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.
THE ALPINER 4 SHOWED GOOD RATE BEHAVIOR AND HAS IMPROVED PROTECTION AGAINST MAGNETIC FIELDS, EXCELLENT SHOCK RESISTANCE, AND A COMPASS BEZEL.
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 BR03-94 OFFERS USERFRIENDLINESS AND OPTIMUM LEGIBILITY DAY AND NIGHT, BUT THE CERAMIC CASE IMPACTS THE PRICE.
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.