The chronograph is one of the most popular complications in watchmaking.
From the Greek for “time writer,” it records elapsed time in the form of sub-counters (or ‘totalizers’) on the dial, allowing one to easily time specific events such as laps in a race. By using different scales printed on the dial and some basic math, one can even calculate speed, distance, or the number of units produced on, say, a factory floor.
Countless watch brands have produced chronographs over the years, several of which have become horological classics in their own right. Where would the watch world be, after all, without the Omega Speedmaster, the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona, or the Zenith El Primero? All of these timepieces began their lives as tools designed to do a specific job, and to do it well and efficiently. These days, despite the ascendance of the smartphone, the chronograph remains a wildly popular complication.
In addition to its utility, a chronograph showcases fine watchmaking at its best; indeed, a manually wound chronograph movement is a sight to behold. And while ultra-fine chronographs can cost upwards of $50,000 at the higher end of the market, one needn’t break the bank to access this legendary complication — chronographs can be had for well under $5,000. Today, we’re going to highlight our favorite chronographs at each of three price points to help simplify your options.
Fortis Stratoliner Mercedes-Benz Special Edition Chronograph - IN THE SHOP
Neo-vintage timepieces provide some of the best values in chronographs, just as they do in time-only watches. This special-edition watch from Swiss brand Fortis was meant for Mercedes-Benz owners — hence the caseback engraving and the Mercedes logo-tipped seconds hand. Besides its great 39mm proportions, well balanced dial, and handsome, aluminum tachymeter bezel, the Stratoliner is notable for its movement, the famed Lemania Calibre 5500. Automatically wound, it features not only a three-register chronograph, but also a central minutes counter and a day-date display, both of which are fairly unique in the watch industry.
Nivada Grenchen Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver Chronograph- IN THE SHOP
Nivada Grenchen is a lesser known Swiss independent with a formidable history and notable list of achievements. The Chronomaster was the company’s most successful release, launched in 1961. In the shop, we have a beautiful Chronomaster Aviator Sea Diver Chronograph, dating to circa 1960’s. A black Tritium dial, manually-wound Valjoux caliber, and PERFECTLY sized 38mm case make this watch a really compelling offering with strong history and a cult-like following of dedicated enthusiasts singing its praises. In fact, Analog:Shift recently collaborated with the resurrected brand to create a limited edition run of the Chronomaster in a modern package. Check it out here.
Tudor Heritage Chronograph - IN THE SHOP
Tudor, Rolex’s sister brand, is known for their vintage-inspired designs and classic timepieces; the Tudor Heritage Chrono, released in 2010, is a great byproduct of this mindset. A funky watch with youthful orange accents, the Heritage Chronograph measures a substantial 42mm and features cool, shield-shaped indices. (As it predates Tudor’s founding of Kenissi, the brand’s movement company, it’s powered by a workhorse caliber from ETA with a Dubois Dépras chronograph module.) This piece is a great option if you’re looking for a unique design that isn’t isn’t flashy or ostentatious. And while the Heritage Chronograph doesn’t receive as much press as the Black Bay 58, we think it deserves just as much love.
Breitling Navitimer Chrono-Matic- IN THE SHOP
Breitling epitomizes the classic mid century chronograph aesthetic, and no model better represents the brand’s philosophy than the Navitimer. The Chrono-Matic 1806, powered by the Calibre 12, was introduced in the 1960s and distinctly places the crown on the left side of the case and pushers on the right side. This example comes with a black dial and the signature scales that define the Navitimer aesthetic. A classic from Breitling, this piece set the standard for many of the Chronographs we see today.
Breitling Premier Chronograph - IN THE SHOP
Shifting from vintage-inspired to, well, just plain vintage, the Breitling Premier Chronograph is as cool as it gets. Produced in the 1950s and a big part of the Breitling brand story, the Premier Chronograph measures a comfortable 35mm and features many of the attributes of classic chronos: blued ‘syringe’ hands, a three-register display, tritium lume with ‘Arabic’ indices, ‘holey’ lugs, a hand-wound movement, and square pushers. And while Breitling is perhaps better known for the Navitimer, the Premier line is far less cluttered and has recently influenced models such as the B25 Datora. While some may decry its case as “too small” by modern standards, the vintage Premier represents the sweet spot at which chronographs lived for many years before the more recent boom in larger timepieces. (Try one on for yourself!)
