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Feature: What is a chronograph watch?

What are the small subdials found on a chronograph watch? Do they make it more expensive? And can a chronograph ever be considered a dress watch? We’ve tasked our experts with answering these and other frequently asked questions regarding this much-loved yet misunderstood complication.

The chronograph – a (very) brief history

The Greeks have given the world a wealth of wonderful things, from Socrates to moussaka, democracy to Demis Roussos. To this illustrious list you can add the word “chronograph”, which comes from the Greek khrónos, meaning “time”, and grápho “to write”.

The very earliest versions of the chronograph actually involved marking the dial with a small pen attached to the index so that the length of the pen mark would indicate lapsed time. However, the watchmaker credited with the invention of the chronograph as we know it is Louis Moinet, a contemporary and acquaintance of the godfather of horology, Abraham-Louis Breguet.

Moinet completed his Compteur de Tierces (“thirds timer”), as he named it, in 1816 after working on it for a year, although the function was never a common feature of the everyday pocket watch worn by men in subsequent decades.

Image courtesy of Bonhams

Image courtesy of Bonhams

That came almost a century later with the first wristwatch versions of the chronograph. Longines was an early pioneer of these timepieces and both their and Omega’s chronographs were vital in timing major sports events of the early twentieth century such as the Olympics.

The last major development in the chronograph’s history came in 1969 when watchmakers finally worked out how to integrate the function with an automatic movement.

What is a chronograph?

A chronograph is merely a stopwatch function that can time an event by counting the lapsed time in seconds, minutes and hours—usually displayed via two or three subdials within the main dial. It does this without disrupting the regular hours minutes and seconds display of the watch.

Chronographs can usually be recognised by their two pushers flanking the crown, although some have one—a monopusher—which can also be integrated into the crown.

There are some extremely basic models, however, that simply count the seconds and have no subdials at all, like the vintage Longines model below. These amount to little more than a 60-second stopwatch (fine for timing short races, but not much else) and are rare.

Image courtesy of Bonhams

Image courtesy of Bonhams

How does a chronograph work?

Whole books have been written about the functional and technical variations of chronograph watches, with intricate diagrams to explain the inner workings of the vertical clutch coupling system and other things for horology boffins to pore over with relish.

Needless to say, we’re not going to venture down that very deep rabbit hole in this limited space. But you’ll no doubt want to know how to operate a basic chronograph, lest you start jabbing away indiscriminately at the pushers on your friend’s precious vintage watch without knowing what they do (they won’t thank you for it).

To start the stopwatch, press the pusher above the crown. You’ll see the main seconds hand immediately start to move. Once you’ve timed your event, press the same pusher to stop it. To reset the counters back to zero, press the pusher beneath the crown. And you’re ready to go again.

With monopusher chronographs, that single pusher performs all of the above, while the ingenious watchmakers over at Jaeger-LeCoultre have even made a pusher-free chronograph that’s operated by pressing the top and bottom of the crystal.

Are chronographs automatic?

These days, mechanical chronographs can be either self-winding (automatic) or manually wound. Up until the late 1960s, however, ALL chronographs ran on manual-wind movements as the problem of equipping a watch with both a winding rotor and the many extra components of a complicated chronograph movement had not yet been solved.

Watchmakers began figuring out how to integrate the two in the 1940s, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that real progress was made.

Image courtesy of Bonhams

Image courtesy of Bonhams

A three-horse race featuring Seiko in Japan, Zenith, and a consortium comprising Heuer-Leonidas, Dubois-Depraz, Breitling and Hamilton-Buren, ended in 1969 with Zenith’s El Primero calibre claiming a narrow victory—even if the result is still disputed today.

Of course, since the advent of quartz technology, chronograph watches are just like any other watch in that they can also run on a battery-powered movement.

What do the three dials on a chronograph do?

Firstly, a chronograph doesn’t always have three dials (we call these smaller dials “subdials). It can also have two, or less commonly, one (or, very rarely, four or none at all).

But when it does have all three, they will usually display the seconds, minutes and hours. Current versions of the Rolex Daytona, for example, have a 30-minute counter at 3 o’clock, the constantly running seconds counter at 6 o’clock and the 12-hour counter at 9 o'clock.

The large, central seconds hand is the chronograph seconds hand, which can be started and stopped, not the one in the subdial, which is always moving.

