Celebrating 50 Years of Tudor Chronograph
The Tudor chronograph is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, we recap the important milestones this complication has seen since 1970.
The chronograph is one of two important complications for all watch brands, cutting across price points and segments. The other one is the dual time or GMT function, but that is a story for another issue. When it comes to the chronograph, there are quite a number of popular versions as well as more niche or esoteric interpretations. Any brand that considers the sports watch an important segment has a chronograph in its assortment – the chronograph is indeed the sportiest of all the complications. Not every chronograph is a sporty and active watch though, with some being decidedly more aristocratic, but that is not the focus here either. Instead, we take this opportunity to get more familiar with a true sports watch chronograph.
On the occasion of its 50th anniversary, the Tudor chronograph merits a closer inspection. This is primarily because punters are speculating that Tudor might have something new in store on the chronograph front to mark the milestone. While we do not have any indication at this point, Tudor was kind enough to share a lot of key milestones related to this birthday. Here then is an officially sanctioned look at the Tudor chronograph, from 1970 to 2020, with all information and images from the brand (except where noted). The last major release for this complication was in 2017, so it is not wrong to expect something big from the brand.
First off, a brief introduction about Tudor itself. Founded in 1926 by Hans Wilsdorf as a more accessible line of wristwatches, compared with Wilsdorf’s other brand, Rolex, Tudor established its own identity over the years. Montres Tudor has an exciting and dynamic history, marked by a number of tool watches that firmly established the brand’s distinctive identity. Having said that, Tudor shares cases, crystals and bracelets with Rolex, with the chief difference between the two being in the movements. The Tudor chronograph of 1970, launched seven years after Rolex debuted the Oyster Perpetual Cosmograph Daytona, illustrates the links between the two brands.
AUSPICIOUS BEGINNINGS: 1970
Highlighting common ground between Rolex and Tudor, this first Tudor chronograph was called the Oysterdate. It was distinctive in its own right, and distinguished itself from the Daytona by offering a date indication, with cyclops magnifier. While the manual Valjoux calibre 7734 was a standard fare cam-lever chronograph, the Oysterdate was not. The colourful bi-compax layout calls attention to itself, while further differentiating the watch from the Daytona, which used a heavily modified Valjoux calibre 72. Adding even more character for the Tudor chronograph were the pentagonal hour markers, which complemented a related look for the chronograph registers.
The hour markers explain how the Oysterdate chronograph came by its nickname ‘Homeplate,’ and Tudor endorses this idea today. The other story is that the hour markers bear the shape that they do as a reference to the Tudor shield logo, which seems plausible, but is not the official story. As for why a baseball reference was used, there is no answer. Not even independent Rolex and Tudor specialist Ross Povey seems to know. Maybe it was just cool.
At first, only two versions of the Oysterdate chronograph were officially acknowledged, references 7031 and 7032. Respectively, these feature a plexiglass-topped bezel with a 500-unit graduated tachymetric scale, and a satin-brushed steel bezel with the same indications. Both bezels were fixed. These are indeed the only two that went into production, but there was a third design that never went beyond the prototype stage. Reference 7033 had a bi-directional rotating bezel topped by a 12-unit graduated black disc in anodised aluminium. Tudor cites this prototype as the inspiration behind the Heritage Chrono of 2010.
As for dials, there were only two versions of the Oysterdate, otherwise known as the 7000 series: grey and black. From the start, the now-familiar 45-minute register was in place. Of course, like the bi-compax layout itself, this did not stay consistent throughout the history of the Tudor chronograph. Something else that did not last was the case shape, which was a little more angular than the forms we think of today. It was 39mm from the first, with a water-resistance of 50 metres, giving it a very strong wrist presence in 1970; the Rolex Daytona was 36mm at this time.
COLUMN WHEEL: 1971-77
Tudor called time on the 7000 series by 1971, introducing series 7100, which is known colloquially as the Monte-Carlo; this nickname came about thanks to the colourful roulette-wheel style dials of the series, which remained in the catalogue till 1977. The new version preserved the lines of the case, the chronograph pushers, the date indicator, dial configuration, water-resistance and size. What was new was the Valjoux 234 manual chronograph movement; it brought the column wheel to the line. Easy enough to follow, but the bezel changes were a bit convoluted.
Series 7100 consisted of three chronograph references. Reference 7149/0, with its plexiglass bezel and tachymetric scale graduated up to 500 units per hour, replaced reference 7031/0 in the catalogue. Reference 7159/0, with its satin-brushed steel bezel and engraved tachymetric scale, replaced reference 7032/0; reference 7169/0 became the now mass-produced incarnation of the noteworthy 7033/0 prototype with rotating bezel. This effectively means that the 7100 series played host to both the fixed and rotating bezel variants, which was unusual then and would be today too.
