Today we are comparing three of the greatest dress chronographs on the market. The allure of a manually wound chronograph movement is difficult to express, yet three brands undeniably have gone further than the others in developing perfect manually wound dress chronographs for everyday wear.
The Patek Philippe 5170 is one of Patek’s modern classics, rooted in the designs of old, yet preserving the contemporary advantages of modern day manufacturing. While Patek has made many dress chronographs over the years, it’s the 5170 that stands out as the best summary of both the Patek design language over its history, and the present day market positioning of the Patek Philippe brand.
Vacheron’s Historiques collection is home to many of the best vintage reimaginings in the industry. The 1955 Cornes de Vache, based on a 1955 reference from the Vacheron archive (more on this later), brings the charm of vintage design into a modern package, with updated sizing and a sapphire caseback.
Finally, as we will cover soon, within the evolution of the broader high horology market, the Datograph is potentially the most impactful chrono in modern times. In addition to being simply an amazing piece, the watch also created the in-house movement obsession of the present day.
We will compare these three models from their histories to their movements, highlighting the differentiating factors that help inform which choice is best suited for your tastes.
While Patek Philippe rarely if ever reproduces an old reference, they almost always call upon the designs of old to inform the watches of new. The Patek Philippe reference 5170 is no exception. While the 5170 was launched in yellow gold in 2010, in actuality, the model is inspired by a plethora of vintage references from the 1930s to the 1960s, including references 130, 1463, and 1579. While these watches were in many cases on the lower end of the 30s in mm, the 5170 has adapted this design to fit a slightly larger case profile and has outfitted the piece with an in-house movement. The result is a brilliant fusion of vintage design and historical charm, a theme among these three watches.
Like the Patek, the Vacheron Constantin Historiques 1955 Cornes de Vache is a watch that rejuvenates a vintage classic for modern tastes. The original reference 6087, launched in 1955, was Vacheron’s first water resistant dress chronograph and also helped to adapt the design of the iconic teardrop lugs. Like Patek’s 5170, the Historiques 1955 Cornes de Vache has grown to 38.5mm from the original 6087’s 35mm. This reserved yet contemporary sizing allows the watch to remain dressy and classic without feeling out of place in a modern context.
Finally, the Lange Datograph. So much can be said about the development of the Datograph, but the key innovation was that in 1999, just 5 years after the inaugural collection of the reintegrated A. Lange and Söhne, the brand released a stunning manually wound chronograph with an in-house movement. It can not be emphasized enough how much of a groundbreaking move this was. The other powerhouse brands were modifying third party movements (mostly Lemania in the case of the best brands) and repackaging them after being finished and sometimes modified, in house. Lange, as the young kid on the block, came in and turned the industry standards upside down by releasing the Datograph, an audacious statement indicating that Lange was back and not playing around. Since 1999, the luxury watch market has shifted to now view in-house watchmaking as the standard for the most premium brands, and Lange played a big part in this revolution.
First up is the Patek Philippe reference 5170. While there are several versions available, today we are covering the fanciest of all, the platinum 5170P. A sunburst blue dial is accentuated by diamond applied indexes. Snailed and recessed subsidiary dials subdivide the timepiece’s beautiful display. Around the outside of the dial, the tachymeter scale is printed in milky white. The design is simple, yet purposeful. The same sentiment can be expressed about the case. A thin flowing architecture helps the piece hug the wrist. The 5170P is one of the least flashy watches to ever have diamonds set on its dial. At first glance, you may even neglect to notice their presence.
Next, the Vacheron Historiques 1955 Cornes de Vache is most prominently defined by its “bull horns” lug shape. The dial of the Cornes de Vache is much more complex than the Patek. Applied Roman numeral indexes at 12 and 6 are joined by stick markers at the rest of the indexes. One of the beautiful details on this piece is that the chronograph register and hand are blued, rather than kept satin like the time indications. This helps differentiate between the chrono functions and timekeeping functions. Like the Patek, the Vacheron is stepped and snailed on its subsidiary dials, and each scale is presented on a separate ring to add depth to the dial. This model has classic pump pushers, a hallmark of vintage chronos of this era. One notices some of the commonalities between the Vacheron and the Patek, as both pieces were based upon designs that existed in the mid-century era of high horology.
