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Famous Watch Movements

Robert-Jan Broer
Dec 02, 2016
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Robert-Jan Broer
Dec 02, 2016

The movement of a watch plays a big role in the purchase decisions of many watch collectors out there. Not only are they looking for a mechanical movement, either automatic or hand-wound, but sometimes the specific type of movement inside a watch is also an important factor in buying a watch (we will get back to that later). In some cases, the aesthetic of a watch plays a smaller role than the mechanics inside.

In this article, we will talk you through a couple of famous watch movements and movement makers. As you’re probably well aware, not all watch manufacturers develop and produce their own movements. Big brands like Breitling, TAG Heuer, and IWC rely on third-party movements, but did you know that Patek Philippe used Lemania movements for their chronograph watches for many years? And up until 2000, the Rolex Daytona used a Zenith El Primero as basis.

A couple of things have changed over the last two decades in that regard, as brands have turned to developing their own movements again, but that’s not the case for every model (the Speedmaster Professional uses the Lemania hand-wound movement and the IWC Portugieser Chronograph uses the Valjoux 7750). Of course, many third-party movements are modified and finished before being used. Let’s discuss a couple of these famous watch movements; some are third-party movements, others are developed in-house, and others still are joint ventures between brands.

ETA/Valjoux 7750

ETA/Valjoux 7750

ETA/Valjoux 7750, Image: © Bert Buijsrogge

The Valjoux 7750 is one of the most famous chronograph movements in the world. Now owned by ETA (Swatch Group), it is regarded as the typical workhorse chronograph movement. A cam and lever system operates the chronograph function as opposed to a column-wheel. Designing, developing, and producing a chronograph movement is terribly expensive, thus only brands with enough spending and production power can manage to keep it relatively affordable (Omega, for example). For those who can’t, there’s the Valjoux 7750 movement.

It has been on the market for decades and is used in the aforementioned IWC Portugieser Chronograph, but also in various models from other brands. These movements are relatively inexpensive, so you will also find them in watches under 2,000 euros. In that case, however, there will be less attention given to the finishing and details of the movement, case, dial, hands, etc. ETA also makes three-hand movements and movements with GMT functions. They supply a wide range of watch brands with movements, both within and beyond the Swatch Group.


Lemania movement

Lemania movement, Image: Fratellowatches

The most famous watch with a Lemania chronograph movement is the Omega Speedmaster Professional ‘Moonwatch’. It’s featured a Lemania movement since the very beginning when it was released in 1957, but different variations have been used over the years. The first Lemania chronograph movement for the Speedmaster was based on caliber 2310 (Omega caliber 321), a column-wheel chronograph that would later be replaced by the 1871 (Omega caliber 861). Patek Philippe also used Lemania chronograph movements for some of their watches up until a few years ago. One example is their CH27-70 movement, which was based on the Lemana 2310. Of course, it had a different level of finishing than Omega’s caliber 321.

Another famous watch movement by Lemania is their 5100, a workhorse that competed with the Valjoux 7750 for many years. It had nylon and plastic parts to prevent wear and tear and to keep production costs low. This is a highly sought-after movement amongst chronograph enthusiasts.

El Primero

Zenith El Primero movement

Zenith El Primero movement, Image: © Bert Buijsrogge

The El Primero (“the first”) was one of the first chronograph movements in the world that had a self-winding mechanism. It was developed by Zenith in 1969. The competition then consisted of Chronomatic (joint venture by Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren, and Dubois-Depraz) and Seiko (caliber 6139). The Zenith El Primero is still being produced today in Le Locle. In essence, the movement is still the same as the first El Primero chronograph movement and most of the parts are believed to be interchangeable. This is a very nice feature for owners of an older El Primero movement, as it can be serviced relatively affordably by Zenith. The El Primero chronograph movement was not only special because it was the first automatic chronograph, it also ticked at a high speed (high beat movement), i.e. 36,000 vibrations per hour.

This movement was (and still is) also found in watches from other brands. The Rolex Daytona is probably the most famous watch among them; it used a tweaked version of the El Primero between 1988 and 2000. Other brands that have used the El Primero include Ebel, Movado, TAG Heuer, and more.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Caliber 920

Audemars Piguet Caliber 2121

Audemars Piguet Caliber 2121, Image: Audemars Piguet

Jaeger-LeCoultre is a true manufacturer; they have dozens of their own calibers which are all made in-house in Le Sentier, Switzerland in the Vallee du Joux. Though there is one movement that they co-developed and produced, yet never used themselves: the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920. This movement was used by Patek Philippe in their first Nautilus 3700/1A from 1976. But it was also used in the original Royal Oak reference 5402ST from 1972 and a few other high-end watches.

Today, this movement is produced by one company: Audemars Piguet. They still use it for their Royal Oak ‘Extra-Thin’ and a few of their more classical watches. It is also the base movement for some of their highly complicated watches. They also supply a few other brands with this movement (AP dubbed it caliber 2121), Vacheron Constantin being one of them. The special thing about this movement is that it is very flat at just 3.05 mm due to the rail system for the winding rotor.

IWC Caliber 5000

IWC Schaffhausen Caliber 5000 movement

IWC Schaffhausen Caliber 5000 movement, Image: © Bert Buijsrogge

We briefly mentioned IWC Schaffhausen above in regards to their use of the Valjoux 7750 movement, dubbed IWC caliber 79350, but IWC also develops and manufactures their own movements. One of their most famous watch movements is the caliber 5000.

This movement was introduced by IWC in 2000 and was the first new movement developed in-house since the 70s and in larger quantities. This is a truly large movement with a couple of influences drawn from their heritage: a large diameter (based on their pocket watch movements), an escapement from their famous manual wind caliber 89, and a Pellaton winding system. The IWC caliber 5000 (nowadays referred to as the 50000-calibre family) is basically a highly optimized pocket watch movement with a self-winding mechanism made for wristwatches. This movement is used in a number of IWC watch families today such as the Pilot and Portugieser. In the recent past, it was also used in some Ingenieur watches.

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