New colours were introduced with series 7100, including what would become Tudor’s signature blue, with a blue and grey dial and two types of matching blue bezels
New colours were also introduced, including what would become Tudor’s signature blue, with a blue and grey dial and two types of matching blue bezels. As you can see here, orange was also in the picture. Out of the picture though were the homeplate hour markers, replaced by standard rectangular markers with black borders. This design cue was matched by the hour and minute hands, now baton-shaped rather than dauphine (this nomenclature is unofficial). Another important detail here is the bracelet, which was now the same Oyster version Rolex deployed.
BIG BLOCK: 1976-1994
In 1976, the automatic chronograph came to Tudor with the 9400 series, thanks to the workhorse Valjoux 7750 chronograph. This meant that the column wheel was out of the picture, and that some rather major changes were introduced with the case and the display. The new Prince Oysterdate watches were thicker, to accommodate the rotor, making these the thickest cases from Tudor and indeed Rolex. This earned Series 9400 the nickname ‘Big Block,’ which also stuck to Series 79100 when it was introduced in 1989, with minimal changes. The case diameter and water-resistance remained unchanged.
The new ‘Big Block’ was a major development in the look-and-feel of Tudor chronographs. The architecture of the 7750 movement required a reorganisation of the dial, making the Tudor chronograph a tri-compax one, like the Daytona and many others. An hour counter was added at 6 o’clock, with the 45-minute counter transforming into a 30-minute one, now at 12 o’clock; the small seconds counter remained at 9 o’clock. The date aperture moved to 3 o’clock.
Series 9400 consisted of three references, distinguished by the bezel and dial variants. Reference 9420 with fixed Bakelite tachymetre scale bezel; reference 9421 with bi-directional bezel (as per reference 7169); and reference 9430 with fixed steel tachymetre scale bezel. Dials were either black with white or silver registers or white with black registers, featuring applied hour markers rather than the painted markers of the previous Homeplate and Monte-Carlo series. The date window retained a painted frame while the chronograph registers sport raised inner dials (according to both observation, auction catalogue notes and Povey). A notable signature of this series were the words Automatic Chrono Time arranged around the chronograph hour subdial.
Even when the 79100 series took over in 1989, most of the above characteristics remained but the watch began to assert its identity as the Prince Oysterdate, with the word Oysterdate printed below Tudor’s shield logo. The reference numbers for this series are as follows: reference 79160 with fixed plastic tachymetre scale bezel insert in black; reference 79170 with rotating bezel as per reference 7169; and reference 79180 with fixed steel tachymetre scale bezel insert. The painted details disappeared entirely, and no Monte-Carlo style dials were issued for this series.
CRYSTAL CLEAR: 1995-2010
Finally, in 1995, the case of the Tudor chronograph assumed more contemporary looks, becoming altogether more ergonomic with new curves and rounded profiles. The changes introduced with the 79200 series are subtle, and you would have to look at watches from this series and the older ones to notice. Indeed, the big news with this series was the introduction of sapphire crystal, which is now a fixture of course; the cyclops magnifier remained in this configuration. Unsurprisingly, the nickname of this series is ‘Sapphire.’
Other new developments with this series were the introduction of steel-and-gold models, and leather straps. Aluminium was introduced as the bezel insert choice, although the bare (fixed) steel version remained. On the dial, the Oysterdate word was replaced by Prince. While calibre 7750 remained in play, it was substantially improved by Tudor. The 79200 series remained the brand’s chronograph reference until the arrival of the contemporary Tudor chronograph in 2010. Water-resistance was improved to 100 metres.
FRESH START: 2010
Ten years ago, Tudor was on a charge to redefine its future after reintroducing itself in a big way in 2009. For the 40th anniversary of the first Tudor chronograph, the brand launched the Heritage Chrono, which was very well received at that time and has only grown in the stature of its repute. That is just another way of saying that without the Heritage Chrono, stories such as this one would not be written. Now in 2010, the Heritage Chrono was simultaneously a reimagining of the 7000 series while also introducing contemporary edge. The naming convention – Chrono not Chronograph – conveys the 21st century setting.
The case of the Tudor chronograph was enlarged to 42mm and it received beveled edges that enhanced wearability. It was also now water-resistant to 150 metres. Not only did this make the watch different from the 7000 series, but it also distinguished it from its famous older brother, the Daytona (especially in the lugs). It was a masterstroke that the original 7000 series was designed to establish an identity distinct from the Daytona. Other characteristic touches included the polished protective shoulder of the winding crown, and the knurling on the rotating bezel and pushers. As previously mentioned, this watch takes its cues from reference 7033, most notably in that rotating bezel.
