Project 99 -- The Race to Develop the

World's First Automatic Chronograph


This webpage presents Parts One and Two of a three-part series of articles covering the history of the Chronomatic / Caliber 12 chronographs.

  • Part One covers the background of the automatic chronographs, describing the companies involved in the quest to produce the world's first automatic chronograph. The article focuses on the partnership between Heuer, Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Depraz, to produce the "Chronomatic" automatic chronographs. This article appeared in the March 2008 issue of International Watch magazine.
  • Part Two describes the introduction of the first automatic chronographs, in 1969, and answers the question of which company (or group of companies) won the race to offer the first automatic chronographs. This article appeared in the May 2008 issue of International Watch magazine.
  • Part Three will trace the history of the Caliber 11 / 12 / 14 / 15 movements, from the introduction of the first Caliber 11 (in 1969), through the the end of the production of these movements. This article will also describe the chronographs that used the Chronomatic movement -- from Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton, Zodiac, and others.

This webpage is an adaptation of Parts One and Two of the series, and includes additional photographs and documents that did not appear in the print versions of the articles. This page will be updated from time to time, as additional information becomes available. As always, I would welcome any questions, comments or additional information and documents.

Jeffrey M. Stein
June 5, 2008

Copyright Jeffrey M. Stein, 2008, all rights reserved.

1969 was a year of remarkable "firsts": man took his first steps on the moon; the Concorde and Boeing 747 made their maiden flights; and a man lived three days with a man-made heart. So when we read of an event in 1969 confirming "national supremacy" or the achievement of an "unattainable dream", which of these firsts comes to mind? When we read of engineers "wild with excitement" or celebrating a "revolution", do we visualize an aircraft, a spacecraft or a machine powering life itself?

Well, no . . . this is a watch magazine . . . so we must be reading about something different. Indeed, the phenomenon described by these accolades, and which we will explore in this series is something entirely different . We're referring to the introduction of the world's first automatic chronograph, of course.

From Chronomat to Chronomatic. Breitling introduced the Chronomat in 1942, as the first chronograph to incorporate a circular slide rule. Three decades later, the Chronomat would be powered by the "Chronomatic" (Caliber 12) movement, and provide Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton with the Chronomatic name for their automatic chronographs.

Watches courtesy of P. Taubman and

Many think of the 1960's as the golden age of motor racing. The cars were fast; the tracks were wide-open; the finishes were close; the drivers were heroic, challenging death as they challenged each other.

As much as anything, racing in the 1960's was characterized by the rivalries -- between teams and between drivers. Porsche, Ferrari and Ford at Le Mans; Porsche versus McLaren in CanAm; the Camaros and Mustangs on the TransAm circuit; and Lotus and Ferrari in Formula One. There were the heroic drivers - Andretti, Brabham, Clark, Donahue, Foyt, Gurney, Hill, Hulme and McLaren, among many others.

While the teams and cars battled throughout the decade, many of the rivalries between the drivers were destined to last for only a short while. Study the starting grids in the early 1960's, and you realize how few of the leading drivers were still racing by the end of the decade. Many of the leading drivers were killed; others realized that the odds had turned against their survival and took early retirement from what was called the "cruel sport".

Just as the 1960's might be thought of as the golden age of competition in motor racing, this was a memorable decade for chronographs and the other "tool" watches. Specialized watches were worn by drivers and their crews when they went racing; by pilots and international travelers as they crossed the time zones; by divers on underwater adventures; by the adventurers as they climbed the tallest peaks and traveled to the poles.

The "Big Three" of chronographs -- Omega, Breitling and Heuer -- competed intensely with each other, but each brand also established a distinctive position in the market. Omega introduced the Speedmaster in 1957; five years later, astronaut Wally Schirra wore one in space. By the end of the decade, the "Speedy" was worn on the moon. Breitling proclaimed that it was the world's leading manufacturer of precision instruments for aviation, with the Navitimer becoming a part of the pilot's uniform and the Cosmonaute becoming the first chronograph worn into space.

Heuer was the most dominant brand for the automotive crowd, offering chronographs for the racers, dashboard instruments for the navigators, stopwatches for the crews, and handheld, split-second chronographs for the race officials.

Indeed, "tool watches" seemed to be coming into their own in the early 1960's, with the leading brands developing purpose-built watches and chronographs for an increasingly wide variety of demanding applications.

