This week’s #TBT is about a watch that I always admired in pictures and felt like owning, but I only just recently acquired. As I will detail a bit later, the aspect that held me back from buying one, aside from not being able to find a great one at a decent price, is its rather small size. While I’ve mentioned that I have a small wrist, our featured piece actually does look good on me. Still, I ultimately found a much better reason to buy the subject of today’s article: the birthday of my wife. Today’s #TBT is relatively affordable and about a neat gem of a watch: the Tissot 1281 chronograph.
There are many of us who love to collect watches and while some of our significant others appreciate our hobby, some do not. I am lucky that my wife is one of the former and she actually likes watches herself. She admires certain pieces that I own more than others and she has also noticed that I have taken a decided turn into collecting vintage versus new. With that in mind, I thought to myself that buying her a vintage watch would be a great way for her to experience, firsthand, why I enjoy wearing pieces from yesteryear so much. I then turned to the thought of chronographs and wanted something classic, not too sporty, and something appropriately sized; I ultimately decided upon the Tissot.
We’ve spoken about vintage Tissot here before on #TBT but featured a piece from the 1970’s. The 1281, however, is from the early to mid 1960’s. We also discussed that Tissot was part of the same company as Omega and both utilized Lemania as their “in-house” chronograph movement supplier. The model you see here was seemingly made until the late 1960’s and really only changed with different hands and logo: later shifting to the “TISSOT” in block letters version versus the earlier script insignia. If you’re a vintage chronographer admirer you probably notice something else significant, which is that the 1281 looks almost exactly like mid 1960’s Omega Seamaster chronographs with the famous 321 movement.
The Tissot 1281 comes in at 34mm, which is small by today’s standards, but not small historically when looking at famous pieces from companies like Universal Geneve. Furthermore, the Omega Seamasters referenced above came in at 35mm. Yes, this was made at a time right before watches started to grow in size to what became somewhat of a standard of 36mm. So, while it always seems that Tissots come in smaller sizes than their Omega counterparts, the difference here is only 1mm. The 1281 contains a beautiful silver dial with a blue outer telemeter scale and black outer tachymeter scale. The blue doesn’t jump out against the silver dial and is partially obscured by the thickly domed crystal, but it is a nice detail. The three registers step down and meet concentric circles within each and are adorned with needle hands. Nicely weighted applied hour markers exist with outer lume dots as well. Yes, there’s a lot of detail here and while it resembles Omegas of the day, it also reminds me a little of the early Heuer Carreras. The central hands are dauphine-shaped with a, now-faded, strip of lume and are a key highlight of the watch. These, to me, look exactly like those found on the Omegas. The pushers on the 1281 are simple pumps and the crown is a nicely sized, likely non-original, tool. Finally, the case back is screw-down.
Inside the Tissot 1281 is the manual wound Lemania 1281 or Tissot 871 chronograph movement. It has 17 jewels, runs at 18,000bph and has a power reserve of 39 hours. It uses a cam versus a column wheel, which aided in its lower cost of manufacturing and placement in Tissots. The movement was ultimately developed into the 1873 and found its way into Omega Speedmasters. It’s seemingly a robust movement and keeps time respectably. Using the chronograph function is a joy with good action from the pushers. Likewise, winding the 1281 is also an enjoyable experience. By the way, I can’t help but think about how great it would be if Tissot would reissue a newer, more modern-sized version of this piece using the 1873 movement current found in today’s Speedmaster. Tissot, if you are listening, I’d buy it!
Now, we come to wearing the Tissot 1281. I have to say that I wore it once before storing it away from my wife’s prying eyes in order to ensure that it was keeping time and function…and, I liked it. The size did not bother me at all because the lugs are long enough to add some mass. I do wish, though, that the lug width was 18mm versus its 17mm, but the thick alligator-like strap does add some visual mass. Furthermore, the thick crystal and strong dial appearance makes the watch appropriate for dressier occasions. I’m sure that when the 1281 was created, it was designed as a sports watch, but its smaller size seems more suitable for the office. On my wife’s wrist, the 1281 looks great. It doesn’t look too small on her and she loves wearing it to the office and even with jeans. Plus, I still get to see it and I like knowing that she’s wearing something unique that reminds her of me.
Finding a Tissot 1281 isn’t terribly difficult, but finding a good one with the earlier logo and with a clean dial can take some persistence. As always, the cosmetic bits are nearly impossible to source, but the market does not seem to care so much about things like the correct crown. I’ve not heard of any service issues with the 1281 so your skilled watchmaker should be able to perform whatever necessary tasks. As far as value, these seem to run in the $1,000-1,400 range but can probably be found for a bit less if you’re patient. In my mind, the watch presents real value. I understand it does not contain a 321 movement, but when 1mm larger, same era, Seamaster chronographs are selling for more than double the price of the Tissot, I think it presents a nice buying opportunity.
As always, we hope you enjoyed this week’s #TBT on an interesting watch. The Tissot 1281 is a great looking piece and I am happy that a genuine reason to own it surfaced. In the end, though, I probably would have bought one anyway and worn it happily. Feel free to share your thoughts below on the Tissot and if you’ve ever bought a vintage watch for your significant other, let’s hear about it!