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A Great Value Swiss Chronograph With an Amazing Vintage Aesthetic - Tissot Telemeter 1938
The Tissot Telemeter 1938, which joined the Swiss brand's vintage-influenced Heritage collection in summer 2022, has garnered enthusiasts' attention with its charmingly retro design, optimized chronograph movement, and enticing price-to-value ratio. We had a chance to go hands-on with both versions of the Tissot Telemeter 1938; read on for the results from our in-depth review.
Overview and History
By just about any historical standard, 1938 was generally a pretty dark year, marked by the lingering economic woes of the Great Depression, the violence of Kristallnacht, and the slow march to war in Europe, with Germany annexing Austria and partitioning Czechoslovakia in the ill-fated Munich pact. One of the few areas in which forward-thinking creativity and energetic optimism still prevailed in that pre-war era was the world of art and design, which was still showing the influence of the Art Deco movement that had taken root in the 1920s. Wristwatches, which had largely supplanted pocket watches as the go-to portable timekeepers for both civilian and military use, displayed this enduring design ethos while also often incorporating a useful array of functions geared toward the timing of the era’s popular sporting events, many of which involved racing — on horseback, in automobiles, and on skis.
Tissot, founded in 1853 in the Swiss Jura, was one of the watchmakers that specialized in making these sport-timing instruments. One of the company’s earliest forays as an official sports timekeeper was in that turbulent year of 1938, when a Tissot wrist chronograph was used to time a series of ski races held at the Alpine resort of Villars-sur-Ollon. That watch’s beautiful yet eminently functional design inspired the recently introduced Telemeter 1938, a vintage-look chronograph that not only appeals to fans of its period-appropriate, retro aesthetics but also marks the debut of a newly revamped version of a classical modern chronograph movement — and, characteristic of Tissot, all at a fraction of the price most would expect such a watch demanded.
Tissot is no stranger to mining its 150-plus-year history to spark ideas for modern products. Some of the company’s most buzz-worthy timepieces of recent years have been revivals of notable vintage pieces from various points in the 20th Century — the Heritage 1973 chronograph with panda dial that channels the Golden Age of auto racing; the hand-wound Heritage Antimagnétique that recalled Tissot’s pioneering magnetism-resistant watches of the 1940s; and the megapopular PRX collection of integrated-bracelet sport-luxury pieces that delivers the Zeitgeist of 1970s style to an eager contemporary audience, to name just a few. With the Telemeter 1938, however, the brand delivers high complication and aesthetic refinement on a whole other level.
Made of stainless steel, the case of the Tissot Telemeter 1938 offers contemporary yet not overwhelming dimensions — 42mm in diameter and 13.9mm thick, upsized from the vintage model from which it takes most of its cues, which measured 37mm. The bezel is thin and sloped, framing a box-type, nonreflective-treated sapphire crystal that follows its domed contours to rise above the dial. The sides of the case have a brushed hairline finish, while the bezel and the top surfaces of the tapering lugs are polished to a mirror shine. Also polished are the dainty, teardrop-shaped chronograph pushers on the right side of the case, positioned at 2 and 4 o’clock. Situated between the pushers is one of this watch’s most outwardly retro-styled elements, a narrow, fluted-edged, push-pull crown that nestles close to the case and features a small relief “T” on its flattened head. This minuscule, decorative crown is aesthetically appealing while at the same time not being the easiest to grasp by larger fingers, especially while the watch is being worn. Best to make sure it’s wound and set before you fasten it to the wrist for a day of wearing. The pushers, on the other hand, are a tactile delight, requiring just a light press from a forefinger to start and stop the chronograph hands and return them to zero.
The Telemeter 1938 derives its name and the lion’s share of its distinctive character from the dial, executed in both a silvered white and opaline black version, both of which resurrect the “multiscale” look of the 1938 original and both of which bring their own appealing elements to the table.
The Arabic hour numerals are in a curvy retro font that is very legible as well as pleasing to the eye. The hour and minute hands are sword-shaped, with the tip of the former just brushing the periphery of the spiraling, central tachymeter scale and the latter slightly breaking the border of the main hour ring to point toward the telemeter scale. The long, thin chronograph seconds hand, which reaches almost to the edge of the outermost ring, features a playful heart-shaped counterweight. Drilling down a little closer, you’ll note the subtle snailed texture on the subdials, parallel to each other at 3 and 9 o’clock, both bordered by a railroad-track ring. The subdials are slightly recessed into the main dial on both versions, though this detail is for some reason more noticeable on the black-dialed version. The 3 o’clock subdial displays the elapsed minutes, 30 in total, with a leaf-shaped hand; each five-minute interval is marked by a black numeral in what appears to be the same font as that used for the hour numerals. At 9 o’clock, the continuously running seconds tick away, independently of the chronograph operations, courtesy of a tiny baton hand with a bulbous counterweight.
On the white-dial model, the hour numerals are painted in black on the dial; the hands — including the small seconds and chronograph subdial hands — are blued (though they can oddly read as black in low lighting at certain angles); and the telemeter and tachymeter scales are printed, respectively, in light blue and light red. On the black-dialed watch, all of the aforementioned scales are printed in gold, the hands are gold-plated, and the golden hour numerals are applied.
