Integrated chronograph : the charm and usefulness of the column wheel

The mechanical functions of a chronograph

A chronograph is a bit of a magical thing: not only does it measure time but also it can go back and start from zero again. Not like us, who have to settle for the passage of time and its irreparable unkindness without the chance of a reset or catch-up. Don’t they say that lost time is never found again? Well, with a split-time chronograph, it’s possible! Via a single push-button, the functions of the chronograph mechanism are organized into a set of operations which govern the movement of the hands. This means the start function, followed by the stop function, and then the reset. The installation of a second push-button modified this sequence by making it possible to go from “stop” to “start” again without passing through the reset function. It’s very convenient, a bit like the squares on a Monopoly board – although of course you don’t get to pick up money by passing Go again. This way it is possible to pause an ongoing measurement, read it off and then resume it. Other variants have also been developed for the movements of the hands. First of all, the “catch-up” function which makes it possible to visualize an intermediate time before realigning the split-second hand on the chronograph’s second hand. Then later came the “flyback” or “return in flight” function, designed to meet the needs of aviation. Here, with a single pushbutton, it is possible to simultaneously stop, reset, and restart one of the watch’s chronograph hands with a single touch without stopping the others.

The functions in detail

So, the main functions of the chronograph mechanism are therefore, in order: Start, stop, reset. The chronograph is started by connecting the drive wheel of the chronograph hand to the watch movement. This is performed by translation, or the abrupt shift of the clutch wheel against the chronograph wheel; which often causes a well-known – and unfortunate – jump effect at the start. For example, it is entirely possible to move a chronograph hand forward by pressing the start and stop buttons several times, even when the watch is not working. The stop is caused by disengaging the chronograph wheel and thus uncoupling its gear wheels. A brake or stopper then comes into contact with the gearing of the chronograph wheel to prevent any inadvertent movement of the hand. The reset, the last of the basic functions, is produced by a hammer striking a heart-piece – a heart-shaped cam – fixed to the chronograph wheel. The hammer, by exerting adequate pressure on the heart-piece, makes it turn back to its zero, or flat, position against the flat face of the hammer. It is not useful to compare this to the human heart, which can also be set back to zero, but then only once … One last function is counting. It is provided by wheels that make one turn for each half hour or hour completed by the minute counter, and one turn per twelve hours for the hour counter, in order to record time measurements greater than a minute. These wheels are driven either by drag, that is to say via a gear train from the chronograph wheel, or by jump-steps produced by a finger piece that advances the counter wheel by one tooth for each turn of the preceding wheel. These counters all work as part of the same cycle. Equipped with their own heart-pieces, they will be re-zeroed simultaneously when the chronograph hand is reset. All of these functions have to be coordinated. Several eccentric-headed screws or pegs make it possible to adjust the running, movement, or engagement of one piece of the chronograph in relation to the others. Everything clear so far? Shall we carry on? If not, I ask you to go back to square one –

but of the article, not the Monopoly board, I mean.


Two systems and three solutions  

Two systems and three solutions In order to ensure these timekeeping functions (remember my grandfather!), chronograph mechanisms are organized into two systems and three types of construction. One is called a column wheel system, and the other a cam or shuttle system. The three different types of construction are called: integrated, additional plate, or additional module.

Column wheel system

This wheel is the mechanical command center for starting, stopping and resetting the time measurement functions. It is what manages the movements of rocker-bars, hammers and other levers. The column wheel revolves around a left-hand threaded shoulder screw. The screw can’t unscrew itself, on the contrary, the rotation of the column wheel can only tighten it. It’s easily recognizable by its head with three parallel slots, inviting the watchmaker to turn it in the correct direction. Too bad for the uninitiated! Do watchmakers maybe like to set traps?

Shuttle system

Là c’est une came ou navette qui mène le jeu des bascules, marteaux et autres leviers. Cette pièce ne tourne pas mais effectue des allers et retours, d’où le terme navette.

