Second Opinions: The Nine O’Clock Small Seconds Is A Rarity Worth Saving
Jean-Antoine Lépine, meet my lizard brain.
I’m not quite sure when it started, but at some point or another in the last few years, I became fascinated by asymmetry in watch design. I love me some A. Lange & Söhne, F.P. Journe, Jaquet Droz, and Glashütte Original, but those once-offbeat designs, with all the timing displays askew, have since grown tame to me.
I’m talking about some serious off-kilter wristwatch design, where even a Dato won’t do. I’ve become fixated on watches that drop the small seconds display at nine o’clock and leave it there – no chronographs, no date windows or power reserves, nothing. Zilch. Two hands and a funky seconds display, preferably at nine o’clock – that’s all I want to see these days.
Those watches are now an endangered species.
Once upon a time, it was the center seconds that was a rare breed. This was the time of pocket watches, where six o’clock seconds sub-dials were the standard. Today, the placement of a small seconds display at nine o’clock is commonly the result of adapting a pocket watch movement to fit into a wristwatch, or editing a chronograph movement down to its bare essentials as a time-only caliber.
The former is sometimes known as the lepine arrangement, named after the 18th century watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lépine, who standardized the placement of the winding stem in the movement above 12 o’clock and the small seconds display on the same axis, opposite at six o’clock. Alternatively, a hunter-style pocket watch places the crown at three o’clock and small seconds at six o’clock.
Think about it – when a pocket watch movement is converted to fit inside a wristwatch, it makes sense that the crown and stem have been rotated to three o’clock while the seconds display lands at nine o’clock.
Stripping a chronograph movement down to only displaying the passing time is naturally more labor intensive and less common, but it has recently been placed in the spotlight by enterprising watchmakers in Europe and Japan. Though this placement may be getting a certain amount of niche attention, they still feel like a precious rarity.
I’ve put together a round-up of some of the wristwatches with small seconds at nine o’clock that have captured my attention over the past few years, grouped into various segments, bringing some order to the subject of chaotic watches. This is not intended to be an exhaustive list, so I encourage you to point me in the direction toward more watches that might help satisfy my asymmetrical thirst.
Naoya Hida is a Japanese independent watchmaker who has recently received a lot of coverage on HODINKEE, and for good reason. For his second watch, released last year, Hida selected a Valjoux 7750 automatic chronograph and converted it into a manual wind, time-only movement. The choice wasn’t immune to controversy, but it just made sense. As Hida told our own Eric Ku earlier this year, Hida selected the 7750 to “house a large movement that just fits in a 37mm case” and to “achieve his ideal small seconds dial position.” I think Hida-san and I would get along just fine.
While Hida is the new brand on the block, Richard Habring is something of an old hat in modding Valjoux 7750s to meet his requirements. Habring is, of course, the gentleman who brought us the first affordable rattrapante chronograph while working at IWC in the 1990s, via the Doppelchronograph, and since 2014, he’s continued to iterate on the 7750 as base with the manual wind, time-only A11 caliber, an in-house movement that uses the basic architecture of the 7750 without sourcing any components from ETA. The A11 is a tracteur caliber for Habring², which allows them to add complications such as dead beat seconds or, my favorite, the foudroyante. The gear train of the 7750 and A11 are similar, part of why the seconds sub-dial remains at nine o’clock throughout the Habring² Felix line, but otherwise the caliber has been refined and improved upon.
One of the most well-known pocket watch movements still in use today, the ETA 6497 UNITAS base caliber has powered everything from pre-Vendome Panerai models (including the famous Slytech Daylight) to entry-level Hamilton, Tissot, and Laco watches. It’s also become a favorite for young watchmakers to replicate in their manufacturing process: Weiss Watch of California has enjoyed substantial popularity for its Standard Issue Field Watch series that houses the in-house built caliber 3003, which is based on the design of the ETA/UNITAS 6497.
