Found – Heuer’s Very First Automatic Chronograph (Chronomatic Autavia)

For years, Heuer collectors have stared at the image – its shows three Heuer chronographs, each bearing only the Heuer shield at the top of the dial and the word “Chronomatic” at the bottom of the dial.  There are no model names on the dials, but the Heuer enthusiasts know exactly what they are – the Carrera, the Monaco and the Autavia that Heuer introduced in 1969, as the world’s first automatic chronographs.

Advertisement from March 1969, showing Heuer’s three automatic chronographs (Chronomatics)

This was the first image that Heuer used to market its first automatic chronographs – the Chronomatics.  The images of these three watches appeared in the March 3, 1969 press release in which Heuer introduced its first automatic chronographs and in industry publications that first presented these watches to the world, including the Swiss Watch and Jewelry Journal, the official publication of the March 1969 Basel Fair.

Image from Heuer’s March 3, 1969 Press Release, for the introduction of the first automatic chronographs (Chronomatics)

And when the introduction of the Chronomatics was done, these were the images that appeared in catalogs offering the watches for sale, for example in this Chronosport catalog from 1969.

Image from 1969 Chronosport catalog, showing Heuer’s Chronomatic models

As we have stared at these image of the first Chronomatics all these years, we have asked some fundamental questions:

  • Did these three watches exist, in the metal, or were they simply drawings, the figment of someone’s imagination?
  • If the three watches actually existed, are the images from a photograph of the watches or were they an artist’s drawings of the watches? If these are photographs, were they retouched or altered?
  • We notice that all three chronographs indicate 32 minutes and 22 seconds. Does this support the “real watches” theory or the “art department” theory?
  • Why are there no model names on the dials – Carrera, Monaco and Autavia? Were these three dials very early prototypes, produced before Heuer had decided on the names of the three models?
  • And then the big question – If these three watches actually existed in 1969, where are they now? Deep in a landfill near Bienne; in an old watchmaker’s sock drawer; or in the display case of a reclusive collector?  Why haven’t we seen any of these three watches, in the metal?

Recently, a vintage watch collector in Switzerland has had the amazing good fortune to find and purchase the Chronomatic Autavia shown in this image, and to restore the watch to its former glory.  In this posting, we will tell the story of this amazing Autavia chronograph, which occupies a unique place in Heuer’s history and in the history of the wristwatch itself.

Confirmed – This is the First Chronomatic Autavia

Studying the details of the dial and hands of the watch that our friend purchased, we see four distinctive “finger prints”, all of which seem to match the Chronomatic Autavia shown in the mysterious photograph of the watch from 1969.

  • First, the style and size of the word “Chronomatic” on the dial seems to match the lettering in the advertisement. The size of the word “Chronomatic” is considerably later than when it appeared above the Heuer shield on the production models.
  • Second, this dial has one feature that is different from any other automatic Autavia that we have seen: The markers for “2”, “4”, “8” and “10” — which are adjacent to the registers — are shorter than the other five markers (at 11, 12, 1, 5 and 7). When we study the photograph, we see this same curiosity — the 2-4-8-10 markers are shorter than the other markers.

  • Third, the markers in the photograph have a distinctive style — not quite like those used on the previous Autavia 2446C dials (that preceded the Chronomatic Autavias) and not quite like the ridged markers that would soon be used on the first production models of the Chronomatic Autavias.
  • Finally, the tail of the chronograph second hand is distinctive, and we seem to have a perfect match between the watch that Jean-Luc found (shown below) and the 1969 photograph.

We consider all these elements, and can be highly confident that the watch recently purchased by Jean-Luc is, in fact, the watch that appears in the publicity photos from 1969.  Yes, ladies and gentlemen – Heuer stakes a valid claim to producing the world’s first automatic chronographs, and this watch, recently purchased by Jean-Luc is the very first of the first — one of the first three automatic chronograph produced by Heuer (which may also make it one of the first three automatic chronographs produced by anyone, but no need to get into that debate right now).

Finding the Very First Chronomatic Autavia

Having confirmed that this Chronomatic Autavia is, in fact, the watch shown in the first publicity photographs from 1969, we turn to 2015, and ask Jean-Luc some questions about his discovery of the watch.

Q:  Can you tell us about yourself and your watch collecting hobby?

My name is Jean-Luc Gremaud, and I live in Switzerland, in the Fribourg area.  This is around an hour from La Chaux-de-Fonds, by car.  I have been collecting watches for approximately 15 years, primarily chronographs spanning from the 1940s through the 1980s.  My favorite brands to collect are Heuer, Universal Geneve, Zenith and Omega.  My first watch acquisition was definitely one of my most memorable, as I traded away my a VW Golf GLI cabriolet (Série 1) for a Vacheron & Constantin white gold powered by a Cal 1001 movement.

