How A Pulsation Scale Actually Works, And Five Pulsation Chronographs That Make Our Heart Skip A Beat
From Patek to Omega, five pulsation chronographs after our own hearts.
It’s really not that hard to use the pulsation scale on a chronograph, but it’s one of those things that’s easier to show than tell, so for the second time, Brandon and I are doing a joint video/written article (don’t we make a cute couple?). So before you jump below to some of our favorite pulsation chronographs, take a moment and watch Brandon’s minute of cinematic excellence.
Okay, thanks Brandon. Now that you know how to read a pulsation chronograph – I told you it was easy, right? – you might think to yourself, “hey self, that’s pretty cool, now I kind of want a pulsation chronograph for myself.” And since it’s nearly Valentine’s Day, I’m inclined to say that the heart wants what the heart wants, and maybe you should just listen to it already.
While pulsation scales were originally put on chronographs for doctors to track the heartbeat of their patients in the 20th century, nowadays it’s more of an aesthetic choice than anything else. Enthusiasts like them because they look cool and they remind us of a time when watches were something different – namely, tools for getting a job done. I’m not here to argue that any of these chronographs have any practical use today – they’re just beautiful watches, and on Valentine’s Day, can’t that be enough?
Many vintage pulsation chronographs are quite rare because they were specially ordered, presumably by doctors for the task at hand. That’s why we only see a handful of pulsation-dial Rolex Daytonas or vintage Patek Philippe chronographs. And while those might be some of my favorite vintage chronographs ever, it’s not really helpful for me to tell you that. Even if you can manage the hefty price tag (a six-figure assumption), there’s still the issue of finding one.
Beyond those vintage pulsation chronographs, my heart flutters just as much for something more modern like the Montblanc Heritage Spirit Pulsograph with its heart-melting salmon dial and a Minerva caliber, but that’s from 2019, was $30,000 and limited to 100 pieces. A ‘90s Ulysse Nardin monopusher chronograph with a movement that has Journe’s fingerprints on it, or even the (dare I say) the Vacheron Constantin Cornes de Vache for Hodinkee are equally likely to induce heart palpitations but also just as hard to find.
But for this article, I focused instead on more readily available watches. With that, here are five of my favorite pulsation chronographs that won’t leave your heart longing.
We have to start with the Lange 1815 Chronograph. I could make the argument that this is the best modern chronograph, full stop, but for today’s heart-warming purposes, we’ll stop merely at “one of the best modern pulsation chronographs.” When Lange introduced the 1815 Chronograph in 2004, it featured a pulsation dial. For some reason – hey, we all make mistakes – Lange did away with the pulsation scale on the second generation of the 1815 Chronograph.
Soon realizing the error of its ways, Lange came crawling back to its former lover and started putting the pulsation scale back on the 1815 Chronograph. It started as a fling in 2015 with the boutique-only edition, an absolute knockout of a watch with a white gold case paired with a silver dial and blue print. In 2017, Lange officially mended our hearts with the launch of the third-generation 1815 Chronograph with the always-badass white gold/black dial combination (ref. 414.028). Like the boutique edition, this new reference features a pulsation scale and the updated caliber L951.5, which we took a closer look at back in 2015. In 2018, Lange added a pink gold 1815 Chronograph with a black or silver dial. When we introduced the pink gold with a black dial in 2018, the 1815 Chronograph had an MSRP of $50,300.
My heart aches for any 1815 Chronograph, but perhaps most of all for a first-generation 1815, produced only from 2004 until 2008. After upending the modern chronograph market with the introduction of the in-house Datograph, the 1815 Chronograph was its slimmed-down younger brother, but no less technically brilliant.
Say “one of the best modern chronographs” three times fast and Patek’s sure to show up at your door. When Lange introduced the Datograph and its in-house caliber in 1999, the Swiss got to work. A decade later, Patek introduced the 5170J, its first chronograph using an in-house caliber, the CH 29-535 PS.
Compared to the previous 5070 it was slimmed down and subtle, more an heir to Patek’s vintage chronographs like the ref. 130 than the bold, modern 5070. Aesthetically, the 5170 also felt like a reaction to the first decade of the 20th century, when watches had grown bigger, bolder, and more complicated. The 5170 was classically styled – 39mm, square pushers, and a smooth, Calatrava-style case. The applied Roman numerals and pulsation scale of the 5170J felt lifted from a prior era. Introduced three years later, the white gold 5170G swapped Roman numerals for the even more heart-melting applied Breguet numerals.
