chronograph guide

Chronograph – Watch Complications Explained

In this guide, we’re going to discuss the chronograph watch, including its rich history, 50 favorite models and our top three for low, medium and high budget watch buyers.

The Chronograph continues to be one of the most popular and 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 their 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, the Chronograph in addition to a date function is one of the most frequently usable features found on a wrist watch today.

Glashutte Original Senator Chronometer Regulator

Don’t confuse a Chronograph with a Chronometer; here is a Glashutte Original Senator Chronometer Regulator

The chronograph is not to be confused with a Chronometer, which when labeled 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, these “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 historical 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.

Louis Moinet

Louis Moinet

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 be offered in 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 of 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 he was known throughout France as the “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 introduced 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

The Introduction of 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 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

What to Look for in a Chronograph

There are a number of things worth considering when acquiring a new chronograph watch. The most important thing you need to consider is how you plan to use the feature; that should dictate the type of model your choose, aside from your budget. Furthermore, here are a few DO’s and DON’Ts on how to pick the perfect chronograph.

DO’S

  1. DO select a watch that’s easy to read
  2. DO pick a timepiece with luminous markings that you can read at night.
  3. DO choose a two or three pusher chronograph for ease of use.
  4. DO pick a chronograph capable of timing more than your intended duration so it won’t require a reset.
  5. DO look for timepieces that are well known for their accuracy.
  6. DO choose mechanical timepieces with power reserves.
  7. DO select a quartz timepiece if the accuracy of time is of the utmost importance.
  8. DO pick a water resistant watch when using a chronograph in wet conditions.

DONT’S

  1. DON’T pick a chronograph with a ton of other features that’s challenging to operate or read.
  2. DON’T choose digital chronographs that pause, stop or reset when switching functions.
  3. DON’T pick a chronograph that isn’t water and shock resistant if you plan to use it outdoors or while moving.
  4. DON’T wear a chronograph as a dress watch or with black tie. It is a sports watch first and foremost.
  5. DON’T choose a chronograph with pushers that can accidentally be activated with the slightest touch.
  6. DON’T select a chronograph that doesn’t properly fit your wrist or you may inadvertently cause the chronograph to start, stop or reset.
  7. DON’T expect to use a chronograph as an alarm. Most do not have audible alerts.
  8. DON’T expect that every line that features a chronograph means that every timepiece in that line has the function. Often brands only have one or two chronographs in their model lineups. Be sure that you confirm the timepiece you’re buying has a chronograph before purchasing it.
  9. DON’T assume every watch that looks like a chronograph has a chronograph. Often the registers used for chronographs are also used for other complications. Be sure to examine the register carefully to confirm it is, in fact, a chronograph function.

Our Top 3 Chronograph Picks

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 three of our favorite chronographs for those looking for a small budget, medium budget, or a high budget timepiece.

Whether you’re looking to spend $100 or $100,000, these three watches are sure to be a wise investment that you’ll receive many years of enjoyment from wearing. You’ll notice that our price categories are a bit extreme, but that is the nature of the chronograph market. Before we get started, let’s take a moment to look a why we don’t recommend buying a chronograph watch in the $500-$4000 price range. 

Avoid Overpriced, Low-Quality Watches

Unfortunately, in our opinion, almost every new chronograph watch that is priced between $500 and $4000 is not worth your money, as they are all overpriced for the quality they offer. For example, a new Shinola timepiece that retails for $1000 only offers a basic Ronda quartz movement, and you could easily find a far superior vintage timepiece from Breitling, Omega or a handful of other great watchmakers for just a few hundred dollars more.

Shinola Chronograph Watch

This Shinola Chronograph watch is overpriced for what you get

There is nothing wrong with buying an inexpensive quartz chronograph for $100. You end up buying based on aesthetic, and even the least expensive quartz watches are typically more accurate than some of the most expensive mechanical movements. Where you start getting into the murky water is when you end up purchasing a watch between $500 and $3000 that’s worth just a fraction of the cost. If your budget lies in this range, your best bet is to go vintage. 

There are some exceptions to every rule. If you weren’t looking for a chronograph, we would absolutely be recommending a NOMOS Tangente. Unfortunately, it’s just not available with a chronograph function yet. So, rather than wasting your money on a timepiece that’s not worth the price tag, we recommend buying get something at a lower price with a similar quality movement, go vintage, or save up for the watch you really want.

Southview Multifunction by Timex Blue

Southview Multifunction by Timex

Top Chronograph Pick Under $100: Timex Southview Multifunction

The Timex Southview Multifunction Watch is as classic as Timex gets. If you enjoy the preppy styling of the Weekender models, the Southview Multifunction is an excellent choice for men who enjoy modestly priced, attractive, and accurate quartz sports watches. Found for less than $100, it comes in three styles and is slim enough to pass the cuff test when wearing a suit or blazer. You can get it direct from Timex for just $72.

Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch with a metal band

Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch with a metal band

Top Chronograph Pick Under $5,000: Omega Speedmaster Professional Moon Watch

Originally built for automobile racing, no one expected that the Omega Speedmaster Professional Moon 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 our favorite chronographs today. Whether you’re thinking of signing up for Mission to Mars or you’re happy seeing the stars from your backyard, this particular timepiece was the first man on the moon watch. It uses the Omega 1861 movement with a standard 48-hour power reserve. At 42mm, it’s not exactly a dress watch, but it does come with a black leather strap in a crocodile pattern. It also has an accompanying NATO strap and a velcro strap to let you change up the look. If having a story behind your watch is important to you, this is one timepiece that will start conversations wherever life takes you. 

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Chronograph

Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Chronograph

Top Chronograph Pick Over $5,000: Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Chronograph

Available across the United States at all Tourneau stores, or at any brand boutique, the Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Chronograph is a perfect blend of sophisticated engineering and understated elegance. Vacheron Constantin has long been revered as a member of the holy trinity of watchmakers, and this timepiece indeed confirms why. Priced at just over $50,000, this collector’s piece is one for the gentleman with a high budget who is seeking a timepiece that’s the perfect blend of functionality and artistry. 

 

A. Lange & Söhne Double Split

A. Lange & Söhne Double Split, one of our top 50 picks

Top 50 Chronographs

This curated selection of fifty different chronograph timepieces in three different price ranges (low $, medium $$ and high $$$) is certain to appeal even the most discerning collector.

CHRONOGRAPHBRANDPRICEWHERE TO BUY
Chronomat GMTBreitling$$$Get it here
Deep Sea Chronograph CermetJaeger-LeCoultre$$$
Double SplitA. Lange & Söhne$$$
El PrimeroZenith$$$Get it here
Perpetual Calendar ChronographPatek Philippe$$$
SpeedmasterOmega$$$Get it here
Daytona (Paul Newman)Rolex$$$
DatographA. Lange & Söhne$$$
Royal Oak ChronographAudemars Piguet$$$Get it here
Calibre de Cartier ChronographeCartier$$$Get it here
L.U.C. Perpetual ChronoChopard$$$
Big Bang Unico Titanium CeramicHublot$$$Get it here
AutaviaHeuer$$$Get it here
Vintage ChronographBell & Ross$$$Get it here
Pilot WatchBremont$$$Get it here
Vintage RallyFrederique Constant$$$Get it here
LaureatoGirard-Perregaux$$$
MarineUlysses Nardin$$$Get it here
Doppel 3Habring$$$
140 St. S.Sinn$$$
5170R-001Patek Philippe$$$
NavitimerBreitling$$$Get it here
Auto ChronoHamilton$$$
Pershing 005Parmigiani Fleurier$$$
Memoris 200th Anniversary ChronographLouis Moinet$$$
Aquatimer ChronographIWC$$$Get it here
Luminor Submersible 1950 Automatic Men's WatchPanerai$$$Get it here
Flyback ChronographBreguet$$$Get it here
Bathyscaphe Flyback ChronographBlancpain$$$
BarracudaDenissov$$
Startimer Pilot ChronographAlpina$$Get it here
El Primero ChronographEbel$$
Square Check ChronographBurberry$$
Formula 1Tag Heuer$$Get it here
AstronSeiko$$Get it here
Big CrownOris$$Get it here
Monaco Vitesse LarvottoStuhrling$$Get it here
PRC 200 Automatic ChronographTissot$$Get it here
Red Fleece Round Navy FaceBrooks Brothers$Get it here
Southview MultifunctionTimex$Get it here
Men’s ChronographNautica$Get it here
CaptainOrient$Get it here
Red Wing ChronoTimex$Get it here
Dress ChronoSeiko$Get it here
Eco Drive ChronographCitizen$Get it here
Spirit of St. LouisArmogan$Get it here
Intelligent Quartz ChronoTimex$Get it here
Le MansHelgray$Get it here
EdificeCasio$Get it here
AncherSkagen$Get it here

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.

Summary
The Chronograph Explained
Article Name
The Chronograph Explained
Description
Learn more about the chronograph and why this popular watch complication is often misunderstood
Author
Publisher
Gentleman's Gazette
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14 replies
  1. 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.

  2. 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

  3. 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!

  4. 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!!!

  5. Thody Evans says:

    The explanation of “graph” is a bit forced.
    What about the graph in telegraph, phonograph, and photograph?

  6. Terry says:

    Very interesting and useful article, Sven. My daily driver is a Seiko chronograph with the quartz 7T82 movement. I need a chronograph in my work, and this watch is extremely durable and accurate. I need a luminous dial, and Seiko’s Lumibrite is one of the two best non- Tritium illuminators available. The black face and white hands and markers make it very easy to read at a quick glance. At $250 I find this watch an excellent buy.
    Your article should be bookmarked by readers who may need a good chronograph!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] dial should be simple, elegant and understated. This isn’t the time to wear chronographs, day-dates or world timers. However, you can get away with wearing a moon phase […]

  2. […] 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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