Q:  How did you come to purchase the Chronomatic Autavia that we are discussing? 

I purchased a collection of parts for vintage Heuer chronographs, from a gentleman in La Chaux-de-Fonds.  He is a friend who is involved in the watch industry, and also sells watches (and parts).  The parts that he offered seemed to be from three or four vintage Autavias, but each of the watches had been disassembled.

All the parts — dials, hands, cases, movements, pushers, etc. – were in four small boxes.  These are the relatively small, flat boxes used for watch parts.

Q:  When you purchased the parts, did you realize that they included a Chronomatic Autavia or any other very rare old Heuers? 

No.  At the time that we discussed the purchase of the parts, I didn’t realize that there was a Chronomatic Autavia among the parts.  I noticed an Autavia case, that had features suggesting that it might be a prototype.

It was only a couple hours later, when I was back at home picking through the parts, that I realized that there was a Chronomatic among the parts.  I was familiar with the story of Heuer’s Chronomatics, so as soon as I saw the word “Chronomatic” on the dial, I realized that I had just purchased a very rare watch.

That same evening, I have did some further research (on the OnTheDash website, of course) and found the 1969 Chronomatic ad.  That’s when I realized that my Chronomatic was the one used in the first advertisements.

Q:  Was the Chronomatic Autavia complete or were there any parts that are missing?

A:  The parts that I purchased included all the parts that were needed to reassemble the Chronomatic Autavia, even including the relatively minor elements such as the pushers and chronograph needles.  In terms of the movement, there were several movements included among the parts.  The movement that seemed to be earliest was not complete, so I have used one of the other movements in the Chronomatic.  Of course, I have all the parts, which seem to include the original parts from the watch.

Q:  We notice that there were three bezels included in the parts that you purchased.  How did you decide which bezel to use when you reassembled the Chronomatic Autavia?

A:  Yes, there were three bezels included among the parts, all of them with the Minutes / Hours (MH) inserts.  If you look carefully at the “teeth” at the edge of the bezels, you will see that two are alike and one is different.  I decided to use the “different” on for the Chronomatic Autavia, on the theory that this one was most likely to have been used on this prototype.

Q:  Can you tell us what you plan to do with this amazing watch?

A:  Well, I have owned the watch for only a few months, and I have enjoyed wearing it, from time to time.  Currently, I plan to keep the watch as part of my collection.    At least if I ever decide to sell it, or trade it away, my research has helped me understand the special history and value of this watch.

Q:  What about all the other parts that you purchased?  Have you been able to reassemble any complete watches from these parts?

A:  Yes.  The other treasure from this lot of parts has been a Reference 1163 Autavia, with a white dial, the one that some collectors call the “Great White.”  My purchase included all the parts required to reassemble this watch and the serial number on the case confirms that this case “belonged” to the watch.

There was also a GMT case (Reference 11630) and dial, and many of the parts, but there was no movement for this watch.  Perhaps one of your readers will know of a Caliber 14 movement that will allow me to complete this watch as well!

Every Collector’s Dream

Collectors love the “finds”.  Last month, we read of what is thought to be the most valuable “find” of barn cars in history, 60 cars that had been untouched for 50 years.  Last week, Hodinkee told the story of a gentleman who purchased a LeCoultre Deep Sea Alarm watch at a Goodwill Thrift Store, and sold it to a leading dealer for over $35,000.

We search through antique malls, yard sales and flea markets, hoping to find the buried treasure.  The less adventurous among us sit at our computers, hoping for the late night BuyItNow bargains on eBay.   As we go out into the world after Jean-Luc’s amazing find, we should be encouraged.  Yes, Jean-Luc had the good fortune to find Heuer’s first Chronomatic Autavia, but somewhere out there — in an old shop, in a sock drawer, or among some boxes of old watch parts — we know that there are the two siblings, the first Chronomatic Carrera and the first Chronomatic Monaco.

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never is, but always to be blessed:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man

Good luck in your searches and thanks to Jean-Luc for sharing his amazing find with our community.

Additional information and references

  • For all the Heuer and Chronomatic advertisements appearing in the March 1969 Swiss Watch and Jewelry Journal, click here.
  • To see the complete 1969 Chronosport catalog, from May 1969, click here.  The advertisements for Heuer’s three Chronomatic models are in supplementary sheets, here and here.
  • See our gallery of images for this posting to see additional images of the first Chronomatic Autavia, both as found by Jean-Luc and after its restoration.

  

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Special thanks to Jean-Luc for sharing his story of this amazing find and to Laurent Bouzoulouk (Noodia) for serving as translator, in preparing this English version of the interview with Jean-Luc.

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Jeff Stein
February 1, 2015

Heuer Logo (White on Black)