Chronograph Watches – Their History and Appeal

Chronograph Watches – A Watch, a Stopwatch, and More

chronograph While wristwatches of all styles and types have long been popular with the public, the appeal of the chronograph, or a watch that also contains one or more stopwatch complications, would likely strike many people as unusual.  It wouldn’t seem odd that a few people might have an interest in a watch with such a feature, but there are literally millions of chronographs sold each year.  Surely all of the people who buy them aren’t in need of a stopwatch on a regular basis, are they?

Chances are they don’t need one, but despite that peculiarity, the chronograph, or variations on it, is one of the most popular styles of wristwatch sold in the world today.  Chronographs are available in a wide variety of styles and across a broad range of price points.  You can purchase a watch with chronograph features for less than $50, and you can also buy one for $500,000 or more, and the vast majority of watchmakers include at least one chronograph in their product line.

In this article, we’ll discuss the history of the chronograph, offer details on some of the more interesting variations available, and offer a bit of insight as to why many buyers of wristwatches seek out a chronograph when they’re looking to buy a watch.

For convenience, we’ve divided the article into sections, making it easy to find the portions of the article that may be of most interest to you.

Chronograph by Category

Click any of the links below to jump to each category:

Chronograph Definition
Chronograph History
The Tachymeter
The Flyback Chronograph
Rattrapante or Double-Chronograph
Automatic Chronograph models
Quartz Chronographs Arrive
Chronographs in Space
Chronograph Diving Models
Other Chronograph Features and Complications
Classic Chronograph Examples
Omega Chrono-Quartz
Seiko 7A28
Omega Speedmaster
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona
Why People Buy Chronograph Watches
Conclusion

Chronograph Definition

A chronograph is defined as any watch or timepiece that contains at least one stopwatch function, allowing the user to time the duration of a specific event.  As a practical matter, chronographs are handheld devices, as this permits them to be portable.  A chronograph is distinguished from a stopwatch by the fact that it must also be capable of telling time, as would a standalone watch or clock.  The name comes from the Greek, combining the words for “time” and “writing” and the earliest examples of a chronograph were actually capable of graphing time in written form, rather than simply displaying it.  This made for a timepiece that was rather awkward and difficult to use, and the awkwardness was made all the worse by the fact that the earliest models were fitted in a wooden box.

chronograph on wristA chronograph is often confused with a chronometer, which is a timepiece that has been certified by the COSC (Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute) as meeting certain standards of accuracy.  While a chronograph may also be a chronometer, a chronometer need not necessarily also be a chronograph.  Sometimes the two overlap, such as in the case of the current model of the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, which is both a chronograph and a certified chronometer, but as a rule, the two terms are not interchangeable.

After centuries of innovation, the modern chronograph has taken on a somewhat standard appearance, with buttons mounted on the case at the two o’clock and four o’clock positions in addition to the winding stem at 3 o’clock.  The 2 o’clock button starts and stops the timing mechanism, while the button at 4 o’clock resets the stopwatch to zero.  While some models made over the years may have buttons in different locations, or additional buttons besides those at the 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock positions, those are the most common places to find the controls.

Chronograph History

louis moinet
Louis Moinet, inventor of the chronograph

The chronograph as we know it dates to the early 19th century, and was invented by French clockmaker Louis Moinet.  His device was capable of measuring time in 1/60th of a second increments, and he used this to help him with astronomical measurements, as he was also an astronomer.

The first chronograph to be marketed was developed five years later by another Frenchman, Nicolas Rieussec, who created it at the urging of  King Louis XVIII, who wanted to be able to not only time horse races, but to compare the results of one race to another, something that was previously not possible.  Rieussec’s device was useful, but was also rather awkward and bulky, being housed in a large wooden box.  A further problem with Rieussec’s chronograph was the fact that the graphing mechanism made resetting the device a time-consuming process, making it difficult to quickly measure multiple events that occurred within a short time.

This problem was overcome by watchmaker Adolphe Nicole, who in 1844 introduced a chronograph that could be reset instantly in order to quickly time successive events.

