Vintage Watches

These Watches Don’t Tell the Exact Time—and That’s the Point

Vintage Chromachron watches offer bright colors and a radically new approach to time

Originally published by Louis Westphalen on Hodinkee. 

The "Anti-stress watch." This is how the Chromachron was described; it was praised for its inability to ever display the exact time. Its colorful dial instead offers a new interpretation of time, and, dare I say, of punctuality. The Chromachron concept might not have replaced our conventional understanding of time, but it definitely challenged the standard notion of time and left a mark in wristwatch design. For these reasons and more, I've been obsessed with these weird little pieces and I've hunted them for years.

The Chromachron watch comes with a story unearthed after a personal journey.
Source: Hodinkee

The first time I saw a Chromachron watch was in the early 2000s, on a then-new website called eBay. I immediately fell under the spell of its unique look and luckily won the auction. Even more luckily, a few days later the watch eventually arrived from a remote place in Germany as a full set with its original strap and booklet. Remember, this was a time when online pictures were rudimentary at best, and online transaction safety was uncertain to say the least.

I immediately started wearing this watch at all times, especially during long hours of studying, which suddenly seemed to pass less painfully. I also compulsively searched eBay for any other Chromachron watches that I could find. I was convinced they were rare, so I did not rest until I completed my set. It only took me a few months to get all variations of my first Chromachron, but then I kept seeing other examples popping up, definitely challenging my initial notion of rarity. From the online research I had done, and the various goodies that I had collected, I knew the Chromachron idea had been developed by German artist Tian Harlan in the early 1970s, but I was about to learn much more about it.

Each case shape saw many declinations, in case finish, dial color, and even strap versions.
Source: Hodinkee

All the watches that I had sourced to this point were quartz-powered. I had seen some mechanical examples of the Chromachron, but I had never liked their square case shapes or weird lugs. So there I was, owning an embarrassing number of quartz Chromachron watch. And, like any quartz watch, the day that a battery had to be replaced finally came, but even sooner that I had anticipated. 

Therefore, I went to a local watchmaker in Paris, and for the first time saw the rather uninspiring inside of this cool watch (if you have even seen a plastic tension ring holding a mundane electric circuit, you know exactly what I am talking about). As the battery was casually swapped, I mentioned the 1970s origin of the piece to the watchmaker, and the state of my research. To my surprise, he stopped, stood up, and simply said: "I don't know anything about the watch, but what I can tell you is that this sh--ty quartz movement comes from the 1990s." Well, there went my initial conception of rarity, and any certainty about timeline or history.

Two Chromachron watches over the 1976 booklet "The Story of Color Time."
Source: Hodinkee

Back home, I immediately went back to the various sets of watches that I had gathered, and I indeed found that some of the price tags dated to the late 1980s to the early 1990s. I had initially missed that important fact, as I had solely focused on the local currency on the packaging, mostly Deutsch Marks, which had confirmed that we were talking Pre-Euro days. I also went to look deeper online, but found very little additional information.

Another of my obsessions suddenly brought the full answer, exactly when I was least expecting it. Things always seem to work out that way, don't they? As I was diving into the past of the French watchmaker Lip, I got curious about the brand's many collaborations with leading designers of the 1970s, among them Michel Boyer, Rudi Meyer, and of course Roger Tallon. This quest led me to purchase a book written by Pieter Doensen, soberly titled Watch, History of the Modern Wrist Watch. And there it was, from pages 43 to 48: Everything that I wished to know about Chromachron.

The Chromachron purposefully only gives you a sense of orientation within the day, not an exact time.
Source: Hodinkee

A single sentence gave me massive insight. "In total, Harlan designed approximately one hundred different watches." It was both enlightening and humbling, as I realized that I had only scratched the surface of the "Colour-Time" watches, the literal translation of Chromachron (which comes from Ancient Greek, by the way). The origin matched what I already knew—the concept was developed in 1971, and a 2.5m high rotating sculpture was exhibited through the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich too. Yet, it also showed that the first watches were developed in 1973, with a mechanical movement, while my quartz version appeared later, in 1981.

This German ad underlines Chromachron new concept of time based on colors rather than hours.
Source: Watch Ads 1960-2000 from Marco Strazzi via Hodinkee

Peter Doensen's book also referenced a really clever marketing tactic aimed at the U.S. market in 1976, which associated the contrarian nature of pairing an imprecise watch with the fastest mode of transportation around. "The Most Relaxed Watch on the Fastest Plane to America," was the tag line, and it marked the occasion of the first commercial flight of the Concorde. More anecdotally, the book also revealed that a song had been dedicated to the Chromachron, although it does not seem to have made it to YouTube yet (it's called "Colour Time" and it's by the Ian Butterfly Band – let us know if you know where we can hear it!).

Each color segment represents one hour.
Source: Hodinkee

No article about the Chromachron would be complete without a detailed explanation of the "Colors of Time." After all, those are the foundation of Tian Harlan's concept, so essential that he made sure that the dial would be printed in 12 steps, one printing process for each color so that the contrast is even greater. The conversion from the color time tower to wristwatches was a smooth process, since Tian Harlan started from an existing watch, swapped the dial for a homemade color wheel, and simply fitted the black center to the regular hand. Therefore, the black center rotates exactly as the hour hand would, which implies that each color stands for one hour in the morning, and one in the evening (6:00 AM and 6:00 PM, for instance); this clever functioning was formally patented a patent in 1980 (Patent CH613587 introducing the mysterious term "extrapolation scale").

The small and slim case wears very comfortably, while the dial looks like nothing else.
Source: Hodinkee

The colors themselves were not chosen randomly. Each was matched to the hour for which it stands, both in terms of illumination and energy. This explains the shining yellow for noon, while the afternoon gets increasingly darker colors as the sun fades away. It also applies to the morning, with brighter colors as the sun rises. This system takes some time to get used to, but it definitely brings a more zen feeling to the reading of time. As minutes fade away, it teaches you to envision your schedule in a more relaxed way. The same things that make Color Time interesting and pleasing are probably the same reasons it never became a widespread convention too.

It never really caught on, but that doesn't make Chromachron any less interesting.
Source: Hodinkee

When asked about Chromachron, its inventor Tian Harlan simply replied: "I have designed my watch for people, not for machines or people who function like machines." Chromachron is as much a philosophy as it is a design stance, against the "Dictactorship of time," a phenomenon that modern smartwatches seem to fuel. On a practical level however, it will be hard to advocate for Chromachron watches as daily wearers – although they give you the very best argument when showing up late. "I am so sorry, I just missed the color" is a sure way to be remembered, and maybe even to be excused.

Hodinkee is the preeminent resource for modern and vintage wristwatch enthusiasts. Through in-depth reviews, live reports, and dynamic videos, Hodinkee is bringing watches to a 21st-century audience.

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