There are plenty of great watches that we tend to sort of forget about, only to suddenly rediscover them down the road with newfound amazement. This is exactly what happened to me at a dinner last month with a few French collectors when I saw an original Chopard L.U.C. While the caliber was announced in 1996, the watch was first retailed a year later and garnered immediate praise. Its movement was judged “probably the finest automatic movement being produced in Switzerland today” by Walt Odets on TimeZoneÂ and Swiss magazine Montres Passion/Uhrenwelt awarded it theÂ “Watch of the Year.” Some 20 years later, I had the chance to spend a bit of time with this dress watch and I fell for it, all over again.
I would be lying if I said that I remembered the launch of this L.U.C (the initials are in honor of Chopard’s founder, Louis-Ulysse Chopard); in 1997, I was wearing a Swatch Pass, and to me it was the coolest watch in the world as its chip served as a Ski Pass. It was even better than the Multipass of The Fifth Element, which was released the same year. Yet, grown-ups who were into more sophisticated watches really loved the first Chopard. When you can find online both a a detailed photo report of the watch from respected collector SteveG, and the aforementionedÂ dithyrambic review of the watch’s 1.96 caliberÂ by Mr. Odets, you know that you are not dealing with just another pretty dress watch. “By any technical and aesthetic standards, the caliber 1.96 is a triumph â and from a most unexpected quarter. While this is certainly among the finest â if not simply the finest â automatic caliber currently manufactured in Switzerland, one must wonder where it places Chopard among Switzerland’s manufacturers,” said Odets.
The first Chopard L.U.C was a huge undertaking, aimed at establishing Chopard as a true manufacture. For that, no expense was spared: the development of the 1.96 caliber took three years, from 1993 to 1996, and involved the famous watchmaker and restorer Michel Parmigiani until 1995. Describing it as automatic caliber fails to communicate how finely it was designed. Its micro-rotor in solid 22k gold places it as a serious competitor of the Patek Philippe caliber 240. This technical specification allowed for a thickness just above 3mm, a key element for keeping a small case profile. The Breguet over-coil hairspring and the swan neck regulator show that precision was also considered, while the handmade anglagesÂ would make Philippe Dufour happy.
Speaking of Philippe Dufour, it is no coincidence that the dial of this Chopard looks like the one we admire on the Simplicity. Both were indeed manufactured by Metalem, in sold gold with a delicate central guillochÃ©, handmade of course, and applied indexes. The Chopard’s dimensions are also very true to Dufour’s philosophy: with a case diameter just under 37mm, it is in line with the bigger size of the Simplicity, Philippe Dufour having declared many times that from 38mm up the aesthetic of his watch simply did not work anymore.
The 16/1860/2 reference that I handled was in rose gold, yet it is such a light color that it almost looks yellow gold. For each type of gold, 1,860 examples were made, and a smaller number exist with platinum cases. The very first reference 16/1680/1 was short lived with just 100 pieces due to a faulty hinged caseback.Â
On the wrist, the Chopard wears like a charm, especially if you are used to wearing vintage wristwatches. The diameter, thickness, and weight are just perfect. That micro-rotor movement is obviously stunning, while the two mainspring barrels (stacked atop one another) allow for a 70-hour power reserve. It has both a COSC certificate and the Geneva Seal, both distinctions found on contemporary Patek Philippe watches.Â
Being compared to a Simplicity or a Patek is a pretty big deal, and shows how right the Chopard team got it the first time with its version of a modern dress watch. Some might criticize the date window in the sub-register, but it was less disturbing to me while wearing the watch than I expected. That said, it’s fair criticism and I don’t disagree in theory. Without the date window though, the watch would look almost too much like a Simplicity between the dimensions, the dial, and the dauphine handset. That’s obviously not a bad problem to have, but it indicates how much I enjoyed this Chopard. I even liked its white gold deployant buckle, which for once was short enough to not disturb while on the wrist.
I learned a lot from my brief encounter with this stunning Chopard. The biggest takeaway was to question the frontier between modern and vintage watches, as the 1990s are kind of the shadowy grey area right now and some gems deserve to be re-discovered. It also showed me that many of the things I love with vintage watches can be found in any time period. For instance, this Chopard was an impressive first watch that changed the destiny of the Chopard manufacture forever, in the same way the reference 96 did for Patek Philippe in the early 1930s.Â
Therefore, I left that dinner last month happy to have found such a interesting piece, and delighted that its owner allowed me to take it home for a couple of weeks. Too bad it had to go home at all.
Visit the current L.U.C. collection at Chopard.com.