These watches don’t tell the exact time—and that’s the point

The "Anti-stress watch." This is how the Chromachron was described; it was praised for its inability to ever display the exact time. Its colourful dial instead offers a new interpretation of time, and, dare I say, of punctuality. The Chromachron concept might not have replaced our conventional understanding of time, but it definitely challenged the standard notion of time and left a mark in wristwatch design. For these reasons and more, I've been obsessed with these weird little pieces and I've hunted them for years.

The first time I saw a Chromachron watch was in the early 2000s, on a then-new website called eBay. I immediately fell under the spell of its unique look and luckily won the auction. Even more luckily, a few days later the watch eventually arrived from a remote place in Germany as a full set with its original strap and booklet. Remember, this was a time when online pictures were rudimentary at best, and online transaction safety was uncertain to say the least.

I immediately started wearing this watch at all times, especially during long hours of studying, which suddenly seemed to pass less painfully. I also compulsively searched eBay for any other Chromachron watches that I could find. I was convinced they were rare, so I did not rest until I completed my set. It only took me a few months to get all variations of my first Chromachron, but then I kept seeing other examples popping up, definitely challenging my initial notion of rarity. From the online research I had done, and the various goodies that I had collected, I knew the Chromachron idea had been developed by German artist Tian Harlan in the early 1970s, but I was about to learn much more about it.

All the watches that I had sourced to this point were quartz-powered. I had seen some mechanical examples of the Chromachron, but I had never liked their square case shapes or weird lugs. So there I was, owning an embarrassing number of quartz Chromachron watch. And, like any quartz watch, the day that a battery had to be replaced finally came, but even sooner that I had anticipated.

Therefore, I went to a local watchmaker in Paris, and for the first time saw the rather uninspiring inside of this cool watch (if you have even seen a plastic tension ring holding a mundane electric circuit, you know exactly what I am talking about). As the battery was casually swapped, I mentioned the 1970s origin of the piece to the watchmaker, and the state of my research. To my surprise, he stopped, stood up, and simply said: “I don’t know anything about the watch, but what I can tell you is that this sh--ty quartz movement comes from the 1990s.” Well, there went my initial conception of rarity, and any certainty about timeline or history.

Back home, I immediately went back to the various sets of watches that I had gathered, and I indeed found that some of the price tags dated to the late 1980s to the early 1990s. I had initially missed that important fact, as I had solely focused on the local currency on the packaging, mostly Deutsch Marks, which had confirmed that we were talking Pre-Euro days. I also went to look deeper online, but found very little additional information.

Another of my obsessions suddenly brought the full answer, exactly when I was least expecting it. Things always seem to work out that way, don’t they? As I was diving into the past of the French watchmaker Lip, I got curious about the brand's many collaborations with leading designers of the 1970s, among them Michel Boyer, Rudi Meyer, and of course Roger Tallon. This quest led me to purchase a book written by Pieter Doensen, soberly titled Watch, History of the Modern Wrist Watch. And there it was, from pages 43 to 48: Everything that I wished to know about Chromachron.

A single sentence gave me massive insight. “In total, Harlan designed approximately one hundred different watches.” It was both enlightening and humbling, as I realised that I had only scratched the surface of the “Colour-Time” watches, the literal translation of Chromachron. The origin matched what I already knew—the concept was developed in 1971, and a 2.5m high rotating sculpture was exhibited through the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich too. Yet, it also showed that the first watches were developed in 1973, with a mechanical movement, while my quartz version appeared later, in 1981.

When asked about Chromachron, its inventor Tian Harlan simply replied: “I have designed my watch for people, not for machines or people who function like machines.” Chromachron is as much a philosophy as it is a design stance, against the “dictactorship of time”, a phenomenon that modern smartwatches seem to fuel.

On a practical level however, it will be hard to advocate for Chromachron watches as daily wearers – although they give you the very best argument when showing up late. “I am so sorry, I just missed the color” is a sure way to be remembered, and maybe even to be excused.