The Challenge

While the Swiss watch companies continued to develop their chronographs and other specialized watches, at the beginning of the 1960's they faced significant challenges. Sales of Swiss chronographs were declining from year to year; the legendary Valjoux and Venus movements that powered leading Swiss chronographs were growing old, and -- most notably -- automatic (self-winding) watches were enjoying increased popularity and sales.

Automatic watches thrived throughout the 1950's, as Swiss manufacturers introduced dozens of new calibers. Winding systems included full-rotors mounted to the back of movements, "bumper" rotors that bounced back and forth, and micro-rotors to allow for thinner movements. The very names of new automatic watches evidenced the industry's excitement with the automatic movements -- Datomatic, Depthomatic, Geomatic, Gyromatic, Kingmatic, Powermatic and Tempomatic, to name a few. There was even Jaeger-LeCoultre's Futurematic, which took the bold step of deleting the winding / setting crown, as if to announce that crowns were a thing of the past. With the increasing popularity of automatic watches, the chronograph manufacturers faced an imperative -- they could either develop automatic chronographs or they would continue to see the erosion of their annual sales.

The Automatic is the Future. In the 1950's, the automatic watch was the future. This Futurematic went so far as to delete the winding / setting crown.

Commencing in the mid-1960's, four leading watch manufacturers engaged in the race to develop the first automatic chronograph. Much like Russia and the United States competed to plant the first flag on the moon, or like Ford set out to beat Ferrari at Le Mans, Heuer, Breitling, Zenith and Seiko set out to produce the world's first automatic chronograph. Heuer and Breitling worked in a unique partnership; Seiko and Zenith each worked alone.

The Rivals


In retrospect, it seems curious that Zenith joined in the competition to develop an automatic chronograph. Founded in 1865, Zenith had established its reputation during the 1940's and 1950's as a manufacturer of chronometers and watches for the military. As a true manufacture, Zenith produced its own movements for its chronometers. Still, Zenith offered only a limited line of chronographs and Zenith sourced the movements for its chronographs from other companies, primarily Excelsior Park. Zenith's relatively small presence in the world of chronographs is evidenced by the fact that Zenith was not a member of the Swiss association of chronograph manufacturers.

In 1960, Zenith acquired Martel Watch Company, a producer of movements for chronographs and other complicated watches (such as calendar and moonphase watches). Martel was well-known as the supplier of chronograph movements for Universal Geneve and other respected brands. By acquiring Martel, Zenith broadened its offering of chronographs, and enhanced its capabilities in the design and production of chronograph movements. Soon after its acquisition of Martel, Zenith adapted the Martel chronograph movement that had been used in the Universal Geneve caliber 285 to become the Zenith 146 series of movements, featuring the 146-D (a two-register movement, with 45-minute capacity) and the 146-H (a three-register, tri-compax movement with a 12-hour recorder).

After Zenith acquired Martel, in 1960, it had the capacity to produce movements for its chronographs, including the 146H movement. Soon, Zenith would go much further, as it sought to produce the world's first automatic chronograph.

Zenith embarked on the design of an automatic chronograph in 1962, hoping to introduce this revolutionary chronograph to mark the company's 1965 centennial.


Founded in 1881, as a manufacturer of clocks, Seiko manufactured its first wristwatches in 1913, with the "Seiko" name first appearing on a watch dial in 1924. In 1955, Seiko produced Japan's first automatic wristwatch, and in 1960, the company launched its Grand Seiko line of watches, designed to represent the highest development of Japanese watches.


In 1964, Seiko introduced its very first chronograph (Reference 5717), a one-button timer with 60 second capacity. With the production of more accurate watches in the mid-1960's, including the King Seiko and Grand Seiko, the company was prepared to challenge the Swiss watch manufacturers in both watches and chronographs.

To bolster its international reputation for quality, in the mid-1960's, Seiko began to compete in the Swiss Observatory Chronometer competitions, enjoying remarkable success in these endeavors, and bringing worldwide recognition to the company. Nineteen sixty-four was a momentous year for the company, as Seiko was the official timekeeper of the Tokyo Olympic Games, and also introduced it first chronograph, a 60 second timer, with a rotating bezel (Reference 5717). With its success in manufacturing rugged, accurate mechanical watches, Seiko positioned itself to challenge the dominance of the Swiss watch industry (even before the advent of quartz watches).


Founded in 1860, Heuer introduced the first "wrist chronographs" around 1914, and had a long-standing reputation in the production of chronographs and sports timing equipment, especially stopwatches, split-second timers and timing systems.

