What Is A Chronograph? How Do Chronographs Work & How Do You Use One Properly?
What Is A Chronograph? How Do Chronographs Work & How Do You Use One Properly?Rafael Dominguez2022-08-23T15:33:08-04:00
The chronograph is by far the most popular function encountered on mechanical timepieces. Considering this, it’s rather surprising that many chronograph owners may not necessarily know how to use or read them.
For this reason, on this page we’ll be diving into this surprisingly useful complication. First by defining it plain and simple, then by looking back at milestones in its history, and lastly by checking out some historic chronograph models from different mainstay brands.
Additionally, we discuss the first automatic chronograph (can you guess who made it?) and the differences and similarities between a rattrapante, flyback, and mono-pusher chronos.
We’ve also included a section on how to actually use the chronograph function on a watch that has it. You’ll find it’s often quite simple, and only gets easier with continued use and application. And though inner bezel and bezel scales are components of chronographs, we’ve chosen to cover those separately on our guide on bezel scales.
Chronograph Watch Guide
This chronogaph watch guide is structured in the following format:
A chronograph is an instrument that records an elapsed amount of time. That is to say, it measures the amount of time between moment A and moment B.
The individual using the chronograph will generally press a button when they want the recording of time to start, and then subsequently press a button again to stop the count. The chronograph, whether mechanical or digital, will then display the amount of time that passed.
Early Baume and Mercier Monopusher Chronograph
You may be thinking that a chronograph’s functions sound a lot like that of a stopwatch, and you’d be right. They’re essentially the same thing, except that the term chronograph is generally used when referring to a mechanical chronograph and not a digital stopwatch.
There’s another pair of similar terms that can also be confused: chronograph and chronometer. So, what’s the difference between these two?
The Difference Between A Chronograph And A Chronometer
As mentioned above, a chronograph is a physical mechanism, generally a watch, that records time. A chronometer, on the other hand, is an official designation given to very precise mechanical watches.
Note the “Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified” on Rolex dials
Every mechanical wristwatch is known to lose time every day. For example, the average wristwatch may lose or gain 10 seconds a day. You can imagine that over a couple of weeks, the discrepancy in time can grow exponentially.
Chronometers are watches that operate within strict requirements of time gained or lost. To be a certified chronometer, a watch must not lose more than 4 seconds or gain more than 6 seconds every day.
The certification is completed by the Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute AKA the COSC. They run tests on every single movement and certify them individually. Various brands, including Rolex, certify each of their watches as a COSC-chronometer before they are ever sold.
History Of The Chronograph
Chronograph means “time writer” and hails from the Greek word for time, “chronos”, and the Greek word for writing, “graph”. The earliest examples possessed a pen, hence the ‘writing’ part, which was attached to the index resulting in marks on the dial to indicating the elapsed time.
First Design and Commission
Originally it was thought that Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec developed the first chronograph in 1821 for King Louis XVIII. However, in 2013 it was actually discovered that Louis Moinet developed the first chronograph, which he used with astronomical equipment.
Click to read more about Louis Moinet on Forbes.com
In Rieussec’s case, he developed his chronograph for the King who wanted to know how long horse races lasted. He was commissioned to invent something to time the races thus becoming the first to produce a commercialized chronograph.
Breitling Pushing Developments
Young watchmaker Léon Breitling wanted to continue the design and development of the complication. His goal was to be able to measure shorter periods of time and thus propelled his professional career and the chronograph design.
The year 1914 is also when his son Gaston started working at the manufacture. Gaston also showed the passion for chronographs with the development of a central seconds hand with 30-minute counter and patented the “Vitesse” or gear. This unique design garnered the attention of the police who were able to measure the speed of vehicles and fine those going over the speed.
Gaston also designed the first chronograph seen on the wrist. During this time, pocket watches were just being added to straps so the men fighting in WWI did not have to rely on pulling a pocket watch out to see the time. Gaston continued to push the trend to make it a mainstream design and daily wear.
In 1923 Gaston introduced the separate pusher a 2 o’clock and later in 1934, his son Willy added a second pusher at 4 o’clock. Since then the chronograph has been a 3-pusher design across the watchmaking industry to start, stop and reset while the crown adjusts the time. The reset was fabricated in 1844 by Adolphe Nicole before being further developed by Breitling.
