Sir Francis Dagenham, Eleventh Earl of Wandsworth, was happy with what the little box in his hands held. A livereed carrier had come to him from Smith & Smith, Jewellers and Watchmakers in London's prestigious Regent Street. He had brought his latest order with Smith & Smith: a well-regulated sports chronograph made by Pierce, the Swiss watchmaking firm which just had revolutionized the chronograph technology, together with the official 'bulletin de marche' and the necessary customs documents. It sported a miles-gauged dial and the wonderful, blued-steel hands for which Pierce's chronographs were renowned.
Sir Francis had been a fighter pilot during the Great War, and his knighthood had been hard-earned after 7 1/2 victories and the severe injuries he suffered after having been shot down over the mudfields of Flanders. The peerage, however, had fallen to him only last year when his brother died without an heir. As tradition had it, he as the second son to his parents had studied "something meaningful" and served now as King's Counsel at the Old Bailey, the time-honored London jury court, just a stone's throw away from his apartment in Somerset House.
Over the weekend he used to ride the Great Western express train to Salisbury, leaving Paddington Station at 5:46 pm and arriving at Salisbury at 9 o'clock. There, a car would wait for him to deliver him to Wandsworth Hall. His social position required him to indulge in the usual pleasures of nobility - balls, concerts, garden parties and, of course, hunting - but he felt most at home when he climbed into his Tiger Moth on Saturday afternoon and climbed into the cloudless blue skies of a Southern England summer day.
It had been for exactly this hobby that he had been searching a watch for. He wanted it robust, sporty and precise, and for just such a watch he had visited Smith & Smith. He had been friends with the younger Smith since the days of the Great War and he was convinced that the Swiss watches sold by Smith & Smith were ahead of everything the British watch trade had to offer. So, when his friend told him over an old brandy and a good cigar about the new chronograph line issued by Pierce, he listened carefully.
"You know, Sir Francis, there's nothing special anymore on making chronographs, since the Breitling patents have expired. The actual problem is to make them run precisely, and even more so when they are actually used as stop watches." He drew on his cigar and blew the smoke into the air where it formed a small, billowy cloud. "It is obvious that each additional gear adds to the resistance of the movement, and the operation of second hand and minute register takes a lot of gears." He took a drawing from his desk and showed it to Sir Francis. "Have a look" - he pointed to the gear train visible in the drawing - "no less than five gears transmit the movement power to the chronograph mechanism."
He allowed his words to sink in and waited for their effect.
"And now", he took another drawing from his desk, "now look here."
"How many gears do you count?"
"Um - none", a bewildered Sir Francis replied.
"Exactly. No gear - no added resistance." Again, Smith waited for his words to take effect.
"Which means ...?"
"Which means, Sir Francis, that such a movement can be regulated far more exactly than a conventional chronograph movement. Exactly as a chronometer, to be precise. And it means that such a movement stays that precise, even if you use it to measure time."
Sir Francis was impressed.
"Still, the watch is small enough to be worn inside tight shirt cuffs, and big enough to be well readable. Take a look."
With this, he took a wooden box from his desk. He opened it before he gave it to Sir Francis.
Images courtesy of A. Busack, Wedel/Holst., Germany
Sir Francis took the watch out of its box and looked closely. He noticed a small second hand at exactly the position where he expected it, and, right opposite, in the twelve-o'clock-position, a minute register.
As usual, three scales found place on the dial: on the outer rim there was a telemeter scale, inside of it the minute scale, and a tachymeter snail curled around the dial center, allowing to measure speeds between 20 and 500 units per hour. The convex crystal enlarged the little figures and allowed for better readability.
Also from the center of the dial grew the shafts to which beautiful Breguet-type hour and minute hands were attached beneath a sleek, well-balanced second hand. (Sir Francis understood immediately why the younger Smith always talked about the 'arbor'.)
Tastefully, the dial was painted in two different shades of silver. Depending on the angle of light upon the dial, they alternated between looking brighter and darker.
Image courtesy of A. Busack, Wedel/Holst., Germany
"Give it a try", the younger Smith suggested and Sir Francis duly pushed the button in the four-o'clock position. The second hand began to move and it stopped again, when he pushed the button a second time. Another push flung the second hand back to the zero position. He started it again and had it round the dial, once, twice and then a third time. Subtly, the minute register crept forward.
"Oh", Sir Francis frowned. "The minute register doesn't jump, does it?"