From pilots' chronographs in the 1930's, to triple calendar chronographs in the 1940's, to rugged chronographs in the 1950's, Heuer offered a broad range of chronographs. In 1958, Heuer introduced its Master Time and Monte Carlo dashboard timepieces, and soon these "Rally Master" pairs were used by over half the leading rally teams. In the early-1960's, Heuer introduced two chronographs that would be popular with the racers -- the Autavia and the Carrera -- both of which were powered by Valjoux movements. Ironically, Heuer also produced a line of automatic watches, but the company abandoned these watches in the late-1950's, in order to focus on the production of chronographs.


 Founded in 1873, the Buren Watch Company developed numerous calibers over the years, always manufacturing its own parts. Buren introduced its first automatic watch in 1945, and from the start was seeking to develop thinner automatic movements. Its Caliber 525 utilized a pendulum winding mechanism, recessed within the movement, rather than a rotor at the back of the movement. Ultimately, this approach was not successful, so 1952 saw Buren's first use of an automatic watch powered by a rotor. In 1953, Buren offered the smallest automatic watch with a power reserve indicator.


Origin of the Species. With Buren's development of micro-rotor powered movements, Charles-Edouard Heuer began to believe that a modular automatic chronograph might be feasible. By placing a smaller rotor in the same plane as the other movement components, designers avoided the additional thickness of a full-sized rotor.

In 1954, Buren patented its "micro-rotor", which allowed it to produce the flattest possible automatic watches. By shrinking the diameter of the rotor (to fit within the radius of a comparable movement), and locating this rotor in the same plane as other components of the movement, Buren avoided the need to place the rotor behind the movement. Buren's first watches using the micro-rotor were the "Super Slenders" (calibers 1000 and 1001), introduced in 1957, with this automatic system also known as the "Intramatic" system.

Buren also licensed its technology to other companies, including IWC, Baume & Mercier, Bulova and Hamilton. After a patent dispute, Buren also began to license its micro-rotor technology to Universal Geneve.

Microrotor Rivals. In its microtor movements, Universal Geneve used a near-identical approach to that of Buren. After a patent dispute, Universal Geneve was required to pay Buren a royalty fee on each of its microrotor watches.

The Beginnings

The Caliber 12 / Chronomatic movement had its origins in the late 1950's when Charles-Edouard Heuer -- then the President of Ed. Heuer & Co. -- began to consider how the company might produce an automatic chronograph. Heuer studied the microrotor movements being produced by Buren and began to explore the idea of mounting a chronograph mechanism on top of this movement.


The idea was short-lived, however, as even the combination of the thinnest Buren movement and the thinnest chronograph mechanism would be too thick to compete effectively against the sleek watches of the era. (Remember this was also the period of Hamilton's "Thin-O-Matics"!)

All this changed, however, in 1962, when Buren introduced an even thinner microrotor movement -- the Caliber 1280 "Intramatic" movement. With the thickness of this movement reduced from 4.3 millimeters to 3.2 millimeters, it now seemed possible to build a suitably thin automatic chronograph. At this point, Heuer faced the question of who could build this thinnest-possible chronograph module, to be mated with Buren's base movement.


Of the four companies involved in the development of the Chronomatic movement, Dubois-Depraz is surely the company least known to the public. Founded in 1901, Dubois-Depraz didn't manufacture watches or movements, and it didn't produce chronographs, but as the leader in designing the so-called "complications", Dubois-Depraz worked with watch companies to make simple, base movements into more complicated watches or chronographs.

Starting with a simple time-of-day movement, Dubois-Depraz had the ability to add a broad variety of complications, including a chronograph, power reserve indicator or calendar. Heuer had called on Dubois-Depraz to develop the movements for Heuer's 7700 series of stopwatches. This work culminated in 1967, with Dubois-Depraz's developing a special module for Heuer's Monte Carlo stopwatch (Caliber 7714), so that a single pusher would simultaneously reset the minute and second hands, as well as the hour disc.

The Heart of the Partnership. Rather than a traditional integrated chronograph, the Chronomatic team used a modular approach, combining the Buren base movement with a newly designed Dubois-Depraz chronograph module. This modular approach is emblematic of the partnership between the four firms -- Heuer, Breitling, Buren and Dubois-Depraz.

