The Ultimate Guide to the Chronograph

The Ultimate Guide to the Chronograph

| 11.13.23

Within the hierarchy of practical complications, the chronograph is probably the most popular — and for good reason.

Whether you're timing laps around the track, lining up thruster bursts in outer space, or monitoring weekend burgers to achieve the perfect temperature, a chronograph is sure to come in handy!

All joking aside, chronographs have been fixtures in the complicated watchmaking space for centuries. Today, we'll run through a brief history of the complication, examine some of the most popular chronographs, and pick out a few of the sleeper models you may not have paid attention to in the past. 

Gentlemen — start your chronos!

A History of the Chronograph

Louis Moinet,  Compteur de Tierces - (Image by Louis Moinet 1806)

There is some debate as to when precisely the very first chronograph was made, but the general consensus is that French clockmaker Louis Moinet introduced the complication in 1815. This was not your typical pocket chronograph — rather, Moinet’s groundbreaking piece was capable of timing events down to 1/60th of a second. Considering how rare this functionality is today — F.P. Journe has a chronograph that measures to 1/100th of a second, but beyond this, chronographs that measure such small fractions of the second are few and far between — it’s positively shocking that the very first such chronograph was this precise. 

Rieaussec Chronograph 1821 - (Image by Professional Watches)

Another French watchmaker, Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, made a similar chronograph in 1821 to time horse races upon special request from his patron King Louis XVII. Impressively, Rieussec’s watch was capable of timing just 1/10th of a second, and was also the very first to be marketed specifically as a “chronograph." (The word “chronograph” comes from Greek, meaning “time writer”.) Rieussec registered a patent for his design and popularized the complication; in fact, until 2013, when the Moinet watch was discovered, Rieussec was regarded as the father of the chronograph. 

The invention of the Zero-Reset heart cam - (Image by A.Lange & Söhne)

Perhaps the most significant innovation since the 1815 introduction of the primitive chronograph occurred in 1844, when Swiss watchmaker Adolphe Nicole developed a unique mechanism that incorporated a reset function, allowing the user to time successive events with the same chronograph. It was likely this innovation that caused the explosion in chronograph development, as watchmakers worldwide recognized the promise of a practical stopwatch to accompany people in their day-to-day pursuits. Nicole patented his cam-action reset mechanism shortly thereafter, but the proof of concept was established, and a number of other makers began experimenting with alternatives. 

By the early 1900s, a number of brands were making wristwatches that featured chronographs, including Longines, Universal Genève, Lemania, and Landeron. In 1933, Breitling obtained a patent for a dual-pusher chronograph, with one pusher that controlled the start and stop function, and the other dedicated to the reset — this was the birth of the standard dual-pusher chronograph that collectors know and love today. 

Before long, chronographs were found in households across the world, and being utilized across a multitude of disciplines from the military to sports and medicine — indeed, over the last century, dozens of impactful chronographs have hit the market. Next, we’ll examine some of the most iconic models and discuss the fundamental contributions each made to the watch world.

The Icons of the Chronograph Market

Omega Speedmaster

Omega Speedmaster Ref.2915-1 - IN THE SHOP

First up is one of the most well known watches of all time — chronograph or otherwise — the Omega Speedmaster. Launched in 1957 alongside two other brand fixtures (the Railmaster and Seamaster 300), the Speedmaster made a quiet entrance into the Omega catalog outfitted with the Calibre 321 movement. With its lateral clutch and column wheel, this hand-wound engine was based upon the Lemania Calibre 2310, one of the most important movements in horological history and a fixture in a number of Patek and Vacheron watches. (Notably, in the 1950s, the automatic-winding chronograph movement had not yet been developed.)

Although the Speedmaster is known  today as the "Moonwatch," its origins had nothing to do with space at all — in fact, the Speedmaster was initially targeted at the racing market. In addition to its distinctive design, the Speedmaster is credited with being the first watch to feature an engraved tachymeter bezel, whereas most older watches incorporated the scale on the dial itself, or on a chapter ring. 

