Car nuts rattle off engine codes as a special lingo that authenticates membership within the tribe; trump card hoarding schoolboys of an earlier age would memorise service designations of combat jets, as well as such vital stats as engine thrust and capacity armament. Watch appreciation too, has a nerdier aspect that finds parallel obsession with calibres, mainly addressed by their number codes: 2824, 2892, 7750, 4130, etc.
Calibres, or movements, are the hearts of mechanical watches and the very engines that divide the continuum of existence into consistent intervals that we might know when it is that we are meeting for lunch.
As has been widely reported, though there are myriad brands in the watchmaking business, at least where the Swiss are concerned, most of the movements come from a single source: ETA. A movement maker within the Swatch Group, ETA supplies movements that can be found in around seven out of 10 Swiss watches, never mind what brand it says on the dial. Of these, the 2824 and 7750 come to mind as being among the most ubiquitous. The self-winding 2824 found in three-hand watches, and the 7750 in automatic chronographs, pretty much cover the field. We will not be including these two movements in our list, as they belong more properly to “movements you already know about”. Rather, our list includes movements that are noteworthy, from a collector’s standpoint for their relevance to the brand or particular collection; or that they represent a milestone in the ever-progressing evolution of the mechanical movement. As a whole, this ensemble was also chosen as a broad survey of watchmaking, old and new.
Patek Philippe Calibre 240
Sitting at the pinnacle of fine Swiss watchmaking, Patek Philippe is renowned for its elegant high complication watches. Such a feat would not be possible were it not for movements like the 240, a trusty, self-winding ultra-thin movement designed to take on more modules for ever more complications, while still looking svelte, and gala-ready. Unlike most self-winding movements sporting a full-sized rotor, the 240’s is a micro-rotor, not stacked on top of the movement (thus adding height) but recessed on the periphery, hence contributing towards a slim profile. At the same time, it does not obscure the beauty of the wonderfully decorated 240 when viewed through a crystal case back, though the rotor too is a thing of beauty in itself, a solid piece of 22K gold.
Dating from 1977, the 240 has been updated over the years and today features the Spiromax (silicon) balance spring, which offers precision in operation and manufacture as well as resistance against magnetic fields. At its simplest, the 240 drives several of Patek Philippe’s time-only watches such as the Ref. 7200R ladies’ Calatrava.
That said, the 240 was designed as a base calibre to accommodate complication modules while retaining a slim profile. In Patek Philippe’s present catalogue, there exists no less than seven variants with an impressive array of complications, from the 240 HU with world time and day/night indication, 240 PS C with date hand and small seconds, up to the 240 Q offering moon phase and perpetual calendar! With the latter, the number of components had grown by more than 70 per cent, to 275 parts, and movement height increased from 1.61mm to 3.88mm. Because of the added energy required to drive these added components, power reserve had also dipped, but remains at an agreeable minimum of 38 hours.
Automatic movement beating at 3Hz, with silicon hairspring and 48-hour power reserve
Dimensions: 27.5mm x 2.53mm
Number of parts: 161
Rolex Calibre 4130
Even in the relatively dignified realm of luxury watch collecting (high expense and a Britannica’s worth of technical history and cult lore promotes sobriety), there are fanboys, and the objects of their fevered affection falls upon Rolexes, not a few. Lusted after at a higher pitch even in this company, is the Cosmograph Daytona, and this was recently demonstrated once again at BaselWorld 2016 when the announcement of a new steel cased Daytona with white dial and black ceramic bezel sent the watch press and enthusiast community into another fit of ecstasy.
Why is this? Some credit surely accrues to the movement behind the silvered/lacquered face: the Calibre 4130.
The Daytona wasn’t always mated to the 4130. Introduced in 1963, it was driven by a hand-wound Valjoux movement till 1988 when it was cased with Zenith’s self-winding El Primero movement (also featured on our list). However, Rolex famously detuned the movement from its native 5Hz to a more conventional 4Hz, while swapping out more than 50 per cent of the El Primero’s original parts. Major surgery; but still, not a Rolex movement. That would come in 2000, in the shape of the 4130, ticking all the right boxes: self-winding, column wheel control, vertical clutch for smooth starts, and Parachrom hairspring designed to perform well against magnetism, temperature variation, and shock. Rolex even reduced the number of parts enough that it could fit in a longer mainspring to achieve an impressive 72 hours of power reserve. It is a chronometer too, naturally.