Based on these experiences, Heuer retained Dubois-Depraz to study the feasibility of developing a chronograph module that could be mated with the Buren movement. Ironically, Gerald Dubois (then president of the company) had conducted comprehensive research into the design of a chronograph module to be used with the Buren microrotor movements, and had discussed the idea with Buren.

When Dubois-Depraz confirmed the feasibility of this project, the Chronomatic venture was almost ready for action. The Chronomatic would be a 17 jewel lever movement, consisting two essential elements described as being "totally independent": the Buren base movement (including the self-winding and calendar mechanisms), and the Dubois-Depraz chronograph module, a plate holding a newly-designed chronograph mechanism. In short -- a modular automatic chronograph.


Since its inception in 1884, Breitling was known for its production of chronographs and precision counters for scientific and industrial purposes. As Heuer was the brand most closely associated with automobile racers and racing, Breitling became recognized as the brand most closely associated with pilots and flying. In the 1930's, Breitling began to produce on-board chronographs for aircraft, and also introduced the first two-button chronographs, allowing the user to stop and re-start the chronograph (time-out and time-in functions).

In 1942, Breitling launched the Chronomat, the first chronograph fitted with a circular slide rule on the dial and bezel; 10 years later, Breitling introduced its legendary Navitimer, a three-register chronograph equipped with a circular slide rule, as well as a "navigation computer" capable of handling all calculations called for by a flight plan.

At the request of astronaut Scott Carpenter, Breitling produced the Cosmonaute in 1963, a 24-hour version of the Navitimer. Other Breitling chronographs of the era included the Top Time, Cadette, Unitime and Co-Pilot, all designed for adventurers.

Completing the Partnership

As Heuer, Buren and Dubois-Depraz stood ready to embark on the development of their automatic chronograph, there was one last hurdle between the venture and the commencement of it work . . . this hurdle being the capital required to fund the project. Development of an automatic chronograph would be a costly venture, more than Heuer and Buren could undertake as two relatively small, independent companies.

To address this need, Jack Heuer (then President of Heuer-Leonidas) did something unusual, for the 1960's or for today. He approached his friend Willy Breitling (then President of Breitling) to discuss the idea of a partnership. Though they were direct competitors in their lines of chronographs and stopwatches, Jack Heuer has explained their cooperation on the Chronomatic project in the simplest terms.

"Heuer was a very strong brand in the United States and UK markets, but weaker in Europe. Breitling was strong in Italy and France, but had little presence in the US or the UK. Both of us needed an automatic chronograph; it would be difficult for either of us to develop it, working alone. This was a perfect opportunity to create a partnership in which both partners -- though entering as rivals -- could strengthen their positions."

When Rivals Became Partners. Heuer and Breitling were direct competitors in the market for sports chronographs, but created a partnership to develop the Chronomatic automatic chronographs. The Carrera and the Top Time were both from the mid-1960's.

Breitling courtesy of P. Taubman.

With Dubois-Depraz having confirmed the feasibility of building a modular chronograph, and Breitling and Heuer committed to funding this unique partnership and sharing its output, Heuer and Breitling then approached Buren with their proposition of a partnership. Joining the Chronomatic team was attractive for a small company such as Buren. Compared with the small customers who bought Buren's movements, Heuer and Breitling would constitute a significant opportunity for Buren.

With that, the Chronomatic team was fully formed -- two leading chronograph brands, the leading manufacturer of thin automatic movements, and the leading specialist in developing chronographs and other complications.


In 1966, while development of the Chronomatic movement was underway, Buren was acquired by Hamilton Watch Company (of Pennsylvania). Hamilton transferred much of its own production to the Buren factory, in Switzerland, and through the Buren acquisition, became a partner in the development of the Chronomatic movement. While Heuer and Breitling were surprised to have Hamilton as their new partner, Hamilton had a limited history in the production of chronographs and would not represent a threat to the founding partners, using only a small portion of the movements produced by the Chronomatic group.

From Thin-O-Matic to Chrono-Matic. It was the Buren Intramatic movement (used in this Hamilton Thin-O-Matic watch) which allowed the development of the Caliber 12 movement (used in this Hamilton Chrono-Matic). Buren's microrotor was at the heart of both these movements.

Project 99

The members of the Chronomatic group realized the importance of secrecy in their work. With four partners in the group (and eventually five), and a host of other companies that would come to be involved in the production of cases, dials and other components, there were many people involved in the day-to-day operation of the project. Confidentiality was of utmost importance, as the Chronomatic group raced against unknown opponents to produce the first automatic chronograph.

