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Vintage Citizen Chronographs

Vintage Citizen Chronographs

Today we are going to take a look at what I believe to be one of the best automatic chronograph watches you will find for under 200 £/$ or €.

Just a few years before the Quartz Revolution in the 1970’s several brands were fighting it out to release the world’s very first automatic chronograph movement. The big race began in the early 1960’s and by 1969 these new movements had been released to the world. But who released their chronograph movement first?

Well it is difficult to say as to whom really did, it is assumed that Zenith brought the incredible El Primero movement out first. The El Primero movement which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next year (2019), was and is still by far one of the best automatic chronograph movements ever made. The movement from day one has run at 36,000 bph, just putting that into perspective that is roughly double the amount of beats of pretty much any other watch available at the time and pretty much up until today. It is also one of the most accurate automatic timekeepers you will find.

It runs 3 chronograph dials, no other automatic movement ran 3 sub-dials until the release of the valjoux 7750 5 years later.  Giving you some idea how great this movement was and still is, Rolex adopted it for their Daytonas in 1988 and kept using this movement for a further 22 years, these modern vintage Zenith Daytonas are more sought after today than there 2001 to current day models.

The Competition

Now, In the same year came along the combined efforts of the likes of Breitling, Heuer and Hamilton whom together produced the ChronoMatic Calibre 11, a dual sub-dial chronograph movement which unlike its modern day counterpart used by Tag Heuer, which is essentially a Seiko AS 1382 otherwise known as the 6s37 movement, yes Tag Heuer do use Japanese movements in some of their watches! was sadly plagued with a number of mainspring and gear problems, and within only one year of ownership these movements broke and were in need of repair or replacing.

But while the Swiss watchmakers were producing luxury watches for the select lucky few who could afford them, across the pond in Japan Seiko was looking to take a piece of the watch market pie and had been working on more affordable automatic chronograph movements for the masses, the first of these calibers was the single sub-dial 6139, initially a 17 and later a 21 jewel automatic movement that beats at an impressive 21,600bph. And the caliber 6138 with a dual sub-dial chronograph feature was released a year later in 1970.

These superb movements use a very unique column wheel and vertical clutch chronograph system which was arguably first developed and used by Pierce watches, and were in fact later adopted by Rolex in the early 2000’s. These watches had a day and date feature unlike their competitors, they were not as robust, had a multitude of different styles and uses as well as catering for a vastly broader audience. 

But the real issue with all of the above watches and movements was the size of the end result, as these chronograph automatic movements were noticeably bigger than a standard automatic movement the watch cases were generally bigger to compensate. Until another contender came along, Citizen.

The Citizen 8100A and 8110A

In 1972 Citizen released the 8100A and 8110A movements, don’t forget this was at a time the Quartz Revolution had got well underway with far more affordable and accurate timepieces available compared to the mechanical movements of years gone by.

During the the 1960’s to 1970 Citizen had been quietly watching its competition from the sidelines, and instead of making what seemed to be the most obvious choice at the time, to make Quartz movement watches to compete within a new and still fairly niche watch market, they decided to go against the grain, In fact within those 3 crucial years they took all the elements of the 6139 and 6138, as well as the El Primero and other mechanical movements that came before them to produce a smaller, more durable, more accurate and more affordable range of watches than any other. Citizen realized at the time that there was a gap in the market for automatic chronograph movements that fit the average size and slimmer wrist, in-so-doing putting all of their efforts in producing two of the smallest and slimmest automatic chronograph movements.


The 81 caliber is 23 jewels and runs at 28,800bph well above 90% of the Swiss watches at the time, it is not only more robust and in my opinion more superior than the Seiko equivalents it also gave the wearer the option to manually wind the movement unlike all the Seiko movements then and the majority of Seiko movements today. These watches were made for a short period in time, by the late 1970’s Citizen had shelved the 81s and started work on a new type of quartz movement, the Eco-Drive 7878, however it wasn’t until titanium lithium-ion rechargeable batteries became available in the early 1990’s that there game changer movement could became available.

What to Look Out For

So as you could imagine as Citizen only produced these watches for a short time period during the 70’s there aren’t really going to be that many available, and in the grand scheme of things there aren’t that many, and if you add to that the fact that these were affordable many of these watches were possibly never serviced or repaired when they needed to be, instead placed in a draw for a rainy day. And that is why today when looking for these incredible timepieces you do have to look carefully for an all original watch. There are many as they are called in the trade “Frankenstein” watches, for example a movement, hands and dial from one or two different watches inside the case of another watch. The first thing to look at if you are looking for an all original one is the case back, here you can see the reference numbers, if you type these into Google Images as fortunately many people have referenced these watches you will find the correct model to make comparisons.

The next thing to look at is the hands and dial, the more tired these look the better, as usually this is a sign that these have not been retouched, painted over or replaced with aftermarket components.

The most popular of these watches are known as the bullhead and bizarrely to me the ones that seem to go for more money have a newly replaced dial? In fact it wasn’t too uncommon for the Japanese to customise their watches and many Citizens and Seiko’s did have their dials, hands even date wheels like mine replaced in the 70’s. But as these watches are becoming increasingly more scarce buying an all original one which you can pick up now for under 200 will likely be a real sought after classic of the future and if not, then you will still at least have an incredibly beautiful and rare timepiece that cost you virtually nothing.

Something else to be aware of is unless a seller has stated that the watch has been serviced then treat it as needing a full service, a service on these watches will range between 90 to 150 on average, and if you wear the watch daily you will need to service it roughly once every 3 to 5 years, so not all to bad really. And they do have something for everyone, if you like your Omega Man on the Moon or early Speedmaster style watches then you will love the Citizen Recordmaster. If you like the Omega Rallye Bullhead, Tag Heuer bullhead or Seiko Bullhead but find them to be too big for your wrist then you will definitely want to take a look at Citizens Circular and Octagonal cased offerings.

The early Citizen chronograph 8100 and 8110 movements are one of the last great affordable Japanese automatics you will get your hands on and with prices around the 200 mark you would be crazy not to at least consider one for your collection.