Automatic chronograph movement beating at 4Hz, with 72-hour power reserve
Dimensions: 30.5mm x 6.5mm
Number of parts: 201
Audemars Piguet Calibre 3120
Often banded together with Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin as the “Big Three” of high watchmaking, Audemars Piguet is phenomenally plugged into pop culture while remaining firmly anchored in high watchmaking orthodoxy. Like no other, its long resume of firsts in watchmaking innovations and high complications sits very comfortably with associations on the funkier end of the cultural spectrum, being a perennial favourite of sports and rap royalty. Part of this comes from dynamic thinking, like in 1972, when Audemars Piguet practically created a new genre of the luxury sport watch when it introduced a steel watch, finished to the standard and priced accordingly, as one of gold: thus the Royal Oak (RO) was born. Together with the burlier Royal Oak Offshore (ROO) chronograph that came on the scene in 1993, and in an almost unlimited arsenal of limited editions in various colour combinations, the RO and ROO are wont to steal the thunder from the company’s arguably more accomplished collections. The movement that unites the handsome duo, is the self-winding Calibre 3120.
Like Patek Philippe’s 240 described above, the 3120 is also a base calibre meant to accommodate more modules for additional complications. What’s different is that the 3120 was not made thin, but robust, including a balance bridge that anchors the oscillator securely on two points, wound by a full-sized solid gold rotor. Its thickness is suited for the masculine, sporty RO and hulkier ROO. In the latter’s case, because the chronograph is a module stacked above the 3120, the date display looks recessed – a quirk that has done nothing to dampen its popularity.
Automatic movement beating at 3Hz, with
60-hour power reserve
Dimensions: 26.6mm x 4.26mm
Number of parts: 280
Zenith El Primero Calibre 400
A rock star among movements in more ways than one, the El Primero was unleashed to the world in a relatively low-key press conference in January 1969, which belied its ground-breaking specs. Not only was it the world’s first automatic integrated chronograph movement, it also featured an escapement that blitzed along at an unprecedented 5Hz which offered better chronometry and the ability to measure elapsed times to an accuracy of a tenth of a second. An engineering coup; but Oscar Wilde hit the nail on its head when he complained that people knew the price of everything and the value of nothing. In 1975, Zenith’s then-American owners decided to focus on making quartz watches and ordered the El Primero’s production equipment dismantled and sold as scrap. Instead of complying, an intrepid employee spirited away the El Primero’s technical plans and tooling bit by bit after work. Thanks to Charles Vermot, the El Primero resurfaced in 1984.
Today, the El Primero remains among the fastest beating mechanical movements at 5Hz, in the company of a few brands that have caught up with high beat movements in recent years. Though it started life as a chronograph, El Primero can now also be found in Zenith’s time-only watches such as the Synopsis, which drops the chronograph function but features an updated escapement with silicon wheel and lever visible through an opening on the dial. It has also made its way into the watches of Zenith’s sister brands within the LVMH group: TAG Heuer, Hublot, and Bulgari.
Automatic chronograph movement beating at 5Hz,
with 50-hour power reserve
Dimensions: 30mm x 6.6mm
Number of parts: 278
A. Lange & Söhne Calibre L951.6
The beautiful images and videos about Lange’s watches and movements belie a much more dramatic history that the Lange manufacture shares with its home city, Dresden. Towards the end of World War II, the city was obliterated by aerial bombing. Lange too ceased to exist after it was nationalised together with other companies into a watchmaking consortium to serve the needs of the Eastern Bloc. But both Dresden and Lange have since regained their place in the world with the end of the Cold War. The former, rebuilt brick by brick – from original rubble, in the case of the magnificent Frauenkirche church; while Lange has shrugged off the mass market tickers it made in the Communist era to return to the high watchmaking of its roots. It is history that informs the ethic at Lange, and the difference this makes is amply demonstrated in Lange’s interpretation of the ubiquitous wristwatch chronograph: the Datograph Up/Down.
While the field is largely divided between sports chronographs made for everyday practicality and ruggedness or daintier dress chronographs meant to add a dash of dynamism to a formal getup, the Datograph is a little different in approach. On the outside, it is almost austere in its devotion to function, driven by visual clarity and balance without anything superfluous. Yet, turn the watch over and the Calibre L951.6 astounds with baroque richness. Lange doesn’t seem to care about ease of manufacture, since the L951.6 has got more parts than many perpetual calendars, all finished with stoic patience and consummate skill. At the same time, it brims with technical innovation: unlike most chronographs where the elapsed minutes is a dragging hand, that on the Datograph jumps from marker to marker, making for much clearer readings. It’s just one of a series of instances where Lange spares no effort in creating innovative solutions to easily overlooked issues, while remaining well within the old school realm of mechanical craft. Moreover, not only is the L951.6 an in-house movement, Lange is also in the even smaller class of companies that make their own hairsprings. No shortcuts.