Solution 1, the integrated system

Historically speaking, the chronograph mechanism was originally designed around a column wheel. This type of construction, called integrated, makes it necessary to visualize a specifically chronograph type of movement. It means fitting within the internal space of the mechanism all the components required for the chronograph function: the column wheel, drive wheels, counters, scales, springs, bridges, not to mention the essential eccentric-headed adjusting functions. A chronograph design with a column wheel makes for fairly thick movements in terms of depth, requiring meticulous construction of the components and painstaking adjustment of the functions while putting the mechanism together.

Solution 2, the additional plate

Later, in order to rationalize watch production, the cam or shuttle system appeared. The mechanism combining the ad hoc functions is arranged on a base plate which is then fixed to the bridges of the base movement. In this case it means modifying an existing movement to permit a passage for the axes of the hands which display the chronograph measurements, and visualizing the fixing of the additional board, while simultaneously providing access to the base movement’s balance.

Solution 3, the additional module

The most recent innovation, this solution requiring just a single drive wheel on the base movement, means linking an additional chronograph module at the level of the dial. With this module, there are no axes for the chronograph hands running through the mechanism, and no need to arrange access to the base movement’s balance. This solution makes it possible to produce movements of reasonable thicknesses.  

New technical developments

Complementing the keen interest of lovers of Belle Horlogerie, such are not in short supply. Apart from an inherent gain in accuracy, an increase in the frequency of the balance to 5Hz has made it possible to measure in tenths of a second. Not long ago, the irritating problem of the “jump start” was resolved via a vertical clutch. Starting is effected by the vertical movement of two wheels on the same axis; the resulting instantaneous contact between the drive wheel and the driven wheel allows for a precise start of measurement. This device can be offset, making it possible to keep the movement within suitable dimensions. Another development is the linear hammer, which simplifies resetting the chronograph display by reducing the number of component parts, thus limiting the number of adjustments and consequently significantly increasing the reliability of the whole. One latest innovation is the hour counter. While the hands of the chronograph are being driven, the hour counter wheel is released from its continual friction with the barrel, with a consequent balance of forces. Just as when in a car you have emptied the trunk and you raise the rear seats in order to carry passengers, the weight of the car remains constant, as does its consumption. So, several things have made it possible to reduce the energy consumption of chronograph mechanisms. With one fortunate result being an increase in the power reserve, sometimes of more than 60 hours with the chrono switched on. One more parallel between cars and watches: What is true for cars is also true for chronographs: the less energy we consume, the further we can go or the longer we can keep the motor running. So, no need to go faster! And then finally, a chronograph can help you work out your speed too, so all the more reason to wear one!

How to decide on the best choice? Wheel, or shuttle?

So, which is the better solution? It’s important to have push buttons that fit nicely with what the wearer wants. We need to be able to mark the beginning, the end of an operation efficiently. And a light and simple reset is a pleasure all round. Softness and responsiveness in the controls is more a matter of construction than of one system or the other. Reliability is equivalent. Occasionally, a column wheel mechanism can need more manipulations to operate its functions. Efficiency, simplicity, and keeping costs down led to the success of additional plates and additional modules. This was particularly true in the bygone era of utilitarian mechanical watches. Today in this new era of Haute Horlogerie, with its aestheticism and all the levers coming to seek information, the column wheel is the winner; for sure. Watch builders don’t hold back when it comes to the highlights of their product, the bold cut of their bridges. And so, laymen can grasp the rational beauty of this mechanism.

Presentation of our integrated chronograph movement

With the Seed VMF 6710, Vaucher Manufacture offers an integrated automatic column wheel chronograph movement. With total transparency, we have merged in this chronograph movement able to measure time in intervals, the precise timekeeping quality of a chronometer. This precision, validated by the COSC, is reinforced by its high frequency of 5 Hz, and by a variable inertia balance which makes a regulator assembly unnecessary. Automatic winding, a large going barrel and a big, 65-hour power reserve also contribute to its superb timekeeping. As regards the chronograph mechanism, the column wheel is visible via the chronograph bridge, and the vertical clutch plus the linear hammer guarantee sharp and clear time measurement. And in continuity of the watchmaking tradition practiced by Vaucher in Fleurier, each of its 315 components is meticulously finished and decorated

Chronograph and chronometer Two objects in the service of time

A reminder of the difference between a chronometer and chronograph

Chronometer and Chronograph
Two different words to say two different things, pretty normal, no?

