Inside & Out: Frederique Constant Flyback Manufacture Chronograph
The Frederique Constant Flyback Chronograph Manufacture is a fantastic watch at an amazing price.
The watch industry is hurting. When the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry describes export figures as "less severe than expected", it's not a good sign and the headlining releases from Baselworld 2017 were a reaction to the winnowing global market. Most brands were singing off the same hymn sheet in chorus, all singing the praises of affordable luxury. A gospel that Frederique Constant, have been preaching for years.
In March I reviewed Frederique Constant's Perpetual Calendar, a watch that made $8000 seem like a value proposition. At several thousand dollars cheaper than the next alternative for a perpetual calendar, it was an amazing achievement. The question today, can a $4000 flyback chronograph be as much as a value prop?
What is a Flyback Chronograph?
A flyback chronograph is a slight variation on the traditional chronograph. A flyback chronograph can reset to zero and continue timing without the need to stop recording. A standard chronograph needs the user to push the start/stop button, then the reset button, then the start/stop button again to restart timing from zero. A flyback only requires one press of the reset button to send the hands flying back to zero where they instantly start moving again. It's perfect for timing repeating events like race laps or seeing how long you lasted before checking Instagram. The first manufacture to produce a flyback chronograph were Breitling but it was Longines who patented it first in 1936.
The technical complexity behind crafting a flyback means that it is rare to see the complication in an affordable, modern watch. It typically is only seen on blue chips brands on watches costing tens of thousands of dollars. So here comes Frederique Constant offering a flyback chronograph at around $4000. How did they do it?
The watch uses the in-house Caliber FC-760
This flyback chronograph caliber first appeared in the Alpina Flyback Chronograph in 2015. Alpina and Frederique Constant are sister companies and share movements between each other to keep the costs down for customers. The Caliber 760 had been in development for 4 years but Frederique Constant's Horological Director spent another 2 years improving it before using it in a Frederique Constant. It consists of 233 moving parts with 96 of those parts dedicated to the flyback mechanism which Frederique describes as such:
first, the clutch is disengaged; secondly, the chronograph is reset to zero by means of the single-piece hammer, whose sloping surfaces turn the two zero reset hearts so that the hands position themselves vertically again; and thirdly, the clutch engages once more as soon as the push-piece is released.
Frederique Constant used a unique star shaped chronograph wheel instead of the circular column wheel. A column wheel is a small, but crucial, component of high end chronographs as it allows a smooth activation of the timing functions. Not only can you feel the smoothness when you depress the pusher, but you can see the instant reaction of the chronograph hand. No jitter here. Columns wheels fell out of fashion as they proved difficult to mass produce and now they are a hallmark of higher-end movements. I don't know how much difference the star wheel makes as I didn't have a standard column wheel chronograph to compare it against, but after two weeks with the watch, the chronograph action stayed buttery smooth throughout activation and resetting. Watching the hands flyback to zero was always a delight.
The achievement of creating a new flyback chronograph caliber is commendable but compromises were made to keep prices low.
The first and most noticeable compromise is the architecture of the movement. Like the F.C. Perpetual Calendar and the Alpina KM-710, the Flyback Chronograph has the intricate parts covered by a large circular plate with only the exposed balance wheel and a few blued screws visible through the exhibition back. Patent documents reveal the intricate layers of hammers and clutches that lay beneath the plates but you can't seem them here.
I assume that this method of construction is easier to service and was cheaper to finish. The movement is finished with perlage and circular Cotes de Geneve decoration but the layout remains disappointing for those expecting a traditional chronograph design. It's not a bad movement but cheaper chronograph movements like an ETA 7750 can look more engaging (though they won't be a flyback).
The second compromise is the limiting of the chronograph to 30 minutes. I'm sure there will be some that find a use for a short timer but I would have prefered a longer duration. The FC Flyback Chronograph has a thirty minute register at 3 o'clock, a date register at 6 o'clock and the running seconds at 9 o'clock. Much like the Alpina KM-710, I appreciate the inventive use of a register as a date display more than I like it. It's better than the alternative of an awkward date window, but I would have preferred a full 12 hour chronograph or a simpler two register design. Yet despite the oversize registers feeling large for a dress watch, it is a very elegant design.
The dial is a modern interpretation of classic chronograph design
The Flyback Chronograph might look like a blue-chip brand watch at first glance but potential customers don't have to be part of the aristocracy to afford it. There are a selection of dials to chose from: black, brown, silver and white hobnail with my favorite being the silver. The raised glass box crystal bends and distorts the printed text just in the right way and it is a nice touch in making this feel like a classic vintage chronograph. The gold faceted markers and alpha hands look like they've been taken from a much more expensive watch, and I mean that in the best possible way. This is a watch that looks a lot more than it's $4000 price tag would lead you to believe. Whether you favor form over functionality is a decision you have to make.
The pulsometer base text on my review piece is a misprint that does not appear on the retail versions. Eagle eyed readers might have noticed that the scale around the dial is calibrated for a tachymeter, not a pulsation scale (I will admit, it took me a few days to notice). The tachymeter scale is present on the black, silver and brown dials and it feel right at home, just like the rectangular pushers, in the mid-century modern design Frederique Constant is going for.
Let's talk about gold plating
I've never worn a gold watch before, plated or solid. I tend to stay away from rose gold as the color washes out against my pale English skin so to my surprise, I found myself rather taken to rose color. After two years of living in North Carolina, have I finally developed a tan? The hour markers and hands are solid gold whilst the case and buckle are plated stainless steel.
Some purists may find the use of plating distasteful but I can't work myself up into a similar fervour. Modern plating techniques have come a long way since the early days and after two weeks of wearing the Flyback Chronograph, I couldn't see a single ding or scratch. So rid yourself of any preconceptions about the fragility of plating. If your concerns are about how solid gold is "purer" and plating is "phony", then I'm afraid, Mr Caulfield, you don't understand this watch. Crafting a watch out of a solid good wouldn't make sense for Frederique Constant. The entire point of this watch is to bring a flyback chronograph movement to a new market and a solid gold model is too expensive. Solid gold watches have long disappeared from most people's reach so gold plating pulls back other options of color to be within our grasp.
At 42mm, the watch is larger than its refined design would lead you to believe. Like the rose gold plating, I have no qualms with the size of the watch. It wore very comfortably on the wrist with the long faceted lugs curving to fit the wrist. My biggest quibble with the watch was the folding buckle at the end of the alligator strap where Frederique Constant used their emblem as the visible part of the clasp. Whilst the shield makes for an ideal clasp design in theory, the unfortunate reality is that the level of finishing is disappointing. The outline doesn't have the crisp edges needed to make it pop and some of the finer details are lost into vague rounded blobs. I appreciate the attempt but it undermines the excellent aspects of the watch.
So is the Flyback Chronograph a value proposition?
The answer depends on who you are. If you are long acquainted with flyback chronographs then the Frederique Constant may feel compromised. If this is your first experience with a flyback then you'll love it. It's not a perfect watch, but it's one serious power play by Frederique Constant to show how serious they are in bringing complications to all markets.