There wasn’t a lot of additional innovation for chronographs through the remainder of the 19th century, but as the 20th century came around, sporting events such as auto racing and the introduction of aviation led many watchmakers back to the drawing board to add features to the then-nearly-a-century-old chronograph.


Introduction of the Tachymeter

A tachymeter on a watch
A tachymeter on a watch

The first major innovation of the 20th century for chronographs was the introduction of the tachymeter.  This is a feature of the dial surrounding the watch face itself, rather than a mechanical complication of the timepiece.  A tachymeter is a scale that appears on the watch bezel that allows the user to quickly calculate the speed of an object based on the elapsed time to cover a specific distance.  The beauty of the tachymeter is that it is unit-independent; the scale works just fine whether measuring furlongs, kilometers, or miles or any other unit of measurement, and it translates that distance into a ratio of units per hour.

The tachymeter was a useful addition to the chronograph, as it allowed you to time a race and not only see how long it took to complete the event, but also to measure the speed at which the participants were moving.

Initially, watches featuring a tachymeter had a fixed scale that was permanently mounted to the watch bezel.  In 1958, watchmakter Heuer (now Tag Heuer) introduced the rotating bezel tachymeter.  This feature, while a simple one, gave users the ability to align the scale with the moving second hand.  This added the functionality of being able to compute average speed over longer periods of time and/or distance, as well as the ability to use the tachymeter “on the fly” without having to reset the chronograph.  Today, virtually all chronographs offered for sale offer a rotating tachymeter, and this is particularly handy for divers who need to use a watch to keep track of how long they have been underwater, which can be critical if you only have a limited supply of air in your diving tank.

The Flyback Chronograph

While the chronographs of the 19th and early 20th centuries were popular and useful, they were a bit awkward to use, as timing successive events required that the user stop the device, reset the device, and then start it again.  On early wristwatch models, this was done using the winding stem on the crown of the watch.

The introduction of the flyback chronograph, also known as a “retour-en-vol”, in 1923 by Breitling made it possible to quickly reset and restart timing.  The flyback mechanism was later refined and patented in 1936 by Longines, who added the now-standard two additional buttons on the side of the watch near the crown at the 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock positions.

Today, the flyback feature is standard on virtually any chronograph.

Rattrapante, or Double-Chronograph

While a single chronograph is useful, sometimes it might be beneficial to have more than one mechanism for measuring elapsed time in a single device.  The double chronograph, or “rattrapante”, French for “recovering”, was invented in the 19th century by Adolphe Nicole.  Unfortunately, the manufacturing methods of the time did not permit the device to be incorporated into a small form factor.  In the 1920s, Patek Philippe introduced the first double chronograph, which included a double stopwatch mechanism featuring two second hands.

While a rattrapante watch is complicated enough, having to keep track of the time of day as well as operating two different timing mechanisms, there also needs to be a mechanism in place to reset both second hands at once.

A chronograph such as the rattrapante has useful features, but the usefulness was for many years offset by a problem with accuracy, which was caused by using the watch’s single mainspring to drive both stopwatch units.  Despite decades of innovation, this problem was overcome just a few years ago, starting with a model introduced by Gallet in 2010.

Rattrapante models are surprisingly common today, as they’re popular with collectors, gadget fans, and people who simply enjoy owning watches with additional complications.

Automatic Chronograph models

automatic chronographIt might surprise many people to discover that while chronograph wristwatches have been available since the early 20th century, self-winding, or automatic, models are actually a relatively recent innovation.  Self-winding pocket watches were first created in the 1700s, though the automatic wristwatch was created in patented in 1923 by English watchmaker John Harwood.

One would think that an automatic chronograph would soon follow, but it was actually nearly a  half a century before the development of a self-winding chronograph.  As watches with stopwatch features (or more than one) were already complex enough, adding a self-winding complication made the designs much more difficult.   In addition to adding a self-winding mechanism, horologists also had to find a way to make all of those complications fit in a single, reasonably-sized watch case.  It took the work of three major watchmakers – Heuer, Breitling and Hamilton, working together, to develop the watches that were first sold in 1969 bearing the label “Chrono-matic.”

