Hands-On Review – Longines Heritage Classic Chronograph

The Skinny

40mm x 13.6mm

ETA-based Calibre L895 with proprietary chronograph module

$3000

Some Context

Longines makes around 1.2-million watches a year, and the Heritage Collection from which this chrono derives makes up only a small percentage of that annual output. And yet, for the past ten years or so Longines has been re-issuing (and sometimes modernizing) watches from their vast basement archive where thousands of historical watches reside in carefully labeled drawers. It’s from those drawers that Longines’ choses what to resurrect in their Heritage Collection.

I had the privilege of seeing that basement archive (some employees haven’t even been allowed in), and it was an unexpectedly emotional experience. From Amelia Earhart’s navigational tools to Nazi-sympathizer Charles Lindbergh’s, the watches in the drawers were quite moving to behold. But it was all of the “civilian watches” that brought a more common history forward, a history fueled by the ongoing quest to build a more precise and reliable mechanical movement. Longines’ mechanical prowess leapt out of those archival drawers; there were hundreds of in-house movements of all shapes, sizes, and functions to discover. But it was the chronographs (including early flybacks and monopushers) that really stood out.

A 13SN-12 movement from Longines (Circa. early 1940s), similar to what would have been in the original chronograph on review. Image: Onlyvintage)

As Quartz movements sent Swiss watchmakers into a panic, Swatch (then Asuag) bought Longines in 1971, and the quality of Longines’ in-house movements began to decline. By the late 1980s Longines shut down their in-house manufacture and turned to Swatch’s movement maker, ETA. Today Longines has two ETA movement factories on site churning out the 1.2-million movements a year. One of those mass produced ETAs powers the chronograph in-hand (we will consider that movement in some detail below).

I and a few other noisy journalists pressed then-CEO Walter Von Kanel in 2019 about reissuing some classic movements, and his answer was, “We could do that, but do you know what that would cost?” Alas, the reality today is that Swatch has slotted Longines above Tissot and below Omega in the Swatch Group, such that recreating the in-house chronograph movements of Longines’ storied past isn’t even an option because it would infringe on Omega’s price bracket. Yet Longines has movements very worthy of recreation sitting quietly (and without hope, it seems) in that basement archive. That Longines can’t pursue a mechanical revival is the downside of having to play nice with your “sister brands,” as they’re called in Switzerland. Those of us who desire ownership of Longines’ mechanical legacy must turn to vintage.

The original from 1943 lives in the archives at Longines.

About This ETA Movement

Please note that Longines has a policy stating that reviewers are not allowed to open the casebacks on loaner watches, so we have not had the opportunity to inspect this movement first-hand.

The L895 is an ETA A31.L21 automatic winding modular chronograph. What this means is that a base ETA beating at the standard 28.800 rate has a proprietary chronograph module attached to it. Among mechanical aficionados, the “integrated chronograph” is more desirable than a modular one. Aficionados prefer integrated movements for the more considered ground-up design and the (typically) thinner machine that results from that design.

But let’s not make the mistake of dismissing the ETA movement in this watch as being like all the stock ETAs in all the other retro-styled chronographs out there today (and there are tons of those). The ETA factories at Longines allow for some proprietary designs. Often that’s as boring as changing the size a little for a smaller model, but here the proprietary chronograph module has allowed Longines to get the case and dial of this recreation very close to the original. In this sense, the movement is serving aesthetics, but aesthetics are important when recreating an historical watch. The movement also offers a 54-hour power reserve, a silicon hairspring, and 27 jewels. So, yes, it’s a modular ETA, but not the one in your local microbrand’s chronograph.

When we passed the watch around, everyone agreed that the pushers were not the most satisfying to use due to play in the mechanism, which was about 2mm before actuation of the chrono function. That play in the pusher doesn’t inspire confidence, especially for those of us accustomed to (or at least familiar with) well adjusted high-end chronographs. Because we can’t open the watch up, we can’t say for sure why the play is there, and (as with most reviews) we have no idea if this play is specific to this example or exemplary of all units. For those of you less fussy about pusher action, the movement keeps good time, is durable, and can be easily serviced.

Modular chronographs tend to be quite tall. This watch measures 13.6mm tall, which isn’t terribly tall for a 40mm watch with a box crystal, really. But it may feel a little tall to some. On wrist, however, it wears nicely, and is quite a natural fit for a lot of wrists due to the stubby lugs being mounted quite low on the case.

