Caliber Spec: the ETA 2824 – Automatic for the People

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Movements (otherwise known as calibers–or calibre, depending on who you ask) are undeniably the heart and soul of a watch. They’re the engines that drive our favorite timekeepers, be they mechanical, quartz, or a magical mix of the two. Today, we’re launching a new series dubbed Caliber Spec that will focus on some of the most common and interesting movement families around. Today, we’re kicking things off with ETA’s 28XX family, which, of course, includes the ever-present 2824.


There are three stages in the lives of most horophiles. In the first, you still have disposable income that doesn’t get spent on watches and you believe that you can get by with just that one, special watch. At this stage, anything with a Swiss movement is fine. “It’s got a Swiss movement—it must be good!”

If you are fortunate, you remain in this state of blissful ignorance. You will still be a normal person with a civilized relationship with your bank manager and a car worth more than the watch on your wrist.

However, if you’re reading this, chances are the addiction has already progressed past this initial, mild and harmless stage. As a nailed-on watch junkie, you will at least know what’s inside the cases of the watches in your collection. You will be able to spout movement specs with the best of them. And you are probably sniffy about ETA, particularly the 28XX series of movements.

A tried-and-true workhorse–the ETA 2824. Featured inside the Farer Hopewell Automatic.

The third stage of enlightenment comes when you start hanging out with watchmakers who regard in-house movements much as mechanics regard any engine made by Maserati; they are utterly beautiful, but a total bloody nightmare. They’ll mutter about spares supply, adjustment horrors, regulation sweats and they’ll probably swear quite a lot. They’ll explain how movements like the common Valjoux 7750 and the ETA 28XX family are actually remarkable and lovely pieces of watchmaking.

And they’re right.

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Yes, chase your cloisonné enameled triple reverse-oscillating balance movement, but wouldn’t you rather have something you can wear and enjoy every day without having kittens every time someone sneezes near it?

Birth of an Icon

This is where the ETA 28XX family fits. Proper watchmaking that you can wear anywhere doing just about anything without worrying. But it’s not as if this is just a utility choice.

The 28XX family has quite a heritage, as much as that word gets overused. Now, the movement is part of ETA’s “Mecaline” series, but it can trace its family tree back to ETA’s parent, Eterna. Their cal. 1247, the 2824’s ancient relative, began ticking on the bench in 1955. There’s DNA from their later caliber, the 1541, too.


For our historical overview of ETA, click here.


Before the cal. 1247, most watches were manual-wind to keep your fingers fit. Then, automatics for the lazy-fingered started to take hold, powered by bumper self-winders. The 1247’s predecessor, the 1237, saw not just a proper oscillating weight, but one mounted on ball-bearings to reduce wear and friction. This was sufficiently innovative and distinctive that Eterna took the five ball-bearings and made them their logo.

 

Eterna cal. 1247. (Image source: Omega Forums; user: X350 XJR)

The grand-daddy of Watchworld, the ETA 2824, uses that same five-bearing format for its winding rotor to this day. So, the basics. For ease of reference, it’s probably best to avoid wading through every variant of large date, small date, day-date, no date, and Medjool date to concentrate on the principal actors.

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The Workhorse

The 2824, the best known of the family, is nearly 5mm thick and 25.6mm in diameter. Clearly, it’s self-winding, with that oscillating weight spinning up a 38-hour power reserve. The balance runs at 28,800 bph (4Hz) and the movement hacks. It has 25-jeweled bearings. The regulator is ETA’s own Etachron system. And you’ll find the 2824 in watches ranging from “affordable” to “ye gods, how much?”

It might not be the prettiest caliber in the stable, but even at its most basic the 2824 is solid as a rock. Featured here in an Archimede 42H Bronze Pilot.

Watchmakers argue that the relatively humble 2824—when properly regulated, oiled and adjusted—can easily match movements from far smarter makers for accuracy. More practically, it can beat most of them for sheer robustness. Its heavy, brass plates may not be as temperature stable as Invar, but a 2824 will take a beating and still come up ticking. It’s certainly been around long enough to demonstrate its tough credentials, with the first of the modern 2824-2 models coming off the bench in 1982.

