A Brief History of Regulator Watches

What is a Regulator watch anyway?

The first use of the term 'regulator' dates back to the middle of the 18th Century. Regulator clocks were accurate timekeepers that used a weight driven movement for extreme precision. A deadbeat escapement mimicked the familiar tick tick tick of quartz movements centuries before their invention and allowed for greater accuracy. Any extraneous complications were excluded so the time functions would be more accurate. These clocks were never in 18th England but their accuracy meant that larger versions were used in many continental European train stations.

Eventually clock and watchmakers began using regulator clocks as reference timepieces when adjusting their own creations. So these craftsman could better read the clock face, the style of separating the hour, minute and second hands started to come into fashion. This non-coaxial layout of hands were still powered by the same movement even though they didn't share the central pinion. Over the coming years, several talented English clockmakers would use this non-coaxial style when making clocks and marine chronometers.


John Harrison, inventor of the Marine Chronometer, used the non-coaxial layout for his first marine chronometer, H1 in 1735 and Thomas Mudge made a clock with a spring drive movement with a regulator dial in 1774. John Shelton manufactured a regulator clock that would be used aboard Captain Cook's second and third voyages aboard the Discovery. Larcum Kendall's K3 regulator marine chronometer would also be aboard the third voyage of the Discovery.

Larcum Kendall's K2. Photo courtesy of RMG.co.uk

Larcum Kendall's K2. Photo courtesy of RMG.co.uk

Kendall's previous marine chronometer, K2, would have quite the adventure as it was one of the timekeepers aboard the HMS Bounty 1789. When mutineers took over the ship, they seized K2 and took it with them to the Pitcairn Islands, a group of islands right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Possession of K2 passed through several mutineers before John Adams (No relation to the President) exchanged it in 1808 for a silk handkerchief from a traveling Nantucket Captain. A Chilean Governor confiscated the chronometer from it's new owner before selling it (A case of "It's only immoral to profit from stolen goods when you do it") to a Captain Thomas Herbert. After over forty years of voyaging around the world, K2 was returned back to England in 1843 by Captain Herbert.

In the 1870s Glashutte Original were producing regulator layout clocks that observatories and other watch brands used to regulate pocket watches and marine chronometers. In 1926, Patek Philippe make a Jump Hour Deck Chronometer with a power reserve complication on the dial. In the truest sense, it's not a regulator watch as it has a jump hour complication rather than a hour hand; but it's so damn close and so damn beautiful I had to mention it here. I was lucky enough to see this one-of-a-kind piece at the Saatchi Gallery in 2014 when Patek exhibited a selection of their museum pieces. Here's hoping this one makes it over for the 'Art of the Watch' exhibit that will be taking place in New York in July.

A photo posted by Kevin O'Dell (@theydid) on

Late last year I saw a beautiful regulator watch (That may or may not have inspired this article) from one of my favorite brands. Bought by the same collector who managed to snatch a bargain a few months ago, this Wittnauer Regulator is stunning and in mint condition. An engraving on the back intrigued the new owner enough to do some internet detective work. He found out that in 1947, a baseball player called Bobby 'Rocky' Rhawn was gifted the watch when he made the American Association's All-Star Baseball Team. I doubt that many baseball players today, with the possible exception of Howie Kendrick, are going out and buying regulator style wrist watches. But for any future All-Stars looking to buy a modern regulator watch then they are in luck. Whilst not popular, there are a few regulator watches on the market costing from $1000 to $53,000.

Introduced last year, the Tissot Le Locle Automatic Regulator is the perfect entry point for a regulator. The movement inside is the fantastically adaptable ETA 2825. There are 12 holes cut into a plate around the central pinion that allow sub dials to be placed nearly anywhere on the dial. The movement has been used before in Tissot's Le Locle Automatic Small Second Watch which placed the subsidiary seconds dial at the unusual position of 5 o'clock. For $1000, it's not the cheapest Tissot but it's an interesting watch from a dependable brand.

Bell & Ross WW2 Regualteur.jpg

Two beautiful regulators are actually from Bell & Ross, the WW1 Regulateur Pink Gold and the WW2 Regulateur Heritage. At 49mm, the WW2 Regulateur is too big for my wrists but I love what they did with the vintage inspired dial and knurled bezel. The WW1 Regulateur is smaller at 42mm and there is excellent use of negative space with a minimalist design. Accurate to a World War 1 era military watch? Not particularly, but gorgeous nonetheless.

It was in 2012 that Patek Philippe released their first regulator wristwatch, the Ref. 5235. In true Patek fashion, they didn't make any ol' regulator watch. They made a regulator watch with an annual calendar. The Bauhaus design is unlike any other Patek Philippe I've ever seen, especially the silver dial. The base movement architecture for the ultra-thin in-house Caliber 31-260 REG QA has been around since the 1970s, which makes my mind do cartwheels thinking about all those prototype regulators from the past 40 years we haven't seen (and never will). The $53,600 price tag will keep up from seeing the 5235 up close but that's why shops have glass windows.

So why didn't the regulator style take off? I believe there are two reasons; technical obsolescence and design norms.

Apologies for the slightly blurry photo, the watch was unfortunately on the wrong side of a pane of smudged glass.

Apologies for the slightly blurry photo, the watch was unfortunately on the wrong side of a pane of smudged glass.

As the pace of technology quickened, it became obvious that using a mechanical timepiece to adjust another mechanical timepiece was a dying practise. Why use an accurate mechanical clock that costs money and time to service when a digital display is far cheaper and more accurate? Soon, the regulator clocks were relegated to the past and gathering dust in museums and collections.

The design of many regulators is beautiful but it never grabbed the imagination of watch designers enough to become the norm. Maybe a lifetime of looking at normal dials has ruined my subjectivity, but I struggle to find the regulator layout any more convenient. I love the style of these regulators but I just can't believe that they are any better than a regular co-axial layout.

So what brands would I love to release a regulator style watch? The first one that jumps to mind is Omega. I would love to see a Tresor Regulator variation in 2017 as I feel that the Tresor is an overlooked contemporary classic of Omega's. A Nomos regulator watch would be an instant hit and I would be really interested to see Bremont's take on a 18th Century marine chronometer. 

Keep an eye out for regulator watches. They are not practical, but they sure look damn good.