Omega’s history with NASA began in 1962, when astronaut Wally Schirra wore a Speedmaster Ref. 2998 aboard Sigma 7. As NASA had no officially-endorsed wristwatch back then, the Omega was Wally’s personal timepiece; nonetheless, his endorsement of the model paved the way for the partnership that would ensue in the following years.

Later that same year, Omega came out with a new Speedmaster which was subsequently tested rigorously by NASA and selected as the official watch for NASA's first lunar mission. In 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin both wore Speedmasters into space, although Armstrong left his in the command capsule, meaning that Aldrin’s Speedmaster became the first watch worn on the Moon. 

Following the populaity the Speedmaster enjoyed as the Moonwatch, demand for the model surged, and the Speedmaster became one of the permanent fixtures of the Omega collection. Today, the NASA association has supplanted the original racing identity of the Speedmaster and has become Omega’s badge of pride. Indeed, the Speedmaster remains one of the most important and popular chronographs ever made. 

Zenith El Primero 

Zenith El Primero - IN THE SHOP

Moving from a manually wound classic to one of the more significant automatics brings us to the Zenith El Primero.

The El Primero doesn’t refer to any one particular reference, but rather a movement, with “El Primero” meaning “the first." This name alludes to the race to develop the first automatic-winding chronograph movement — three brands/groups closely battled for the title, and no one knows exactly who won: Seiko, Zenith, and the Chronomatic/Project 99 consortium each claim that they were the first in 1969, but regardless, Zenith sent a middle finger of sorts to the other two by naming their movement “El Primero,” blatantly asserting the right to the title. Whether they technically were the first or not, the Zenith El Primero has inspired a massive line of chronographs. 

The initial El Primero references A384, A386 and A387 established the backdrop upon which each subsequent model was based. These chronographs have a distinctly 1970s vibe to them that's incredibly appealing — indeed, for vintage watch lovers, they're excellent picks. (It's also important to note that in recent years Zenith has made a number of revival models made to replicate the aesthetics of these early references, but with more contemporary movement and bracelet construction.) 

The  El Primero’s impact extends beyond the confines of the brand’s own catalogs: When Rolex transitioned its Daytona from manually-wound to automatic, they utilized the architecture of the El Primero movement as the base calibre for their early references. The Zenith Daytonas remain highly collectable to this day — more on that later. 

60s-70s Heuer Chronographs

Heuer Carrera - IN THE SHOP

Heuer chronographs from the '60s and '70s — Carreras, Monacos, Autavias, Bunds, and Camaros — represent the best the brand ever produced. The legacy of Heuer is intertwined with motorsport, and the spirit of these models has a uniquely romantic appeal. Indeed, exploring the chronographs of this time period is one of our passions here at Analog Shift — the under-the-radar appeal of the Camaro, for example, alongside its connection with the golden age of motor-sports, makes it an incredibly attractive model. The cushion case, two-tone dial, and manually-wound movements capture many of the best aspects of vintage chronographs of all kinds. 

 Heuer Camaro Ref.7743 N

While the Camaro — produced for just four years from 1968 to 1972 — is (in our opinion) one of the best vintage Heuer models, the Carrera is likely the most famous and recognizable. The classic three-register display and snailed subsidiary dials have a wonderful three-dimensionality and balance. (To wit, if you aren’t confident enough to pull off a Camaro, or if you can only have one Heuer chronograph and you want to hit the highlight reel, the Camaro is a great option.) These models have become quite collectable in recent years, which is truly no surprise, capturing as they do so much of what makes us vintage enthusiasts tick. (No pun intended.)

Rolex Daytona

Rolex Daytona Ref.6239 

Of course, no chronograph guide is complete without mention of the Daytona. 

While the 1963 “Cosmograph” Reference 6239 was the earliest Daytona reference — today the Daytona is officially named the “Cosmograph Daytona” — it wasn’t until 1965 that “Daytona” was officially printed on the dial. Rolex named its chronograph in honor of Daytona, Florida, the epicenter of motorsport in the 1900s — though there are early advertisements suggesting that the watch was originally to be called the “Le Mans.”