Actually, it’s two different functions that can apply to one and the same object. A chronometer is a high-precision timing device. It is a mechanism capable of keeping time, that is, of being precise. In accordance with defined criteria, it can be certified in Switzerland by the COSC, the Swiss Official Chronometer Control Organization. Whereas a chronograph, well, it’s a timekeeping device with one or more independent hands that you can start, stop and reset, to measure intervals of time. A stopwatch will not give the time, it only allows measurements, while a chronograph watch will additionally indicate the time. And to sow confusion between the two definitions, between the two timekeeping tools, chronograph and chronometer, it is entirely possible to create a chronograph movement, i.e. one able to measure a time interval, and have it certified as a chronometer: that is to say, to ensure that the movement remains precisely within the scope defined by the COSC. And to add further to the frequent confusion between these two descriptions, we use the verb “to time” to define the operation of measuring an interval of time. So, it’s simple: a chronograph is also used as a timing device! All rather confusing, and above all not a great help in telling the difference between the two. My grandfather, a watchmaker, spent his life explaining and re-explaining it. As for chronometers, in today’s era of atomic clocks that monitor each other, they have lost much of their previous importance. Who still uses a mechanical timepiece to get the exact, precise time? The word chronometer means, in terms of the COSC definition, only certain specific precision timepieces. And the required timekeeping criteria are now far from the type of precision offered by a low-cost alarm clock which is always correct to the exact second because it is tuned to a radio wave from Germany. So, let’s all repeat together: Chronometer: a precision watch, and Chronograph: a watch for measuring intervals of time. And I haven’t even started to make things complicated yet….

Seed VMF 6710 integrated chronographe

ute histoire n’est pas figée et celle du chronographe le prouve avec la récente mise à jour de la mise au point du chronographe. Dès la fin du 18e siècle, certaines montres sont dotées d’une aiguille de seconde qui peut être arrêtée. Le premier appareil nommé « chronographe » est un mécanisme permettant la mesure des temps courts en déposant une gouttelette d’encre sur un cadran. Eh oui ! Dans le mot « chronographe » il y a le mot « graphe » car il s’agissait bien d’écrire le temps ce qui a donné ce mot. La fonction remise à zéro, indispensable pour mesurer efficacement des intervalles de temps, n’apparaitra qu’au milieu du 19e siècle. C’est le début d’une utilisation massive du chronographe dans les sports, la recherche scientifique et surtout l’industrie. Le chronographe de poche devient l’outil indispensable du technicien, de l’ingénieur pour comprendre et améliorer les processus industriels. Demandez aux vieux ouvriers comment ils voyaient les fameux « pique-minutes », ces agents de méthodes qui surveillaient la vitesse de production dans les usines. « Time is money » et pas qu’un peu !

A brief history 

No history is ever completely tied down, which is proved by recent updates to the technical refinement of the chronograph. From the end of the 18th century onwards, some watches were fitted with a stoppable second hand. The first device to be called a “chronograph” was a mechanism for measuring short time intervals by depositing an ink droplet on a dial. Really! The “graph” part of the word “chronograph” is because it was effectively a way of writing down time. The reset function, which is essential for measuring time intervals effectively, did not appear until the middle of the 19th century. That was the starting point of the widespread use of the chronograph in sports, scientific research and especially industry. The pocket chronograph became the indispensable tool of technicians and engineers for understanding and improving industrial processes. Ask older workers what they thought of the famous “second-grabbers,” the time-and-method specialists who measured production speeds in factories. “Time is money” and not just a little of it!

