The Chronoswiss Reference 1163
The Orea Manual Wind
A Modern Tribute to Vintage Wristwatches
Copyright (c) April 2000 by Edward Hahn
Introduction - Chronoswiss Company History
Unlike the recent trend taken by several modern watch companies, Chronoswiss is not a revival of a classic name from the past taken in order to capitalize on an ersatz history. Rather, Chronoswiss is proud of the fact that it was founded in 1983. Its founder and company president, Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, instead advertises heavily the fact that this new company was founded on the principle of maintaining traditional craftsmanship and values for connoisseurs of watches. Despite being based in Munich, Germany, the company chose the Chronoswiss name specifically to tie the product to the highest Swiss standards.
Herr Lang began his pursuit of those standards as a journeyman watchmaker at age 21 with the Heuer company in 1964; he eventually rose to be Director of Customer Service. One highlight of his career was to serve as the official timekeeper of the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. However, as that company struggled in the years after the death of Jack Heuer, and before its purchase by Techniques d'Avant-Garde (TAG), he left the company at the age of 37 and struck out on his own.
Despite the seeming imminent death of the mechanical watch, Herr Lang decided to receive his severance package as remaining mechanical chronograph production at Heuer, and also began to look at remaining production from several defunct ebauche makers. He then started selling his own watches with the stated objective of saving traditional craft, capitalizing on his NOS movements and his relationships with mechanical specialists such as A. Rochat and Kelek. At the same time, he enrolled in a class to complete his master watchmaker certification. His love of mechanical watches and chronographs in particular is reflected in the co-writing of the comprehensive history, Chronograph Wristwatches, to Stop Time, published in 1992.
Today, the Chronoswiss company caters to the watch enthusiast market, shipping about 6000 watches per year out of their final assembly point in Munich. The company is very open about its practices, and has self-produced an excellent video, The Fascination of Watchmaking (available from Chronoswiss USA in North America) in which they describe how Chronoswiss and its contractors in Switzerland go about their business. They are very open about the fact, that while the Munich operation has only about 20 watchmakers which handle final assembly of all watches, they use another 80 watchmakers among several Swiss subcontractors to provide parts and sometimes even entire movements. For example, the Alfred Rochat company in the Vallee de Joux is identified as the supplier which takes raw VJ7750 movements, and hand skeletonizes and engraves the complete movement for the Opus skeleton chronograph.
Despite having exclusive use of two movements (an Enicar automatic and a Marvin manual wind), Herr Lang does not call Chronoswiss a manufacture, in order to maintain that ultimate level of capability special. However, this has not stopped Herr Lang from being mechanically innovative with his watches; among the watches which Chronoswiss has become known for include the first wristwatch sized regulator dial (the Regulateur), a skeleton chronograph at an affordable price (the Opus), and a unique jump-hour retrograde minute watch (the Delphis). Chronoswiss was also one of the first to add additional jewels to the Valjoux 7750 and replace plastic parts in the Lemania 1873; these additions were eventually adopted by ETA and Lemania as standard offerings and options.
One of the other distinctive watches in the Chronoswiss line is the enamel dialed Orea, which is the subject of this review. The SS version lists for $3400, with a two-tone version selling for $4700 and an 18K gold version at $7200. The automatic is available at the same prices, and a ladies size manual wind sells for somewhat less.
Packaging and Initial Impressions
The Orea, like all Chronoswiss watches, comes in a small-to-medium sized high quality wood box with heavy lacquer finish. The inside is lined with green felt, as is the pillow around which the watch arrives. The booklets for guarantee (hand signed by Herr Lang in green ink), water resistance, operating manual, and list of authorized distributors are kept in a pouch on the box lid. All in all, it's not the fanciest box around, but it is elegant in its simplicity - and good to know that one isn't paying too much for the packaging.
I obtained the Orea in stainless steel from an authorized dealer in April, 2000, after a wait of about two months. Even though I had seen the automatic version of this watch, with a railroad style dial with Arabic numerals and spade hands, I had not seen the more formal manual wind version. While a broad smile is certainly common when initially viewing a new watch purchase, I was simply awed to see the jewel like overall presentation of the watch, from the pure white enamel dial, with its distinctive "XII", to the perfectly blued delicate Breguet pomme hands, to the highly-polished vintage-inspired rounded case with signature coin-edge milling.
Like all Chronoswiss watches, Herr Lang has specified a sapphire caseback to show off the quality of his movements. However, this watch's back truly shows something unique, the exclusive Chronoswiss C.111 manual wind movement. It is a somewhat large movement at 13''' (29.4mm, or about US "0 size"), and is 3.3mm deep (in comparison, the "standard" thickness Peseux 7001 is 10.5''' at 2.5mm thick, while the ultra-thin JLC 849 is 9''' at 1.85mm thick.).