Modern example of a mono-pusher chronograph
Before the additional pusher was added, chronographs featured a single mono-pusher system. This is because watchmakers were trying to avoid putting too many holes in the case to avoid having dust and water enter it.
First Automatic Chronograph
First El Primero Integrated Chronograph Movement
In 1969, the chronograph changed again. The Zenith El Primero caliber was introduced as the first ever automatic chronograph watch. Before this, the watches were manually wound. During this time, there was the race to make the first automatic chronograph, which included Tag Heuer and Breitling.
Another unique feature on this caliber was that it was integrated and designed as a complete movement rather than as an additional module. It used a column wheel and central rotor on ball bearings.
The caliber was also used in the Rolex Daytona, although Rolex slowed the high-beat movement from 36,000 VPH to 28,800 VPH.
How To Use A Chronograph Watch
The chronograph is most recognizable by the addition of two pushers at 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock on the case. With the two pusher chronograph, the top starts and stops the function while the pusher at 4 resets to zero.
Three Sub-Registers on Zenith VS. Two Sub-Registers on Omega
With the classic style of chronographs, there are two additional subdials on the watch face, making a total of three. One of the three subdials turns into the constant running seconds for standard time telling whilst another measures elapsed minutes and the last measures elapsed hours. There is the large seconds hand at center but you’ll notice that with a chronograph, this doesn’t run until you start timing, making it the elapsed seconds on the chronograph.
Types Of Chronographs
There are different variations of the chronograph complication. Not all have 2 pushers on the side of the case, while others don’t measure the same time frames.
Chronographs have different types of scales around both the bezel and outer dial. You can read more about them and other types of bezels and bezel scales.
There are three main types of chronograph which we will cover next:
One of the most different types of chronographs is the mono-pusher, or single push, chronograph. As the name alludes to, this version only features one pusher, typically found as an extra button on top of the crown.
Mono-pusher on the first Breitling Chronograph
This solo button acts the same way as the two pushers; it starts, stops and resets all in one. This creates a clean case design since the pusher extends from the crown.
Many mono-pusher designs feature a symmetrical subregister layout with two subdials on the dial. Watches featuring this layout typically only count minutes whilst the central dial chronographs seconds. Meanwhile, the other subdial features the running seconds.
Chronograph and Rattrapante hand in blue and silver
In French, rattrapante means “to catch up.” In watch terms, this is a complex chronograph design to create. Rather than having one central seconds hand, this style features two. Just like the classic design, there are two pushers in addition to the crown. However, a third pusher is added at the 10 o’clock position, which is sometimes built into the crown like the mono-pusher.
When you start the chronograph, both seconds hands start tracking together, but when the extra pusher is depressed, the lower seconds hand stops. Once pressed again, the stopped hand catches up to the other seconds hand, which has continued to move around the dial.
This type of chronograph allows you to record multiple times that start together yet may not end together.
Another name for this type of chronograph in addition to both “rattrapante” and “split seconds” is the “double” (or “doppel” in German watchmakers) chronograph.
What Are Flyback Chronographs?
The third type of chronograph can be easily mixed up and called a rattrapante, but instead of timing two separate times, you record consecutive events.
Instead of being a split seconds, this type of chronograph function acts the same way as a classic model. There are two pushers added and the one found at 2 o’clock will start and stop the chronograph. What sets this type apart is that you have the ability to reset without stopping.
You can press the pusher at 4 o’clock while the chronograph is running to stop, reset and start again in one swift movement. This allows for consecutive timing of events. If you attempt to reset a conventional function, you risk damaging the movement.
Important Chronograph Watches
Since inception, the chronograph has changed slightly over the years, with some iconic models being released.
IWC Portuguese Chronograph
IWC’s Portuguese line dates back to 1939 as an accurate time only watch. Since inception of the line, the family has continued to grow with a few different iterations. The IWC Portuguese Chronograph reference 3714 has become a staple in the family.
The Portuguese Chronograph is a mid-sized, mid-range watch with both a sporty side and what could be considered a more formal side. You’ll notice that the dial above has two sub-registers. one is the constant seconds at 6 o’clock and the other is a 30-minute counter.
The IWC 3714 only has a 60-second scale around the dial, rather than featuring a tachymeter scale or other measurement. This means that you can only time something up to 30 minutes with this chronograph.