Throughout the term of the project, employees of the participating companies were prohibited from uttering the phrase, "automatic chronograph". Jack Heuer recalls that his father, having served as a Brigadier General in the Swiss Army, insisted that the Chronomatic project have a code name. With that, this unusual partnership became "Project 99".

The Laboring Oar. Dubois-Depraz had the most challenging role in the Chronomatic partnership, developing a chronograph module from scratch. The module relied on levers and cams, in the place of the chronograph's classic column wheel.

Of the four firms participating in the development of the Chronomatic movement, Dubois-Depraz had the most challenging assignment. While there would be relatively few modifications in Buren's base movement, Dubois-Depraz would develop the chronograph module (to be known as the 8510 chronograph unit) from scratch. Accordingly, Gerald Dubois, of Dubois-Depraz, was the technical leader of Project 99, and he also supervised the development of the chronograph module. Hans Kocher, who had developed Buren's micro-rotor and served as its technical director, and overall responsibility for the base movement. The technical heads of Heuer and Breitling also served as senior managers of the Project 99 development team.

The U. S. Patent Office issued Patent Number 3,543,506, covering a "Self-Winding Wristwatch with a Chronograph Mechanism" to Gerald Dubois, et. el. The Patent application was filed on August 1, 1968, with the Patent being issued on December 1, 1970. The Patent documents include a detailed description describing the construction of the chronograph, as well as detailed drawings.

To see the Patent documents, Click Here.

While not deeply involved in the technical design of the Chronomatic movement, Heuer and Breitling were responsible for designing an entirely new series of cases and dials for the new Chronomatics. Additionally, these firms began to prepare for serial production of the Chronomatics, which would involve significant work for these companies.

In serial production, Heuer and Breitling would receive the base movements from Buren, complete the assembly of chronograph modules received from Dubois-Depraz, combine this "sandwich" into a completed movement, and then assemble the completed chronograph. Indeed, each of the partners in the Chronomatic group faced challenges in the race to develop and launch the world's first automatic chronograph.

Which Was First?

Over the years, there has been considerable confusion and debate on what would seem to be the relatively straightforward question: Which company (or group of companies) was the first to produce the automatic chronograph? Was it the Chronomatic group (led by Heuer and Breitling), the Zenith venture (which now included Movado), or Seiko?

In fact, the answer to this question may lie in the precise manner in which the question is phrased. Are we trying to determine which company was first to publicly announce the development of an automatic chronograph? Or do we mean the public introduction of a working sample of the watch? Or is it the first company to display and demonstrate production samples of the watch? Or will we award the prize to the first company or group that made automatic chronographs available to the public, in retail channels. And if we are considering availability in retail channels, will we consider chronographs offered only in a company's home market or will we award the prize to the company that offered chronographs in multiple markets, around the world?

Let's roll the clock back to January 1969, and try to determine which company (or group of companies) was first to announce, introduce, produce, sell or achieve worldwide sales of these automatic chronographs.

Zenith's Announcement

"In science, the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not the man to whom the idea first occurs." Sir Francis Darwin, 1914.

Zenith had begun the development of its automatic chronograph in 1962, hoping to release the watch for its 1965 centennial. Work on the project was suspended, however, so that it took until December 1968 before Zenith had its first prototypes. At that time, Zenith planned to introduce its automatic chronographs at the April 1969 Basel Fair. As rumors began to circulate that the Chronomatic group would show their automatic chronographs before the Basel Fair -- with these rumors likely originating with companies supplying components to the Chronomatic team -- Zenith decided to make a preemptive announcement of its automatic chronograph.

Determined to be the first to make their announcement, on January 10, 1969, Zenith-Movado held a small press conference in Switzerland, at which they showed a working prototype of their automatic chronograph (or perhaps two or three samples). This was a local press conference, covered only in local and regional newspapers in Switzerland, and news of Zenith's automatic chronograph did not receive broad media attention.

The First or the Third? With the name, "El Primero", Zenith declared that it was the first to produce an automatic chronograph. In fact, the Zenith was the third automatic chronograph to achieve serial production.

In any event, Zenith reinforced its claim to having the first automatic chronograph by calling its new watch the "El Primero" (the "first"). However, these "El Primeros" only became available to the public in October 1969, making them the third brand to arrive on the market (as described below). Still, we can be certain that in January 1969, the Zenith-Movado team publicly announced and showed a working sample of the first automatic chronograph.

