Chronographs Explained

The Chronograph – Watch Complications Explained

The Chronograph continues to be one of the most popular sought after watches, yet it is also one of the most underutilized and misunderstood complications. While an exceptional number of young men under 40 specifically seek out Chronographs; studies show that the vast majority of these consumers either don’t understand its intended use, don’t know how to operate the function, or simply never use it. As with any complication, it can significantly increase the price of the timepiece in comparison to its base model, but unlike many other complications, in addition to a date function the Chronograph is one of the most frequently usable features found on a wrist watch today. Not to be confused with a Chronometer, which when labelled on Swiss Made watch indicates that it is COSC-certified and has been tested and certified to meet very precise and specific standards. The Chronograph in layman’s terms, is just a fancy word for a stopwatch or timer. Commonly using anywhere between one and three buttons found on the watch, these so-called Pushers start, stop and reset the chronograph function without interfering with the watch. While some watches can only record up to thirty minutes at a time, others can go as long as 12-hours. The recorded time is read off sub-registers (or recorders) found on the dial of the watch. These registers count elapsed seconds, minutes and hours when the pusher is activated. As we continue our series on horology, we’ve created this guide to help you better understand the Chronograph and discuss some of its historic milestones and capabilities.

History of the Chronograph

The chronograph literally translated means “Time Writer”. A union of the Greek word “chronos” meaning time and “graph” meaning writing. While this often confuses people as to why it would have the word “writing” in it; the very first versions of the chronograph were operated by marking the dial with a small pen that was attached to the index, whereby the length of the pen mark indicated how much time had elapsed. Invented in 1815, Louis Moinet created what would become the first chronograph upon its completion in 1816.

Moinet invented the chronograph solely as a tool for working with astronomical equipment. However, despite this creative invention, it was a man named Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec who built the first chronograph to actually hit the marketplace. Commissioned by King Louis XVIII in 1821, Rieussec was a French watchmaker who gained respect from the King for being publicly known as not being a loyal follower to Napoleon. On January 31, 1817, King XVIII signed a royal warrant which stated:

“On this thirty-first day of January, eighteen hundred and seventeen, the King at Paris, having been made fully aware of the good life and moral conduct of Sieur Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, and of the distinguished reputation he has acquired in his profession of Watchmaker, desires to confer upon him a mark of his favour and of the protection with which he honours him; for this purpose, His Majesty has granted and does grant him the title of his Watchmaker so that said Sieur Rieussec can enjoy all the honours, prerogatives and other benefits thereunto appertaining; His Majesty desires and intends that he may use said Title at all gatherings and on all public documents…”

Thereafter, known throughout France as Watchmaker to the King, Rieussec was asked to develop the complication so the King could time horse races, a favorite pastime of his. The result would change the world of sports forever and be utilized in a variety of capacities the world over. No longer were races won simply by breaking through the tape faster, for now, thanks to the chronograph, races of all types could be timed and records continually challenged and beat. Then in early 1844 a man by the name of Adolphe Nicole created an improved version of Rieussec’s constantly moving chronograph which used a reset feature to allow successive measurements.

The Addition of the Tachymeter

At the dawn of the 20th century, Chronographs began to take the watch world by storm. Manufacturers began selling these watches with a fixed bezel in order to be able to operate as a Tachymeter which can be described as a scale that allows the wearer to compute a speed based on travel time or measure distance based on speed. It wasn’t until 1958 that the first rotating bezel tachymeter was introduced by Heuer (now Tag Heuer).

After the Wright Brother’s success introducing aviation to a world fascinated with flight, the demand for chronographs rose considerably. Just as a chronograph is useful in aviation, it stands to reason that other industries requiring very precise or repeated timing could benefit from such a mechanism.

No longer was the chronograph simply used for horse racing and aviation, it was now introduced to automobile racing, olympic sport and of course, naval and submarine navigation. Due to the varying demands, the watch industry began to produce a variety of chronographs such as the Flyback, which allows the second hand to be rapidly reset; the Rattrapante, where multiple second hands can be stopped and started independently; and the minute and hour times which were designed in various ways including water proof models for deep sea diving and water sports.