As Patek’s first effort at an in-house chronograph, these classical elements felt intentional, a statement that, while modern watchmaking was often about harder, better, faster, stronger, we’re still Patek and we’re going to continue, in many cases, doing things the way we’ve always done them. One of those things is making one of the best manual-wind chronographs on the market. The vintage inspiration of the 5170 is clear, perfectly punctuated with the pulsation scale.
In 2019, Patek discontinued the 5170, replacing it with the 5172. Today, you can buy a 5170J or 5170G for a fraction of the price of many popular time-only sport watches – not to mention at a discount compared to the original retail prices of these watches – which only makes my heart grow fonder for the relative value they represent. For more on the 5170G, revisit our Three On Three, when we compared it to manually-wound chronographs from Vacheron Constantin and Lange.
Not unlike the Patek 5170, you’d be forgiven for thinking the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Control Calendar Chronograph was a model in JLC’s catalog for the last generation or two. Surprisingly, it was only introduced in 2020 as part of the manufacturer’s revamped Master Control lineup, and a fine addition at that.
The Master Control Calendar Chronograph combines a complete calendar (and moonphase) with a chronograph – no doubt a combination familiar to the watch industry, but one that JLC had never executed itself. Perhaps the finest thing you can say about the Master Control Calendar Chronograph is that it has no broader ambitions towards popularity, hype, statement-making, technical ingenuity, or any of the other vices that befall so many modern watches. It’s just a damn good watch.
It nails every detail just right: the free-sprung caliber 759 is a column-wheel, vertical-clutch chronograph that’s seen through the sapphire caseback. Here, I’m focusing on the stainless steel version, though it also comes in rose gold. It measures 40mm and 12mm in thickness, and while a purist might waste their breath complaining that it should be a couple of millimeters smaller, you can’t argue that together these specs make for a well-balanced wear.
Perhaps the Master Control Calendar Chronograph should receive more attention, but part of its charm is also that it doesn’t, nor does it demand such attention. It’s not heritage inspired nor is it daringly modern (leave that to JLC’s Gyrotourbillons), it’s just a beautiful, complicated dress watch for which, even three years after release, I continue to eat my heart out.
Patek, Lange, and even Jaeger-LeCoultre are decidedly more haute horology than not, with price tags not for the faint of heart. Luckily, pulsation scales can also be found on watches that were merely destined for outer space. Starting in the ’60s, Omega began offering the option of a pulsation scale bezel on Speedmasters in place of the more familiar tachymeter.
In modern form, this has been perhaps best executed in the Speedmaster CK2998 Limited Edition from 2018. This particular limited edition is so successful because it’s not faithful to any particular vintage Speedmaster (though, to be clear, some of those have been very successful too), but simply a modern Speedmaster that’s designed to look good. The silver dial and black subdials are of course a classic pairing evoking our bamboo-eating brethren, but the red chronograph hand and “Speedmaster” text give it a completely modern feel. Meanwhile, the pulsation scale on the bezel means there’s more black compared to a typical tachymeter, giving it a slightly bolder look.
Of course, this Speedy was limited to 2,998 pieces in 2018, when its MSRP was $5,850. Nowadays, secondary prices can be nearly double that, but if your heart longs for one, at least they can be found with some patience. For more on the CK2998 Limited Edition from 2018, check out our original Hands-On.
P.S., I would’ve loved to include the Omega Museum Collection “MD’s Chronograph”, a 2010 limited edition of 1938 pieces, but opted for the CK2998 as one slightly less likely to induce heartburn trying to find and afford.
Now, for something fun. Whenever I go to something like Worn & Wound’s Windup Watch Fair, Farer is always one of my first stops. Fun, colorful, and relatively affordable – Farer is small-batch done right. The Farer Cobb Pulsometer Chronograph is a fun nod to the history of pulsation chronographs that takes itself decidedly less serious than the other watches on this list. It has a vibrant blue dial and orange accents, a completely dressed-down version of a pulsation compared to the buttoned-up looks of Lange, Patek, and JLC.
Inside, Farer uses the Sellita SW510, a single-pusher chronograph movement with a 62-hour power reserve. The C-shaped case looks chunky, but measures a manageable 40.5mm and 12mm in thickness (and just 44mm lug-to-lug). The shape feels like a reference to many of the funky 1970s chronographs, like the first automatic Carreras or certain Omega Seamaster Chronographs.
For more on the Farer Cobb Monopusher Chronograph, visit Farer.com