Different measurements

As they could measure short time intervals, chronographs soon came equipped with specific scales on the dial. The principle is simple: we measure the duration of a reference cycle via the chronograph hand; once stopped, it indicates a speed, a quantity, or some other value, per hour or less. For example, by measuring the time required to cover one kilometer, it is possible to work out an overall speed in kilometers per hour. Something that can be an educational game on the highway, to check out your speedometer. And then, equipment installed by the police can also be helpful, but maybe less entertaining and occasionally very expensive. The dial will show at the start of the scale the reference base used, for example “graduated for 1000 meters” or “base 1 mile”. So, the chronograph can indicate measurements such as speed, the number of pieces produced, vital rhythms such as pulse rate or breathing, distance via a telemetric scale, stenographic speed, and so on …

Launching of new ultra-thin movements at EPHJ 2019

Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier is expanding its range of ultra-thin movements and offer of development proposals for complications and modules

Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier is launching two new designs of its flagship ultra-thin, micro-rotor caliber, the Seed VMF 5401. Contemporary or classic, we presents two movements based on the same architecture. Our company thus extends its range with this new, attractive offer.

Classic or contemporary, a movement for every watch

Takahiro Hamaguchi, Director of Development and Production, explains this approach as a real desire to offer more choices to meet current trends: “We can see that micro-brand models become strongly established, whether they are classic, hyper technical, or even avant-garde. We want to get closer to what they need, because right now they can’t access the extensive customization that normally starts from 150 pieces.” By putting our customization know-how into creating movement variants for smaller brands, we are now offering a wider choice of visually appealing combinations to better match a watch’s intended design and style.

Technical specifications Seed VMF 5401/32 & 5401/33

Ultra-thin micro-rotor calibers

The Seed VMF 5401 caliber is an ultra-thin, 2.6mm micro-rotor. This caliber with its potential for extreme personalization figures in, for example, prestigious collections by Hermès, Parmigiani and Richard Mille.
The Seed VMF 5401/32 variant offers lines and finishes from the pure tradition of Haute Horlogerie. It is intended for classic high-end models.
The Seed VMF 5401/33 variant takes on a contemporary look through new decoration technologies, with laser relief engraving combined with geometric skeletonization. Its modernity is also expressed by the anthracite color produced by galvanic treatment.

How does a mechanical movement work?

For those who may have forgotten, here is a quick refresh based on our 5401 movement in the course of assembly, and the six stages of the kinematic chain.

We illustrate this with our ultra-thin automatic micro-rotor Seed VMF 5401 movement

1. Energy source

Turning the winding crown or the wrist movements of the wearer provide the energy needed to operate the automatic mechanical watch..

automatic rotor

2. Energy store

A spring wound in the barrel stores the energy for the operation of the mechanical watch.


3.   Counting, transmission 

A set of gears brings energy to the escapement.

Gear train

4.  Distribution

The escapement transmits the energy to the balance, while counting its oscillations.


5. Adjustment

The balance and its spring determine the accuracy of the mechanical watch-

Spiral balance

6.   Display

The speed of rotation of specific gears drives each hand at the correct pace.


Developing a watch mechanism for timepieces. Why can’t it be done overnight?

Who wouldn’t think that taking 2 to 6 years to develop a mechanism that isn’t even intended to go to the Moon is maybe a little long?

And yet … Creating a new movement is a long process that can take several years. For Vaucher Manufacture, it means designing the new mechanism, making sure that it functions correctly, and then organising its construction, maintenance and durability, all without losing sight of the essential aspect of hand-made, value-added decorations. Our movements thus bring together both elements: on the one hand, a reliable and precise product, designed and produced industrially, and on the other, one with an exclusive hand-made finish. To this we can add the ability to adapt and personalize the movement, by changing the shape of the bridges, the appearance of the surfaces, or even the materials used.