The Tudor Black Bay Chrono has just two subdials: a 45-minute counter at 3 o’clock and a constantly running seconds counter at 9 o’clock. Again, the main central seconds hand is the chronograph hand.

Can chronographs be dress watches?

If we’re adhering to strict definitions here, the dress watch has a thin case—preferably in a precious metal like gold or platinum—and no functions besides the standard time. The addition of a date, any kind of calendar complication, or a moonphase display doesn’t disqualify it from the dress watch category, but it certainly makes it a little less “dressy”.

Add a chronograph function, however, and it would be a huge stretch to call it a dress watch, no matter how elegant it looks.

Image courtesy of Bonhams

Image courtesy of Bonhams

That said, a vintage chronograph in precious metal on a smart leather strap looks just as good as a Patek Philippe Calatrava (generally regarded as the quintessential dress watch) when paired with the most formal attire.

Go ahead and wear one with your tuxedo.

Why are chronograph watches expensive?

Chronographs are generally more expensive than a standard watch for the very same reason a coffee machine is more expensive than a cafetiere: their inner-workings are far more complex, feature far more components, and are thus harder to manufacturer, assemble and test.

Watches with chronograph movements manufactured in-house—i.e., made by the brand itself and not outsourced from an external supplier like ETA—will be more expensive, with the cost escalating even more if it’s equipped with a fly-back or split-seconds function (more on these below).

When buying a chronograph, it’s also worth considering the eventual maintenance charges.

There's no getting away from it. At some point you’re going to need to get it serviced or even repaired, and the cost of this will be more than it would with a time-only watch.

What is the difference between a chronograph and a normal watch?

Rest assured, a chronograph still tells the standard time. It’s not solely a stopwatch. The only difference is a “busier” dial to accommodate that extra information for the chronograph timings, plus the pushers on the side of the case to operate the chronograph function. You may find that with chronographs, the cases are thicker, which comes from the need to house all those extra components.

If you’re using the chronograph a lot, you may also find that it’s eating up your power reserve, as a chronograph is more demanding of the stored-up energy than a watch that does nothing but tell the regular time.

What are the different types of chronographs?

There are several specialist chronographs that go above and beyond the standard offering, but by far the best-known are the flyback and split seconds (“rattrapante” in French).

A flyback chronograph enables the wearer to instantly reset the chronograph and start a new timing sequence with one push of the button, rather than three. It was particularly useful for aviators who needed to calculate consecutive average speeds.

A split seconds chronograph, as the name suggests, features two independent chronograph second hands, one of which can be stopped while the other keeps ticking. After recording the time, you can then let the stopped hand instantly catch up to the other hand and continue recording the time.

There are also Regatta timers such as the Rolex Yachtmaster II which are a type of chronograph. They’re essentially countdown timers for timing yacht races.

Chronometers Vs Chronographs

They may sound alike but they are very different things. A chronometer is simply a watch that has undergone additional testing by the Swiss agency COSC (Controle Officiel Suisse des Chronometre) to make it especially accurate—no more than -4/+6 deviation per day for mechanical watches.

Any kind of watch, including chronographs, can be a chronometer, providing it passes the COSC tests.

To help differentiate between the two words, remember that Chronograph means “writer of time”, whereas Chronometer means “measurer of time”.

What are the best chronographs?

There are very few watch brands that don’t have at least one chronograph in their catalogue, but the most iconic and popular models are from well-established Swiss brands like Rolex and Omega.

The modern Daytona is an immensely popular Rolex model and since 2000 comes with an automatic movement, while there are Omega Speedmaster models that are run on both automatic and self-winding movements. Both these watches have long and illustrious histories, with the Speedmaster famous for its long association with NASA.

If you’re looking for something more high-end, the 5070 is something special even by Patek Philippe’s impeccable standards—it was the first manual-wind, pure chronograph from the brand in over 30 years when released in 1998, although in recent years the Nautilus and Aquanaut models have stolen its thunder.

Some people consider the Datograph, by the celebrated German watchmaker A. Lange & Söhne, one of the most finely engineered and beautifully decorated chronographs ever made. Philippe Dufour, arguably the world’s greatest living watchmaker, is an admirer.

At the other end of the price scale, the ever-dependable Seiko makes a range of affordable models equipped with their own movements. There are also a number of smaller independent brands making interestingly designed chronographs that run on Swiss-made movements from the likes of Sellita and ETA. These include Christopher Ward, Baltic, Maen and Farer.

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