the race, with Zenith unable to deliver until the end of the year. Even Itiro Hattori, President of Seiko, visited the Heuer booth to congratulate them on their release. But Hattori San did not mention that his company was also on the verge of delivering an automatic chronograph that year. Indeed, Seiko's calibre 1639 had already gone into production in March and would be in customer hands by the summer.
Although the rush to announce an automatic chronograph had consumed the Chronomatic and Zenith-Movado groups, Seiko was apparently unaware that there was a race at all. Their automatic chronograph was just another product, launched without much fanfare and sold in large volumes in the mid-market segment. Like Zenith's El Primero, the Seiko 6139 was an integrated movement with a column wheel, but Seiko also used an advanced vertical clutch, now a prime feature of high-end automatic chronographs.
Although the Chronomatic consortium initially led in terms of sales and press coverage, their success was short-lived. The Chronomatic calibres proved expensive to produce and progress was impeded by the quartz crisis. Valjoux and Lemania eventually introduced less-expensive alternatives, the 7750 and 5100, respectively, and these spread to many competing brands. And Zenith's El Primero was used by other brands as well, with even Rolex adopting it for a time.
Production of most automatic chronographs halted in the 1970's as many saw the end of mechanical watches altogether. By the 1980's, once high-end mechanical watches were re-emerging as a viable market segment, it was the Valjoux/ETA 7750 that became dominant. Breitling and Hamilton both failed shortly after the Chronomatic project, being revived by new ownership who did not need to bring the old movement back.
Lemania purchased Heuer, causing them to use the 5100 for a time, but they too turned Swatch Group's ETA as a movement supplier rather than resurrecting the Chronomatic. After becoming part of LVMH, TAG Heuer even began offering watches with their former rival, Zenith's El Primero movement. In an ironic twist, TAG Heuer's latest attempt to move away from ETA led them to license Seiko's technology, introducing the Seiko-derived Calibre 1887. This means that Heuer-branded watches have used every one of the major automatic chronograph movements Chronomatic, El Primero, Seiko, Valjoux, and Lemania!
Today, nearly every watch maker offers an automatic chronograph. For a complete list, see Automatic chronograph movements.
The dominant automatic chronograph movement today is the ETA 7750, produced by Swatch Group and derived from the Valjoux movement of the same number. The El Primero remains in production and is a popular high-end movement from both Zenith and TAG Heuer. Rolex has developed their own automatic chronograph movements, the 4030 and later 4130, to replace the El Primero in their lineup. Jaeger-LeCoultre was late in bringing such a movement to market, waiting until 2004 to launch the JLC 751.
As Swatch winds down external supplies of ETA movements, many companies have launched their own automatic chronographs in the last decade. This includes the Chronomatic team Breitling has a new B01, and TAG Heuer launched the Seiko-derived Calibre 1887 and their own in-house Calibre 1969, named to commemorate the introduction of the Chronomatic.