Despite attempts at secrecy in developing the automatic chronograph, both Seiko and Zenith introduced self-winding chronograph models the same year.   While the introduction of the self-winding models was revolutionary,  the news wasn’t the biggest news of the year in the watchmaking world.  The development of the self-winding chronograph was overshadowed by the year’s other watchmaking innovation – the introduction of the battery-powered watch with a quartz movement.

Quartz Chronographs Arrive

quartz chronographIn 1969, Seiko shook up the watchmaking industry with the introduction of the Seiko Quartz-Astron 35SQ, the first production quartz watch.  This model didn’t use mechanical parts, aside from the hands on the face.  Instead, timekeeping functions were handled by a quartz oscillator and the hands were moved by an electric stepper motor.  The timepiece was accurate to about one minute per year, and sold for $1250 new, or about $8000 today.

The introduction of this timepiece shook the industry to the core, as many watchmaking companies, some more than a century old, were concerned that traditional watches would soon be a thing of the past.  These fears soon appeared to be well-founded, as quartz-powered watches soon became mass-produced items that were sold at prices that seemed to be lower with each successive year.

One would think that with such an advance in technology, along with the ability to add features more easily, a quartz-powered chronograph would soon be available.  That turned out not to be the case, as building a quartz watch that had multiple timekeeping functions turned out to be rather difficult.  The relatively high price of quartz models at that time would have also likely made a quartz chronograph made circa 1970 a prohibitively expensive device.

It wasn’t until 1976 that a quartz-powered chronograph came to market in the form of the Omega Chrono-Quartz, an electronic watch with a hybrid analog-digital display and a rather unattractive, horizontal rectangular case.  The Chrono-Quartz was a limited-production timepiece, introduced for the Montreal Olympic Games and is somewhat difficult to find today.

There were few innovations among quartz powered chronographs over the next decade, but further development in the electronics industry and economies of scale soon made it possible to mass produce quartz-powered watches with stopwatch functions, making them available at surprisingly low price points.  How low?  We’ve recently seen models from China offered at retail for as little as $5.

Despite the affordability and accuracy of quartz-powered units, the market for chronograph watches that have manual or automatic movements remains strong, and nearly every major watchmaker who produces mechanical watches includes at least one in their product line today.

Why would anyone want to buy a mechanical model when the electronic ones are just as accurate and fare less expensive?  Part of the appeal to buyers and collectors is the art of the watchmaking itself, and an appreciation for the fact that it’s actually possible to make a mechanical chronograph that is nearly as accurate and often more attractive than the electronic counterpart.

Chronographs in Space

chronograph in space
Astronaut Jack Swigert wearing an Omega Speedmaster

When the United States first developed its space program in the late 1950s, everyone understood that the venture would be a dangerous one.  Because of this, then-President Dwight Eisenhower required that all astronauts be certified test pilots.  He also, due to being a watch collector, declared that each astronaut must also wear a chronograph.   NASA tested various models, exposing them to a variety of extremes, and eventually settled on the Omega Speedmaster, a popular watch that was introduced in the late 1950s and is still produced today.  This particular model has been worn in orbit, in spacewalks, and even by astronauts who walked on the moon.

Chronograph Diving Models

Scuba and deep sea divers have particular interest in chronographs, as timing can be vital when you need to keep track of available oxygen and how long you have been underwater.  Diving models have additional features that are usually not found on models intended for land use, such as rubber straps, rather than leather or stainless steel.   Diving models must also have exceptional water resistance, and many are rated for depths of several thousand feet, often with ratings that far exceed the depth at which any diver would likely be spending their time.

Bezels on a diving chronograph usually have one or more luminous markings, that make it easier to see while underwater.  Divers will rotate the bezel to indicate when they started their dive so that they can keep track of how much time they have remaining before they run out of oxygen.

Other Chronograph Features and Complications

While the features outlined above cover the majority of chronograph models on the market, there is nothing to preclude the addition of other features or complications, and quite a few models include other features beyond the bare minimum requirement of a stopwatch.