Panerai is arguably the king of nine o’clock small seconds displays today, but most of them balance the sub-dial with a date window opposite at three o’clock. That might be great for user functionality, but for my asymmetrical taste, it’s a nonstarter. Luckily, there are a few Panerais that still fit the bill. The PAM 422, PAM 655, PAM 676/677, PAM 754, PAM 915, and PAM 1084, among a few others, are all contemporary hand crankers that delete the date window, while the hyper-modern LAB-ID models are also known to leave the date window off. One of my favorite PAMs is the entry-level Luminor Due, which – thankfully – operates sans date indication as well.
The Zenith Elite is the movement that kickstarted my nascent appreciation for dress watches with small seconds displays at nine o’clock. While I’m always looking out for something new, there’s something about the Elite that I keep returning to. In my opinion, it’s one of the most underrated in-house movements in current production.
Unlike its more popular chronograph sibling, El Primero, which has retained an almost unchanged architecture since its 1969 debut, the Elite was the result of modern watchmaking at its best when it debuted, in 1994. It’s regarded as one of the first movements developed with assistance from computer-aided design (CAD). The Elite caliber was well-received upon its 1994 introduction, even winning an award for the “Best Movement of the Year” at the Basel showcase. In more recent years, the Elite movements have been updated with top-of-the-line contemporary materials, including the use of silicon components for the escape wheel and pallet lever.
You can find the Elite in a number of places. The three-handed Elite Classic models utilize the Elite 670 SK movement, which converts the off centered arrangement to a central seconds hand and includes a date aperture at six o’clock. The more popular Defy Classic models borrow the movement as well. In the past, Zenith has sold Elite movements to brands outside the LVMH Group, including Urwerk, but when I chatted with Zenith CEO Julien Tornare earlier this year, he mentioned he had discontinued the practice.
When I ultimately end up acquiescing to temptation and plucking down the cash for a watch with nine o’clock seconds, it will likely be a pre-owned Zenith Elite from the mid-2000s. I just need to find the right one.
Watchmakers operating at the highest end of the horological spectrum are able to explore design to meet their own whims and fancies. Unfortunately for me, few seem to be fans of the nine o’clock small seconds display. After discounting the delightfully asymmetrical F.P.Journe Chronométre Optimum for its full-on figure-eight timekeeping arrangement, I ended up finding a pair of indies with underrated in-house calibers.
Everyone’s favorite fluid-based watchmaker, the recently bankrupt HYT, introduced its first movement, the HYT H0, uses a trio of stacked sub-dials and places the seconds display right above nine o’clock. While by no means a conventional lepine arrangement, it does meet my parameters of a central hours and minutes with seconds placed near nine o’clock.
The Armin Strom AMR13 caliber, on the other hand, is exactly the type of watch I’m looking for. I had the pleasure of visiting the Armin Strom team in Biel a few years ago and can attest to the quality of their in-house manufacturing process. While my love affair with this particular kind of watchmaking wasn’t fully mature at the time, the next time I chat with Claude Greisler about his brand, I’ll definitely pick his brain on the movement design.
Sellita produces four different types of calibers incorporating a small seconds display at nine o’clock. Available in either hand wound or automatic versions, and based on the design of the ETA 2800 family, the Sellita SW219-1, SW295-1, SW290-1, and SW295-1 all incorporate a date window, but many brands choose to place it at six o’clock rather than three o’clock. Oris, Mühle Glashütte, TAG Heuer have all extensively used these Sellita base movements with slight modifications.
One of the more infamous movement controversies in recent years surprisingly involved a watch using a lepine arrangement. The Bremont BWC/01, using a La Joux-Perret base caliber, was the source of much discussion over its origins when it debuted in the Wright Flyer in 2014.
Finally (for now!), when Vacheron Constantin introduced a range of new in-house movements in 2016 to pair with the third-generation Overseas lineup, the Genevan manufacture included a new time-only movement with seconds placed at nine o’clock. Available in the smaller, 37mm diameter Overseas model, it is likely the sportiest and least-expected member of this list.
Oh, and if you’re curious about the asymmetrical Historiques American 1921 that Danny recently went A Week On The Wrist with, it’s not a traditional lepine caliber, although the original was.