For dials, Tudor gave the Heritage Chrono two looks, just as it did with series 7000: grey with black registers or black with grey registers. The homeplate hour markers are back but they are 3-D appliques, not painted as in the original. You will often find remarks about the flatness of painted dials, but will find no such complaints about the Heritage Chrono. Tudor reminds us that it offered the watch on a choice of black, grey or orange Jacquard fabric straps, as well as the traditional bracelet (of the Oyster variety). While already popular as an after-market option, similar NATO straps were not generally available new with a new watch.
In 2013, a new version of this model appeared that referenced the famed reference 7169: the Heritage Chrono Blue. In this way, the 7100 series got its due in the re-emergence of the Tudor chronograph. The movement behind these models was a calibre 2892 with additional chronograph module from Dubois Depraz, adopting the principle of the minute counter with 45-minute graduations and the date at 6 o’clock. Another change here was in the hands used. These are the dauphine-style hands of the 7000 series. With regards to another notable change, the cyclops magnifier is absent and remains absent from the entire Tudor range of chronographs.
MATERIAL EXPERIMENTS: 2013
The 21st century has seen watchmaking brands adopt new case and bracelet strategies, and Tudor surprised collectors with experiments of its own. In 2013, Tudor launched the Fastrider Black Shield, which had a monobloc high-tech ceramic case; this was the first Tudor chronograph in such a contemporary material – Tudor has a range of special case materials, including bronze and titanium. This chronograph once again featured a high degree of angularity, although the watch was not a reference to the past. Instead, Tudor demonstrated that it had the expertise to work with new materials and deploy them as needed. For more on high-tech ceramic, see elsewhere this issue.
The Fastrider Black Shield was a tribute to motor racing, specifically superbikes so the styling and the materials made sense. Like the Heritage Chrono, it remains in the collection so you can judge this one on its own merits. Unlike the Heritage Chrono, this one is an entirely contemporary affair. Initially offered in black with red hour markers, or black with bronze-coloured hour markers, the Fastrider Black Shield was eventually available in a high-contrast format: black with white hour markers.
Like the Big Block, this model is a tri-compax chronograph, but with the date indication at 4.30. Its self-winding mechanical movement was the reliable and versatile calibre 7753 with cam lever chronograph system; this remains the calibre in use currently. The calendar function boasted a rapid date corrector at 9 o’clock. The new model’s strap came in either matt black leather with white topstitching or black rubber.
HIGH CALIBRE: 2017-2019
In the world of watchmaking, the more things change the more they stay the same. Tudor changed things up though in 2017 with a completely unexpected milestone. Not content to return to tried and- true chronograph movements, Tudor deployed its considerable resources to developing something special. Yes, the result was a manufacture calibre but not one from either Tudor nor big brother Rolex. Instead, the new Black Bay Chrono of 2017 utilised the automatic calibre MT5813, based on the Breitling manufacture calibre B01. This Black Bay Chrono was indeed a hybrid in many ways, combining Tudor’s history with both motorsports and watersports. These odd-couple pairings elevated the appeal of the Tudor Black Bay Chrono, allowing it to win the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève prize for best watch under CHF8,000 the very year the watch launched.
The Black Bay Chrono revisits the style of vintage Tudor chronographs, drawing in aquatic references from the Black Bay collection. This of course explains why the watch sports the ‘snowflake’ hands that characterised Tudor watches for the French Navy in the 1970s, and why the sapphire crystal and dial are curved like the early Tudor dive watches. The oversized crown, meanwhile, drew inspiration from reference 7924 from 1958; this was the first Tudor to be water-resistant to 200 metres, which is the water resistance rating of this watch as well. In terms of chronograph registers, the familiar styles of the 7000 and 7100 series returned in the form of a bi-compax layout: a 45-minute counter at 3 o’clock and small seconds at 9 o’clock. Other touches such as a fixed steel tachymetre scale bezel and screwed-down pushers completed the motoring side of the picture.
With its 70-hour power reserve and free-sprung balance, with silicon hairspring, and its vertical clutch actuated column wheel chronograph, the manufacture calibre MT5813 combines the best of Tudor’s own in-house know-how with that of Breitling’s. The movement is also officially certified by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute, making it both reliable and high performance. This is the calibre at work behind the Black Bay Chrono S&G that opened this story, as well as the last chronograph release of 2019, the Black Bay Chrono Dark limited edition. Despite the introduction of calibre MT5813, Tudor has kept the bi compax layout, and the elapsed minutes counter to 45 minutes rather than 30 minutes, in keeping with its historical references.
While this brings us up-to-date with the Tudor chronograph, this story will likely take off again later this year once the expected anniversary edition is revealed. For our part, we will refrain from speculating about what will be released. Instead we will finish with a note that the Tudor chronograph, in particular the Black Bay versions, represent some of the best price-to-quality ratios in the world of Swiss watches.