Zenith El Primero

Zenith El Primero

Automatic Chronographs

1969 was a banner year for the chronograph. Due to its high demand, watch manufacturers around the world were vying for opportunities to patent an automatic version and reserve its rights for their exclusive use. That’s when Breitling, Heuer and Hamilton decided to partner up with movement expert Dubois Depraz to develop the first-ever self winding chronograph. Developed in secret with only a handful of experts involved on a need-to-know basis, the very first automatic chronograph was unveiled in New York and Geneva on March 3, 1969. Dubbed the Chrono-matic, the Calibre 11 movement would wind itself using an off-center micro rotor. Now, despite this incredible feat, Zenith had somehow received word that the conglomerate was attempting such a feat and took off on its own to produce the El Primero which used a central mounted full rotor and was capable of measuring time to one-tenth of a second. In unison with these two developments, Japanese powerhouse Seiko also released an automatic chronograph called the 6139 Auto-Chrono. However, praise for these horological achievements was short-lived, as 1969 was the same year that Seiko created the world’s first quartz watch, arguably one of the biggest breakthroughs in horological history, and while watch enthusiasts still argue to this day over who invented the first automatic chronograph, it’s safe to say that chronographs were rendered virtually obsolete with the Seiko Quartz-Astron 35SQ.

The Chronograph Takes Flight

With the invention of the quartz watch in 1969, many watch manufacturers feared that the chronographs they had invested so much time and money in perfecting would fail to sell in comparison to the new electronic counterparts introduced by Seiko. However, President Eisenhower, a renowned watch collector and horologist, had ordered that with the evolution of space exploration by NASA, all test pilots and astronauts would be required to wear a chronograph on their wrist. On April 15, 1970, just 56 minutes after launching and 200,000 miles from Earth, an explosion occurred aboard Apollo 13 that crippled the shuttle and resulted in what NASA believed was going to be the certain death and loss of Apollo 13′s three astronauts and the capsule they were flying blind in. As the world watched and waited helplessly gripping the edge of their seats, two days later, on April 17, 1970, the astronauts returned safely to earth, thanks to the Omega Speedmasters they were equipped with due to President Eisenhower’s order. The astronauts were able to use the chronograph function to time a critical engine burn despite all onboard computers having failed. Able to recalculate their reentry to earth they successfully aligned the capsule which resulted in a safe splashdown. When Americans realized that a simple wrist watch had saved the lives of these men when no technologically advanced super computer could; the entire world once again took notice comparing the newly popular electronic watches to the technology that had failed onboard Apollo 13. Today, the vast majority of commercial, civilian and military pilots wear chronographs, on the off chance their systems fail and a simple mechanical watch is needed to save them and any other souls on board their aircraft.

Breitling Chronomat GMT

Breitling Chronomat GMT

My Favorite Chronographs

As one of the world’s most commonly made and available complications, the chronograph has been built into watches time and time again. Below are few of my personal favorites and within their line, there are many new and vintage models to choose from, almost all of which, are sure to be wise investment for your collection. Please note that specs have not been included in the descriptions below as their varying models often contain different movements which would render the descriptions invalid. I would strongly encourage you to research the watch of your choosing, and as always, feel free to ask me questions in the comments section below.

Omega Speedmaster

Originally built for automobile racing, no one expected that this watch would someday save the lives of Astronauts when their onboard computers malfunctioned. Due to its lineage and the story behind this timepiece, the Omega Speedmaster is one of my favorite chronographs today.

Omega Cal. 321 Chronograph movement

Omega Cal. 321 Chronograph movement

Zenith El Primero

The grandfather of chronographs, the El Primero by Zenith is a horological stepping stone into the world of one of the most popular complications; the chronograph. While there are many high quality chronographs in the market, this one is a piece of history and a reminder of what can be achieved through hard work, ingenuity and creativity.

Breitling Chronomat GMT

Long considered the most quintessential pilot watch, Breitling has made a name for itself amongst professionals who demand the very best from their watch. When it comes to a large sporty watch that’s perfect for the man of all men, this is a tough one to beat.

A. Lange Söhne Double Split Chronograph

A. Lange Söhne Double Split Chronograph

Jaeger-LeCoultre Deep Sea Chronograph Cermet

Surprisingly thin, this watch is a blend of metal and ceramic perfectly paired to offer increased stability and to preserve the watch for years to come. A three-counter chronograph the movement is aesthetically inspired by the 1959 Memovox Deep Sea and the chronograph indicator pays homage to the 1930s “chronoflight” onboard instrument. A sleek and perhaps, sexy watch; this is one chronograph that deserves your attention.