Date – A number of manufacturers build chronographs that include a date feature, which displays the date of the month in addition to the stopwatch function.

Day/Date – A few companies include both the date of the month as well as the day of the week in their models.  Both Seiko and Omega, among others, manufacture a chronograph that displays both day and date on the watch face.

Tides – A few, but not many, manufacturers include a feature that keeps track of tides, which comes in handy for divers as well as surfers.

Moon phases – This feature has always seemed a bit over the top, but since tides and the moon are related, it might not come as a complete surprise that some chronographs include a display that shows the current phase of the moon.

tourbillon mechanismTourbillon – A tourbillon is an elaborate complication that merits an article all by itself.  This complication is intended to overcome the force of gravity, which can affect the ability of a watch to keep precise time.  First developed in 1795, the tourbillon, a French word meaning “whirlwind”, moves the watch’s escapement and balance wheel to a rotating cage, that spins roughly once per minute.

By moving these parts to a moving, rotating cage, the effects of both the watch’s position and gravity on the accuracy of the timepiece are minimized.  Adding a tourbillon to a watch’s design necessarily increases both the cost and the complexity, and most models that include one make a point of making the tourbillon visible.  As including one in a design can add many thousands of dollars to the price, most buyers are happy to see it through a small window on either the watch face or the back.

While it is not common at all to find a tourbillon in a chronograph, a few high-end watch companies, including Bell & Ross and Zenith, have models that include both a tourbillon and chronograph features.

If you’re interested in one, be sure to have at least $100,000 to spend.  They’re complicated, rare, and very expensive.

Classic Chronograph Examples

There are currently thousands of chronographs available on the market, offered with an astonishing range of prices and features.  To list examples of everything that is currently available for sale would be an impossible task, but listed below are a couple of examples of popular, “classic” models that have enjoyed enduring popularity with the watch buying public.

Omega Chrono-Quartz

The Omega Chrono Quartz
The Omega Chrono Quartz

The first quartz chronograph wasn’t offered for sale until 1976, with the introduction of the Omega Chrono-Quartz.  The Chrono-Quartz was an odd-looking timepiece, with an analog display for the time and two digital displays for the chronograph functions.  This gave the watch a rectangular face.  Rectangular watches aren’t that unusual, but most have faces that are taller than they are wide.  The Chrono-Quartz, on the other hand, was wider than it is tall to accommodate the multiple displays.

Three buttons on the left side handled the stopwatch functions while a traditional button at 3 o’clock handled the timekeeping adjustment.  The Chrono-Quartz was limited to 15,000 units and sold for about $600 when new.  They’re somewhat hard to find today, especially in working condition, and nice examples sell for $2000-$3000 on the collector market.

 

Seiko 7A28

seiko 7a28
The Seiko 7A28 chronograph

While the Omega Chrono-Quartz was revolutionary, it wasn’t very attractive, and it didn’t start any design trends.  A much-awaited improvement in quartz chronographs was a Seiko model, the 7A28, introduced in 1982.  This beautiful and well-built timepiece looked like a traditional analog model, with 15 jewels and three inset dials, along with four buttons and a tachymeter along the bezel.  The three inset dials count 20ths of a second (though labeled as “1/10 s”), 30 minutes, and 60 minutes.

The 7A28 was prominently worn by Roger Moore in the 1985 James Bond film, A View to a Kill.  Combining quartz accuracy with traditional analog styling, the 7A28 sold for a relatively modest $250 when new, which equates to about $600 in 2015 dollars.  Despite the relatively modest price, the 7A28 was quite well made, and a glance inside the case makes it clear that these watches were built to last a long time.  As a result, it’s not too difficult to find a clean working example of a 7A28 today, though you’ll still pay the better part of $1000 to buy one.

