Welcome to “Watches You Should Know,” a new bi-weekly (the once-every-two-weeks kind) column highlighting little-known watches new and old that have interesting stories or have had a surprising impact on the industry.
Try counting to five within one second. Not too hard right? Now, try counting to ten within a second. That’s…not as easy. But that is, essentially, what a high-frequency watch’s second hand is doing every second. As you’d probably imagine, making a watch that ticks ten times a second (or running at 36,000 beats per hour) is a lot harder than making one that operates at half that speed, and as such very few manufacturers do it.
Seiko’s Hi-Beat watches probably come to mind if you love quick-ticking timepieces, and Zenith’s El Primero is a high-frequency legend, too. Girard-Perregaux’s Gyromatic of the ’60s is fairly well-known amongst watch enthusiasts, and aside from a couple of other high-beat watches here and there, there aren’t many wristwatches that move ten times within one Mississippi. One of the early innovators and mass-produced high-beat watches, though, is the Longines Ultra-Chron, and it remains an exceptional vintage value today.
Debuting in 1967, the Ultra-Chron was built to celebrate Longines’ centenary. With Girard-Perregaux’s Gyromatic debuting a year before and Seiko’s Lord Marvel around the same time, the Ultra-Chron was one of the earliest watches to operate at 36,000 bph at a time when the standard was just half that. According to Analog/Shift, the problem with these early high-beat movements was an increase in friction, resulting in higher consumption of lubricants, thus necessitating more frequent services. Longines solution was to use a so-called “dry-lubricant” called molybdenum bi-sulfide.
When it debuted, Longines claimed in its advertisements that the Ultra-Chron was “the world’s most accurate watch,” and was guaranteed accurate to within a minute per month (or about two seconds per day). That is a hard claim to verify today, but there’s little doubt that high-beat watches tend to be particularly accurate. High-beat watches from Seiko and Girard-Perregaux won top prizes at the observatory trials in Neuchatel in the late ’60s, and watches operating at higher frequencies are noted to be more resistant to variations in accuracy caused by mechanical shocks.
The high-beat revolution didn’t catch on so much beyond the late ’60s and early ’70s, perhaps due to the growing ubiquity of the quartz watch, but the Ultra-Chron did remain in production well into the 1970s. As such, Ultra-Chrons are plentiful on the vintage market and can be had from anywhere between a few hundred dollars to a couple thousand, depending on the condition and design. The Ultra-Chron also offers buyers a significant amount of variety, too: the movement made its way into a multitude of designs, from dress watches, to field watches to divers. You can even get a square-cased Ultra-Chron if you like.
Most people don’t buy a mechanical watch, especially a vintage one, for its purported accuracy. And really, that’s no reason to buy an old Ultra-Chron either. Instead, it’s the fascinating technical solution itself that’s most impressive, and if you love the idea of a high-beat watch — and more so, its mesmerizingly quick, sweeping seconds hand — the Ultra-Chron is a fantastic entry into that niche.