This is perhaps due to the age of the basic movement design - it was originally brought out by the Marvin company in 1952, and was also used by Longines briefly. ( I was unable to find out much about the Marvin Watch company, other than it was founded in 1850 at La Chaux-de-Fonds by M. & E. Ditesheim.) This caliber uses some NOS parts, while others have been replaced or improved at the direction of Chronoswiss. While not to be confused with the highest grade movements from Patek, JLC, or F. Piguet, this is a good quality movement comparable to the best converted pocket watch movements in the earliest wristwatches. [BTW, the automatic version of this watch uses the Enicar-based C.121, while the lady Orea uses the Peseux 7001.]
The movement's design and wheel layout is very simple, and similar architectures have been used since the pocket watch era. It is a two-bridge design, which would be called by American pocket watch aficionados a "3/4 plate" (note that the term is not used in the same way that the Lange 1, for instance, is a 3/4 plate.). The barrel bridge (A), wheel train bridge (B), and balance cock (C) show very noticeable anglage and are finished with Geneva waving. I applaud Chronoswiss for being restrained in their use of engraving on the movement, preferring to let the simplicity of the movement shine through to excellent effect.
The visible pivot jewels for the center wheel (D), third wheel (E), fourth wheel (F), and escape wheel (G) use pressed-in chatons, which is a design feature contemporary with the initial design of the movement. The wheel train appears to have polished tooth faces, but the rest of the wheel is simply finished and left with a matte texture. The standard complement of 17 jewels is marked, which is generally considered "fully jeweled" - this movement is jeweled "to the center wheel". (Higher grade watches may have the barrel jeweled and/or have additional cap jewels on the escape wheel as well.)
The simple layout of the gear train allows for the minimum number of wheels for a simple time movement with seconds: the position of the fourth wheel (which rotates once per minute) is directly opposite the small seconds on the dial - and indeed, the seconds hand is mounted on the extended fourth wheel pinion. Similarly, the second wheel (which rotates once per hour) carries the cannon pinion and minute hand via an extended pinion. This movement displays true form following function: no additional wheels are needed to place the hands where they reside on the dial, which is not true of most movements available today. The simplicity of layout is reflected in the beauty of the movement.
The crown wheel (H) and ratchet wheel (J) are given a nice sunburst pattern finishing with polished beveled teeth; note that the click (K) allows for some strain relief at the fully wound position, which is necessary to prevent the overbanking which would occur if the mainspring were to reach the "brick wall" tension at winding. Note also that the barrel teeth (L) themselves are visible through the opening under the click. Power reserve is advertised as 38 hours.
The balance wheel (M) on this watch rotates at a relatively leisurely 21,600 bph, but otherwise shows some fully modern touches. Note the large diameter of this three-spoke, smooth-rimmed glucydur balance, which maximizes the performance of the balance assembly. The escape wheel and escape lever both show a very high polish under a 10x loupe (N), but the pallet jewels on this example are a bit milky, which is an aesthetic demerit. A simple regulator (P) and hairspring stud carrier (Q) are provided for the flat (alas) Nivarox I hairspring, unfortunately with no micrometric adjustment available. Fortunately, I won't have to re-regulate the watch, as the performance of this watch has been admirable: gaining about 3 sec/day on the wrist or face up, while the crown up position loses about 2 seconds a day. Note also the provision of Incabloc shock protection (R).
While this completes the tour of the movement which is visible from the case back, I do not know whether the bottom plate and dial side of the movement are similarly immaculate. Walt Odets' findings on the Chronoswiss Delphis of a plainly finished bottom plate disturbed me, as Chronoswiss claims to preserve the standards of craftsmanship from a hundred years ago. The difference in finish level between the top and bottom plates in the Delphis movement was shocking - such a difference would never have existed in a watch from a hundred years ago, as I am convinced after disassembling some 1910-vintage mid-grade pocketwatches. I can only hope that such is not the case for my own movement, but I won't know unless I take it apart. :-) A suggestion to Chronoswiss is to improve the finish of the non-visible areas on at least the Delphis movement if they truly want to live up to 100 year old standards, as stated in their advertising.
Case, Crystal, Crown, and Strap
The case on this watch is not your standard Chronoswiss "tuna can". Instead, they have gone for a rounded profile on the Orea, similar to the first wristwatches of the 20th century - these were actually small pocketwatches which had lugs soldered on to the case to hold a strap. The coin-edge bezel and caseback are not as "in-your-face" as the standard Chronoswiss, either. They also recall the fact that coin edging was often used in pocket watches which had hand-tightened screwed backs and bezels, as they afforded some grip. The rounded profile is not symmetric, but is "sloped" toward the bezel. The lugs are soldered onto the case, another vintage touch. Overall, the quality of the polish is first rate.
Fortunately, the case of the Orea takes advantage of progress since the early 20th century in terms of protecting the movement; it has full flat sapphire crystals front and rear, and seals with o-ring gaskets, affording water resistance to 30 meters. While no one would swim in a watch like this, it provides sufficient protection from dust and water to wear in the rain or wipe down with a damp cloth. Other vital statistics are a case diameter of 36mm (perhaps a bit small in this age of big watches, but large for a men's watch during the vintage era) and a thickness of 8mm not including the lugs.
