If you take a look into the collections of both seasoned collectors, and that of those just getting started with watches, you’re bound to find at least one chronograph. It’s just one of those complications that has a truly universal appeal, and with good reason. When one wears such a piece, they know that what’s upon their wrist has style, boasts a significant amount of mechanical complexity, and is greatly useful in a multitude of applications.
Some like to joke that they find themselves glancing down at their watch several times each hour, but not once is it to actually check the time. This comes back to the initial reason why most get into watches in the first place today — the pure aesthetic appeal. Through the use of two or three subdials, chronographs possess a certain balanced, symmetrical look that those conscious of thoughtful and purposeful design certainly appreciate. Additionally, since chronographs have seen a number of applications in professional racing over the years, many will associate the look of a watch like the Tudor Heritage Chrono Blue with the gauges within an instrument cluster that you might see on a classic car.
One thing that horologically-inclined individuals of the modern era celebrate is that many of the older watches that we so passionately covet were originally designed to be practical, and effectively used as tools. Chronographs are a perfect example of this, and their rich history certainly supports this notion.
For example, take how Louis Moinet produced the first chronograph back in 1816 to track and time the movement of celestial objects, and how Nicolas Rieussec developed the first marketed chronograph so that King Louis XVII could time his beloved horse races. This is similar to how some collectors enjoy timing laps on the race track with a watch of automotive importance, like the venerable ‘Nina Rindt’ Compax from Universal Genève.
While integrating a stopwatch into a wristwatch might sound like a simple task, this is by no means the case. Assembling and finishing a chronograph is a far more complex process than that of a basic, time-only piece. Collectors are aware of the time and effort that goes into making beautifully complicated watches, which is why chronographs can almost be worn as a badge of honour and an indication of an appreciation for fine watchmaking.
Furthermore, the inner workings of a chronograph can be executed in different ways, namely through the use of column wheels and cams. Although both interpretations ultimately get the job done, a column wheel — which can be seen in the Patek Philippe 3970’s CH-27-70 — is far more demanding to produce, due to the fragility of the teeth. This is reflected in the price, and causes some to choose cam-actuated chronographs, which may not be as smooth to engage, but tend to be more affordable.
A multitude of variants
In that the chronograph is somewhat of a ‘family’ of complications, there are a variety of adaptations within the class. ‘Rattrapantes’ or split seconds chronographs allow the user to time multiple events in succession through the use of an additional seconds hand, whereas a ‘flyback’ chronograph, as seen in vintage pilot’s watches like the Breguet Type XX Aeronavale, features a quick reset and start function in order to begin measuring another occurrence of interest. While both are essentially doing the same thing, they do it in their own unique way that is drastically different from a mechanical standpoint. This gives one all the more reason to add more than a single piece to their collection.
Throughout history, chronographs have graced the wrists of several important figures, and had a significant impact on countless notable events. Omega’s Speedmaster instantly comes to mind, as it was worn during the first Apollo moon mission and played a large role in many tasks and calculations over the course of the momentous feat. Moreover, watches like the Rolex Daytona are most commonly associated with the exhilarating sport of auto racing and the lifestyle that encompasses it. It’s stories like these that allow us to connect with a particular watch on a deeper level, and bring us back to an exciting time of exploration, pushing boundaries, and challenging horological conceptions.