In this industry, we are often sold the idea that innovation is the how complicated or thin a watch movement can be. Perhaps it is even the fine decoration which we see on high-horology pieces. However, I am willing to wager that you haven’t heard the humble Valjoux 7750 praised as a masterpiece of engineering and innovation but permit me to convince you. To my eye, the Valjoux 7750 is the greatest movement currently in use.
Introducing the Valjoux 7750
We live in an age of Instagram watch appreciation. In this world, photos are often accepted more readily than facts and figures. As a result, these images are taken out of context. What I mean by this is that, whilst we can praise a watch for being the thinnest of its kind, the most ornate or for having the most complications, we rarely reward good engineering. Of this the Valjoux 7750 is a perfect example.
Whilst we praise the movements used in icons such as the Omega Speedmaster, Rolex Daytona or Zenith El Primero, the vast majority of mechanical chronographs in this industry use the Valjoux 7750. The reason for this is that it is robust, highly modifiable and thus perfectly suited to watches which simply need to work. It is an under-discussed fact that the in-house chronographs of some of the most illustrious brands producing the slimmest of mechanisms have movement return percentages well into double figures in the first year. By contrast, a Valjoux 7750 failure is almost always down to misuse or watchmaker error, but rarely due to an inherent design issue. Consequentially, it’s easy to see why I regard the Valjoux 7750 as perhaps the greatest movement.
The Creation of a Marvel
The origins of the humble Valjoux 7750 are rooted in a time of mechanical upheaval. As has been repeated almost ad nauseam, 1969 was a year of great change to chronographs. First with the Seiko 6139, chronographs were gaining automatic winding and, by the end of the year, the major Swiss brand Zenith had the first Swiss integrated automatic chronograph.
As a manufacturer of chronograph movements for Swiss brands such as Rolex with the 72 and 7733 movements, Valjoux saw a need to pursue the automatic trend. The man chosen was Edmond Capt. It was he who who directed movement design as a Swiss alternative to Seiko’s pragmatic thought process. This was to be no finely-tuned high-beat movement like the Zenith El Primero, but positively agricultural by comparison. In spite of this, it needed to have a quick-set day-date function.
Above all, however, the movement needed to be mass produced and developed quickly. For this reason, two shortcuts were taken. The first was the use of computer technology. This made the Valjoux 7750 one of the first computer designed movements. Additionally, the existing Valjoux 7733 was used as a base for the movement, thus enabling the timekeeping functions to be left alone.
A Mechanical Game Changer
What was most innovative about the Valjoux 7750 was the way in which this seemingly impossible pairing of reliability, ease of manufacturing and functionality was achieved. First, the chronograph used no column wheel, but instead used a particularly efficient set of levers to rotate a cam for engaging, disengaging and resetting the chronograph. Crucially, the cam could be stamped from sheet metal rather then requiring careful production. Likewise, the automatic winding system is a perfect example of less being more. Rather than using a bidirectional winding system with the notoriously unreliable reverser-gears seen on the ETA 2824, the system only winds in one direction. Whilst this may seem a compromise, this system actually allows for faster winding with all but the most vigorous motion.
The reason for this is that, when the reverser-gears in an automatic winding system change the direction of winding, they often use 15 degrees of rotor motion in order to engage. Until the rotor has moved these 15 degrees, it cannot begin to wind the watch. As a consequence, and particularly after the lubricants are no longer fresh, the motion of a wrist at the desk, for example, is not always sufficient to get out of this dead zone of rotor movement. By contrast, the winding system in the Valjoux is always engaged. It’s this kind of care which made the Valjoux 7750 so effective and possible the greatest movement.
A Movement Almost Lost
However, just as this movement entered the world, its tenure was almost cut short. The cause was the growth of the quartz watch industry which saw the demand for Swiss mechanical watches collapsed in the mid-1970s. As a consequence, production was halted in 1975 and so the 7750 was rendered something of the past.
In spite of this, in much the same way as the with the Zenith El Primero, the Valjoux 7750’s creator, saved the plans despite being instructed to discard the project. Due to these actions, once the crisis in the watch industry had passed, Valjoux was able to recommence production of this movement. After merging with the movement manufacturer ETA, the ETA-Valjoux 7750 was born.
Reborn & Refined
The result was a movement with a now increased beat rate of 4Hz and the opportunity to be modified for many different projects across the industry. Many variations of the movement were created from IWC’s 1985 perpetual calendar chronograph by Kurt Klaus to Sinn’s recent 910 SRS column wheel flyback chronograph. However, the man who truly demonstrated the potential of this movement was Richard Habring. Working for IWC, this man simplified the rattrapante chronograph for use in watches far below the usual level of price required for this complication.
Where such a complicated function usually required the presence of a second column wheel to control the second hands, this movement used a cam operated pair or jaws which would clamp together and halt the other hand at the press of a button before sending it shooting back into position. In this way, a more simple system, far from being crude, revealed reliability and durability which would have been totally impossible to achieve with a high-horology setup. This remained a movement which was easily serviced and understood.
Entering the Modern Day
Habring didn’t stop there as he then formed his own brand with his wife Maria under their surname to create a range of watches based upon this movement. From their most rudimentary watch, the Felix, to the Erwin with jumping seconds, their own minute repeater and a perpetual calendar moonphase with monopusher split-second chronograph, all their watches have a base in the remarkable architecture which is the Valjoux 7750.
Where refinement is concerned, the Valjoux 7750 is nothing conventionally impressive. With central automatic winding, it is a thick movement by any standard. With that being said, it is endowed with a uniquely broad set of features for a basic movement. From its position of entry-level movement, the Valjoux 7750 offers hacking, automatic & manual winding, the date, the day and a full chronograph. I can’t think of any other movement variety where we expect these complications from a basic movement. This we owe to the Valjoux 7750.
Swatch Group Development
To add to this spectacular CV, the Valjoux 7750 has also been developed by Longines into the L.688 — a column wheel chronograph with a vertical clutch. Through this movement, Longines and the Swatch group as a whole is able to cater to the desires of today’s industry with a movement which feels as fresh today as it did in the ‘70s. Whilst Omega moves away from this movement with their bespoke co-axial 9000 series calibre made specifically by ETA, the Valjoux 7750 took the co-axial escapement very successfully to create the 3300 calibre. By comparison, the ETA 2892 required four series from A to D as its in-house counterpart, the 2500, before Omega was able to iron out persistent issues.
The Bottom Line
The point is that we can be easily impressed by a brand offering a new complication or movement. However, a large portion of those movements are simply not up to the job of being reliable and durable in the long term let alone being asked to perform well with very few years of widespread testing. Of course, the Valjoux 7750 is not a particularly refined movement but just as it wasn’t the super bike which changed the motorcycle industry but the Honda Super Cub, this movement has changed the way movements are designed.
Curiously, the automatic conversion of this chronograph was so successful that it has been used without the chronograph function at all in the form of the ETA Valgranges movements. These include larger three-hand and GMT movements conceived for larger watches with longer hands. Due to a need to high torque to move the aforementioned hands, the Valjoux 7750’s founding principles were tested far beyond their original brief.
However, you look at it, this movement has fundamentally changed the industry which we love and has given the opportunity to enjoy complications which would be out of the reach of most. For this reason, I regard the Valjoux 7750 as a marvel of engineering and truly the greatest movement beside many of the high-horology movements which amaze us with complexity and finishing.