Omega Speedmaster

omega_speedmaster_moonwatchFirst introduced in 1957, the Omega Speedmaster, a manually-wound chronograph, is one of the more famous models in the watchmaking world.  Originally developed as a racing watch, the model was famously adopted by NASA and used by American astronauts starting with the Gemini program in 1965.  Watches considered for the space program were subjected to rigorous testing, including exposure to extensive shocks, vacuum, and extremes of temperature.
While other watches have been worn in space since then, the Speedmaster remains the only chronograph certified for use during extra vehicular activity.  Members of the Apollo 11 crew took their Speedmasters to the moon, and during the Apollo 13 mission in 1970, Jack Swigert’s Speedmaster was used to time a critical engine burn that was necessary to return the crew safely to Earth after an oxygen tank had exploded and crippled many of the spacecraft’s systems.

The popular Speedmaster line remains in production to this day, with their Professional, or “Moonwatch” model being one of the most popular variations.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

rolex cosmograph daytona paul newman
Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Paul Newman

One of the most popular chronograph models on the market is one that, oddly enough, wasn’t particularly popular at all when it was introduced.  The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was introduced in 1963 with a manually-wound movement, intended for use as a racing watch.  This chronograph was produced steadily through the late 1980s, but never sold well and was soon discontinued.  Actor Paul Newman famously wore one from 1972 through the end of his life, and the model has become closely associated with him.  In fact, one variation of the model is popularly known today as the “Paul Newman” model, though the watch was never sold under that name.

In the early 1990s, Rolex reintroduced the model, this time with an automatic movement that was made by Zenith.  These models were produced for about a decade, when Rolex brought about a third variation using an in-house movement that continues to be produced today.  The current version has been COSC-certified as a chronograph.

The original 1960s-1980s models, which bore four-digit model numbers, are highly sought out by collectors today, and despite their modest original price (about $200 in 1963 dollars), some rare variations have sold for nearly $1,000,000 at recent auctions.

Why People Buy Chronograph Watches

Given that most people do not regularly need to time one or more events, such as a race, one might wonder why chronographs are so popular among watch buyers.   Obviously, people who do need to time things, such as divers, pilots, and people who follow or are engaged in racing of any kind, are going to want at least one chronograph for their collection.   Even if there are other timekeeping methods available, such as on-track clocks at racing events or onboard computers for pilots, many people in those industries like having a reference of their own to use for comparison purposes.

Other buyers like them because they’re complicated in appearance.  If you like gadgets, you’ll love a chronograph.  A regular watch might be “ordinary” looking, but a chronograph has multiple buttons, multiple dials, and multiple hands.   If you add other features, such as moon phases or a tourbillon, you’ll have a watch that can attract the attention of just about any person who is fascinated by gadgets.

Furthermore, a mechanical chronograph is, by definition, an incredibly complex machine that requires many moving parts.  That complexity is compounded by the fact that all of these parts have to somehow be designed in such a way as to get them to all fit in a form factor that isn’t going to look too unusual when it’s on someone’s wrist.

The early chronograph models of the 19th century came in large boxes that had to be carried, but today, thanks to improved designs and clever engineering, a surprising number of complications can be merged to fit in a small, attractive watch case.   Many buyers are simply admirers of the art of watchmaking, and the greater the number of complications in a timepiece, the greater the skill required to make all the parts fit.

Finally, some buyers just enjoy owning a chronograph because they look cool.   A lot of watches look ordinary, with simple faces with a pair of hands.  A chronograph looks a bit unusual, obviously has a much busier appearance, and is likely to attract attention from passers by.  Some people just enjoy an attention-grabbing timepiece and a chronograph certainly qualifies.

Chronograph Conclusion

During its nearly 200 year history, the chronograph has proven to be a popular timekeeping device with watch fans, racing fans, and people who love gadgets.  They come in a wide variety of styles, are available with plastic, steel, titanium and gold cases, and are sold with manually-wound, self-winding, and quartz-powered electronic movements.   You can buy a chronograph with basic time and stopwatch features, or you can buy them with a wide variety of additional complications, including moon phases, tide displays, day-date displays and even a tourbillon, should that pesky gravity get in the way of keeping accurate time.

Prices range from less than $5 for Chinese-made quartz models to the high six figures for limited edition, handcrafted versions with unusual case materials or elaborate complications.  In short, regardless of your needs or level of interest, there is a chronograph model available for purchase that’s right for you, at a price that you can afford.

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