Finally, the Datograph. By far the most striking in its appearance, the Germanic tank has a black dial and substantive presence. Slab sides provide beauty in strength rather than slim elegance. Contrasting sub dials pop and a massive date accentuates a hallmark of fine Lange watches. Bold, gothic script is powerful yet surprisingly refined. While Patek and Vacheron have created two similar Swiss designs, the Datograph is a proud representation of German efficiency and dominance. The Datograph looks overbuilt in the best way possible, although some will take exception to this design approach. As is the case with some of our past comparisons, the divide between German and Swiss design ideologies exists from layout to movement.
Patek Philippe’s 5170 is powered by the caliber 29-535 PS. The in-house column wheel mechanism replaced the modified Lemania movements of the previous era. The beautiful hand wound movement is visible through the sapphire caseback. Each bridge has all edges polished to a mirror shine, black polished screws abound, and Geneva stripes decorate the surfaces of each plateau.
Next, Vacheron’s in-house caliber 1142 is designed after the layout of the Lemania 2310. The 2310 became the base for many significant movements including Patek’s CH 27-70 and the Omega 321. For a reserved dialed timepiece, the 1142 is a classy yet glowing masterpiece. It’s likely that owners will find themselves admiring the 1142 more than any other facet of the piece. Patek’s bridges seem a bit chunkier next to the Vacheron (and the Lange). Both Vaceron and Lange have introduced a bit more refinement into the visual width of these bridge components, which makes the entire movement look (at least in my opinion), a bit more elegant.
Finally, the Lange 403.031, with its pioneering caliber L951.01, is of course, distinctly A. Lange and Söhne. Of the three, the L951.01 has the most depth, and is probably the best finished. Anglage, perlage, golden chatons, black polished screws and decoupler, blued screws, a swooping swans-neck regulator, and unmistakably, the iconic free-hand engraved balance cock. This piece has a flyback mechanism, and also exploits a column wheel contraption. The monstrous L951.01 comprises over 400 individual parts, all meshing to form one of the most significant movements in the modern history of the watch industry.
Each of these watches appeals best to a slightly different customer. The 5170 is a summary of the design language of Patek throughout the years. It’s a modern watch, more modern than the Vacheron, yet, it is also the culmination of decades of design from Patek. The brand has since released more dress chronographs, but the 5170 feels the most traditionally situated and classically proportioned. One of the advantages of this 5170 over other dress chronographs is the fact that it simultaneously is dressy and casual, lending itself well to wear in many applications.
The Historiques 1955 Cornes de Vache is in my opinion an enthusiast’s choice. It’s a lesser known model than the 5170, but deserves just as much attention if not more. The watch is perfectly executed and feels modern and vintage at the exact same time. This is really hard to achieve. Having watched many brands fail in vintage reissues, this watch stands out alongside the other Historiques collection pieces as a legitimately perfect piece. This triump makes the Historiques 1955 Cornes de Vache one of the best dress chronographs on the market.
The Lange Datograph 403.031 is the most unique of the three. No other watch in the industry looks like a Datograph, for better or worse. It’s a more polarizing design, but in the past years we have seen demand for first generation Datographs continue to rise. The impact the Datograph had on the industry as a whole has caused a stir in recent years. It is honestly surprising that the Datograph has remained as approachable as it is. One can expect that prices will continue to tick up in the coming years as Lange moves further up the preowned food chain. Collectors who buy an early Datograph are buying a monumnetal piece of horological history.
Manually wound dress chronographs are some of the most conspicuous manifestations of fine watchmaking available. There is no denying the sophistication of movements of this kind, and no three watches better exemplify a properly executed piece the way these do. As with all the watches we choose to compare, these are among our favorites and we think you cannot go wrong. Each has a separate identity within the industry and a slightly different personality, yet all constitute brilliance in the high horology sphere.