A bi-com­pax chronograph has only two sub­di­als and can mea­sure only rel­a­tively short in­ter­vals. But this type of dis­play gives the watch a cleaner look. We com­pare mod­els from Alpina, Bell & Ross and Union Glashütte.


By Martina Richter | A bi-com­pax chronograph has only two sub­di­als and can mea­sure only rel­a­tively short in­ter­vals. But this type of dis­play gives the watch a cleaner look. We com­pare mod­els from Alpina, Bell & Ross and Union Glashütte.


Whether it’s the pop­u­lar­ity of the retro trend or an in­ter­est in sleeker, sim­pler time­pieces, in­creas­ing num­bers of chrono­graphs with only two sub­di­als are ap­pear­ing on the mar­ket. The use­ful­ness of a me­chan­i­cal chronograph per se is of­ten over­es­ti­mated or even ridiculed, but the fact re­mains that a dial with only two coun­ters has a ti­dier look than one with three, while en­abling the wearer to use the chronograph in­di­ca­tors to tally the du­ra­tion of short in­ter­vals.

We said “short” in­ter­vals, and we mean it. Noth­ing but brief time pe­ri­ods can be mea­sured. Why? Along­side the small sec­onds, the only other sub­dial is the chronograph’s counter, which maxes out at 30 elapsed min­utes. This is true of the watches in our re­view, which are made by Alpina, Bell & Ross and Union Glashütte. As else­where in life, ex­cep­tions con­firm the rule: Omega, for ex­am­ple, of­fers chrono­graphs with two coun­ters, one of which counts both elapsed min­utes and elapsed hours. But that’s an­other story.

The term “bi-com­pax” is fre­quently used to de­note a chronograph with only two coun­ters. There re­ally isn’t a long his­tory be­hind the word, although some afi­ciona­dos would like to in­ter­pret it as hav­ing an il­lus­tri­ous past. “Bi-com­pax” is a fairly mod­ern ne­ol­o­gism that de­scribes chrono­graphs with one sub­dial for the small sec­onds and an­other for up to 30 elapsed min­utes. The terms “uni-com­pax” and “com­pur” were for­merly used to de­note chrono­graphs of this kind.

When con­sid­er­ing the ori­gins of “com­pax” nomen­cla­ture (see side­bar), which de­scribes the num­ber of com­pli­ca­tions in a chronograph, one re­al­izes that the Alpiner 4 chronograph most nearly ex­em­pli­fies this va­ri­ety be­cause it of­fers no other ad­di­tional func­tions on the move­ment side. (If there is an ex­tra func­tion, it isn’t equipped with a dis­play.) How­ever, this model has a 24-hour ring along the flange and a 360° scale around the bezel, which can be ro­tated in two di­rec­tions.

Along with a small sec­onds and an elapsed-min­utes counter, the BR03-94 Black Matte Ce­ramic from Bell & Ross and the No­ramis from Union Glashütte also have a date dis­play and a tachymeter scale along the edge of the dial, but they are not as easy to read as the 24-hour ring on the flange of the Alpina. The flange on the Bell & Ross slopes very steeply up­ward. The scale on the Union Glashütte curves slightly down­ward. This con­trib­utes to the retro look of the Union Glashütte’s white lac­quered dial with its clas­si­cal nu­mer­als, tri­an­gu­lar hour in­dexes, and three blued hands. This dial is very leg­i­ble in the day­time. The small lu­mi­nous dots above the ap­plied hour in­dexes are un­ob­tru­sive: they don’t in­ter­fere with the clas­si­cal style when the dial is viewed in day­light, and they glow green in the dark, as do the lu­mi­nous dauphine hour hand and min­utes hand.

The dial of the Bell & Ross has an en­tirely dif­fer­ent look. This watch boasts its char­ac­ter­is­tic an­gu­lar case that un­der­scores its more mod­ern style. Yet de­spite the square case, the watch re­calls the nos­tal­gia of yes­ter­year’s air­borne in­stru­ments, which live again in Bell & Ross’s watches. White el­e­ments against a matte black dial cre­ate op­ti­mum con­trast and as­sure the best pos­si­ble leg­i­bil­ity for the time dis­play. At night, the hour and min­utes hands, as well as all the hour mark­ings, glow a hand­some blue. All other in­di­ca­tors dis­ap­pear in the dark, as is the sit­u­a­tion on the dial of the Union Glashütte watch. The date is shown us­ing white nu­mer­als on a black disk at 4 o’clock: this in­di­ca­tor is read­ily leg­i­ble, as is the larger date dis­play above the 6 on Union Glashütte’s watch.