Whereas the Chronomatic was as a modular movement, the Zenith movement (caliber 3019 PHC) was a traditional integrated movement, with a classic column wheel. The movement ran at a high beat of 36,000 vibrations per hour, allowing timing of intervals as short as one tenth of a second. The Zenith chronograph used the customary tri-compax layout for a 12-hour chronograph, with a date window located between four and five o'clock.

Reaction from the Chronmomatic Group

The Chronomatic group had produced 100 prototypes of its automatic chronographs by the Fall of 1968, with Heuer and Breitling each allotted 40 of these pieces, and Hamilton-Buren receiving 10. (Dubois-Depraz used the remaining 10 prototypes for testing and development.) In retrospect, the Chronomatic group's production of these prototypes, involving numerous companies that produced the new styles of cases, dials, hands and other components, was most likely to have been the event that tipped off the Zenith team that the Chronomatic was preparing for the launch of their chronographs.

Monaco Prototype. The Monaco on the left is believed to be one of the first 10 Monacos to have been produced. The "Chronomatic" name, the absence of a reference number or serial number, and certain details of the movement support the view that this was from the very first batch of Monacos. The "midnight blue" paint appears to have vanished, with only a few traces remaining. A normal production sample of the Monaco is shown on the right.

According to Jack Heuer, there were two distinct phases in the Chronomatic group's reaction to Zenith's January 1969 announcement. The Chronomatic team was surprised by the announcement, and at first there was shock and disappointment that Zenith was claiming to have won the race, merely by showing a small number of prototypes. Soon, however, those involved in Project 99 were convinced that the Zenith-Movado group did not have production samples of their automatic chronograph, and that the small, local press conference was a weak attempt to show that they had produced an automatic chronograph, when in fact they were some months away from serial production of these watches.

Any competition from Zenith was further mitigated by the fact that Zenith was a relatively small-scale producer of chronographs at this time, and did not pose a competitive threat in many of the most important markets (for example, Zenith was unable to sell watches in the United States because the Zenith Electronics company had prior use of the name).

Accordingly, the Chronomatic Group chose to largely ignore Zenith's announcement, and proceed with its own plans to introduce the world's first automatic chronograph, as if nothing had happened on January 10, 1969.

The Introduction of the Chronomatics

If the Zenith announcement was a low-key, local event, the flamboyance of the Chronomatic group in announcing the arrival of their automatic chronograph was at the opposite extreme. On March 3, 1969, Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton-Buren held press conferences at the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland, and the PanAm Building in New York City, with a large group of media present at these press conferences. Additional press conferences were held in Tokyo, Hong Kong and Beirut.

Mr. Gerald Bauer, President of the Federation Horlogere Suisse (the Swiss watch industry's trade association, known as the "FH") was the keynote speaker at the Geneva press conference, with another FH officer making remarks at the New York press conference. Prototypes of the Chronomatics were shown, and some lucky members of the audience -- selected by a drawing -- even went home with the very first samples. These March 3, 1969 press conferences were a sensation for the Swiss watch industry - the era of the automatic chronograph had arrived!

For today's researcher seeking perspective on the race to introduce the first automatic chronographs, the March 1969 issue of the Swiss Watch and Jewelry Journal ("SWJJ") witnesses the coronation of the Chronomatic project, a celebration of the victorious Heuer / Breitling / Hamilton-Buren partnership. The front cover proclaims that a "secret project" has resulted in the launch of a new type of watch, the "self-winding chronograph", and the hyperbole increases from page-to-page.

The March 1969 Issue of the Swiss Watch and Jewelry Journal. Click the left panel, to see the cover. Click the middle panel, to see the advertisements from the magazine. Click the right panel to review the articles about the Chronomatic that appeared in this issue.

In six pages of editorial content, we read of the Swiss watch industry reasserting its "supremacy" through a revolution in watchmaking, with "wild excitement" about the modular approach. The President of the Swiss Federation of Watch Manufacturers' Associations described the "courageous realism" of the partners. Eight pages of advertising by the three manufacturers add to the frenzy, with a dominant theme being that consumers will no longer need to decide between an automatic watch and a chronograph -- now they can have both, with the Chronomatics.

Heuer launched its Chronomatic / Caliber 12 chronographs with three models -- Carrera, Monaco and Autavia. Click on the image (above) to see the press release issued by Heuer Time Corp. (the Heuer-Leonidas United States subsidiary), announcing the introduction of these three chronographs.

