Thoughts On Watches and Wonders 2021. Forget Green Dials, Let’s Talk Rattrapante from Vacheron Constantin & Breitling!

Green dials. That’s all anyone can talk about after Watches and Wonders 2021. Yes, dials are important. Small differences can make a big difference in the market for a watch because the dial is the first thing that you see. But ultimately, dial color choices are about fashion. Green is now the new blue which was the new black which was the new white.

Watches are related to fashion but they are not purely fashion because they also have a mechanism inside. This is why I would like to draw attention to the most interesting part of Watches and Wonders from a watchmaking perspective, which are the split-seconds chronographs produced by Vacheron Constantin and Breitling.

The Vacheron Constantin Collection Excellence Platine Traditionalle Split-Seconds Chronograph Ultra-Thin. Wow, what a mouthful. Just with the name, Vacheron is letting you know that they are making pieces of art, a serious business. The short version is that this watch features a new automatic winding split-seconds caliber with a peripheral rotor, Caliber 3500. This is in an elegant package with a crown pusher and a monopusher.

The downside of automatic winding in our age of display backs and movement ogling is that a rotor gets in the way of appreciating the movement. This is particularly true of chronographs which have a certain elegance and which are one of the few watch complications that allow the user to interact directly with the movement other than hand winding the barrel. The peripheral rotor addresses this issue by putting the rotor on the outside instead of on top. The downside is that it is less efficient, more difficult to engineer, and also makes for a wider movement. The rotor in this case is 22 karat gold which has the weight to compensate for the lesser efficiency. Microrotors, which allow for flatter movements, also tend to be made of 22 karat gold. The impeccably finished movement also features a lateral clutch which allows the user to see the chronograph mechanism activate. The movement overall is very flat at 5.2 mm but also very wide at 37.6 mm. The current trend of larger watches means that a 42 mm chronograph is a typical size, and the new movement fills the caseback well. Vacheron here is prioritizing the beauty and visibility of the movement in creating their new caliber and encasing it in platinum. At $288,000 with a 15 piece production run, this is intended as a piece of art. The Caliber 3500

The Breitling Duograph is a very different beast. Breitling is known for producing luxury watches but on a mass production scale and their split-seconds reflects that character. Traditionally Breitling used outsourced movements which they modified and had certified as COSC chronometers, but in 2009 they developed their first in-house caliber, the B01 chronograph. It is a vertical clutch column wheel chronograph movement which shares some design features with the Rolex 4130 and is in fact used in a modified form in the Tudor chronographs. The vertical clutch has the practical function of creating less jumping when the chronograph is activated and is more robust. The downside is that it is activated by friction of one component stacked on top of another so that the activation of the mechanism is hidden. The horizontal clutch used by Vacheron is considered more aesthetically pleasing because you can see the two wheels mesh together. The B15 split-seconds movement is built off the architecture of the B01, adding only 28 additional components.

This is possible due to the modular nature of the B01 which allows for stacking parts but makes it a thicker mechanism, 30 mm wide by 8.6 mm thick. The split-seconds mechanism is hidden due to the modularity and there are simplifications in the isolating system for when one hand is paused and the other runs. The overall intention recalls the IWC Doppelchronograph which used a Valjoux 7750 base to run a simplified split-seconds mechanism at an affordable price. It is worth noting that an earlier version was released in 2017 in the Navitimer line but had an automatic movement with a rotor that partially obstructed the view of the movement with the caliber B03. The Premier Duograph in steel is priced at $10,250 which equates to 3.5% of the price of the Vacheron. The B15

Although the headline will remain green dials, I hope we can all take a second to appreciate the two very different approaches to the split-seconds mechanism taken by Vacheron and Breitling this year. Vacheron has given us a new caliber which is wide and flat. It fills out a caseback beautifully and has design choices that maximizes the impact of the artistry of the movement decoration. Breitling has given us a modular split-seconds mechanism which is necessarily thick and hides some of the action. However, we must consider that we could buy 28 Breitling Duographs allowing us to time 56 events and still not reach the price of one Vacheron Constantin!