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Chronograph watches are among the most popular styles of timepieces: iconic models like the Rolex Daytona, Omega Speedmaster, TAG Heuer Carrera, and Breitling Navitimer, for example, have become some of the most famous and collectible watches in the modern era and have contributed to the enduring appeal of the chronograph to generations of enthusiasts. If you're new to the watch game, however, you might be wondering not only what all the buzz is about but what these watches actually do that makes them so special. Read on for a comprehensive primer on chronograph watches, from their earliest ancestors to the most ambitious, avant-garde timekeeping technology available in chronographs today.
As I explore in depth in our guide to chronometers, one of the first hurdles to clear for newcomers to watch appreciation is the clarification of two very common horological categories: Chronometer and Chronograph. Quite simply, a chronometer (from the Greek chronos, meaning time, and meter, meaning measure) is any watch or clock that keeps reliably accurate time, usually as determined by an outside independent testing agency, whereas a chronograph (from chronos and graph, i.e., to “write time”) is any watch or clock with the ability to track and record intervals of time, aka a stopwatch. The terms are not interchangeable but they are also not mutually exclusive: a watch equipped with chronograph functions can also be a chronometer if it has met a set of criteria for precision and accuracy predetermined by its manufacturer, and a watch with “Chronometer” as part of its name can also be a chronograph if it can perform those time-measuring functions. The Rolex Daytona, Omega Speedmaster, Breitling Navitimer and Tudor Black Bay Chrono (pictured) are all chronometers as well as chronographs, each earning a chronometer certification via a set of tested criteria.
Chronograph watches, quite simply, are watches equipped with the stopwatch function described above, meaning they not only show the current time but can also be used to measure elapsed times and display them on the dial. Most modern chronographs use a center-mounted hand to count the elapsed seconds; subdials or “totalizers,” to tally the elapsed minutes and/or hours; and pushers or buttons on the side of the case to start, stop, and reset the chronograph hands. Originally, chronographs were equipped with a single pusher (“monopusher” or “monopoussoir” in French), often positioned directly in the center of the crown, to operate all the stopwatch functions, and some chronograph watches are still designed in this vintage style. Breitling invented the more common two-button chronograph design in 1923, in which one pusher starts the chronograph and stops it while the other pusher resets it to zero. Most chronograph dials are either bicompax (with two subdials) or tricompax (three subdials, like the Tissot PRX Chronograph above), though some chronographs have even more novel ways of tallying elapsed times.
As early as 1815, a French horologist named Louis Moinet (1768 - 1853) began working on a device called a Compteur de Tierces, or “counter of thirds,” which has been recognized by Guinness World Records as the “World’s First Chronograph.” Finished in 1816, it was a hand-held device similar to a modern stopwatch, with a stop, start and reset function controlled by two push-buttons and a dial with a central hand that rotated around the dial once per second. Invented for use in astronomy, Moinet’s Compteur de Tierces (above) had a movement with an astonishing frequency of 30Hz, or 216,000 vph, a feat which would not be achieved again by a mechanical timepiece for nearly a century.
For several years before the discovery of Moinet’s invention, and its subsequent recognition by Guinness, it was French clockmaker Nicolas Matthieu Rieussec (1781 - 1866) who had been regarded as the originator of what we now call the chronograph. His device (above), which was the first timekeeping machine to use “chronograph” in its name, was in fact a literal “time writer.” In 1821, Rieussec, a watchmaker to the French royal court, invented his “Chronograph with Seconds Indicator” for the purpose of timing the horse races that were popular in Paris at the time: it consisted of a large watch movement inside a wooden box, topped with two enamel dials with scales for seconds and minutes and a thin hand with an ink-filled nib positioned above them. When activated at the start of a race, the dials rotated; as each horse crossed the finish line, the user pressed a button to trigger the hand to leave an ink impression on the dials, thus recording each horse’s finishing time. The Rieussec chronograph was believed at the time to be the first instrument that could measure short time intervals and is still the most literal interpretation of the “time writer” concept in the history of horology. Appropriately, it is Montblanc, a respected maker of high-end writing implements before it began making watches, that today offers a chronograph wristwatch that pays homage to the design of Rieussec's invention (below).
What earns Moinet’s Compteur de Trieces the nod over Rieussec’s equestrian-timing device as history's first chronograph is not only the timing of its invention five years prior but its use of the start-stop-reset functions that are considered essential to our modern definition of the term. It was Swiss watchmaker Adolphe Nicole who patented this return-to-zero mechanism in 1862 and who has long been credited as its inventor, but Moinet’s device incorporated the technology nearly 50 years earlier.
