It’s no secret that we’re big fans of Longines’s Heritage collection. We reviewed the Conquest Heritage as well as the Legend Diver, both great watches that allow us to relive Longines watchmaking history by marrying mid-century aesthetics with modern materials. What’s unfortunate about those pieces, however, is that they’re only recreations on the outside. Don’t get me wrong, they’re beautiful, well constructed and worth the money, but the movements inside of them at their original times of production were in-house calibers. So while today’s Heritage models give us vintage-inspired cases and dials, inside they are ETA 2824s that, although venerable and proven, aren’t as special as, say, caliber 290.
Longines has a storied history in watchmaking innovation, specifically chronographs, so shouldn’t we see watches in the Heritage collection that reflect its mechanical prowess? In 1878, they produced the world’s first column-wheel chronograph. Several decades later Longines would go on to patent the flyback chronograph and produce several more notable mechanical chronographs, but it’s this column-wheel chronograph that we’re concerned with today.
Early chronograph movements ran the risk of the user engaging the reset lever at the wrong time, like while the stopwatch was running, which would ultimately jam or damage the gear train. In order to prevent this, Longines developed the column-wheel actuator that properly synchronized the various levers and wouldn’t let the user make this mistake. Today, column-wheel actuators are components found in higher end chronograph movements, as the complexity in manufacturing them gave rise to the more ubiquitous cam-actuated, or coulisse-lever, chronographs that we see in such popular chronograph movements that are powered by the Valjoux 7750.
In 2011, Longines added the Column-Wheel Chronograph to its Heritage collection to commemorate this technological achievement by placing its caliber L688 behind a vintage-inspired dial and case. Three years later after its launch, it’s still a bargain if you’re looking to purchase a column-wheel chronograph. Not only does it offer an interesting movement, but its design is a versatile confluence of mid-century dress watches and racing chronographs.
A vintage-inspired and ultra legible dial
There’s a subtle tug-of-war on the dial between dressy and sporty that results in a balanced and versatile look we expect from Heritage collection. There’s, of course, the presence of a chronograph that speaks directly to Longines’s tradition of sports timekeeping, but the simplicity in the dial and all of its polished silver is pure elegance at the same time.
It begins with a matte cream dial. Polished silver batons sparkle and mark the hours around the dial, making room for the chronograph registers at 3 and 6 as well as the 9 o’clock running seconds dial, all of which feature a subtle circular grain texture that you’ll only notice on close inspection. Small polished silver dots mark the minutes between each baton with a lumed dot standing in for the silver every five minutes. Inside the subdials are understated, polished baton style hands with blunt tips, which resemble slightly thicker versions of what you might expect from a late 1960s Heuer Carrera. Dauphine hands, though, you wouldn’t expect on a sports chronograph. Dauphine hands are often, but not necessarily, a symbol of formality; however, the polished hands here are thicker than expected with a thin strip of SuperLumiNova in the middle, making these a playful and bold rendering of a style typically reserved for a more sophisticated aesthetic. Finally, you could actually miss the stopwatch seconds hand if it’s reset to zero. It’s thin.
And that’s a good thing. Longines created an interesting foreground and background effect, effectively pushing the time of day front and center for superior, practical legibility and thereby allowing the chronograph to easily disappear from view when not in use. It’s a smart move and promotes a beautiful uncluttered dial that’s hard to complain about. Except one thing: the date. While I don’t particularly enjoy its presence, I can forgive its position. Its silver polished border around the aperture makes the window stick out and become part of the foreground while I would rather see a less prominent date. I know the complication is important to a lot of people, but without the border it could fade more into the background so, more like the chronograph, it’s there when you need it and gone when you don’t.
The perfectly sized 40mm case
Finding a modern chronograph cased at less than 42mm is increasingly challenging, especially in mid-range luxury watches. Sometimes it seems that the more accessibly priced the watch is, the more susceptible it is to having its case size inflated to attract consumers who believe bigger is better. This is not the case with the Heritage Column-Wheel Chronograph. Tastefully sized at 40mm, its fully polished stainless steel case features slender, 1960s/Heuer-style lugs that stretch its lug-to-lug distance to 47.5mm and boost the wrist presence to something like a 41mm. A thin bezel adds to the wearability, making this a good case size for even those folks who prefer larger watches. It’s only 13mm thick, which is more than acceptable for an automatic chronograph, but its height appears pronounced due to the modest case width.