The earlier Daytona references were manually wound, but by the late 1980s, Rolex had transitioned to automatic-winding movements. As mentioned earlier, many of these automatic movements were produced by Zenith before Rolex began producing them fully in-house. Throughout this evolution, the Daytona moved from steel bezels to ceramic, hollow endlinks to solid, and hand-wound to automatic movements, yet the underlying DNA remained unchanged. A tachymeter scale on the bezel, a classic triple-register display, an Oyster case, and a metal bracelet all remain intrinsically linked with the Daytona identity throughout the years.

As many collectors know today, when the Daytona was first introduced, it was far from a sure thing, with authorized dealers having trouble selling certain examples. How times have changed: Those very same references now often trade in the six figures. These watches are really quite beautiful, and it’s encouraging to see a new generation of enthusiasts breathing life into the market segment. 

The Value Picks

Universal Genève

Universal Genève Compax Circa 1940's - IN THE SHOP

As it lacks a strong modern presence, it’s easy for collectors to forget the importance of Universal Genève to the history of watchmaking. That said, over the past decade, we've finally begun see more interest return to the brand's classics. Universal Genève began its long history of strong chronographs in 1934 when it presented a dual-pusher model, the Compur, with a double-column wheel system at Basel. 

1936 saw the introduction of the important Compax and  Uni-Compax models, the former of which was the first wristwatch to feature an hour counter. The Uni-Compax, meanwhile, was presented as a replacement of sorts for the Compur, which was phased out at roughly the same time. In the 1940s, Universal Genève expanded the collection, debuting the coveted Tri-Compax, which featured a chronograph, a moonphase display, and a calendar. This trio of complications was designed to produce the ultimate chronograph for everyday wear. Over the past decade, interest in this model has surged, in no small part due to the coverage it has received on HODINKEE. 

Universal Genève Compax Circa 1960's - IN THE SHOP

We believe that UG chronographs from the '50s and '60s are still largely undervalued and will prove highly collectable in the coming years. These are excellent forays into the world of vintage chronos, attractive and comfortable enough to be worn in the day to day. At Analog:Shift, we've been fans of these watches for years, and have a wealth of variants from across the decades to choose from. 

Vintage Movado Chronos

Movado Super Sub Sea Chronograph - IN THE SHOP

Yet another fantastic value proposition comes from vintage Movado. (We've covered the history of Movado and the quality of its vintage offerings in depth previously on Transmissions here — if you're looking to explore the range of offerings, this is the best place to begin.) To summarize, Movado of today is nothing like Movado of yesterday, wherein the brand’s midcentury offerings rivaled the output of some of the best makers. 

When looking at specific examples of accessible, notable Movado chronographs, the water-resistant Sub-Sea chronographs immediately come to mind. With their Carrera-style layout and design, these pieces are well sized, typically hovering around 35mm. Plus, you get the pump pushers, 'snail' sub-registers, and stick indices that remain classic chronograph features to the present day. 

Movado Super Sub Sea Chronograph - IN THE SHOP

On the higher end of the Movado vintage market would be the Super Sub-Sea models, which couple the chronograph with dive-spec details such as rotating bezels. The Super Sub Sea line is perhaps the most in-demand of the vintage offerings from Movado, which isn’t particularly surprising — in addition to their quality, they’re quite well-sized. (This reference measures 40mm, which works wonderfully in a modern context.)


Movado Datron 'Blue Panda' El Primero Chronograph - IN THE SHOP

Finally, the Movado Datron was actually outfitted with the legendary El Primero movement, and provides an excellent access point to those calibres. (For a time, Movado and Zenith fell under the same ownership, and a movement exchange allowed even relatively inexpensive watches to flaunt the high-end Zenith El Primero.) If you're looking for an excellent-quality chronograph that punches far above its weight class, this is a solid choice. 

Vintage Breitling Pieces

Breitling Navitimer 'Exclusive for Morgan Drivers' Chronographs - IN THE SHOP

Occupying a similar stylistic category as many of the other vintage watches we’ve covered from Heuer, UG and Movado, vintage Breitling watches are 'required wearing' with respect to classic chronos. 