Longines brought the chronograph function to a wristwatch in 1913, equipping it with the Swiss manufacturer’s Caliber 13.33Z. That watch was a monopusher, with an accuracy to ⅕ second. Two years later, in 1915, Gaston Breitling, head of the Breitling watch company and son of its founder Leon Breitling, designed a timing watch with a separate pusher to control the start, stop and reset functions. The positioning of the additional pusher — on the side of the case at 2 o’clock, just above the crown, where it was easiest to reach and operate, would shortly become the standard for the many chronograph wristwatches that followed.
Chronograph watches continued to evolve throughout the first half of the 20th Century, but the one technical advancement that had eluded watchmakers was a high-precision chronograph movement that could also be automatic, or self-winding, even though the technology had been available in less complicated wristwatches since 1923. Starting in its 100th anniversary year of 1965, Swiss watchmaker Zenith decided to tackle the challenge, with several other major watchmakers and movement makers throwing their hats in the ring subsequently, all vying to lay claim to the first great horological invention of the 20th century. The so-called Great Automatic Chronograph Race pitted Zenith against a consortium of Swiss firms that had teamed up to develop their own self-winding chronograph caliber (made up of Heuer-Leonidas, Breitling, Buren-Hamilton, and Dubois-Dépraz), as well as Seiko of Japan.
Zenith’s movement made it to the finish line first, announced at a press conference on January 10, 1969 — beating the Caliber 11 “Chrono-Matic” that arose from the Breitling-Heuer consortium’s efforts, which launched on March 10 of that year, and the Seiko Caliber 6139, which hit the market in May. While Zenith’s groundbreaking movement was not actually available in a commercial product until later in the year, it did live up to the name its creators gave it — “El Primero,” or “The First” — by virtue of its January debut to the public. Its balance frequency was an unprecedented, lightning-quick 36,600 vph (5 Hz), which in practical terms meant that the built-in stopwatch function, driven by a classical column wheel, was capable of measuring elapsed times to 1/10th second. Zenith's modern collection features numerous models equipped with the El Primero movement, which has been refined and improved over the decades.
A chronograph with a flyback function (known in French as a “retour-en-vol”) enables the user to stop, return to zero, and instantly restart the elapsed-seconds hand to begin timing a new interval — distinguishing it from a standard chronograph in which stopping, returning to zero, and restarting each require a separate push. The first watch movement with flyback chronograph functionality is believed to be the selfsame Longines 13.33Z cited above, modified for a two-pusher architecture and patented in 1936. From a practical standpoint, flyback chronographs (like the Frederique Constant pictured above) are ideal for timing multiple events that have the same start time but different finish times, like a pilot keeping track of the various timed stages of a flight, since the central hand “flies back” to the starting point swiftly to record another interval after being stopped to record the first.
Often referred to by its French name, rattrapante (for “catch up”), a split-seconds chronograph is equipped with not one but two elapsed-seconds hands, one positioned directly above the other while the chronograph is switched off. Both hands are started and returned to zero simultaneously via a pusher. A second pusher allows the split-seconds or rattrapante hand, usually the one underneath, to repeatedly separate from the upper hand to record split times and then be instantly returned into its position under the other, still-moving hand (i.e., it “catches up”). A split-seconds chronograph is particularly useful for timing a series of events in quick succession, like laps in a track meet or an automobile race. The split-seconds mechanism appeared in a pocket watch movement as early as the 1880s and it was the high-complication specialist Patek Philippe that first incorporated it into a wristwatch in 1923, a gold-cased, enamel-dialed model (example above) that sold for nearly $3 million at Sotheby’s.
If you’ve been looking at chronograph watches, you’ve probably noticed that many of them feature, in addition to the subdials, a circular scale of some kind on the outer ring of the dial, on the bezel, or both. These scales are used in cooperation with the central chronograph seconds hand to make specific types of calculations. A tachymeter scale has a series of graduated numerical readings used in conjunction with the seconds hand to measure an object’s speed over a predetermined distance, i.e., to determine miles or kilometers per hour, and is a popular feature on chronographs whose design is inspired by automobile racing, like the watch pictured above, the Omega Speedmaster (before it became more famous as the “Moonwatch”), and the Rolex Daytona. For a primer on how to use a tachymeter bezel, check out our guide to tachymeter watches here.
