The chronograph is probably one of the most sought-after complications. It is also one of the most complex movements to construct and develop. Forget about perpetual calendars or tourbillons – the chronograph is incredibly demanding for the engineers working at manufactures. A chronograph movement must deal with a lot of force, such as when the large seconds hand is being reset and needs to stop at 0. Try to search online for a slow-motion video that shows a mechanical chronograph resetting. The large second hand will make some crazy moves when it jumps back to its starting position. You would have never noticed these moves without high-definition images.
Most chronograph watches were at some point introduced for a specific purpose. The Rolex Daytona and Omega Speedmaster are perhaps the most famous chronographs and were initially meant for race car drivers. Aside from sports, there has been some industrial use for chronographs. Most of the time these were watches with a specific “unit” scale to measure the duration of specific (production) tasks. However, like the Daytona and Speedmaster, most chronographs have a relationship with racing. Take Heuer Carrera, for example.
For a long time, a lot of chronograph movements were hand-wound, and some still are today. The first automatic chronograph movements weren’t brought out until 1969. Zenith introduced the first automatic chronograph in January of that year, accordingly naming it “El Primero.” Then, the Chronomatic – a joint effort by Heuer and Breitling – was introduced in March 1969, also an automatic chronograph. Although released early in the year, both the El Primero and Chronomatic weren’t actually on the market until autumn 1969. This makes Seiko the first brand to have introduced an automatic chronograph to the market, as they delivered their caliber 6139 movement in June 1969.
Patek Philippe used Lemania-based chronographs until 2010, when they finally introduced their own (beautiful) in-house chronograph movement. Rolex has also been using an in-house movement with their Daytona since 2000. Before that, they relied on the Valjoux (until 1988) and a tweaked version of the Zenith El Primero (1988-2000).
Even today, a lot of manufactures use chronograph movements from third parties. Is that bad? Certainly not – a work-horse movement like the ETA7750 or Sellita SW-500 performs very well and enables a lot of brands to carry a chronograph watch in their collection at a reasonable price. In recent years, Breitling and Omega have also come up with their own in-house chronograph movements after having relied on other chronograph manufacturers for years or decades. They climbed a step up the horological ladder to reposition themselves as well as to be less dependent on suppliers.
The cool thing about a mechanical chronograph watch is that it doesn’t necessarily mean you need to spend a crazy amount of money. For only a few hundred euros, you can own a vintage Seiko 6139 in good condition, a nice piece of chronograph history.
In this article, we will show you our top 10 chronographs.
Introduced in 1963, the Rolex Cosmograph (the name Daytona first appeared on the dial in 1965) was a chronograph with a tachymeter bezel, three registers, and pump pushers. The Daytona is one of the most sought-after Rolex watches overall, and it enjoys worldwide recognition from collectors, jet-set playboys, and their admirers. There’s a waiting list for a new stainless steel Rolex Daytona that will take a few birthdays, but clever dealers were able to scoop one up and offer it to those who want to pay well over the list price. Is the watch that good? Yes, it is.
The in-house chronograph movement with a column wheel is chronometer certified, and on top of that, Rolex ensures even tighter specifications with an average deviation of just -2/+2 seconds a day. The Rolex Daytona is basically only one model that comes in steel, gold/steel, full gold, or platinum. This makes deciding which version of the watch to get easy, as acquiring the watch is already difficult enough as it is.
The Omega Speedmaster was part of an impressive line-up of sports watches introduced in 1957. Together with the Seamaster 300 diving watch and the Railmaster for engineers, the Speedmaster was the chronograph of the group. Powered by the much-praised caliber 321 movement, it had no relationship to space at the time, just racing and sports in general. That quickly changed in 1965, when NASA chose the Omega Speedmaster to become their chronograph instrument for astronauts during their extravehicular activities (such as spacewalks). The Speedmaster was the only watch that didn’t fail their extensive tests during the procurement process. Rolex, Longines-Wittnauer, and Hamilton failed miserably, and Waltham sent a watch that NASA hadn’t even asked for in the first place. The rest is more or less history.
