A complication (or function) added to mechanical watches to help measure short intervals of time, the chronograph has in the last 200 years measured everything from the duration of horse races, helped calibrate artillery fire, time hot laps around a race circuit, the crew of the Apollo 13 mission even used a chronograph to time a 14-second maneuver that proved critical in their return to earth.
Synonymous with steel sports watches now, the superstars of the horological world – Rolex Daytona, Omega Speedmaster, Heuer Carrera – are all chronograph watches. Though used by enthusiasts now to time more mission-critical operations like how long burger patties stay on the grill, there’s no denying the appeal of a well-made chronograph. Here are a couple of things you need to remember before you buy one.
1. Integrated vs Modular
There are two routes you can take if you go down the path of the mechanical chronograph – the more scenic “integrated” or the more economical “modular”. An integrated movement is built ground-up as a mechanical chronograph movement. The traditional integrated movement has a column wheel and horizontal clutch construction.
A purist’s delight, these are more expensive to produce but have a more aesthetically-pleasing construction and are usually hand-finished by skilled artisans, the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph being a prime example.
Considered by many as the best modern chronograph, the Datograph isn’t cheap though – prices start at around $90,000. Integrated chronograph movements like the Vajoux 7750 have cam-actuated movements as opposed to a column wheel. A famous example is Caliber 861 that powered the Omega Speedmaster supplied to Apollo 11’s crew during their historic 1969 mission.
Modular movements are cheaper to produce and easier to service since the chronograph module is fitted atop a base movement. It’s mass-produced by movement makers like ETA, Sellita, and specialists like Dubois-Depraz. The ETA A31.L21 (Longines Caliber L.895.5) that powers the beautiful Longines Heritage Classic Chronograph 1946 is a good example of a modular chronograph movement. The chronograph module is built atop a base ETA-2892 movement. A modular chronograph like this costs $3,050.
2. Speed vs Measurements
Most modern mechanical chronographs have an escapement with a balance wheel that oscillates at 4 Hz (28,800 vibration per hour, vph). Consequently, the chronograph can time events to the nearest to 1/8th of a second.
Zenith’s El Primero, with a frequency of 5 Hz (36,000 vph) was the first automatic chronograph wristwatch to measure up to 1/10th of a second way back in 1969.
The Defy El Primero unveiled in 2017 can measure up to a hundredth of a second now. Impressive as this may sound, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone who measures time intervals of that level of accuracy with a mechanical watch today.
4. Flyback vs Split-Seconds
On a normal chronograph, the pusher at the 2 o’ clock position is used to start and stop the chronograph, while the one at 4 o’ clock is used to reset it. On a chronograph with a flyback function, you can use the reset function without the need to first stop the chronograph. It was developed for fighter pilots who did not want waste time by stopping, resetting and starting the chronograph whilst crossing a navigational point.
A split-seconds or rattrapante chronograph allows you to time two time intervals simultaneously. Rattrapante in French means catch up and in this type of chronograph, there are two overlapping seconds hands - one, the rattrapante hand, can be operated by means of a third push-piece, usually located at 8 or 10 o’clock. The extra seconds hand allows the timing of a second event, or splits within a single event, say laps within a race.
A split-seconds chronograph along with the perpetual calendar, the minute repeater, and the tourbillon is among the quartet of high complications that serves as the standard by which all haute horlogerie brands are measured.
This year Patek Philippe introduced the Ref. 5370P in platinum with a Grand Feu enamel dial that costs about $250,000.
4. Tachymeter vs Pulsometer vs Telemeter
Most chronographs also have calibrated scales, either etched on the bezel or printed on the dial. A tachymeter bezel is used to calculate speed over a known distance, typically kilometres or miles.
A Telemeter lets you calculate distance based on known speed and time. It lets the user determine the distance to an event that can be both seen and heard, for example lightning or artillery fire.
A pulsometer was a feature of “doctor’s chronographs” in the past and allows the user to measure a person’s pulse rate.
5. Mechanical vs Mecha-quartz
I’m not going to talk about quartz chronographs here, but there is a middle ground for those who want the feel of a mechanical chronograph but don’t want to shell out too much for that experience.
Mecha-quartz movements, made by brands like Seiko, has a quartz base but is fitted with a mechanical chronograph module.
Not as popular as they used to be, but brands like Yema and Autodromo make examples that you can get under $500. Most entry-level mechanical chronographs will cost you upwards of $1,500.