A pulsometer (also called a pulsimeter or pulsograph) is a scale designed to measure heart rates, and watches equipped with it are classically known as “doctor’s watches.” To record heart beats per minute, the user simply starts the chronograph timer, counts the number of beats before the hand gets to the number the scale is calibrated for (either 15 or 30), then stops the hand for the reading. Pulsometer watches are fairly rare these days, and examples with the scale incorporated onto the bezel rather than the dial are even rarer; one of them is Omega’s CK2298 version of the Speedmaster (above), which adorns its bezel with a pulsometer rather than the standard tachymeter.
A telemeter (as found on the Tissot model pictured above, reviewed here) is used to measure the wearer’s distance from an event based on the difference between visual and audible phenomena; in layman’s terms, the scale can be used with the chronograph seconds hand to determine how far away a thunderstorm is based on the amount of elapsed time between a flash of lightning and a crackle of thunder.
A scale most closely associated with Breitling’s pilot chronographs — it made its debut on the original Chronomat but is today a fixture of the Navitimer (above) — is a circular slide rule, based on a logarithmic tool that enabled pilots to make critical calculations to determine factors like their aircraft’s fuel consumption, distance traveled, and rates of climb and descent. Essentially, it combines a mobile scale on a bidirectional bezel with another fixed scale on the dial itself; the concentric scales for standard mileage (STAT), kilometers (KM) and nautical miles (NAUT) can be aligned precisely right on the wrist to make conversions at a glance.
The Triple Split from German high-horology house A. Lange & Söhne is the world’s first mechanical split-seconds chronograph able to make multi-hour comparative time measurements. Additional rattrapante hands on both the minute and hour totalizer subdials enable the watch to record both additive and comparative times up to an unprecedented 12 hours. In its switched-off mode, the chronograph’s hand pairs – sweep seconds, minute- and hour-counter hands – are superposed. When the user activates the chronograph with its pusher, all these hands start to run simultaneously until the rattrapante pusher on the opposite side of the case is pressed — freezing the intermediate time measurements on the three blued-steel hands while the seconds hand and the minute- and hour-counter hands continue running to tally up the total time. Pressing the rattrapante pusher again causes the three stopped hands to catch up and synchronize with the still-running, still-time-measuring hands.
F.P. Journe’s Centigraphe Souverain is one of the most complicated timepieces in founder Francois-Paul Journe’s impressive repertoire. It is a manual-winding mechanical chronograph capable of indicating elapsed times at three separate speeds, one recorded on each of the three subdials with red-colored scales. In the upper left register, with a scale marked 1 to 100, the hand makes a complete rotation once per second. Next to it on the upper right, another hand orbits its subdial, with a 1-to-20 scale, once every 20 seconds. On a third, centered subdial above 6 o’clock, a third hand rotates every 10 minutes on a scale marked 1 to 10. Journe engineered the Centigraphe to be a chronograph for uses in multiple settings, its indicators capable of measuring “the speed of an airplane all the way down to that of a jogger.”
In 2023, Jaeger-LeCoultre unveiled the Reverso Tribute Chronograph, whose swiveling reversible case and two-sided dial offers a novel and eye-catching chronograph combo: an understated sunburst blue with three-hand time display on its front face and a fully skeletonized reverse-side dial that combines a subdial revealing a second time zone that appears to float above the mechanism; a central chronograph seconds hand activated by the two side-mounted pushers on the case; and a retrograde hand with a 30-minute scale to tally chronograph minutes. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s all-new manually winding Caliber 860 — shaped, like all Reverso calibers, to fit perfectly inside the rectangular case — is the high-horology movement that makes all of this possible.
H. Moser & Cie named its first chronograph model, the Streamliner, after the high-speed trains of the 1920s and ’30s remembered for their rounded, aerodynamic curves, which inspired the model’s cushion-shaped, ergonomically designed case, smoothly integrated bracelet, and minimalist dial. What makes the Streamliner so innovative is the dial’s clean layout, which displays chronograph times without the use of subdials: two central counter hands display elapsed hours and minutes on the white-and-red tracks on the dial’s border, the outer one for elapsed minutes, the inner for elapsed seconds, while the two larger central hands display the time. The chronograph hands are operated by the two pushers at 10 and 2 o’clock on the case, evoking the “bullhead” look of vintage, hand-held stopwatches along with the prominent “60” at the 12 o’clock position on the dial. The Streamliner’s distinctive design adheres both to Moser’s philosophy of stylish simplicity and the watch’s mandate to create “a chronograph which displays the time rather than a watch which features a chronograph.’
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