The specification

You are the client and you have a clear idea of what you want. But it may not be enough. While the stage of determining the specifications of the movement to be developed will doubtless flow relatively easily concerning definition of the basic criteria:

  • the external dimensions,
  • the display and the movement’s functions,
  • the power reserve,
  • finishing options, and
  • personalisation options, and the cost price.

others will need to be monitored, re-evaluated and redefined periodically while the new calibre is being developed.

When you are developing a new movement, it takes patience

People in the business know that if you want to launch a new product with a movement developed exclusively for that purpose, you have to start early because development alone can last up to two years. Based on the specifications, the project manager will sketch the movement in two dimensions on a computer screen. It may also help him to draw some parts of the mechanism by hand. Relying on his own knowledge, on interaction with his colleagues, and research, he will move forward. Next, the movement will take shape in three dimensions on the screen. Then it becomes a question of positioning the gears, arranging the distribution of different elements, plotting their vertical and horizontal interactions and worrying about possible overlaps. For new mechanisms and innovative arrangements, he will use a laser cutter to create plexiglass models. These will allow him to check the good distribution and the effectiveness of the innovations, by visualizing the movements, the rotation and shapes of the gear teeth and the other components. These models can also help further inspire our clients by explaining the new mechanisms that can equip their watches. The project manager regularly exchanges with his colleagues, as well as with the persons in charge of future industrial production, because the manufacturing aspect of the components needs to be taken into consideration already. Once the three-dimensional modelling has been completed, each piece is drawn separately, with a precise definition of its production tolerances and adjustment. This painstaking process of developing a movement takes from one to two and a half years.

Prototyping, towards finalisation

The movement exists in three dimensions on a computer screen, models have made it possible to run ‘in theory’ checks on certain functions, and now it is time for the prototyping phase. This means initiating production of the components in small quantities, checking the manufacturing possibilities up-front with the cell of industrial team. It is by entrusting the construction to watchmaking analysts and prototype modellers that specialists can check if everything meets expectations. This means supervising the manufacture of the components, assembling them, and checking the operation of the whole. Then we can judge the play, and monitor the inertia, of the different parts in motion. Careful attention is paid to the movement’s precision, power reserve, and the efficiency of its automatic winding, as well as its strength and endurance. So, the prototypes are methodically ‘tortured’ in our laboratory, subjected to magnetic fields, and shocks; they are shaken, heated in machines to check if they still wind up automatically and are still not affected by these disturbances. With other machines, the laboratory staff will measure the wear gear axles, check for constant rates of friction and how stable the lubrication is. An ultra-high-speed camera lets them see how operations that can last even less than a tenth of a second take place. This combination of internal – and occasional external – test operations will help in the fine-tuning and validation phases of the new movement. At this point, after 3 to 4 years, the work of the project manager is at an end.

From prototype to product

In these operations lies the great difference between an industrial product and a hand-made object. After validation of the prototypes, we will organize production of the movement. We need to determine rational production processes, the finishing, define tolerances. This means thinking through the sequence of manufacturing operations, the finishing and manual decoration of each component, defining them precisely and them into work plans. The workshop managers have to ensure that the people assigned to the production of parts and movements have the right skills to produce them to the quality standards we require. Then the instructions for making the components, as well as those for assembling the set must be thought through and written down. We also need to provide the tools needed, either by making them internally or sourcing them externally, put QA protocols in place, and plan the after-sales follow-up. The supply of raw materials, tools, machines and human resource capacity needed has to be planned and committed for the possible realisation of this new movement. Here also, it means a time phase of 1 to 2 years needs to be foreseen.

Exclusive development or customization, two solutions for fully customized movements

Some stages of the above processes take place almost simultaneously, via frequent interactions. This makes it possible to maintain a reasonable timespan for a movement development at between 2 and 6 years of work, depending on the complexity of the mechanisms to be designed. For watchmakers in a little more hurry, Vaucher Manufacture Fleurier offers its own, fully customizable calibres, up to the point of elaborating a movement that is entirely matched to the DNA of your brand. Worth bearing in mind….?