Outside of Swiss watchmaking comes Seiko from Japan. Known for their affordable and well made timepieces, Seiko released a 100m water resistant chronograph.
This timepiece features two larger sub-registers for the chronograph function and a smaller constant seconds sub-register. This design shows a clear separation for easy use. There is a 60 minute register found at 12 o’clock and while it looks like this features an hour register it is actually a second timezone and alarm.
The original SNAA61 Chronograph 100m watch from the Japanese watchmaker retailed for under $300 USD. This model has since been discontinued but you can still find similar Seiko Chronograph watches retailing between $375 and $3,000 depending on the model family, making it extremely affordable while being quite complex.
The Carrera was introduced in 1963 by Jack Heuer, it’s design was inspired by sports cars and racing. It has a clear racing inspiration with two sub-registers breaking up the dial. These measure constant seconds and up to 30 minutes.
The 1963 release did not include the tachymeter scale but later models featured one around the outer edge of the dial. This ties into the racing inspiration and speaks to the original use of the design, to time races.
You can’t look at important chronographs without including a model designed by the brand who helped develop today’s chronograph movement!
The Breitling Navitimer was released in 1952, making it one of the older chronograph designs still in production today. This chronograph was designed for pilots and features a slide rule bezel. This type of bezel is different than other scales on the dial.
It measures ground speed, miles per minute, fuel consumption and various other calculations pilots may have needed in the 1950s.
Luckily today, pilots have different computers within the cockpits for easy calculations, but that doesn’t discredit the Navitimer. It features a classic tri-register layout on the dial, measuring constant seconds, 30 minutes and up to 12 hours. Around the outer edge of the dial is the slide rule.
One of the most popular chronograph models is the Rolex Daytona. Not only did it get it’s name from the Daytona Speedway, it was one of the many models worn by Paul Newman.
Paul Newman’s Daytona – Image Provided by Phillips Auctions
Newman was an icon himself, being the ultimate cool guy who played a race car driver in the movie “Winning,” and ended up with a secondary career in racing. He wore a Daytona on the cover of a magazine in Italy which skyrocketed the model.
Over the years, the Daytona design has changed slightly but the association with racing is still quite prominent. It measures units per hour around the bezel of the watch and features both a 12 hour register and 30 minute register for longer time tracking.
The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch is the only watch on this list that has been to the surface of the moon. The Breitling Navitimer was in orbit on the wrist of an astronaut but was not part of a lunar mission.
The Speedmaster Chronograph passed incredible tests performed by NASA, who sought a space-worthy chronograph in the 1960s. The original Speedmaster was released in 1957 and then became the choice watch for NASA in 1965. It had a very important role in the Apollo 13 mission.
Astronauts used their Speedmasters to measure precise timing for a safe return into the atmosphere after there was damage in the craft.
Over the years, the main design of the Speedmaster hasn’t changed that much. You can still find the same model that was worn on the moon in production today. Omega has built upon the Moonwatch and released their Snoopy Speedmaster, a watch honoring the Silver Snoopy award Omega received from NASA.
There is also the Dark Side of the Moon collection, which has expanded to include the grey side and light sides. These take the classic Speedmaster design with some tweaks and create watches in black, grey and white ceramics.
Bonus: Patek Philippe Multi-Scale Chronograph 5975G-001
We’ve focused on some of the popular and well known simple chronographs with two pushers and either a tachymeter scale or no scale. Patek Philippe took chronograph design to the next level when it released its 5975 in the special 175th Anniversary Collection.
This unique model features two classic pushers but the dial design is quite different.
The Multi-Scale Chronograph features a telemeter scale around the outermost edge of the dial. This measures the distance between a visible cue and a sound. Stepping in one level is then a pulsometer scale. Written on the dial is its calibration of 15 pulsations per minute. Moving in one last time comes a 3-ringed tachymeter scale, measuring speeds above 20kph.
Each scale on this dial is measured with the central chronograph seconds hand. Unlike other models, there is no ability to measure consecutive minutes or hours.
While it may be easy to use your cellphone to time different events in today’s world, there is something romantic (and discrete) about using a chronograph to measure different activities. It’s all about knowing how to use the chronograph if you’re looking at measuring anything outside of elapsed time.