Omega still produces the Omega Speedmaster (Professional), a direct descendant of the watch that was worn on the Moon by Buzz Aldrin in 1969. Besides the Omega Speedmaster Professional “Moonwatch” with a hand-wound movement, Omega introduced a couple of variants on the watch. One of the more popular non-Moonwatch versions is their Speedmaster “Dark Side of the Moon” with a black ceramic case, bezel, and dial, as well as their in-house developed chronograph caliber 9300 movement.
Breitling is just as sloppy with their heritage as Omega is precise with theirs. A Breitling Cosmonaute on the wrist of Scott Carpenter was actually the first watch used by NASA in space. The Navitimer dates back to 1952, but it will take you quite some time to find out which current model best represents those first Navitimers. The Breitling Navitimer Heritage is officially the one that should commemorate the first Navitimer, but you’ll find that the Breitling Navitimer 01 has a design closer to the original version with subdials at three, six, and nine o’clock.
The Navitimer 01 also has the famous Breitling B01 in-house developed movement on board, whereas the Breitling Navitimer Heritage uses the aforementioned ETA 7750. The Breitling Navitimer was not meant as a sports or race car watch. It was for “navigators” – it enabled them to make certain calculations, such as fuel consumption, miles per minute, ground speed, rate of climb or descent, etc. For this, they need to use the slide rule. This doesn’t make much sense anymore for today’s pilots, but it’s still a beautiful piece of watch history. There are quite a number of Navitimer versions on the market today which you can choose from.
Zenith Chronomaster El Primero
As mentioned earlier in this article, Zenith was the first to introduce an automatic chronograph movement in 1969 (but theirs was not the first to hit the market). The El Primero is a movement that is basically still in production today, almost without any changes to its construction. If you bring a vintage Zenith El Primero in for repair or service, the Le Locle manufacture will be able to get it running again quite quickly. Some modern parts are interchangeable with those first movements and if not, they can create new parts, as Zenith is one of the few companies that is also truly a manufacture. Their workshop is impressive and you can practically see the beams of brass coming into the factory and then leaving as complete movements.
The Zenith Chronomaster El Primero is the full name of their watches with this chronograph movement, and it’s offered in many variations. The timepiece is available in gold, gold/steel, or stainless steel, and can also come with extra complications, such as a moon phase, or intricate work, such as a skeletonized dial (and movement). Options are endless here, especially if you’re also into vintage watches. When you’re a serious chronograph collector, there’s no way you can tell anyone you don’t own an El Primero. The El Primero movement has also been used in the Daytona, as mentioned above, but also by brands like Movado, Ebel, and TAG Heuer.
TAG Heuer Carrera
The Carrera was introduced in 1963, the same year as the Rolex Cosmograph. The Carrera got its name from the “Le Carrera Panamericana Rally Mexico,” a 3,500 km-race that was held five times between 1950 and 1954. The Heuer Carrera became available in several versions using different movements (mainly Valjoux).
After Heuer became TAG Heuer in 1984, it took a few rocky years in terms of design to get back to the original shape of the Carrera in 1996. Today, the Carrera chronograph is a good-looking (and selling) watch available in a lot of different variants. Watches like the retro-looking Carrera Caliber 17 and 18 were clearly inspired by vintage Carrera models, whereas the Carrera HEUER01 watches with their skeleton dials should be considered a modern interpretation. With 161 different Carrera models in the TAG Heuer catalog today, you will need to do some homework.
IWC Schaffhausen Portuguese Chronograph 3714
One of the best-selling and most successful watches that IWC ever produced is their Portuguese Chronograph 3714. Inspired by the Portuguese watches from 1939 and onwards, it was the first modern automatic chronograph version of this watch. Although you will find a couple of chronograph variations in today’s collections, the reference 3714 is still there after almost 20 years. It’s available in gold or stainless steel in a couple of dial variations. The caliber 79350 movement is based on the ETA (formerly Valjoux) 7750 movement, but heavily modified to IWC’s high standards and finished accordingly.
The watch itself has an iconic design, a very clean and elegant dial with Arabic numerals, and leaf-shaped hands. Pump pushers, the lack of crown guards, and a very thin bezel make this a chronograph perfect for business (or even dress) occasions. Whereas other chronographs often focus on sports and thus having a sporty appearance, the IWC Portuguese Chronograph 3714 can actually make you break the rule not to wear a watch with a tuxedo. The 18-karat red gold version with a slate-colored dial will make you the center of attention during a party. If you’re not looking for that, get the stainless steel version with blue numerals and hands. Whether you’re a watch collector or just buying one watch to last a lifetime, you can’t go wrong with the Portuguese Chronograph 3714. It’s definitely a conversation starter!
Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope
The Chronoscope was designed after the passing of Swiss Bauhaus designer Max Bill. The word “chronoscope” is used in its name, meaning it is an optical instrument for the precise measurement of very small time intervals as opposed to a chronograph, which records time intervals such as the duration of an event. This could make for a nice debate on a Saturday evening with some friends enjoying a couple of beers, but let’s just keep it at chronograph for the other nine watches and use chronoscope for this Junghans Max Bill.
With a bit of fantasy, you could say it is a bit of a Bauhaus version of the Portuguese. It has an ultra-thin bezel, large dial aperture, no crown guards, and pump pushers. This 40-mm chronoscope comes in stainless steel and as a gold-plated version. The stainless steel version is available with a white or black dial. This very minimalistic chronoscope uses an ETA 7750-based movement.
Breguet Type XX
Perhaps you wouldn’t say so today, but the Breguet Type XX was originally meant to be a military watch. The French Aéronavale commissioned Breguet and five other brands to create these watches for them. Also known as “Type 20,” these watches were based on a couple of basic requirements: a chronograph with fly-back function, a rotatable bezel with a 12-hour scale, luminous hands and hour markers, and an accurate movement. Breguet was one of the first brands to create this type of watch and still produces it today. The Breguet Type XX is still close to the original version, while the later Breguet Type XXI and XXII chronographs have a more modern appeal as well as features.
Today’s Breguet Type XX has a 39-mm case and dates back to 1995. The watch has five different hands (out of six) to start with. This means all hands are differently shaped or styled except for the minute and hour hands. The glossy, polished bezel and case, in combination with the black dial with luminous Arabic markers and hands, have a classic appeal; it’s almost a dress watch but with some vintage military watch inspiration. Inside is Breguet’s caliber 582 movement, an automatic chronograph movement based on a Lemania base caliber with an added flyback mechanism. A flyback complication enables you to restart the chronograph without pushing the stop-button first. It saves you from one extra step, which allows you to restart your chronograph without losing time.
A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph
This is a watch (and brand, in that respect) that virtually only has admirers. Although Lange & Söhne always gets a lot of attention when they come out with a new model, the attention received for their latest 1815 chronograph was quite impressive. Introduced in 2004 by the Glashütte manufacture, the 1815 Chronograph has seen a couple of variants since then, including a boutique special in 2015. The movement inside this 39.5-mm chronograph is truly stunning to watch. Perhaps as stunning as the dial side, with beautiful construction and amazing eye for detail. For example, the balance-cock is hand-engraved and the bridges and plates are made of German silver. The decoration is done by hand and the hand-wound movement consists of 306 parts in total. This German chronograph has a flyback complication and a pulsometer scale on the dial as well.
The 1815 Chronograph is only available in precious metals. It comes in white gold with either a black or silver dial, with the silver version being a boutique edition. From previous collections, you will be able to find more dial variations and an 18-karat pink gold version. However, few people are willing to part with their 1815 chronograph.
Patek Philippe Ref. 5905P
Patek makes a clear distinction between “complications” and “grand complications.” Although this reference 5905P belongs to the first category, it is something quite special. It features an annual calendar combined with a column-wheel chronograph set in a beautiful, platinum 42-mm case. That’s quite “grand” for Patek Philippe, and even in general. The chronograph movement, caliber CH28-520 QA 24H, is self-winding and indicates the day, date, and month on the dial in three different apertures located at 10, 12, and two o’clock.
At six o’clock, you will find the chronograph minute counter that can record up to 60 minutes. Compared to some of the other chronographs in this article that can measure up to 12 hours, it is not much. However, in all honesty, what type of activity would you need to record for so long with this dress watch? The 5905P is available with a blue or black dial, always with a platinum case.
If you’re not into platinum or would like to see a somewhat friendlier price tag, take a look at the Patek Philippe reference 5960 in white gold. It also has a somewhat more playful dial, without becoming too “sporty” or frivolous. This watch also carries the caliber CH28-520 QA 24H movement, which was certified by Patek as having an average deviation of -3/+2 seconds a day.
By Robert-Jan Broer