One of the most popular watch styles in today’s market, a chronograph watch combines a time display with a stopwatch function. The stopwatch feature is displayed via a chronograph hand (which moves independently of the timekeeping function and the user can start, stop, and reset it when necessary) along with additional counters that track elapsed minutes and hours.
How to use a Chronograph Watch
Although there are several styles, the most common type of chronograph is one with two chronograph pushers framing the winding crown and three counters on the dial.
The top pusher starts and stops the chronograph hand while the bottom pusher resets it back to zero.
More often than not, there’s one counter to track the passing minutes of the chronograph and one to track the passing hours. The third counter is the running seconds indicator.
Brief History of the Chronograph
The name chronograph is a combination of the Greek words for “time” (chrono) and “writer” (graph). Like most mechanical watch complications, the history of the chronograph is a long and convoluted one with many key players.
Up until quite recently, it was thought that Frenchman Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, who was the watchmaker to King Louis XVIII, invented the chronograph in 1821 to time horse races. Rieussec’s contraption dropped ink on demand onto a rotating dial to mark the beginning and end of an elapsed time. However, in 2013, it was revealed that another Frenchman, Louis Moinet, designed a pocket watch with a stopwatch for astronomers in 1815 – a few years before Rieussec’s invention.
Fast-forward to 1969s and even which watchmaker is responsible for the invention of the first automatic chronograph wristwatch is disputed. Zenith announced the self-winding El Primero chronograph movement in January of 1969 before a commercial product was available. Seiko introduced Speed Timer automatic chronographs in May 1969 but only in the Japanese market. April 1969, at Basel Fair, a consortium made up of Heuer, Breitling, Hamilton-Buren, and Dubois-Depraz unleashed the “Chronomatic” automatic chronograph movement in 100 working prototypes, making them “first to market.”
Further reading: History of Breitling
Different Types of Chronograph Watches
Once you get deep into the chronograph world, you’ll notice that there are various types available outside of the traditional versions.
A traditional chronograph is characterized by a single chronograph hand, two pushers, and a three-step start-stop-reset operation. These normally have three counters (sometimes called tri-compax) on the dial, but some chronographs only include two counters (sometimes called bi-compax).
Some of the best luxury chronographs in the market today include:
- Rolex Daytona
- Omega Speedmaster
- Tudor Black Bay Chrono
- Breitling Chronomat
- Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph
- TAG Heuer Monaco
- Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Sport
As its name suggests, a single-pusher chronograph (also known as a monopusher or monopoussoir chronograph) relies on one pusher (rather than two) to control the chronograph hand.
Some excellent examples of monopusher chronograph watches include:
- Cartier Tortue Monopusher Chronograph
- Montblanc Heritage Pulsograph
- Longines Column-Wheel Single Push-Piece Chronograph
- Vacheron Constantin Harmony Monopusher Chronograph
- Patek Philippe 5470P 1/10th of a Second Monopusher Chronograph
A flyback chronograph (also known as a retour-en-vol chronograph) does not require the chronograph hand to stop before being reset back to zero.
Popular flyback chronograph watches include:
- Audemars Piguet [Re]master01
- Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph
- Breguet Type XXI
- Patek Philippe Nautilus Flyback Chronograph 5980
- IWC Pilot’s Flyback Chronograph “Top Gun”
- A. Lange Söhne Datograph
- FP Journe Octa Chronographe
- MB&F LM Sequential EVO
One of the most complex versions is a split-seconds chronograph (also known as a rattrapante chronograph), which is used to time different events that begin but do not end together thanks to two chronograph hands. It is not uncommon for high horology to combine a split seconds chronograph with other complications to develop a grand complication.
Some of the most impressive split-second chronograph watches include:
- Patek Philippe 5370P Split-Seconds Chronograph
- Audemars Piguet 25865 Royal Oak
- Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Split-Seconds Chronograph
- Breguet Classique Rattrapante Chronograph
- IWC Portugieser Rattrapante Chronograph
- Breitling Navitimer B03 Rattrapante Chronograph
- A. Lange & Söhne Triple Split
What is a Chronograph Watch Used for?
Aside from measuring elapsed time, chronographs can also be used for other, more specific functions.
Many chronograph watches, especially those that are dedicated to racing, include a tachymeter scale on the bezel or dial. A tachymeter scale facilitates the calculation of speed (over a set distance) or distance (over a set speed), in either kilometers or miles.
Other chronograph scales can include pulsometers (to measure heartbeat rates), telemeters (to measure the distance from an event that is both visible and audible, such as a thunderstorm), or countdown rotating bezels.
Best Luxury Chronograph Watches
As mentioned, chronograph watches are exceedingly popular in today’s market, beloved more so for their striking sporty looks than their timing functionality. For a deep dive into some top models, our very own Marco Ferrante provides his personal opinion on the top 5 best luxury chronograph watches.