Compared with the splash made by the Chronomatic group in the March 1969 issue of the SWJJ, with six pages of coverage and eight pages of advertisements, Zenith's presence in this periodical seems almost sad. Six sentences announce that Zenith will - at some unspecified date -- be offering two models of its automatic chronograph; a single advertisement shows one chronograph.

The 1969 Basel Fair

The next event on the timeline of automatic chronographs was the Basel Fair, held in April 1969. At this event, the members of the Chronomatic group were able to show their dozens of pre-production samples of Chronomatic watches powered by the Caliber 11 movement, with multiple models from Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton, in a variety of cases and colors. By contrast, Zenith had only two or three samples of their automatic chronographs.

First to Market. This page, from a 1970 Chronosport catalog, shows the great variety of automatic chronographs offered by Heuer and Breitling. Each brand offered several models, that included a variety of case shapes and sizes, color schemes, and functions.

Looking back on this Basel Fair, Jack Heuer remarks, "It was the 1969 Basel Fair that convinced Heuer and Breitling that we were - in fact -- several months ahead of Zenith in the real race, the race to provide these automatic chronographs to members of the public. For us to have 100 working samples for over six months, compared to Zenith's two or three, left little doubt that we were far ahead in the race to get these watches into the market."

Seiko's Automatic Chronograph

"It's a poor dog that won't wag its own tail." Folk Saying.

As the details relating to the achievements of the Chronomatic group and Zenith-Movado have come into some focus, it is far more difficult to pinpoint when Seiko introduced its first automatic chronograph or when Seiko made this chronograph available to the public in retail channels. (Almost inexplicably, "A Journey in Time", an authorized history of Seiko, published in 2003, makes no mention at all of Seiko's first automatic chronograph.)

Mr. Jack Heuer recalls, "At the Basel Fair in April 1969, Mr. Itiro Hattori, then President of Seiko, visited our display, and extended his congratulations to the Heuer Company, upon our launching of the world's first automatic chronograph. There was certainly no mention of Seiko having an automatic chronograph. In retrospect, this may have been the most important acknowledgement of our accomplishment."

According to current sources at Seiko, the company launched its reference 6139 automatic chronograph for the Japanese market in May 1969. It remains unclear, however, whether this "launch" was merely a press event (parallel to Zenith's January 1969 event), or whether samples were delivered into retail channels in Japan at that time. Serial numbers, marked on case-backs of the earliest Seiko Reference 6139 chronographs, indicate a date of March 1969. Again, one can only speculate about whether these were pre-production models or the first pieces of Seiko's serial production for the Japanese market.

The Mystery Remains. Seiko claims that it launched its automatic chronograph in May 1969, but details of the launch are unclear. Adding to the mystery, the first two digits of the serial number, "9" and "3", indicate production in March 1969.

The earliest Reference 6139 chronographs were called "Speed Timers" and had a 30-minute chronograph recorder, with a day-date at three o'clock. The red-blue outer bezel was marked with a tachymeter scale; a rotating inner bezel marked elapsed minutes. Worldwide distribution of these chronographs, along with additional models, appears to have come by the end of 1969.

Serial Production

Shortly after the close of the Basel Fair in April 1969, Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton-Buren delivered their 100 Chronomatic samples (pre-production prototypes) to their most important distributors, and advertising of their new automatic chronographs went into high gear. By the summer of 1969, these firms achieved full serial production of their Chronomatics, with these watches being broadly available to members of the public, in the world's major retail markets.

These are two Heuer Chronomatics from the earliest production. The Autavia (left and center) was sold to a retail customer in August 1969, and may be one of the first Chronomatics sold at retail.

Photos courtesy of Arno Haslinger, from his book, Heuer Chronographen, Callwey 2008.

Ironically, Zenith's "El Primero" appears to have been the third automatic chronograph to achieve serial production, with retail availability in October 1969 and a limited number of watches produced in the final months of 1969. Zenith's advertising from 1969 seems to admit to the brand's second (or third) place finish, claiming only to be the world's first "high frequency" automatic chronograph.

A footnote to all this: As between the Chronomatic group and Zenith, the question of "who won the race" may be complicated by the fact that Heuer and Zenith are both currently owned by the same parent company (LVMH). Currently, marketing materials for Zenith indicate that the El Primero was "the first automatic integrated chronograph movement, capable of measuring short time intervals to a tenth of a second".

