The split-seconds chronograph (or “rattrapante”) complication, in a sense, is a watchmaker’s complication. Not because it is not fascinating for the lucky owner of such a watch, but because it takes a master watchmaker to best understand just how difficult it is to create this complication, while remaining faithful to traditional methods.
A split-seconds chronograph takes all the complexity of a conventional chronograph and adds something more. At rest, what appears to be a single chronograph seconds-hand is, in fact, two hands so precisely superimposed upon each other that they seem to be one. When the chronograph is started using the main pusher, the two hands run in perfect unison, still appearing as one. However, with a push of the split button, the hands separate. The first stops in position, while the second continues to run. A second push of the split button will instantly bring the two hands together again, with the stopped hand flying to rejoin the first. The ability to time independently two events, stopping the two hands separately from each other, makes the split-seconds chronograph ideal for timing races where the times for two individual contestants will be recorded.
What makes the split-seconds chronograph a “watchmaker’s complication” are the technical challenges that must be overcome to allow the two chronograph seconds-hands to operate in perfect unison in some circumstances and to function independently in others. In Calibre 1181, Blancpain has paid homage to traditional methods in achieving this exceedingly difficult complication. In its most classic form, a split-seconds chronograph is constructed using two column wheels.
A column wheel is the central control for the finest chronographs. As the buttons of the chronograph are pushed to command starting, stopping and return to zero, the column wheel rotates to manipulate the key elements of the chronograph. Today, for reasons of costs, only the most refined and elegant chronographs – and all of Blancpain’s chronographs – incorporate column- wheel construction. With the split seconds complication, a second column wheel is added to provide independent control of the stopping and re-uniting of the second chronograph hand.
The integration into an existing chronograph of this second column wheel assembly along with its separate isolation wheel, braking mechanism, as well as return and recentering components, calls upon the skills possessed by only the most talented master watchmakers. All of these delicate mechanisms must be placed at the back of the watch movement and carry out their control of the independent chronograph hand through a rotating axis that runs through the entire watch movement. The tolerances for alignment and centering are extremely close.
When it entered the pantheon of Blancpain chronographs, Calibre 1181 set new standards for compact design. Its 294 fine hand-polished and decorated components are assembled in a movement that is just 5.35 mm thick, which upon its debut made Calibre 1181 the world’s thinnest split-seconds chronograph. Thus, Blancpain’s watchmakers set a new world record, while at the same time staying faithful to the most classic design imperatives.