The ETA 7750 movement, also known as the TAG Heuer Calibre 16, is perhaps the most successful automatic chronograph movement ever produced. While it has become fashionable to regard the 7750 as a generic, “common” movement, the calibre is easily able to meet COSC Chronometre standards (in top spec) and can be found in a range of high-end watch brands, including IWC, Tudor, Panerai, Hublot and, of course, TAG Heuer.
But as the watch world prepares to mark the 40th anniversary of the movement in 2014, from a TAG Heuer perspective, the 7750 era is drawing to a close.
The story of the 7750 is one that mirrors the fortunes of the Swiss watch industry- born during a burst of innovation in the early 1970s, discontinued during the quartz revolution of the mid-1970s, only to be revived in the mid-1980s as the industry stabilised.
And by the late 1990s, the 7750 was the most popular automatic chronograph movement on the planet. Not bad for a calibre that should have died in 1975, if not for an act of corporate disobedience.
Developing the 7750
The 7750 was developed by Valjoux, a legendary movement maker that was part of the giant ASUAG conglomerate. Created in 1931, AUSAG consolidated many of the independent movement makers in Switzerland. By the early 1970s, AUSAG included several watch brands, such as Certina, Edox, Eterna, Oris and Longines. The origins of the 7750 spring from another famous name from the past, Venus, which became part of Valjoux in 1966.
Many of the world’s best known automatic chronograph movements were developed in the arms race of the late 1960s. Between 1969-1974, there was a golden age of innovation, with the Heuer- Breitling- Hamilton Chronomatic (1969), Seiko 6139 (1969), Zenith El Primero (1969) and Lemania 5100 (1973) all being launched.
Although Valjoux was the leader in manual-wind chronographs, it was slow to the self-winding party, appointing Edmond Capt to lead the development of a new movement in the early 1970s. Based on the manual-wind Valjoux 7733 (itself a descendent of the Venus 188), the 7750 was first available in watches in 1974, having been one of the first movements to be designed with the aid of a computer.
A reliable, cost-effective calibre, the 7750 is relatively thick and large compared to its contemporary competitors. There is also a sonic signature: the sound of the rotor. The 7750 is mono-directional (only winds in one direction), and so has a relatively large and heavy oscillating weight that can reach high speeds when rotating in its non-winding direction. Because it free-spins in one direction, you can sometimes feel the movement “wobbling” on your wrist. It’s alive!
The first versions of the Valjoux 7750 came in two frequencies- 21,600 bph and 28,800 bph, each with 17 jewels.
Despite a promising start (an estimated 100,000 units in its first year), the Valjoux 7750 was all but dead by 1975, when the decision was taken to stop production. The advent of low-cost quartz movements from Japan had all but destroyed demand for expensive Swiss mechanical watches. Despite stopping production in 1975, such was the drop in demand for the movement, that supply lasted until the early 1980s.
However, just as happened with the El Primero at Zenith, local management ignored the orders to destroy the dies and equipment used to manufacture the 7750, instead hiding the equipment away from corporate eyes.
Heuer and the Valjoux 7750
The 7750 first appeared in 1977, when Heuer launched two new models- the Kentucky (below) and the Pasadena. While the Kentucky had a relatively short life (1977, 1978), the Pasadena was available until the end of Heuer family ownership in 1982.
In addition, Heuer launched a second-generation Heuer Montreal in 1981 (below), a design which was a similar to the Pasadena.
While Valjoux was part of AUSAG, Lemania had been part of the rival conglomerate SSIH. When AUSAG and SSIH came together in the early 1980s to form Swatch Group, some rationalisation was needed. Given that the new group already had movement experts ETA and Valjoux, Lemania was deemed surplus to requirements, and so was spun out of SSIH as a new independent company, Nouvelle Lemania (today, Lemania has returned to the fold- it is part of Swatch Group- essentially what Breguet call their “in-house” movements are made by the Lemania).
Nouvelle Lemania combined with Piaget to buy Heuer in 1982, and so wanted to make sure that Heuer used Lemania automatic movements- the Lemania 5100 and the LWO 283. And so in the early 1980s, it seemed like the use of the Valjoux 7750 by Heuer would be a relatively short chapter in brand’s history, especially given that there had been no new 7750’s produced for more than 7 years.
1985: Re-birth of the 7750
Valjoux began to expand the number of variations of the 7750, offering two, three and four (!), as well as a moon-phase complication.
Why bring back the 7750? As former Heuer watchmaker and founded of Chronoswiss Gerd-Rüdiger Lang told WatchTime in 2008:
“The Valjoux 7750 is characterized, on the one hand, by its extraordinary toughness and its very good, nearly indestructible self-winding mechanism. On the other hand, it also represents a good cost-benefit ratio. And it’s very easy to service, as long as no work is needed on the mechanism for tallying the elapsed hours, which is a difficult item to service on any chronograph. Some improvements have been made since the 7750 was designed.