Instead of using the crown to adjust the date, there is a recessed pusher on the side of the case at 10 o’clock. A small key accompanies the watch so you can access the pusher, but a paperclip and a ballpoint pen are suitable backups in case of an emergency. Rectangular pushers protrude from the 2 and 4 o’clock positions, flanking the signed and polished crown.
Starting and stopping the column-wheel chronograph feels and sounds great. The pusher offers a sure resistance as you start the chronograph and the action produces a very audible and satisfying click as the column wheel rotates and sets the counters in motion. When you compare the action of a column wheel to a cam-actuated chronograph, you’ll still get that signature resistance you expect from a mechanical chronograph but without the clunky action. You’ll also notice a column wheel results in a press that’s a little more smooth when starting, stopping and resetting the chronograph. Along with the perlaged plating and the striped, signed and skeletonized rotor, you can see the blued column wheel in action through the transparent case back.
A column wheel reincarnated and affordable
What is a column-wheel chronograph and how is it different from more typical cam-actuated, or coulisse-lever, chronographs we see in most mechanical chronographs today? Here’s a simple, relatively non-technical explanation. As you can see in the photos, the blue column wheel has asymmetrical teeth. As the chronograph pushers are pressed, the brake, clutch and reset levers fall into the spaces between them, which activate the correct functions and ensure that the various hands remain synchronized. A cam-actuated chronograph like that of a Valjoux 7750, however, utilizes a heart-shaped cam (the coulisse) that rotates with each press of the chronograph pushers to start, stop and reset the timing.
Which one is better? Collectors fawn over column wheel chronographs for several reasons. First, they’re believed to be more durable and effective at keeping the chronograph hands synchronized than their cam-actuated counterparts. Coulisse-lever chronographs are easier, and less costly, to produce while column-wheel chronographs require more precision in their design and build, resulting in smoother action and, of course, premium prices. Collectors appreciate the attention to detail and the way a column-wheel chronograph feels when you start, stop and reset the counters. These attributes don’t necessarily make column wheels superior. Cam-actuated chronographs have proven themselves throughout history in the most venerable of movements, from the Lemania 5100 to the workhorse Valjoux 7750.
Mostly haute horology watch brands like Patek Philippe and Zenith are the ones producing column-wheel chronographs today. Longines is not only credited with introducing the mechanism, but also they are making it available at a relatively affordable price with this Heritage model. ETA manufactured caliber L688.2 exclusively for Longines and you’ll find this movement and its variations in a couple of other Longines chronographs like the Conquest Classic and the Heritage Monopusher. It has 54 hours of power reserve, so if you don’t find yourself wearing this watch everyday then you might find it still alive in the case after a couple of days, which is more than you can say for your average watch housing a 7750.
Comfort with limitless versatility
The Heritage Column-Wheel Chronograph comes in a few colorways and sizes: a black dial, a panda dial (39mm) with black registers atop a white background, and finally the cream dial featured in this review. All of these models come on an alligator leather strap with a signed pin buckle. The chronograph itself adds some sportiness to the look while the clean dial and polished case finishing up the class, making this suitable for a range of occasions. The genuine alligator strap will take a few days to break in but remains comfortable even in the meantime. Contrast stitching adds a casual touch to an otherwise dressy strap. From everyday wear to a suit and tie, this watch pairs with just about anything.
The Final Word
This Longines Heritage Column Wheel Chronograph retails for $3,300, an absolutely fair price for a column-wheel chronograph with mid-century appeal. Your next best alternative will run you 3-4 times that. The vintage-inspired design toes the line between being formal and dressy in almost every aspect of the piece, making for a watch with a full range of wardrobe possibilities. As an everyday watch, it looks the part, and it’s dressed up enough for special occasions short of a black tie affair. Adjusting the date with a key is an added, but minor, inconvenience, and most collectors likely would’ve omitted the date if they were in the designer’s seat. It’s a welcome addition to the Heritage lineup as it not only provides the 1960s look and feel but incorporates an exclusive movement inside bearing technology invented by the brand over a century ago. longines.com