Distinguishing the Telemeter 1938 from other watches in Tissot’s Heritage collection, and in fact from all other Tissot chronograph watches, are the scales that grace the dial. Occupying the center, and crossing over the two subdials, is a snailing tachymeter scale that is used (as auto racing aficionados know) for measuring speed over a predetermined distance. Directly outside the ring of hour numerals is the railroad-track minutes scale, with numerals at every five-minute interval. This scale can, of course, also be used to count elapsed seconds via the central chronograph hand. Printed on the periphery is the telemeter scale that lends the watch its name. As historically inspired chronograph scales go, the telemeter is the least common in the modern era, as compared to its cousin the tachymeter and, to a lesser extent, the pulsometer or pulsograph. (The latter does not appear on this watch but could be found on historical “doctor’s watches” from the same historical era, made by Tissot as well as others.) On a watch, the telemeter scale is used in concert with the chronograph function to measure the wearer’s distance from an event that is visual before it is audible — the classical example being the measurement of the interval between a lightning bolt and a crack of thunder to determine how far away a storm is from being overhead. Of course, in an age where we can simply glance at a weather app on our phones for such info, a telemeter scale on a dial is a quaint but largely obsolete affectation (hence its rarity, I suppose), but it makes for a very appealing design element and conversation-starter nonetheless.
While Caliber A05.231, the self-winding movement inside the Telemeter 1938, is technically new, it is actually the latest in a long and storied lineage, descending from the original Valjoux 7750, referred to in its modern incarnation as the ETA Valjoux 7750. Movement manufacturer Valjoux SA (the name refers to the Vallée de Joux, the Swiss horological hub where it was based) released the self-winding, chronograph-equipped 7750 in 1974, following the first wave of automatic chronograph movements that included trailblazers like the Zenith El Primero and the Chrono-Matic Caliber 11, produced jointly by Breitling, Heuer, and Hamilton-Buren. Developed by Edmond Capt, and notable as one of the first watch movements designed with the aid of a computer, its basic architecture was derived from a manually winding predecessor, the Valjoux 7730, which traced its own DNA all the way back to 1948 and the Venus 188 family of calibers. The 7730, and its offspring, the 7750, were notable from a technical standpoint for incorporating a cam-and-lever switching system for the built-in stopwatch rather than a more traditional column-wheel system. The former was less costly to produce and more durable, and its inclusion helped the Valjoux 7750 attain the status it has enjoyed ever since, as the most ubiquitous “off the rack’ chronograph movement for the many watch manufacturers that don’t make their own chronograph calibers in-house.
Valjoux and another movement-producer, ETA, were both absorbed into ASUAG (Allgemeine Schweizerische Uhrenindustrie AG), a conglomerate of Swiss watch and component manufacturers, in the 1930s. Many years of mergers, consolidation, and corporate maneuvering followed, leading ASUAG to eventually merge with another holding company, SSIH (Société Suisse pour l’Industrie Horlogère SA), which counted Omega and Tissot among its pillar brands, in 1983. The resulting firm, which included a powerful lineup of both heritage watch brands and many of their movement and component suppliers, was renamed SMH and is known today as the Swatch Group. ETA, which had essentially gobbled up Valjoux, remained a provider of movements to many brands outside the group but also established itself as the in-house mass producer of customized calibers for its more value-oriented brands, which include Mido, Rado, and Hamilton as well as Tissot.
Watches from Tissot and Rado, specifically, were the intended destination for the ETA A05 family of calibers, which evolved from the 7750 design to extend its standard 48-hour power reserve to 60 hours or more. This latest version, which is on display behind a clear sapphire caseback, stores no less than 68 hours, which should mean you’ll be set for the weekend if you wind it on Friday morning. From a technical standpoint, Tissot has added an antimagnetic Nivachron hairspring, as well as a variable-inertia balance with indexless regulation, for improved timekeeping accuracy and reliability. Why is this important? A hairspring made of an antimagnetic material like Nivachron is less likely to have its coils jammed up and stalled when a watch encounters one of the many, many magnetic fields that we encounter in our everyday 21st Century lives. The decoration on the movement is another factor that elevates the A05.231 over the base ETA 7750 and adds substantially to the Telemeter 1938’s value proposition: perlage on the plates and bridges (above), polished surfaces, and a customized, partially openworked rotor (below) with the unmistakably retro yet somehow very dynamic vintage Tissot logo. The balance frequency of 28,800 vph (4 Hz), along with the subdivisions on the dial’s minutes scale, ensures that the built-in stopwatch can record and display times to a precision of ¼-second.
Both versions of the Telemeter 1938 are mounted on smooth, subtly pebbled calf leather straps with a central upraised ridge and tone-on-tone stitching. The light brown, somewhat mocha-colored tone of the silver-dial model’s strap harmonizes elegantly with the light blues of the dial’s hands and telemeter scale printing and uses an ecru-colored thread for its side stitching. The black-dial model’s strap is a richer, more caramel shade of brown, playing off the gold tones of the dial’s numerals and offering contrast with its large black expanse. The stitching matches the strap’s color for an attractively monochromatic effect. Something of a surprise for a chronograph at this price point is the use of a stainless steel double folding clasp, whose surfaces are almost entirely polished — though a simple steel pin buckle might have been just as welcome, and certainly more appropriate to the period the watch evokes.
Both versions of the Tissot Telemeter 1938 retail for $1,950, an absolutely head-turning price considering the level of design detail, the meticulous finishing, and the chronograph movement which, while perhaps not meeting the strictest criteria for being made “in-house,” is nevertheless on a very high echelon in terms of its technical refinements and haute horlogerie decoration. Whether the more monochromatic, dressy sobriety of the black-dial model or the sporty vibrancy of the silver-dial version is more your speed, it’s difficult to go wrong with the Telemeter 1938 if you’re looking to add a stylish and reliable chronograph with some legit historical pedigree to your collection without breaking the bank to do so. You can shop for the Tissot Telemeter 1938 here.
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