To be fair to it, the clue’s in the name. The Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH), which we’ve been covering this week here, here and here, is a celebration of fine watchmaking, and pretty much without exception, each of the 34 exhibiting brands knows its way around a flying tourbillon.
But startling though many of the grandes complications are, they’re also little more than museum pieces – often low-volume, sometimes even unique pieces. Like fireworks, they attract wonder for a moment, but then they’re gone, adopted as playthings into the collections of billionnaires who keep them under lock and key, never to be seen in public again.
For those of us with more rooted aspirations, SIHH is as much about the ‘accessible’ stuff, as the industry refers to it, which means three-handers and common complications. Date windows, GMTs and chronographs, mainly, and almost always in steel.
Of those, date windows split critics as they’re a fairly recent addition to the canon of watch functions. Look back to the golden era of watch design (1950-1970, roughly), and you won’t see dials cut open to reveal a date disc. GMTs are useful, but not in a daily sense unless you’re George Clooney in Up in the Air, and even when second time zones are displayed via a central hand, they clutter a dial design and usually detract from a watch’s aesthetic.
Which leaves the humble chronograph. I’ve heard chronographs described as cooking watches in the past, and there’s no doubt that like a diver’s rotating bezel, their most frequent use is to time pasta. But that’s ok, because no matter why, every time a man starts a chrono, he’s connecting with the evergreen spirit of motorsport that infused the Daytonas, the Speedmasters and the Carreras of the 1950s and 1960s.
As well as the link to their mechanical past, the best chronographs are also easy on the eye. And when I say the best, I mean the most symmetrical. Symmetry is beauty, and so it’s the bicompax, or twin-counter chronographs, and those with the classic 3, 6 and 9 o’clock subdial layout that become the most sought-after, and the most iconic.
And it’s for these reasons that when I come back from a Swiss watch fair, it’s almost always the chronographs I remember first. Here are my pick of the best chronographs from SIHH 2018.
Montblanc 1858 Automatic Chronograph
The strongest line in the Montblanc collection was joined by a pair of chronographs this year, one in bronze (which is great and a theme we’ll come back to) and this steel model on a Bond-style NATO strap weaved on the same old-school French loom as Tudor’s hard-wearing fabric straps. Good news is that both are only 42mm in diameter, smaller and more versatile than previous 1858 chronos. Better news still is that Montblanc is sticking with its consumer-friendly pricing strategy so that the new models sit below equivalents from Rolex and Omega, which of course they have to. Incidentally, the twin-counter dial layout is pinched from a glorious old Minerva chronograph (Montblanc absorbed Minerva just over a decade ago), hence the vintage feel. And, while we’re here, if you’re on a tighter budget but dig the look, the 40mm 1858 Automatics carry the same aesthetic and value proposition and are well worth checking out, too.
A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph
As ever, Lange’s overall contribution to SIHH was superior to most, highlighted this year by the Triple Split, a technical marvel that’s the first mechanical watch ever made that can record multiple split times over a 12-hour period. But visually, the watch that caught my eye was a new iteration of the 1815 Chronograph, another fine example of the German company’s notoriously ascetic design philosophy. The simplicity and balance of this watch, with its two counters sunk ever so slightly south of the centre, is simply brilliant and make it a worthy rival to Patek’s all-but-peerless Ref 5170. The new model gets a doctor’s pulsometer scale, a nice detail despite the fact no one will ever use it, and mixes a pink gold case with a black dial for the first time.
€49,000 (circa £43,300)
Jaeger-LeCoultre Polaris Chronograph
Mercifully, there weren’t many anniversaries to speak of at SIHH this year – so often a distraction from the business of making great watches. Of those there were, two fell to Jaeger-LeCoultre, which notched up 185 years in watchmaking and 50 years of its Polaris, one of the coolest explorer watches ever made. The anniversary collection dominated the brand’s activities and included another revival of the Memovox alarm watch (which was actually my pick of the new line), and this chronograph. For my money, the best of these is the black-dialled version on a bracelet, a 42mm piece fuelled by a solid in-house calibre with a 65-hour power reserve. Again, the twin counters give it its balance, in this case featuring the same condensed 1960s dashboard-style numerals that made the brand’s Deep Sea Chronograph revival of some years ago such a hit.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Selfwinding Chronograph
Returning, somewhat reluctantly, to the theme of anniversaries, it’s 25 years since the launch of the Royal Oak Offshore, which, like the steel sports watch of 1972 it built on, started life shrouded by uncertainty. The story told this year was that the first 100 made had Royal Oak stamped into their case backs, with no mention of Offshore, and that the brand had little confidence the design would ever be more than a fleeting fancy. Any from that first run will be worth a few quid now, because the Offshore, once considered a giant at 42mm, became one of the man-watches of the ‘90s and ‘00s and a collection mainstay – there have been more than 120 different versions since. The watch made for the moment is little more than a contemporary update to the design and proportions of the 1993 original, and none the worse for it. Some proper wrist muscle.
Baume et Mercier Clifton Club Indian Legend Tribute Scout
We announced Baume et Mercier’s big news – the launch of the Baumatic in-house calibre – earlier this week, and in its wake comes a series of chronographs made in partnership with classic motorcycle manufacturer, the Indian Motorcycle Company. It made the bike that propelled Kiwi daredevil Burt Monro to 184mph in 1967, a land speed record that astonishingly still stands in its class. One of the watches made bringing all of that together is this 44mm chronograph, a piece limited to 1,901 pieces to denote the year the Indian Motorcycle Company was founded.