History of Chronometers Pt. 2: Observatory Trials

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John Harrison’s innovations in marine chronometry quickly took the world by storm. By the 1850s, marine chronometer watches were essentially standard equipment on oceangoing vessels and had changed the face of navigation forever. With that proliferation, however, came the need for a system of standards. While marine chronometers were becoming essential for safe and accurate navigation, both the marine and watch industries needed a regulating body to ensure the accuracy of those chronometers.

continued from History of Chronometers Pt.1

Luckily, at the same time marine chronometers were spreading across the seas of the world, a new age of astronomy was dawning over Europe. For the first time, in the mid-19th century, the technology of optics was beginning to catch up with the mathematical advances of past giants like Johannes Kepler, Tyco Brahe, and Sir Isaac Newton. Huge observatories sprang up across Europe, charting the movements of the planets and stars with newfound precision. Stuck squarely in the middle of the continent’s tallest mountain range, Switzerland became a natural choice for astronomers looking for clear, unobstructed skies, and Swiss observatories became some of the most prestigious in the world.

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Chief among them was the observatory at Neuchatel, founded in 1858. Not only was Neuchatel’s telescope used for astronomical purposes, it also held a more practical function. Up until 1967, the exact length of a second was determined by the Earth’s motion around the sun, and the Neuchatel observatory’s precise optics allowed the fine measurements necessary for precise timesetting to be made. Because of this, Neuchatel began to host observatory chronometer trials- a series of the most stringent, thorough accuracy tests in the history of mechanical watchmaking. The trials, held over a period of forty-five days, encompassed ten separate movement timekeeping tests in five different positions and two temperatures.

These observatory trials quickly outgrew their roots as a simple certification test, and before long the trials at Neuchatel were a competitive battleground for the finest watchmakers in Europe. Names like Longines, Zenith, Peseux and many more traded records for decades, fighting to produce the most accurate movement possible. As this horological arms race heated up, it didn’t take long for the movements competing for the prize to exit the realm of feasibility. Uncased movements and cartoonishly massive balance wheels were commonplace in competition, and oftentimes the movements used were hand-picked and fine-tuned by master watchmakers for months and in some cases even years.

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Longines Observatory Chronometer

These movements were never intended for regular use, and bore little to no resemblance to what these companies offered their consumers. While the innovations of the Neuchatel Observatory Chronometers eventually trickled their way down into consumer timepieces, for nearly their entire existence the trials were an exercise in the esoteric- a playground of impracticality for the most haute of haute horologie. Until, that is, the mid 1960’s- when a series of stunning performances changed the face of chronometry (and watchmaking at large) forever.

Before the 1960’s, Seiko was a bit player on the world watchmaking stage- a regional oddity producing respectable-enough timepieces for a mostly niche, Asian domestic market. By the end of the decade they were a giant, with global sales presence and a series of movements and designs that gave the Swiss masters a run for their money (sometimes even beating them) at a price that the old-school cottage industry Europeans couldn’t match. A huge part of this game-changing success happened in the halls of Neuchatel. Seiko’s first efforts at Neuchatel were unimpressive, with their first effort in 1964 placing a dismal 144th overall, improving to only 114th in 1965. The change for both Seiko and Neuchatel really began in 1966, with Girard-Perregaux’s entry.

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Image Source: WUS Sales Forum

Rather than build a specialized one-off movement for the competition, Girard-Perregaux did something revolutionary. The brand took 40 examples for testing in Neuchatel, from a production model- the legendary 36000 bph Caliber 32A. All 40 passed the trials with flying colors, and the Neuchatel Observatory did something it had never done before. In honor of the landmark achievement, the observatory bestowed Girard-Perregaux with their inaugural Centenary Prize. The message was clear. The game at Neuchatel had changed, and in order to gain maximal exposure Seiko had to bring a production movement to the Observatory Trials. Despite a very respectable 9th place finish of their own in 1966, both arms of Seiko, Suwa and Daini Seikosha, were ordered to make a massive push after 1966 to bring a production movement to Neuchatel.

In 1968, they delivered in unprecedented fashion. Seiko’s delegation sent 226 of their production Caliber 45s to both Neuchatel and the sister trials at the Geneva Observatory. These movements swept the top 7 mechanical places at Geneva (the top 3 spots were all experimental quartz movements- more on that later), while at Neuchatel 73 examples received the observatory’s highest rating in competition against experimental Swiss one-offs. Even more amazingly, those 73 Caliber 45s went on sale to the public the following year as the limited-edition Astronomical Observatory Chronometer, a step beyond Girard-Perregaux’s achievements in the previous years. After over a century of unchallenged dominance, the Swiss establishment had been soundly beaten on their own turf.

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Image source: Watches By SJX

An even bigger humiliation that Seiko’s sweep, however, was the introduction of quartz timepieces to the trial. While Seiko may have swept the top 7 mechanical places at Geneva in 1968, the three podium positions were all quartz movements- with more than ten times the recorded accuracy of Seiko’s mechanical efforts. These numbers, along with similar results at Neuchatel, suddenly left the mechanical chronometer competition seemingly obsolete.

Neuchatel’s response to the Japanese upstarts and the quartz threat was swift and decisive. All competitive testing at Swiss observatories was to be put on indefinite hold, depriving Seiko of the chance to defend their 1968 results and leaving a 40-year gap in observatory testing. When chronometer testing was finally resumed at Neuchatel in 2007, two caveats were added to the rulebook- firstly, only mechanical movements were eligible to compete, and second all components must be manufactured in Europe. Never again would the traditional Swiss industry be humiliated by a quartz watch or a so-called outsider.

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Case back of a vintage Omega Constellation
Case back of a vintage Omega Constellation

Naturally, however, a 40-year moratorium on observatory tests didn’t mean a 40-year drought in chronometers. Soon after Neuchatel closed the trials, a new organization was founded for the express purpose of chronometer certification known as the COSC. The COSC has its own fascinating story, which will be covered in Part 3 of this series.

Hailing from Redondo Beach, California, Sean’s passion for design and all things mechanical started at birth. Having grown up at race tracks, hot rod shops and car shows, he brings old-school motoring style and a lifestyle bent to his mostly vintage watch collection. He is also the Feature Editor and Videographer for Speed Revolutions.
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