The cylindrical crown is topped with an onyx cabochon; while this is a classic look, the onion-shaped crowns used in other Chronoswiss models would also be an accurate detail, and would have been my personal preference aesthetically. Since the watch is a manual wind, the crown must operate well - which it does. The relatively tall crown is easily grasped for winding (this watch has a fairly strong mainspring), and clicks smartly into place between winding and setting positions. The cannon pinion is tight enough to allow one to stop the movement with a slight back pressure (the watch does not hack), but does not bind or cause overbanking when actually moving the hands.
The strap is a very nice matte-finished black crocodile, with the nice touch of being held in place via screw pins rather than springbars. The same is also true of the nicely finished buckle, complete with the Chronoswiss logo. The buckle does an excellent job, by the way, of not bending the strap where the tang fits through the strap holes. (For those of you familiar with my allergy travails with the black JLC crocodile strap, this one does not appear to cause any reaction, knock wood!)
Hands, Dial, and a Brief Discussion of Dial Enameling
The hands on this watch are the traditional Breguet pomme style, and are blued. Herr Lang has specified that the tip of the minute hand be curled downward to reduce the parallax distortion during reading. He has also done an excellent job of sizing the hands - the tip of the minute hand extends exactly to the minute chapter.
Of course, the centerpiece for this watch is the traditional porcelain enamel dial. This particular design uses a popular style from the early part of the 20th century, with roman numerals and a red XII. Fans of A. Lange will note that this style was also just chosen for the 2000 model Anniversary Langematik, also in enamel. Rounding out the classic dial features are the railroad track minute and seconds chapter, the diamond shaped markers at 3, 6, 9, and 12, and a sunk subsidiary seconds. Note also the printing of "Swiss Made" on the dial. As is appropriate for a vintage tribute enamel dial, there are no luminous indicators.
The Danzé company in LeLocle, Switzerland, is the supplier of the dial for the Orea; they are one of two firms that are able to do enamel dials left in Switzerland. Three versions are necessary - for the manual wind, the automatic, and the lady's size. An enamel dial is one of the nearly-lost arts of watchmaking, as they have been used since the 1630's. Some of the highlights of the 50-step process are described below, as seen in the Chronoswiss video.
First, copper discs slightly larger than the finished dial are made, and the feet for mounting on the movement are soldered on. These are smoothed and slighly chased (dished), and then coated with a white enamel powder dispensed from a shaker. These are fired, 8 at a time, in an oven at 850 degrees C for only 2-3 minutes. Inside the oven, the powder liquefies and adheres to the copper. Interestingly, the copper dial would melt if the powder were not applied - the excess heat taken by the melting of the powder removes enough energy to keep the copper base from melting. Three layers of white enamel are applied to each dial to obtain the visual "depth" required. Note that this leaves a characteristic texture to the surface - not completely smooth, but with tiny irregularities which help distinguish an enameled dial from one which is merely painted.
After applying the base coat of white enamel, three layers each of black and red enamel are imprinted and fired to make the dial markings. Here, the Danzé company applies the colored enamel via a pad printing process similar to that also used by dial refinishers. Once the dial markings are complete, the holes for the hands are then drilled, and the entire dial is turned about the center and ground down to the final dial diameter.
Because enamel is essentially the bonding of a glass to a metal base the potential for scrap during the production process is high. However, once made, the enamel dial is impervious to oxidation and corrosion, which often spoils metal or lacquered dials. Unfortunately, this is achieved at a cost which is about 50 times more expensive than a painted dial, which is why they are so rare today. While enamel is very resistant to most types of physical and chemical abuse, it does have poor resistance to impacts. Perhaps as a measure to prevent this from happening, Chronoswiss has left a very small gap (<0.5mm, not noticeable in normal use) between the case band/bezel and the dial itself.
[Ulysse Nardin, Vacheron Constantin, and Bovet are among the watch companies which specialize in an even rarer kind of enamel dial - one which uses either cloisonné (raised gold wires) or champlevé (carved valleys) techniques to create a miniature work of art on the dial. Here, the cost is even higher, as only a few skilled artisans are left who are skilled enough to manipulate and solder tiny gold wires to a metal base, and then use brushes as fine as a single hair to apply brilliant colors to the dial. The number of firings to complete one of these works of art can approach 80.]
The Chronoswiss Orea is a wonderful tribute to the early days of wristwatches. The use of an authentic enamel dial and an exclusive manual wind movement are entirely appropriate for such a tribute, and reflect well upon Chronoswiss's vision. This combination of features is not found on any other wristwatches in the price range, and one must go to Lange or Patek Philippe price levels for exclusive movements combined with enamel dials. Even at full list price, this watch is a steal.
It has no date, it's a manual wind, it doesn't hack, it doesn't glow in the dark, and it doesn't have any neat complications. I wouldn't change a thing.
Catalogs and videos available from:
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Bellport, NY 11713
The views expressed in the article reflect those of the author, who is not affiliated with Chronoswiss or any of its distributors.