Omega Speedmaster Professional - IN THE SHOP
What more need be said about the Omega Speedmaster? The watch certainly needs no introduction. One of the most influential timepieces in pop culture, the Omega Speedmaster has been to the Moon and back, yet remains a great option even for those who never leave planet Earth. With a wealth of variants and generations to choose from, collectors today obsess over each reference and its details, highlighting the distinguishing characteristics that help set one model apart from the next. If you are looking for a watch with both history and street cred, this is the piece to get. (Choose a model with tritium lume for more vintage looks, or a more contemporary model from the 2000s and on for a slightly more modern feel.)
Universal Geneve Compax - IN THE SHOP
Universal Genève is one of the more underappreciated brands in the watch industry; the Compax, however, is one of the most beautiful dress casual chronographs on the market. Produced in the 1960s, its 36mm case is still well proportioned by modern standards. The Compax also features one of the iconic elements of Universal Genève timepieces: namely, its twisted lugs. While it was made in both stainless steel and precious metal, this stainless variant is a bit more versatile than its gold competitors; the dial is quite sophisticated as well, with vertical brushing on the main surface and snailing in the subdials. Whereas many know Universal Geneve for the Polerouter, we think this model is just as cool.
Produced in the golden era of Movado vintage watchmaking, the 1960’s, the Super Sub Sea Chronograph was one of the brand’s hybrid chronograph/diver models. The rare piece features a 40mm case, black dial with beautiful tritium lume, and a ghosted bezel insert that has faded to a smooth gray color. With a manually-wound movement beating within, this piece stands in stark contrast to the modern Movado brand presence. Where contemporary pieces from the brand are generally slim quartz watches designed for a fashion-forward audience, this piece was a capable tool watch built to be driven into the ground.
Zenith Chronomaster Sport - IN THE SHOP
Among the most influential chronograph makers in the industry is Zenith. The famed, automatic El Primero movement found its way into the Rolex Daytona, and has been universally respected as among the greatest chronograph movements of the century. While Zenith continues to make many vintage-inspired El Primero models, the Chronomaster Sport cases the El Primero movement within a more contemporary package. Featuring an automatic-winding El Primero movement, a black ceramic bezel, a sapphire caseback, and polished center links, it has a similar look to the Rolex Daytona, but offers subtle differences that are sure to get collector’s hearts racing.
Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Historiques Chronograph - IN THE SHOP
A true dress chronograph, the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Historiques Chronograph reference 47101 is a case study in vintage-inspired design. (Vacheron is one of the best at remastering these designs, particularly within its Historiques collection.) The 47101 in particular measures 35mm with a pencil handset, square pushers, teardrop lugs, and an opaline silver dial. The beauty of this watch is that it also has some of the advantages of modern timepieces, with a sapphire caseback allowing visual access to the gorgeous, hand-wound Calibre 1140. Once more, within the realm of precious metal, hand-wound chronographs from premier brands, this timepiece is relatively affordable; indeed, if you’re looking for such a timepiece, it’s hard to beat the Ref. 47101.
Like the Speedmaster, the Daytona is a cultural icon and one of the first chronographs you’ll be introduced to when you enter the watch space. While dozens of variants have been made in Rolex’s celebrated history, the Zenith Daytona era is viewed by many to be the pinnacle of both Daytona design and collectibility. The Reference 16520 featured here has the famed El Primero movement referenced earlier alongside a full stainless steel case and bracelet. This 16520 has a white dial with black sub-registers, making for a striking look reminiscent of modern, popular ‘panda; Daytonas. Within Daytona history, this is one of the most classic and beloved references available.
Lange & Söhne Lange 1815 Flyback Chronograph - IN THE SHOP
Germany’s A. Lange & Söhne is one of the undisputed kings of the chronograph complication. The brand’s 1815 Flyback Chronograph is the simplest option within the catalog — it has a beautiful two-tone dial that complements its rose gold case beautifully, but the real intrigue lies in the manually wound Calibre L951.1. The exquisitely hand-finished movement features a flyback mechanism and the company’s signature, hand-engraved balance cock. Part of what makes the 1815 so successful is its unique aesthetics; while certainly more dressy than casual, there’s a versatility to this design that’s hard to deny.