"It does not, indeed", the younger Smith confirmed, sipping at his brandy. "That's for a purpose, too - in most conventional chronographs the hand jumps even before the full minute, giving you a one-minute reading error when you check at that moment. Therefore the minute register runs continuously in this watch as soon as you start measuring time. You're always aware how many minutes you've measured."
That made sense to Sir Francis.
"Is this watch available with mile-gauged scales?", he asked. It hadn't escaped him that the telemeter scale was named 'Telemètre' and went from 0 to 20, indicating that it measured the distance between flash and sound in kilometers.
"Of course, Sir Francis. I have to order it for you, though."
After they had closed the handsale the two men stayed seated in those comfortable leather chairs, drank brandy and puffed little clouds of cigar smoke. And they talked about men's toys - watches, engines and cars.
"What is also special about this watch is how it is operated. Kind of like in an automobile."
Sir Francis looked at him, quizzed.
"Well, with a conventional chronograph the chronograph center wheel is just pushed into the running movement. It may happen that the teeth don't mesh immediately. In your car, you'll hear a nasty noise if that happens."
Sir Francis, an experienced motorist in his own right, knew what Smith meant.
"Therefore, you use the clutch in your car. The driving disc is separated from the flywheel disc and you can shift gears noiselessly. This is exactly how it works in this watch."
"You're saying, this watch has a driving disc?"
"Yes, Sir. Look here" - he took another drawing from his desk.
"This pinion 'M' with those little spikes on its front face is freewheeling on the center shaft of the watch movement, driven by the movement's second wheel, 'P'. Fixed to the chronograph's second hand is this plastic disc, 'N', you see?
Upon pusher operation, a spring presses the movement's flywheel disc to the chronograph's driving disc", at which time he pressed both his hands together, "and the chronograph is running. When you press the button again, the lever lifts the flywheel", he removed his hands from each other, "and the chronograph stops."
"Ingenious!", Sir Francis admitted.
"Yes, and absolutely reliable."
Sir Francis nodded. This was exactly what he had been looking for. When the two men finally said good-bye, the young Smith promised him the delivery of his watch "in a few weeks" - Pierce watches were very sought after, both here and on the continent, and the company's capacities more like medium size.
So Sir Francis was very happy with the parcel Smith's delivery boy had handed to him, just three weeks later, and he duly admired the watch inside.
Image courtesy of A. Busack, Wedel/Holst., Germany
Image courtesy of A. Busack, Wedel/Holst., Germany
Some Pierce History
Ever since its founding in Bienne in 1888 by Léon Levi and his brothers the company focused on manufacturing chronographs, which hadn't taken center stage back then. When the Swiss watch industry was reorganized during the post-1918 crisis the most movement producers joined Ebauches S.A., kind of a monopoly that reigned the movement market and was allowed to bar certain unwanted watch makers from movement delivery.
Pierce reacted stubbornly, as usual, and started to produce in-house movements in 1923. They made sure to walk off the beaten path in order to avoid patent infringements, and while doing so they hit upon interesting technical solutions. Example given, the linear automatic (patented in 1933) in which a weight running on a rack wound the watch; a wrist alarm of adjustable alarm volume (the 'Duofon'); a watch adjustable from the outside (Correctomatic); and, of course, the vertical chronograph coupling so vividly explained to Sir Francis by the young Mr. Smith.
During the quartz crisis Pierce was acquired by a company named Hadra (Société Informatique Hadra). Still, Pierce didn't make it. In the 1990s watches with the traditional name became available again - now running on ETA movements. Things had come full circle, after all.*
The chronograph calibre Pierce 130
The most important difference between a conventional chronograph and Pierce's cal 130 has been described above by the younger Smith: a spring-loaded vertical clutch patterned by the clutch used in automobiles connects and separates movement and chronograph mechanism: the running flywheel disc gets pressed against the chronograph's standing drive disc. Tiny spikes on the Flywheel support the process which works surprisingly well and accurate. (I'll describe the issues with this type of coupling in a minute.)
There is another feature hidden from the casual observer's unarmed eye. Despite there is a 60-minute register, a minute register wheel is looked for in vain. Instead, the cal. 130's minute register wheel is driven directly from the barrel, i.e., it's not coupled to the chronograph mechanism. It was expected that the loss-free power transmission from the barrel to the minute register would allow for a more even movement of the minute register hand. Pierce attempted, without much success, to "sell" as an advantage what is commonly seen as the main shortcoming of such a register: watch owners with no or little experience with this kind of register were prone to one-minute-misreadings. (To make matters worse, the adjustment of the mechanism which transports power from the barrel to the register only while the chronograph actually runs, is nothing for average watchmakers.) The attempt to avoid patent infringements had taken Pierce far far away ... and they admitted this fact by incorporating conventional minute register actuation from the chronograph center wheel in the cal. 134, the successor to the pioneer cal. 130.