The Extended Family

If you want to stroll slightly more up-market, there’s the ETA 2892. This one first twirled a balance in the 1970s and persists, in evolved form, today. It’s rather skinnier than the 2824 at 3.6mm thick, but the same 25.6mm diameter. Again, it’s powered by that ball-bearing mounted self-winding weight, runs at 28,800 bph and uses the in-house Etachron regulator.

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The 2892 is often cited as more accurate than the humbler 2824, but that’s simply because it’s found in more expensive watches with movements better regulated from the factory gates.

Commentators also suggest that the 2892 is made from more upstage materials than the 2824 and, to be fair, you’ll usually find it finished to a higher standard.  The most significant difference from its older brother is that the self-winding weight’s ball races are better-supported, so it’s more shock-resistant. After all, the moment of a moving weight needs some control if it is not to cause damage when the watch gets knocked.

You’ll find ETA cal. 2892s powering, amongst other classy watches, the IWC Pilot MK XVIII and the Omega Seamaster 2254. Featured here inside the Davosa Vanguard.

 

The ETA 2801 featured here inside the Meistersinger Phanero.

If you prefer a little more involvement with your watches, how about the cal. 2801 and cal. 2804? Both are 17-jewel hand-winders and none the worse for it. There’s something rather attractive about starting each day by hand-winding the watch that will accompany you throughout it. You also remove one of the principal causes of movement wear and shock damage—the winding weight.

The 2801 is a little thinner at 3.25mm as it doesn’t need the winding weight of the 2824, and you’ll find it ticking happily in anything from a Meistersinger to some of Laco’s splendid replica Luftwaffe watches. And it’ll tick happily for 46 hours before you need to wind it again. You can have your watch dateless with a 2801 or with a date with the otherwise identical cal. 2804.

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Make the Grade

What makes the whole thing rather more complex is ETA’s habit of offering movements in three or four grades—standard, elabore, top and chronometer. To be fair, the principal differences are in the level of regulation and the quality of mainspring, hairspring and shock system. The cooking movements get Nivarox hairsprings, and the smarter movements get the more temperature-stable Anachron. Likewise, the more basic models have Nivaflex NO mainsprings with their big-house-on-the-hill cousins being powered by Nivaflex NM springs.

The difference? It’s a challenge working out why NM is better than NO. Both mainsprings have the same metallurgical breakdown: 45% cobalt, 21% nickel, 18% chromium, 5% iron, 4% tungsten, 4% molybdenum and 1% titanium. The difference may lie in the remaining 2% composition and the way the springs are tempered.

A top-grade 2824 (with a custom rotor) in a Stowa Flieger Klassik Sport.

Regulation is simpler to understand. ETA regulates the standard movement to a tolerance of +/-12 seconds a day, although many watches actually run better. They’re rather fussier with the chronometer models, sharpening those to COSC specs of −4/+6 seconds a day.

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Apart from the two lower grades of 2824 that run Etachoc shock absorbers, the rest of the 28XX family run the very much finer-made Incabloc system.

In Conclusion

No matter which of the 28XX family is powering your favorite watch, it’ll almost certainly be doing a fine job. Rather like the B18 and B20 engines that powered the rally-winning Volvo Amazons, it’s an over-engineered, under-stressed power plant that’s easy to work on and simple to fix and with a ready supply of spares. And it’ll run happily for years, often swallowing lack of maintenance, abuse and neglect with a smile.

So why are people so rude about ETA movements? To be fair, the irritation around 2824-powered timepieces isn’t usually about the quality of the engine itself; it’s about the price. A single ETA 2824-2 movement will set a watchmaker back around £225 (about $290), assuming they buy just one. And that same movement will pop up anywhere from “budget” watches to some serious, top-end timepieces with posh names on the dialand prices to match.

It can be a little hard to swallow when a £5,000 watch is apparently carrying the same movement as your £350 beater. But explaining why is a story for another day.

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Mark developed a passion for watches at a young age. At 9, he was gifted an Omega Time Computer manual from a local watch maker and he finagled Rolex brochures from a local dealer. Today, residing in the Oxfordshire village of Bampton, Mark brings his technical expertise and robust watch knowledge to worn&wound.
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