By contrast, current marketing materials from TAG-Heuer describe the Caliber 11 as "the first modular automatic chronograph". So while the two companies battled, during 1969, to become the first company to produce an automatic chronograph, four decades later they each seem satisfied to limit their claims to that which cannot be debated - that they each produced the first automatic chronograph - one being integrated and one being modular!

So Who Won the Race?

Thirty-nine years later, there is no simple answer to the question of who produced the world's first automatic chronographs. We can say that Zenith tried too hard, making a preemptive announcement in January 1969 and invoking the name "El Primero", when in fact the company was months away from beginning production or sales of its automatic chronographs. By contrast, Seiko may not have tried hard enough, with the company remaining quiet in the spring of 1969, even as its factory was beginning to produce automatic chronographs for the Japanese market. Despite these shortcomings of Zenith and Seiko, each of the firms - and their modern-day enthusiasts - is left with at least some basis for claiming to have been first.

Returning to the perspective that we employed at the outset of this series -- the question of which chronographs first worn by the racers, the pilots, the divers, the adventurers and the sportsmen -- the answer to the question of "Which was first?" becomes clear.

This advertisement, from the October 1969 issue of MotorSport, is the first print advertisement that I have found, for the Caliber 12 / Chronomatics. This timing is consistent with the conclusion that the Chronomatics were first sold at retail beginning during the Summer of 1969.

Without any doubt, it was the Chronomatic automatic chronographs produced by Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton-Buren that were first to be delivered to these enthusiasts in markets around the world. Accordingly, as we look back at the end of the race, we see the members of the Chronomatic group atop the podium, celebrating their hard-fought victory. It was a grueling race, not decided until the last laps, but now the members of the Chronomatic team cheer and douse each other with champagne, as the two rival firms can only watch, a step down, on either side of the victors.


In Part Three of this series, we will review the chronographs that have been powered by the Chronomatic movement, and also describe the evolution of the Caliber 11, Caliber 12, Caliber 14 and Caliber 15 movements.

Special thanks to Jack Heuer and Hans Schrag for their contributions to this article. Jack Heuer joined Ed. Heuer & Co. in 1958, and as president of Heuer-Leonidas he was responsible for the development of the Chronomatics. Hans Schrag joined Heuer as a watchmaker in 1963, and has worked on the Chronomatic movements since their introduction in 1969. Both these gentlemen have been generous in sharing their vast knowledge of the Chronomatics.



Photographs and Images

The following are high-resolution versions of the photographs and other images appearing in this article.

Chronomat (1942) and Chronomat (1970)
The Le Coultre Futurematic, which deleted the customary winding / setting crown.
Zenith Manual-Wind Chronograph, powered by 146H movement.
Zenith 146H Movement.
Seiko's First Chronograph, the Reference 5717, introduced in 1964.
King Seiko, Reference 4402-8000.
King Seiko, Reference 4402-8000; serial number shows August 1965 production date.
Buren automatic watch, powered by the Caliber 1001, microrotor movement.
Buren automatic watch, powered by the Caliber 1001, microrotor movement.
Universal Geneve automatic watch, powered by the Caliber 215-1, microrotor movement.
Universal Geneve automatic watch, powered by the Caliber 215-1, microrotor movement.
Hamilton's Chrono-Matic (automatic chronograph) and Thin-O-Matic (automatic watch).
Heuer Carrera and Breitling Top Time
Blueprint for the Dubois-Depraz chronograph module.
Schematic diagram showing the Dubois-Depraz chronograph module above the Buren base movement.
Patent issued December 1, 1970, to Gerald Dubois and others, for the Chronomatic / Caliber 11.
Zenith El Primero Chronograph, from the early 1970's
Zenith / Movado El Primero Movement (dial side)
Zenith / Movado El Primero Movement (back side)
Monaco Prototype, likely one of the first 10 produced
Production Version of the Monaco, Reference 1133B
Swiss Watch and Jewelry Journal. March 1969
Heuer Advertisement for its First Automatic Chronographs
1970 Chronosport Catalog, showing a variety of Heuer and Breitling chronographs.
Seiko's First Automatic Chronograph, Reference 6139
Reference 6139, with serial number indicating March 1969 production date
Chronomatic Version of the Autavia, this sample sold at retail in August 1969.
Early Caliber 11 Movement, from Chronomatic Autavia
Chronomatic Version of the Carrera