Breitling Navitimer 01 - IN THE SHOP

The most sport-oriented picks from Breitling are the Navitimer and Chronomatic offerings, which feature multi-scale displays. (In the modern era, Breitling has attempted to resurrect the legacy of these early chronos, but we tend to prefer the class and elegance of these older examples.) The Navitimer, a classic pilot's watch, offered the user all sorts of scales for calculating speed, fuel consumption, and more, while the 1970s-era Chronomatic offered automatic winding.

Breitling Premier Chronograph - IN THE SHOP

If we travel back a bit further in history, we arrive at the Premier. Launched in 1943, it was produced in myriad guises until the 1970s, and featured hand-wound movements from Venus and Valjoux. This great example, for sale on Analog:Shift, features much of what we love about vintage chronographs, such as syringe hands, Arabic numerals, subtly sunken sub-registers, and a printed tachy scale.  

High-End and Dress

The one segment we have yet to touch on is that of high-end dress chronographs. A dress chronograph, on the surface, may seem like a paradox, as a chronograph is at its core a tool; this is typically antithetical to the spirit of a dress watch, where elegance and refinement are far more important than utility or durability. That said, dress chronographs are an excellent niche within the larger world of chronographs. These are a few of the greatest currently available at Analog:Shift:

Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Historiques Chronograph

Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Historiques Chronograph - IN THE SHOP

The Historiques Chronograph Reference 47101 is one of those obscure references whose value proposition leaves us scratching our heads. Indeed, solid-gold, manually-wound chronographs from high-end makers such as Vacheron Constantin typically run into the high-five figures, making this watch — and its price — wildly attractive. Let’s break down what you get for just north of $20K: A 36mm, solid-gold case, yellow gold hands, and most impressively, a hand-finished, manually-wound Calibre 1140 movement based on the aforementioned Lemania 2310. Pretty cool!

As with the other Historiques models, this 1990s piece strikes an ideal balance between vintage aesthetics, more modest sizing, and contemporary appointments like a sapphire caseback. Another compelling quality of these chronos is that while they're certainly dressy pieces, they do lean more casual than time-only watches as a result of the chronograph function. Thus, they can be easily worn with jeans just as much as with a sport coat or suit. 

A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph Reference 402.026

A.Lange & Söhne Lange 1815. Flyback Chronograph - IN THE SHOP 

Next is a staple from Lange, the 1815 chronograph — in this case, outfitted in rose gold with a black dial as Reference 402.026. While Lange’s most famous chronograph is the Datograph, the 1815 Chrono is the slightly more casual younger brother, which is a bit less expensive while providing much of what one gets in the Datograph.

As the 1815 is based on the same movement as that of the Datograph, you get all the gravitas of a Lange manually-wound chrono with all the movement finishing details that make Lange the best in the biz. This piece is aesthetically quite subtle — a quality which is attractive to enthusiasts. 

The 1815  Flyback Chronograph is Lange’s direct comp for the Patek Philippe 5170 — though in many ways, including finishes, it outperforms that watch. From an aesthetic standpoint, it's incredibly versatile, particularly in this configuration, since the precious metal conveys a dressier vibe even as the dial could pass in a more casual setting. (Depending on the strap, it could be transformed into an entirely different piece. A suede pairing, for example, could bring it into casual territory, while alligator is better for dressier occasions.) 

Patek 3970E Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Moonphase Chronograph - IN THE SHOP

Finally, the Patek Philippe Reference 3970E showcases the way in which haute horlogerie brands often use chronographs in conjunction with other complications to create compound complications. Its blending of a perpetual calendar with chronograph functionality yields a supremely useful tool, building upon the legacy of the famed Reference 1518 from the early 1940s. 

While many speak about the 5970, the 3970, based on the same movement, receives far less attention. Measuring 36mm, it wears extremely comfortably on the wrist, and captures so much of what makes a complicated Patek Philippe beautiful. Further, this example's silver dial lends it a versatile quality that means one can wear it every day.

Sunken sub registers, subtly faceted indexes, a piercing blue moonphase disc, a multifaceted case, pump pushers, and most importantly, an exquisitely finished movement all stand out. If you want a watch that pairs the chronograph complication with the best from high horology manufacturer Patek Philippe, you’ll be hard pressed to beat the Ref. 3970.