About The Aesthetics

I didn’t even notice that the subdials are reversed on the recreation from the original until I began to make the image below that combines the two. Seems like an incredible oversight, but actually the reversal of subdials changes neither the design nor the functionality of the watch. Chances are that the chronograph module is arranged with the totalizer on the left. The original’s arrangement is, ironically, more common today that the recreation’s arrangement.

Despite this odd if ultimately insignificant reversal of subdials, there aren’t a lot of companies that recreate their historical models with the same care as Longines. Once you get past the ETA movement and accept that these Heritage watches are exercises in form factor and not mechanics, there is so much to appreciate. And having visited the archive and seen originals first-hand side-by-side with recreations, I can tell you that they’re really close. In an era when most companies approximate their originals when recreating, the dedication to accuracy of form factor at Longines really does stand out. Not even Omega gets as close, from what I can tell.

L: recreation, R: original. The subdials are reversed in the recreation, which might seem a gross oversight, but actually doesn’t seem to interrupt the design at all.

For one thing, Longines aims to recreate watches as close to the original size as possible, while still using modern ETA movements. This is relatively easy for a time-only watch with a center seconds hand, but much trickier on a watch with multiple subdials whose arbors need to land in exact places to be “era correct.” Though I’m not sure about this, it makes sense to me that the “proprietary chronograph movement” here may have been modified to get the suibdials into the right spot, which if you look closely is a bit closer to the center of the dial than on a standard ETA-equipped chronograph.

On a dial that was designed around a specific movement that is no longer available, we can applaud Longines’ effort to get things as accurate as possible. It’s almost as if Longines is compensating for the fact that they aren’t allowed to pursue their grand mechanical heritage, and so they’ve decided to shine in the only way they can as a heritage brand: by getting as close to the original form factor as possible, given the limitations they must work under.

I want to point out that very few watch companies offering models in this price range are as dedicated to historical accuracy, and I have a feeling that’s because very few watch companies have a history as worthy of accurate recreation as Longines. I can point to the 37mm Rado Captain Cook reissue of 2017 as an example of a rather accurate recreation, and perhaps a few Max Bill recreations from Junghans (both the Rado and Junghans being center seconds time-only watches), but generally speaking when brands operating in this price bracket recreate, they do so “in the style of” the original, and not to exacting standards like Longines does.

For me personally, that dedication to aesthetic accuracy is commendable, and it’s satisfying to wear. Today’s watch enthusiasm is a deeply nerdy thing, largely because we are awash in information and images and can sleuth our way right past a watch brand’s own knowledge and detect inaccuracies. Watch enthusiasts love to point out that a Patek Philippe Calatrava’s subdial is in the wrong place due to the movement not being enlarged along with the case, or that the date window on an IWC Mark XVIII isn’t in the “right place” due to the date disc on the ETA inside landing in the wrong spot. Patek and IWC are not operating in a $3000 price bracket, mind you, and they still don’t “get it right.”

Left: Calatrava with “wrong” subdial placement. Right: Mk XVIII with “wrong” date window placement.

This is why Longines seems to be getting so much love from professional critics and watch nerds alike (not sure those are different people anymore). We understand that Longines is making quite an effort with these Heritage Classic models, and we appreciate that effort, and we love that the subdials are in the right spot, or that the watch remains small when the original was small, and so on. Not every Heritage model from Longines remains exactly accurate (larger Legend Divers in bronze come to mind), but there’s usually at least one size and colorway that does nail the original (such as the smaller steel Legend Divers).

I Trust Longines

It’s a rare thing, what Longines is up to with this Heritage Chronograph: they’re offering a taste of their heritage to us with the full recognition that the mechanical movement is not going to be anything like the original. In today’s “watch space” we’re so accustomed to…well….bullshit that Longines’ sincere dedication to their older watches and their going to lengths to work within the Swatch group’s imposed limitations feels oddly comforting to me. I think what it comes down to is that I trust Longines, and for me personally trust is what’s missing when I interact with many brands these days.

In fact, I’d say that one of the most important aspects of brand engagement in the Swiss watch industry has (historically, anyways) been the confidence of believing that these companies are building things that you can be proud to own, because the watches represent the height of human ingenuity, both mechanical and aesthetic. Longines might not be allowed to recreate a masterpiece of mechanics from the 1930s or 40s, but they’re doing all they can do to get everything else right, and that feels like the good old quality Swiss watchmaking I fell for as a kid.