Hand-wound chronograph movement beating at 2.5Hz, with big date and power reserve indicator (60 hours)
Dimensions: 30.6mm x 7.9mm
Number of parts: 451
Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 854/1
In an industry where most watch brands source their movements from other companies, Jaeger-LeCoultre is the technical superpower with more movements than we’ve got fingers to count them (more than a thousand different calibres, in its 180-year history, with hundreds of patents shepherding the evolution of mechanical watchmaking), and distinguished names on its client list include the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Audemars Piguet, and Cartier. Jaeger-LeCoultre today boasts a most expansive catalogue that showcases its deep expertise in diverse disciplines, covering high complications, artisan craft, and gem-setting. Of these, its most iconic watch is the Reverso; and even here, this venerable model exists in countless iterations, from petite quartz models for ladies, to high complication models with perpetual calendars, triple dial faces, repeaters, and multi-axis tourbillons spinning in cage within cage. Do we pick the movement one ought to know by drawing movement numbers out of a fish bowl? No. If we have to choose, we’d pick the Calibre 854/1.
The original Reverso was created in 1931 in answer to complaints by British army officers stationed in India over having their precious wristwatches smashed during energetic games of polo. With the Reverso, simply flipping the case over protected the fragile crystal and watch dial, while the metal case back that now faced the outside could be engraved with unit insignias or loving words. Outside the polo experience however, we think it more practical to have a second dial in place of bare steel, tracking a second time zone.
Enter the Reverso Duoface of 1994, refreshed in recent years with an ultra-thin and special edition blue dial versions, displaying time on each of its two sides. The GMT function is among the most practical of complications in this global village century, and while every other GMT watch in the business shows home time either via pointer, or window on one dial, the Reverso is alone in spacing this out over two. It may not be as efficient as checking dual time zones in a single glance, but the clarity can’t be beat. And because the Duoface sports contrasting dials, e.g. silvered dial and black on the reverse, it is essentially two watches in one, able to match near a complete range of dress codes and occasions. All this is made possible with the hand-wound 854/1, a single movement driving two time displays. Time can be set normally by pulling the crown, or when passing time zones, the hour hand in the second display can be advanced in one-hour jumps by pushing the flat pusher on the case side.
Hand-wound movement beating at 3Hz, with dual time zone and 45-hour power reserve
Dimensions: 3.8mm thick
Number of parts: 180
Montblanc Minerva Calibre 16.29
There is a logic to progress that is unflinching, almost ruthless in its efficiency. Making much more of something in shorter time, for much less, is an advantage that is very hard to pass up. For this reason, mass produced commodity is stamping out the niceties of artisan production everywhere. Yet, thanks to companies like Montblanc, industrial prowess is sometimes lent towards preserving precious pockets of artisan production so that future generations may yet wonder and actually acquire heritage objects of rare beauty.
Montblanc churns out timepieces by the tens of thousands a year from its facility at Le Locle. It also has a manufacture at Villeret (formerly Minerva SA before it was acquired by the Richemont Group in 2006 and turned over to Montblanc) that produces only around a couple of hundred timepieces a year – that’s about as many as possible, doing things the old way, everything in-house, with classical tools and machines, largely by hand!
Minerva was best known for its chronographs, and the Calibre 16.29 that is used in the Montblanc 1858 Chronograph Tachymeter is a gorgeous sample of classical watchmaking. Based on a movement made by Minerva in the 1930s, the 16.29 is huge, filling up the 44mm watch case. There’s a column wheel, lateral coupling instead of vertical clutch favoured by its modern brethren, and the huge balance with weight screws oscillates at a stately 2.5Hz for maximum visual drama. But classical architecture is not the 16.29’s sole merit: lush finishing aside, the serpentine profile of its bridges and levers, including the signature devil’s tail of the chronograph hammer, makes many other chronograph movements
look ungainly in comparison.
Hand-wound chronograph movement beating at 2.5Hz, with 50-hour power reserve
Dimensions: 38.4mm diameter
Number of parts: 252
Chopard L.U.C Calibre 98.01-L
Some companies just have the knack for juggling diverse competencies. Among these, Chopard could have been content with the knowledge that its haute joaillerie collections are no strangers to red carpet galas, while its Happy Diamonds watches are extremely popular as everyday luxury. But the latter can no more lay claim to “authentic watchmaking” than could the Swatch watch, though both are phenomenal success stories for their respective companies. To address this, Chopard co-president Karl-Friedrich Scheufele established the Chopard Manufacture in 1996 to create “serious” watches fitted with movements designed and manufactured in-house. Since then, Chopard Manufacture has kept the steady pace of a long-distance runner, creating no less than 10 base movements with some 60 variations, cased in beautifully finished, classically styled watches of varying degrees of complication under the L.U.C label, the initials of the original company founder.