The con­trast on the face of the Alpina isn’t quite so bold. The dial ap­pliqués and the faceted hands re­flect a bit of day­light. Nearly all of them glow bright green at night, with the sole ex­cep­tion of the elapsed-sec­onds hand. It has a red tri­an­gle on its short end, and the same red color high­lights the hand above the sub­dial for 30 elapsed min­utes to sig­nal that these two hands are re­spon­si­ble for tal­ly­ing elaps­ing in­ter­vals. The Alpiner 4 model that’s avail­able in the U.S. has a black dial and a stain­less-steel bracelet. THE ALPINA’S ro­tat­able compass bezel has lit­tle to do with chrono­graphic ca­pa­bil­ity. To­gether with the 24-hour scale on


the dial, it lets the user de­ter­mine the car­di­nal di­rec­tions – a fea­ture that’s very rarely found on watches to­day. This func­tion has its roots in the early days of avi­a­tion. A pi­lot wear­ing a watch with a compass bezel can set what­ever course he’s been told to fol­low by the tower. This can be very help­ful, for ex­am­ple, dur­ing a land­ing ap­proach. Of course, there’s also a compass dis­play in the cock­pit.

In all other re­spects, the Alpiner 4 chronograph keeps its feet planted firmly on terra firma. Newly launched in 2014, it traces its an­ces­try to the Alpina 4, which de­buted in 1938. The “4” in the model’s name refers to four essen­tial at­tributes: stain­less steel, wa­ter re­sis­tance, shock re­sis­tance, and pro­tec­tion against magnetic fields. The Alpiner 4 chronograph re­lies on a soft-iron in­ner case to boost its abil­ity to with­stand mag­netism. The shock ab­sorp­tion con­forms to the re­quire­ments set by ISO 1413. And the stain­lesssteel case re­sists pres­sure to 100 me­ters. A mas­sive screwed back and a screwed crown con­trib­ute to the ro­bust­ness of this watch, which is easy to use thanks to its large di­men­sions. The chronograph’s push-pieces re­li­ably op­er­ate the stop­watch func­tions of Cal­iber AL-860, which is based on a Sel­lita move­ment.

Bell & Ross’ mod­u­lar chronograph of­fers equally good userfriendliness. The elon­gated push-pieces aren’t only re­li­able, they also ac­cen­tu­ate the boldly dis­tinc­tive de­sign of the ce­ramic case, which in­ci­den­tally, is not a mono­coque con­struc­tion as it had been in the past, but now re­lies on tri­par­tite ar­chi­tec­ture. The mid­dle piece is im­mo­bi­lized be­tween the bezel and the case­back, which are joined to one an­other by four long tubes. This con­struc­tion keeps the case wa­ter­tight to a depth of 100 me­ters. The com­par­a­tively small crown be­tween the chronograph’s push-pieces is sur­pris­ingly easy to op­er­ate.

The Union Glashütte’s crown isn’t quite as user friendly. It’s larger than the Bell & Ross’s crown, but it doesn’t pro­vide as good a grip. And the rapid-re­set func­tion for the date dis­play is

some­what in­con­ve­nient: the mech­a­nism is con­trolled via an in­set but­ton at the 10 on the side of the case, but the but­ton can­not be op­er­ated with­out us­ing a sty­lus or the tip of an­other pointed ob­ject. On the other hand, this is the only one of our can­di­dates with a trans­par­ent back: six screws fas­ten the back, which is equipped with a sap­phire win­dow through which you can ad­mire the hand­somely fin­ished move­ment. Based on a move­ment from ETA, Union Glashütte’s Cal­iber UNG-27.02 runs quite well: it gained be­tween 3 and 4 sec­onds per day and showed slight dif­fer­ences among the sev­eral po­si­tions, but it had a high beat er­ror, which means you have to shake this watch to re­vive it after it has stopped run­ning. Bell & Ross’s move­ment also per­formed with a sta­ble rate, but it gained be­tween 8 and 10 sec­onds per day. The Alpina de­liv­ered the best rate per­for­mance, gain­ing only 2 sec­onds per day.

THE VA­RI­ETY of cal­ibers is note­wor­thy, each of which is of­fered here in a watch that’s priced to ap­peal to afi­ciona­dos on a bud­get. The cal­ibers range from the mod­i­fied ETA 7753, through the mod­u­lar Dubois Dépraz con­struc­tion, to the com­par­a­tively re­cent Sel­lita move­ment. The elab­o­rate ce­ramic case makes Bell & Ross’s chronograph sig­nif­i­cantly more costly. And the shape of this case po­lar­izes opin­ions, so this model ap­peals to a spe­cial au­di­ence.

Alpina’s and Union Glashütte’s watches cost less, but they also of­fer less: the Alpiner 4 has no date dis­play; the Union Glashütte No­ramis has a date, but the dis­play is cum­ber­some to re­set. And while the No­ramis has a sap­phire case­back and a fold­ing clasp on its strap, the Alpiner 4 of­fers good tech­ni­cal equip­ment. If sporti­ness is your pri­or­ity, you’ll prob­a­bly opt for the Alpiner 4 chronograph. But if you want retro clas­si­cism, you’ll more likely choose the No­ramis.

This Alpiner 4 model, with a black dial and a stain­lesssteel bracelet, is the ver­sion that’s avail­able in the U.S.

De­spite its mod­u­lar con­struc­tion, Bell & Ross’s watch is the slimmest of the three; Alpina’s watch in­cludes an in­ner case, but is only marginally taller than the Union Glashütte time­piece.

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