For example, in the early 1990s, Chronoswiss was the first company to produce and insert a blocking-lever made of metal. ETA later adopted this change and incorporated it into its movements.
We therefore regard this caliber as a very contemporary device. Of course, we have no other option, since there’s no other model with a built in chronograph. We would like to see a reduction in the overall height, and would welcome versions with a big date display and power-reserve indicator. But most important of all, we hope that this model will continue to be manufactured for a long time.”
– Gerd-Rüdiger Lang, founder and owner of Chronoswiss Uhren GmbH
With production of the 7750 back around 200,000 units by the 1990s, the movement became the default chronograph movement for many watch brands- and given Swatch Group’s monopoly on supply, there was little incentive for most brands to invest in developing an alternative.
The 1990s: TAG Heuer and the 7750
TAG Heuer relaunched the 7750 with the S/el Chronograph (below) and 2000 Chronograph in 1997, signalling TAG Heuer began to re-introduce mechanical movements across its range.
Despite this, the vast majority of TAG Heuer’s chronograph offering was still quartz powered. And just as it took the change in ownership in 1982 to seal the end of the 7750 for Heuer, it was the arrival of LVMH as owner of TAG Heuer in 2000 that brought a new strategy- a focus on mechanical chronographs.
2000s- The TAG Heuer Calibre 16
The 7750- which would lose the Valjoux name in the 2000s and became known as the “ETA 7750”- was rolled out across other models in the TAG Heuer range, such as the Link series in 2001. But it was a new model range in 2005 that accelerated the use of the movement- the Carrera.
While TAG Heuer had launched a re-edition Carrera in 1996, the range was more of a retro-novelty rather than a volume seller. That changed in 2005 when TAG Heuer introduced the first new Carrera design for more than 20 years (below).
The Calibre 16 was available across much of the TAG Heuer range- Carrera, Link (below) and Aquaracer.
2010: Arrival of the 1887
Regular readers will recall that Swatch Group has been fighting Swiss regulators for some time to allow them to stop having to supply competitors, such as TAG Heuer, with movements. Faced with the risk of losing access to the ETA 7750, TAG Heuer bought the rights to the Seiko 6S78 movement, which it then modified and produced in Switzerland as the TAG Heuer Calibre 1887.
A much newer design that the 7750, the Calibre 1887 shares the same dial layout, making it an easy replacement for the ETA movement. However, as TAG Heuer learned, the industrialisation process for any new movement is a significant exercise. As demand for TAG Heuer’s watches grew significantly in the 2010’s, the supply of the Calibre 1887 could not keep up with demand, meaning the Calibre 16 was still needed
Faced with growing demand, but shrinking supply of the ETA 7750, TAG Heuer (like many in the Swiss watch industry) turned to another Swiss company that had been quietly assembling the ETA 7750 for years as a sub-contractor to ETA- Sellita.
Sellita SW500- 2012
As the patent protection rights elapsed for some of ETA’s older movements, Sellita has acted to fill the gap in the market by producing what are essentially clone versions of ETA movements. Launched in 2012, the Sellita SW500 is essentially the ETA 7750 made by Sellita….who used to help make the 7750 for ETA anyway!
Today, TAG Heuer offer the Calibre 16 in several models- sometimes that means the ETA 7750, sometimes it means that your watch will have the Sellita SW500.
The end of the Calibre 16?
With production of the Calibre 1887 (above) increasing and the new Calibre 1969 coming in stream in 2014, TAG Heuer’s reliance on the ETA 7750 has significantly reduced…which is fortunate, given that Swatch Group will almost certainly stop supplying TAG Heuer as soon as it legally can. And so while the Calibre 16 will continue for at least some time, that will now mean the Sellita SW500, and the end of an era.
While collectors regularly line-up to praise the history of the Lemania 5100 (even forgiving its plastic components!) and the El Primero, you won’t read many gushing about the history of the ETA 7750, despite its fascinating story.
Perhaps that’s because the distinctive 12-6-9 layout isn’t as classic as the 3-6-9 tri-compax style, perhaps its because of the movements bulky nature. In many ways, the success of the 7750 is its undoing- its ubiquity. Watch brands seeking a well priced, rugged, accurate movement all reached the same conclusion- use a 7750.
And in a world where exclusivity and uniqueness are favoured, the popularity of the ETA 7750 is perhaps its greatest weakness.
– Seiko quartz: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watch#Electronic_movements
– Chuck Maddox: http://chronomaddox.com/
– Sellita SW500- www.sellita.ch
– Valjoux 7750/ Heuer- OntheDash.com
– Heuer Montreal 7750- http://heuerville.wordpress.com/