Of these, Chopard’s 8Hz is a dazzler for sure; but for us, the L.U.C Calibre 98.01-L beating inside Chopard’s Quattro watch is more in character with the company’s bold gambit and tireless consistency. Quattro is Italian for “four”. In the 98.01-L, which was introduced in 2005, that refers to the movement’s four mainspring barrels coupled in two stacks – a world’s first! According to Chopard, each mainspring is 47cm long, and it’s no small feat to squeeze four of them into a 28mm movement that is just 3.7mm thick. As such, the watch boasts a power reserve of nine days when fully wound. What is noteworthy is that this is achieved despite having the movement beat at a relatively quick (and energy-hungry) 4Hz. Moreover, while accuracy can suffer in watches with long power reserves as the energy wanes, the 98.01-L manages to be a COSC-certified chronometer. Add to that, quality and provenance validated by the Geneva Seal, and no room is left to doubt Chopard’s intent and capability in authentic watchmaking.
Hand-wound movement beating at 4Hz, with four barrels and nine-day power reserve
Dimensions: 28mm x 3.7mm
Number of parts: 223
Cartier Calibre 1904 MC
Cartier has an enviable history of supplying the most exquisite jewellery to royalty, and commercial success as a luxury purveyor to, well, the whole world. Its timepieces, too, have staked their place in watchmaking history. The Santos created in 1904 is one of the earliest true wristwatches (as opposed to pocket watches bound to the wrist by leather straps) for men, originally made for Alberto Santos-Dumont who flew the first true (powered) aeroplanes.
Still, for too long, Cartier hadn’t gotten the respect it deserved, not least for its Parisian (not Swiss) address, and that its most dazzling timepieces and complication creations, particularly those produced between 1998 and 2008 under the “Collection Privée Cartier Paris” (CPCP) label, used movements from companies like Jaeger-LeCoultre and Piaget, though Cartier did the finishing.
The sniggers stopped when Cartier introduced its first Geneva Seal watch in 2008, the Ballon Bleu Flying Tourbillon. However, it is a more mundane watch that is the real hitter into the heartland of Swiss watchmaking: the Calibre de Cartier, launched two years later. Though a humble three-hand with date, it is as pivotal as first love, containing Cartier’s first self-winding manufacture movement, designed, developed and made in-house: the Calibre 1904 MC.
Cartier now has a base movement from which to venture into higher complications, while broadening its reach tremendously, in bringing to market reasonably priced watches with authentic manufacture movements. To this end, the 1904 MC was engineered for reliability, ease of service, and efficient mass production. Performance also factored prominently in its design – though the 1904 MC boasts two mainspring barrels, they are arrayed in parallel, achieving only a modest power reserve of 48 hours, but energy delivery is made more consistent over a broad spread of its state of wind, contributing significantly to accuracy. The 1904 MC is also used in 2014’s Calibre de Cartier Diver, which meets the ISO 6425 international quality standard for diver’s watches.
Automatic movement beating at 4Hz, with twin barrels and 48-hour power reserve
Dimensions: 25.6mm x 4mm
Number of parts: 186
IWC Calibre 52010
Even among storied brands, IWC stands out for how deeply it has written itself into watchmaking history. Timepieces for air force pilots just as air power was gaining traction among military planners, watches for scuba diving, timepieces for engineers as we turned a corner into the modern technological age – individuals engaged in pushing boundaries on land, in the air, and under the sea need wristwatches and IWC has enriched its own heritage and know-how by making purpose-built wristwatches for them. For a dressier pick, the Portugieser is among the most iconic and best loved. The original introduced in the 1930s was borne from the need for a marine-chronometer grade wristwatch, then only possible by casing a large, high-quality pocket watch movement in a wristwatch case.
This collection has been characterised by large cases and IWC’s largest movements ever since, including 2000’s Portugieser Automatic with a 50000-calibre movement that boasts seven-day power reserve and a highly efficient Pellaton winding system. The calibre 52010 featured here is a 2015 update with further technical enhancement and better finishing. Ceramic parts have been added to the winding system, making it virtually impervious to wear and tear; the faster balance now beats at 4Hz for better accuracy. Moreover, 52010 has two mainspring barrels to supply the same seven days’ power reserve with greater consistency for improved chronometry. IWC also partly skeletonised the rotor so the improved finishing of the movement is more readily evident.
Automatic movement beating at 4Hz, with two barrels and power reserve indicator (seven days)
Dimensions: 37.8mm x 7.5mm
Number of parts: 257
This article was first published in WOW.