4 minutes

Chronographs – the most popular watch complication

By Robert-Jan Broer
Vintage Bell & Ross 126 Sport Heritage Chronograph
Image: FratelloWatches

Once in a while, there is a bit of discussion about whether the date feature is a real complication or not. In my opinion it is, so let’s say – or assume – that the chronograph is actually the most popular complication. Perhaps it is also the most useful mechanical complication, besides a date.

Mechanical complications                                                                                                                    

I stress the word ‘mechanical’ here, as every 15 Euro Casio has a chronograph (or “stopwatch”) feature. In the world of mechanical watches, the chronograph is actually quite an interesting and – foremost – complex complication to develop.

Other complex complications for mechanical watches, such as a tourbillon, a moon phase indicator, a perpetual calendar or even a minute repeater might sound more interesting to have in a watch, but you could ask yourself the question whether these are really useful complications. It is nice to “hear” the time if you are laying in bed at night in the dark but you probably also have a clock radio on your night stand. A tourbillon is an amazing complication to fight the effect of gravity on the balance, but since you are probably not using a pocket watch anymore (pretty much in one position), the accuracy of your watch is probably just fine. And so on.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Chronograph Red Gold
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore ChronographImage: Fratellowatches

Being helpful                           

The chronograph is – in my opinion – one of the most useful complications a watch can have, besides the aforementioned date feature. The chronograph allows you to record the elapsed time of daily activities: time a certain distance you’ve completed, time your pizza or cooking activities or to time a special event or moment. My wife uses her chronograph a lot when she’s cooking diner for example. I’ve used my chronographs to time certain computing activities, elapsed time of traveling certain distances and yes, timing the pizza in the oven when I had one without an integrated timer.

It saved Apollo 13

True, my personal experience of using a chronograph is not as exciting as timing lapses on the Daytona race track or, even better, saving the Apollo 13 crew from a horrible death: it was a mechanical chronograph on the wrist of one of the Apollo 13 astronauts that was used to time the exact length of using their rockets to enter the atmosphere safely again instead of being burned.

Besides being a possible lifesaver and /or kitchen help, the chronograph also looks cool. Whilst a tourbillon cage looks plain silly in a diving watch for example, a chronograph can look cool in a sports watch, a dress watch and yes, even a pocket watch. Not only will the dial have more moving hands and sub dials, the watch will also have one or two extra buttons; sometimes even three when it is a split-timer (to measure an extra laps for instance).

Omega Speedmaster Chronograph Moonwatch
Omega Speedmaster Chronograph MoonwatchImage: Auctionata


A chronograph chronometer exists but a chronograph is not the same as a chronometer. A commonly made mistake (still!) is that people confuse the word chronograph for a chronometer or vice versa. These are two different things. A chronometer indication means that a watch is very accurate and performing within specific standards (performing very accurate and according to standards set by the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute, also known by the French acronym COSC). This means that a watch with a chronograph complication can be chronometer as well.

So once and for all, please don’t confuse a chronograph with a chronometer or a chronometer for a chronograph. Your chronograph watch is either a chronometer as well or it isn’t. The best-known chronograph chronometer in the world is probably the Rolex Daytona. The best-known chronograph that’s not a chronometer is probably the Omega Speedmaster Professional. And yes, even here there are exceptions to this rule (e.g. Omega produced a Speedmaster Professional Chronometer in the past).

Hand-wound versus manual winding chronograph

If you have a Rolex Daytona with hand-wound movement, you are probably a happy chap as these are more sought-after by collectors than the later (1988) Rolex Daytona models with an automatic movement. However, as with non-chronograph movements, it doesn’t say much about the quality or performance of a watch but it is merely about preferences of the owner. Sometimes people prefer a watch with an automatic movement as you do not need to be reminded to wind your watch every day (or other day). Basically, like any other watch with or without a complication.

Omega Speedmaster Movement 321
Omega Speedmaster Movement 321Image: Fratellowatches

One of the reasons to choose either of those might be the heritage or history of a certain model. Like the ‘Moonwatch’ which needs to be hand-wound because the original Speedmaster Professional that went to the Moon on the wrist of Buzz Aldrin was also a hand-wound model. The contrary is a Zenith El Primero chronograph movement, which was one of the first self-winding chronograph movements and marks a mile stone in the world of watchmaking. Or, if you like to be able to look at the movement without having a rotor blocking your view when a movement is exceptionally beautiful, try a A. Lange & Söhne timepiece with a chronograph.

 Taking the bull by the horns

There are so many chronographs out there, I am certain there is one that fits your taste. Whether you are into classic looking dress watches or rather prefer a big chunky case that will attract some attention, there are chronographs in all sorts and shapes. Some of the more interesting shaped ones are those chronographs being referred to as Bullhead chronographs. This means that the winding crown is located at 12 o’clock and the pushers are also on top of the watch. A number of brands had bullhead chronographs, like Seiko, Heuer and Omega. In fact, Omega recently re-introduced of one of their Seamaster chronograph models that also has this ‘bullhead’ construction.

In any case (no pun intended), there is one for you as well. You can use the advanced search function on the Chrono24 website if you only want to filter chronograph watches or use the left-pane in the result overview to select chronograph models only. You will see that a lot of watch manufacturers actually offer a chronograph variation of their watch models.


About the Author

Robert-Jan Broer

Robert-Jan, founder of Fratello Magazine, has been writing about watches since 2004. However, his passion for watches dates back much further. In fact, he sold his …

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