Chromatography is the method of choice for the separation of proteins, at both analytical and preparative scale. Orthogonal purification strategies for industrial use can easily be implemented by combining different modes of adsorption. Nevertheless, with flexibility comes the freedom of choice and optimal conditions for consecutive steps need to be identified in a robust and reproducible fashion. One way to address this issue is the use of mathematical models that allow for an in silico process optimization. Although this has been shown to work, model parameter estimation for complex feedstocks becomes the bottleneck in process development. An integral part of parameter assessment is the accurate measurement of retention times in a series of isocratic or gradient elution experiments. As high-resolution analytics that can differentiate between proteins are often not readily available, pure protein is mandatory for parameter determination. In this work, we present an approach that has the potential to solve this problem. Based on the uniqueness of UV absorption spectra of proteins, we were able to accurately measure retention times in systems of up to four co-eluting compounds. The presented approach is calibration-free, meaning that prior knowledge of pure component absorption spectra is not required. Actually, pure protein spectra can be determined from co-eluting proteins as part of the methodology. The approach was tested for size-exclusion chromatograms of 38 mixtures of co-eluting proteins. Retention times were determined with an average error of 0.6 s (1.6% of average peak width), approximated and measured pure component spectra showed an average coefficient of correlation of 0.992. Biotechnol. Bioeng. 2013; 110: 683–693. © 2012 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.