In a split second – Chronograph watches

Back for your monthly dose of watches! This time we will go through some history of the chronograph watches and some of the historical and iconic models.

The first modern chronograph was invented by Louis Moinet in 1816. According to the definition, a “Chronograph” is a watch with additional short-time measurement (stopwatch), shown by an additional hand (chrono hand) that can be started, stopped, and reset to zero by pushers in the housing wall.

SealsOfApprovalCOSC.jpgThe term chronograph is often confused with the term chronometer. While “Chronograph” refers to the function of a watch, “Chronometer” is a measure of how well a given timepiece performs. In order to be labeled as a chronometer the timepiece must be certified by the COSC (Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres), the official Swiss Chronometer testing institute.

The term chronograph comes from the Greek word for time, “chronos”, combined with the Greek word for writing, “graph”. As a matter of fact, early versions of the chronograph are the only ones that actually used any “writing”, marking the dial with a small pen attached to the index so that the length of the pen mark would indicate how much time has elapsed.

Less simple chronographs use additional complications and can have multiple independent hands to measure seconds, minutes, hours and even tenths of a second.

In terms of usage, chronographs were very popular with aviators as they allowed them to make rapid calculations and conduct precise timing during their flights. The demand for chronographs grew along with the aviation industry in the early part of the 20th century.

Chronographs were much used in all those fields that involved very precise and/or repeated timing around increasingly more complicated high performance machinery; automobile racing and naval submarine navigation being two examples. As different uses for the chronograph were discovered, the industry responded with different models introducing some features that still differentiate chronographs up to now, for example:

Metered Bezels

Many chronographs have a bezel that is either fixed or can rotate, around the outside of the dial that is marked to specific scales to allow rapid calculations. The most popular meter is for Tachymeter readings: a simple scale that allows rapid calculations of speed. Other bezels feature Telemeter scale, for distance.


Flyback chronographs

They have a timing hand that can be rapidly reset, or ‘flyback’, to zero. Ordinarily the sweep second hand is stopped to record the time and started again at that spot on the dial, or reset by spinning the second hand all the way to zero again, clockwise. The flyback allows a reading and a quick reset, a counterclockwise ‘flyback’, for the next measurement to start at zero.


Rattrapante chronograph

Sometimes called a “double chronograph”, it has multiple second hands, at least one of which can be stopped and started independently. When not activated the second hands travel together, one under the other, to appear as just one second hand.


Nowadays chronographs may have lost the importance of their original calculation functionality, but are still important in terms of design, time measurement and connection with the automotive sector, with many partnerships between luxury watchmaking houses and top-level car manufacturers such as Bugatti, Ferrari and Mercedes.

And now, let’s get down to business with a list of the historical pieces and some of my favorites.

Zenith El Primero

In the late 1960s there was a prestigious race to develop the world’s first mechanical chronograph with automatic winding: Heuer-Leonidas and Dubois Dépraz had initiated the secret “Project 99” to develop such a movement, bringing in Hamilton and Breitling. On March 3, 1969, this group presented their product under the name of “Chronomatic”. Realizing that this announcement was imminent, Zenith rushed to preempt them. Their Cal. 3019 El Primero movement (“The First”) was unveiled in a quiet press conference in Geneva on January 10 of the same year. From then on, the Zenith El Primero has been one of the most reliable movements and an iconic watch in the industry.


Rolex Daytona

The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is a mechanical, self-winding chronograph. It has been manufactured by Rolex since 1963. It was inspired by racecar drivers and enthusiasts, most notably, iconic actor Paul Newman, who reportedly wore his Daytona every day from 1972 until his death in 2008. There have been three series of the Cosmograph Daytona. The original series was produced in small quantities from circa 1963 to the later 1980s. This original series was in very short supply by the early 1990s, which led to a second series to meet demand, introduced in 1988 and using a Zenith “El Primero” modified automatic winding movement. The third series, introduced in 2000, has a movement made by Rolex, thus the label “in-house movement”.


Patek Philippe 5170

One of my favorite watches of all time and a real “grail watch” (yes, also for its price range). It was introduced in 2013 but it deeply connects with Patek history of fine craftsmanship and rigorous engineering. It comes in white, yellow and rose gold. It is a manually wound chronograph with in-house movement, everything a high-end piece of horology should have.

patek 5710g

A. Lange & Shöne Datograph Up/Down

Another great display of engineering, this time from the German house of A. Lange & Shöne. Like the Patek Philippe, also this is a hand-wound chronograph, and one of the best watches money can buy. Slightly larger than the Patek, it comes in platinum and presents a very discreet power reserve indication, putting the datograph into the Up/Down (Auf/Ab) family of Lange watches.


Overall, the chronographs, especially if hand-wound, are among the finest pieces of horology a manufacturing house can make. For that reason, I personally think that, in terms of history, craftsmanship and design, a nice chronograph is a must have in the collection of any watch enthusiast.

Stefano Re



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