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Flyback chronographs - 80 years of flyback chronographs

Flyback chronographs 80 years of flyback chronographs

The anniversary dates of historical models are generally well known, while those of the patents behind them are often forgotten. 2016 marks the 80th anniversary of the patent for a major horological complication: the flyback chronograph.

Once again, the year 2016 has been marked by the launch of countless flyback chronographs, to the point where they tend to go unnoticed. The cruel flip side of history lies in the very fact that when a complication becomes commonplace, its spreading popularity is a sure sign of success. Yet however modern it now seems, the flyback chronograph is an historical complication. 

1889 – 1936 : from Bovet to Longines
We owe the modern flyback chronograph to Longines. It was in 1936 that its 13ZN calibre, now well-known among collectors, made its appearance with a flyback function. A simple press on the chronograph pusher reset its hand to zero and started a new timing operation. The flyback is thus above all a useful complication that avoids time-consuming manoeuvres. This legendary calibre was to equip the super 1940s Longines chronographs that are still some of the most sought-after of their kind. Most of the 13ZN movements are equipped with a flyback function, with a few exceptions.

Nonetheless, as with many watchmaking inventions, Longines drew inspiration from history, and more specifically from Bovet. On January 29th 1889, the Manufacture had patented a pocket chronograph with a flyback function. The patent related to a highly distinctive interpretation (that was never followed up) of the flyback in which the hands moved in sync with the hands displaying the time. It was thus possible to choose the desired distance between the two sets of hands and thus to use the timepiece as a dual-time indication.

Chronographe Flyback de Bovet, vers 1900.

A golden banana
The flyback chronograph has implied a number of challenges in the course of its history. Having one hand abruptly halted and “caught up with” by another involved a number of serious strains on the metals, the arbors and even the hands. Zero-resetting them could lead to a number of surprising phenomena. There was a time not so long ago when some poorly designed hands tended to take on a banana shape due to zero-resetting, incapable of absorbing the oscillating power without being distorted. Some even snapped. “One can still find some gold hands that behave in unexpected ways”, says Carole Kasapi, Cartier Movement Development Director, with a rueful smile. “It’s a very supple material that tends to warp when strained”. That is indeed one of the reasons why all modern hands are in steel.

Some firms have introduced other more unusual developments. Ulysse Nardin, for example, no longer offers this type of complication in its collection, but was a pioneer in this domain. In 1936, the Manufacture released an ingenious double flyback synchronised activation system, the ancestor of current sports timing systems; and it later made another breakthrough with an electromagnetically-activated flyback.

Chronographe Flyback Berlin 1936 Ulysse Nardin.

A perpetually perfected complication
These days, material-related constraints are no longer an issue, providing one has the means to avoid them. Richard Mille notably adapts its materials to the purpose for which each of its models is designed. For the year 2016 alone, the brand has unveiled a “Le Mans Classic” flyback, followed by an RM 60-01 “Voiles de St Barth” and then an RM 50-02 ACJ featuring a grade 5 titanium movement that can withstand the toughest conditions.

In a far more classical mode, and in its typically discreet manner, Chopard has registered a number of patents designed to optimise Longines’ brilliant invention: pivoting hammers with elastic arms reducing their bulk; anti-locking systems; and viscoelastic transmission elements. These inventions do not modify the function, but instead contribute to enhancing its reliability and its precision, the cardinal values of Haute Horlogerie. Today, these discreet yet indispensable developments are to be found in the L.U.C Perpetual Chrono, Mille Miglia 2016 XL Race Edition and the Superfast Chrono Porsche 919 Black Edition.

Even though the flyback is an authentic complication, its democratisation is now shared by a number of connoisseurs, notably thanks to Eterna and Alpina. With the latter’s Alpiner 4 model, the flyback reaches new heights; with the BR 126 Sport Heritage, Bell & Ross has sent it sky-high; and with the Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Flyback, Blancpain has immersed it in the depths of the ocean. With its Stratos, Zenith has propelled it into space; with the Monza 2016, TAG Heuer has enabled it to hit the motor-racing tracks; and with the Datograph Up/Down, A. Lange & Söhne has granted it a German residence permit. Last but not least, Christophe Claret with its Maestoso has treated it to its most complicated development to date, with a constant-force traditional pivoted detent escapement. The flyback remains as popular and versatile as ever!

Maestoso Christophe Claret

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