A. Lange & Söhne Double Split

Consistently ranked as one of the best watchmakers in the world; the Datograph has long been considered the pinnacle of their lineup. What makes this watch so special in my opinion is that it features the world’s only double-split seconds mechanism. Combine that with its lineage and overwhelming beauty, and the Double Split is one watch sure to make you do a double take.

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

It will cost you a pretty penny, and you’ll have to fight to find one, but when a watchmaker like Patek makes a chronograph, you know there will be nothing else like it around. Considered by many to be the world’s most revered watch, they have sold at auction in the millions and have garnered attention on an international level from watch enthusiasts and collectors alike. In my humble opinion, if I could afford any chronograph in the world, this would be it.

Conclusion

Where a chronograph has its obvious uses for pilots and astronauts, what many people don’t often realize is that for the rest of us it possesses a number of real world functions we can use each and every day. From timing your steak on the grill to how long your wife stays angry at you after an argument, any project that requires a calculation of time is a perfect job for that chronograph on your wrist. The fact is that whether the job is big or small a chronograph can be used for simple timing such as a car or bike race, to saving lives by measuring a baby’s heartbeat, calculating a diver’s oxygen levels or realigning a space shuttle 200,000 miles from Earth. The chronograph is one function that the vast majority of men want in a watch, yet most have never used. If you happen to be one of those men that has bought a chronograph based on its universal appeal rather than knowing its actual capabilities, dust it off and test it out. They are simple to use and yet, often very complicated to make. Of the many complications available in a watch, this is one that truly deserves your attention, and your respect.

7 replies
  1. Richard
    Richard says:

    I own an Omega Speedmaster. I’ve had it since high school. It was my graduation present from my Mother. I always get compliments on it. I wear it for both business or casual occasions.

    Reply
  2. Ahmed Sajeel
    Ahmed Sajeel says:

    Most entertaining. My grail chronograph is the Patek Philippe 2499 (with perpetual calendar). And yes, I also own and love the Omega Speedmaster Professional; this kind of proven track record and history can simply not be bought for any price point

    Reply
  3. Penelope Bianchi
    Penelope Bianchi says:

    Hi! I love your blog! I am an original “preppy”!

    Because I was “not asked back” to every single private school in Pasadena (maybe there were some off my mother’s radar screen); I was sent from California to Northampton, Mass. “Mary Burnham School for Girls”
    I always loved watches. (I am a decorator…..it is an aesthetic thing)!!

    In 1978 I bought a watch for my new husband ; it is a Rolex ….I guess it is not a “chronograph” it is a “Daytona”

    I guess it was for watching or timing auto races. I just loved how it looked! Stainless steel; with a black face and three small circular things on the face!

    It was $300.00!

    We were in Nantucket (we live in Santa Barbara, California) around 8 years ago…..and were walking around in and out of shops! A man in a jewelry store said to my husband……”Sir! Excuse me; but is that watch sentimental to you?” (brilliant and sensitive question! )

    My husband said; “well , yes”!! The jeweler went on to offer him 30,000 dollars! for the watch I picked out because I “loved the look of it”!

    He still has it! I pat myself on the back daily! (just kidding)!!!

    Fascinating……isn’t it?
    His other watches are a lovely pink gold Patek from his Grandfather; another Patek from his uncle……(and I gave him a Patek “Mariner” that the band failed….stretched out…..and they wanted $10,000 to replace the band…….are you kidding?…..I would never buy another new Patek!!

    That is sad!

    Penelope

    Love your blog!

    Reply
  4. Penelope Bianchi
    Penelope Bianchi says:

    oh p.s

    He still has the Patek Mariner……(I think that is it’s name……it now sports a leather band!

    Gorgeous! It is the large size they only made for a few years!

    Watch investors! Hire me! Just kidding!
    Pretty lucky!!!

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] One of the most popular types of watches, for reasons I often don’t understand, a chronograph is nothing more than w watch with a stopwatch function. Able to accurately measure elapsed and time while showing conventional time it’s driven by the movement and operated by two buttons, one which stops and resets the stopwatch, and the other which starts it. While there are various types of chronographs on the market, most people spend the extra money on the ‘name’ without ever using the feature. For more details, take a look at our Chronograph Guide. […]

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