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How Chopard Created One of the Best Automatic Movements Ever
A Chopard caliber 1.96 recommended read
I wrote an in-depth article for Subdial on what many consider to be among the best modern automatic movements ever, the Chopard caliber 1.96:
“The list of automatic movements that might seriously lay claim to the title of ‘best automatic movement ever produced’ is short. Ask around and you might get answers like the Patek Philippe 27-460, the brand’s second automatic caliber; the Jaeger-LeCoultre caliber 920 (adopted by Audemars Piguet, Patek, and others, and used in the original Royal Oak and Nautilus); or legendary calibers from Rolex and Omega.
But one credible answer comes from a manufacture that might surprise some: The Chopard L.U.C. caliber 1.96.”
Chopard has its historic roots as a watchmaking and jewelry house — its founder, Louis-Ulysse Chopard, was a watchmaker — but in the 1980s it re-dedicated its efforts to becoming a true manufacture capable of producing an in-house movement that rivaled those from Patek Philippe and others. It first set up shop in Fleurier, enlisting the help of master watchmaker Michel Parmigiani. But after a couple of years, Chopard brought the project completely in-house, dedicating nearly four years to creating its own in-house movement from scratch before delivering 20 prototypes of the caliber 1.96 in December 1995.
Taking a Loupe to the Chopard Caliber 1.96
The resulting caliber 1.96 was a 27mm movement that could be precisely regulated to chronometer standards, featuring a micro-rotor that wound two mainspring barrels and featured a 70-hour power reserve.
Respected writer Walt Odets wrote that “[f]rom the standpoint of both design and execution, the caliber 1.96 is probably the finest automatic movement being produced in Switzerland.” So what made the caliber 1.96 so good?
First, there’s the fact that it’s one of the most beautiful movements this side of the Patek Philippe Seal. Let’s start with the certifications: the caliber 1.96 is COSC certified, attesting to the caliber’s accuracy. It also carries the Geneva Seal (Poinçon de Genève), certifying the movement’s quality of craftsmanship and finishing.
From a technical perspective, a few of the most important features of the caliber 1.96 are its Breguet overcoil hairspring and swan neck regulator. Breguet overcoil hairsprings are designed to improve the concentricity (centering) of the hairspring by letting it “breathe” on both sides (as compared to a flat hairspring, which only breathes on one side); it is also more difficult to manufacture than the more commonly used flat hairspring. This in particular helps with variation (i) throughout the watch’s 70-hour power reserve and (ii) between horizontal and vertical positions.
“I wanted to create a special, dedicated entity because it was obvious to go any further, we had to build a unit to produce ébauches,” CEO Karl-Friedrich Scheufele told Europa Star in 2021. For Chopard, the goal was independence, to create a movement on par with other historic Swiss manufacturers. KFS wanted a new caliber that would be highly reliable, feature a micro-rotor and large power reserve, as well as a caliber that was aesthetically beautiful and finished to the highest degree. He also wanted a movement that could be easily modified by adding complications so that Chopard’s fine watchmaking could grow.
Collecting the L.U.C. 1860
After the caliber 1.96 had been perfected, Chopard continued to spare no expense in developing a wristwatch fit for its mechanical masterpiece.
“Nowadays, the First Series L.U.C. 1860 is the grail of Chopard,” Chopard Director of Patrimony Juan Garcia said.
Chopard produced the First Series of the L.U.C. 1860 with the caliber 1.96 from about 1997 through 2002. This First Series features three different references; each was to be produced in four precious metals – yellow gold, pink gold, white gold, and platinum.
Because of the degree of hand-finishing required of each 1.96, production of the caliber was extremely limited in its early years, with total output likely not close to comparing with the likes of Patek Philippe, Jaeger LeCoultre, or Lange. As a point of comparison, KFS said that in 2021 Chopard produced 4,000 movements for its entire L.U.C. line. Keep in mind that over the last twenty-five years, Chopard Manufacture has scaled up from a handful of employees to a few hundred.
In the full article, Chopard also gave us some new information about actual production numbers of the first generation L.U.C. 1860. While Chopard had intended to produce 1,860 examples of the original reference and 100 examples of the other two limited editions, it turns out they never finished any of these production runs, producing far fewer watches than we realized.
The Impact of the Chopard Caliber 1.96
Here’s how the article closes:
“The L.U.C. and the caliber 1.96 are emblematic of fine watchmaking in the 1990s: a family-owned, independent house enlisting the help of a master independent watchmaker to spare no expense in developing a new micro-rotor movement that competed with the world’s best. The investment in horology came at a make-or-break moment for Chopard and its watchmaking department, and it succeeded.
‘I always like to talk about Lange, because our journey is similar,’ Director of Patrimony Garcia said. “Lange re-launched in 1994 with its first wristwatches. We re-started in 1996 with our first caliber, and then introduced our first 1860.”
‘KFS was very much motivated by Patek and Lange & Sohne,’ Garcia continued. ‘Chopard had a family vision it was trying to re-create. We’re the last family business that produces both watches and jewelry, and it’s a great honor to still be independent.’
This continued independence is no doubt thanks in part to the bold decision to revive Chopard as a proud manufacture, and one capable of producing one of the best automatic movements ever, the Chopard caliber 1.96.”
In all, I wrote 3,000+ words about the story of the caliber 1.96, what makes it perhaps the greatest modern watch movement, and how to collect the original LUC 1860.
Head to Subdial to read the full article on the original Chopard LUC 1860 and caliber 1.96.
Fun fact: a young Jean-Frédéric Dufour, now the CEO of Rolex, was charged with organizing this new in-house manufacturer.