The caliber 130 is technically interesting and bristles with stunning (and good) detail solutions. Nevertheless, it was a failure - particularly due to the uncommon creeping minute register. On the other hand, the succeeding cal 134 won over the market with flying colors - one can even talk of a "people's chronograph". The British Army - Pierce's biggest customer - equipped their medical corps's doctors from 1941 with water- and shockproofed Pierce chronographs. Another proof for the quality of the solution found was warried by the fact that Pierce became one of the first watch producers who received chronometer certification for a chronograph as demonstrated by this advertising from 1943:
There are many 134-equipped chronographs on the market. Such good availability makes them comparatively cheap, despite convincing technical details like column wheel and vertical clutch. In fact they're traded way below comparable Valjoux movements like the 22/23 which sell at about double the asking price for a 134. There's another reason why the 134 lacks success in the vintage market. In many 134s the chronograph mechanism is inoperable. This is caused by the driving disk material, which deteriorates with age, a process accelerated by aggressive cleaning chemicals like benzine. Its crumbs fall into the movement and finally stop it. A watchmaker can clean the movement, but there are no spare drive discs anymore. The watch will run, but the chronograph will not. This knowledge about missing spare parts contributes to Pierce chronographs' trading beneath their actual value, too.*
Only few cal. 130-equipped Pierces have survived, and even less in such a condition. Few, if any show up on the Internet, I've seen one on a watch fair in Munich, but in worse shape, and with a seller who refused to open its back lid - I take it, then, that it was actually a 134. After a long search I hit upon an ebay ad from a seller where I had bought some chronographs before. I read 'genuine condition' and that it would be supplied with a period wooden box, and was lucky with my bid.
When I got it I realized that "genuine condition" meant exactly that: everything in this watch hails from the 1930s. I had planned for the wristband, but not for the rest. It ran badly and stopped after a few hours, regardless of whether the chronograph was running or not. Since the seller offered warranty I returned the watch and we settled for repair. The watchmaker cleaned it, oiled it and after a while I received it back. Now it was running but when I pressed the button the chronograph second began to dance wildly - the tell-tale sign of a worn-out drive disc. This particular watchmaker produces discs himself, so when I received it a third time, the chronograph ran just fine.
But it wasn't over yet: the power reserve allowed some 20 minutes with chronograph in operation, and some tiny six hours without the chronograph. The watchmaker solved the puzzle quickly: the mainspring came from a lot of weak springs shipped to Pierce in 1946 or 1947. I believe it was then that the mainspring replaced a broken one in this watch, by the late 1940s or early 1950s. Because the watch didn't run well afterwards, it probably was put aside ... and so it survived. Thus damage brought about blessing.
Now it has received a new mainspring and runs fine. Of course, it doesn't get anywhere near chronometer precision, but it's good enough for me. The old thing hopefully likes the residence I've offered it.*
And what happened to Sir Francis?
He had no idea that Lady Wandsworth would surprise him on that very weekend with the news of her being in the family way, and even less so that she would wheedle him into giving up flying. Anyhow, he rarely wore the watch, and forgot about it almost completely. (After the war he gave it to his game warden who had it serviced around 1950. On occasion of this service, it may have received the bad mainspring.)
The Tiger Moth he gave to his younger brother (from his father's second marriage) with whom he had flown very often. The young man completed his pilot's education, before he entered the RAF in 1938 and shot down half a dozen German bombers in the Battle of England.
But this is a different story.*
Plot and party are fictional, of course. The information about the Pierce company and their chronograph calibers 130 and 134 I found here:
 Michael Ph. Horlbeck, "Lexikon der Uhrenmarken", HEEL-Verlag, Königswinter 2009
 Gerd-R. Lang/Reinhard Meis: "Chronographen Armbanduhren - Die Zeit zum Anhalten", Callwey-Verlag, München 1992
 Helmut Kahlert/Richard Mühe/Gisbert L. Brunner: "Armbanduhren", 5. Aufl., Callwey-Verlag, München 1996
Thank you very much for your interest!