Chrono loco: Why watch nerds go mad for a chronograph, the most alluring horological complication

Alex Doak
Breitling Navitimer

It speaks volumes of the fabled chronograph’s mystique that up until 2012, we weren’t even sure who made the first one.

Previously, what we thought was the first-ever stopwatch wasn’t even a watch at all; it didn’t even have hands or dials. Nicolas Rieussec’s crude contraption of 1821 – a true “time writer” as the Greek-derived “chronograph” contraction translates – dolloped a spot of ink onto a rotating disc of paper, dropping another when the timed event came to an end (a horse race, usually).

As it transpired at Christies’ May watch sale in 2012, a rather boxy, tired-looking Louis Moinet pocket watch made precisely two centuries prior was confirmed as the oldest-known chronograph in existence (though, because you “look” at the elapsed time as indicated by the hands, rather than it being drawn, it is a “chronoscope” in the strictest Greek sense; just like every other so-called chronograph in fact).

Moinet’s device, since shown to be way ahead of its time, still didn’t tell the time – he built it to make astronomical observations with his telescope; a rather more wholesome purpose than horseracing. But with the chronograph function long-established as the most popular feature of watches, from placky Michael Kors numbers up to collectors’ Patek Philippes, what is it actually used for?

Soft-boiling an egg, goes the usual yoke – sorry, joke – something Jack Swigert may indeed have done back in the Seventies using his Omega Speedmaster. But the other thing he used it for was timing a 14-second fuel burn on board the stricken Apollo 13 lunar module. Those precise 14 seconds meant the craft was perfectly re-aligned for re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Tudor Heritage Black Bay Chrono

The critical role of Captain Swigert’s “Speedie” on that fateful mission of 1970 earned its Swiss watchmaker the coveted Snoopy Award from NASA, and constitutes one of so many tales of derring-do and adventurism in which the chronograph has played a part – ultimately, this is what makes this ubiquitous horological “complication” (and it really is complicated to make) such a hit with watch enthusiasts.

The very first flyback chronograph, which instantly resets to zero and starts again, was pioneered by Longines in the 20s for pilots of the era’s increasingly fast aircraft to time successive flight paths without fiddling around the cockpit; the monochromatic array of three circular subdials was born of the Rolex Daytona and Heuer Autavia’s respective origins in the pitlane, timing the fearless, debonair drivers of the 60s.

It goes beyond the stories too. Unlike a moonphase, a perpetual calendar or even that prize complication, the whirling-dervish tourbillon, a chronograph isn’t just for admiring through sapphire glass. It is a way of viscerally connecting with your watch; like Dom Cobb and his spinning-top totem in Inception, only you really know how your chronograph’s start/stop and reset pushbuttons feel. However the timing mechanism is set up, either connected to the powertrain by a horizontally engaged cam, or via a spinning “vertical clutch” plate, dictates the pushers’ slight resistance and sudden “give”; how the seconds hand flies off the blocks; what sort of muted “click” you hear.

It’s an experience that will always hold a certain fascination, like turning a watch over and watching the winding rotor lurch back and forth through the crystal caseback. And if March’s Baselworld watch fair is anything to go by (which is kind of its point) the chronograp still has the potential to surprise. The biggest such surprise was over on the Tudor stand. Rolex’s “little brother” well and truly stepped from the shadow of the mothership this year, with arguably the watch of Basel: a fully integrated chronograph (others would simply tack a module onto a base calibre).

The insides of Zenith's Defy El Primero 21

The Heritage Black Bay Chrono is even operated via the prestigious column-wheel mechanism, running efficiently via a vertical clutch. All for less than £4,000. This formidable leap is down to a newly revealed collaboration between Tudor and Breitling – not so surprising when you consider their shared spirit of independence and pragmatic approach to good-value, rock-solid watchmaking. How Tudor’s chronograph is almost half the price of Breitling’s equivalent, however, remains a mystery. There is talk of bolstered economies of scale and deferred development costs; either way, this is one beautiful bargain.

Which isn’t to say Breitling are happily allowing Tudor to out-shine them. A bafflingly bargainous chronograph was being unveiled over at their stand too – a “rattrapante”, split-seconds complication for just £9,910, which is about half that of the nearest alternative (Panerai, since you ask). The idea is that the chronograph has two superimposed seconds hands, the lower of which you can stop, or “split” to time a lap, while the other continues ticking. With another click, the split hand can then catch up (“rattraper” in French) and continue as one. To do this, Breitling has devised a double-patented module to sit on the B01 chronograph that Tudor has adopted.

In Zenith’s case, an entirely separate and autonomous module sits alongside the timekeeping gubbins in its new Defy El Primero 21. As well as Seiko in the same year, Zenith broke ground in 1969 with not only a world-first self-winding chronograph, but one that ticked at 5Hz rather than the usual 4Hz, allowing a timing precision of a tenth of a second. The Defy’s chronograph mechanism now ticks ten times faster than that. The central seconds hand flies around the dial every second in a mesmerising spectacle of urgency and sportiness. To ensure the delicate, ticking balance spring survives such breakneck performance, Zenith has gone the extra mile in manufacturing it from an amorphous matrix of carbon nanotubes.

Next door, however, TAG Heuer was unveiling its rose-tinted reissue of the classic Autavia from the 60s, arguably the chrono’ that kickstarted the whole collector fascination; on the other side of the exhibition concourse, Patek Philippe was presenting yet another über-complicated, classical beauty, the salmon-dial ref. 5372P-010 with split-seconds and perpetual calendar; meanwhile, Frédérique Constant quietly changed the game with its own in-house flyback chronograph for less than £4,000.

The chronograph, it seems, will tick forever more.

The moments in time that made the modern chronograph

Louis Moinet “Compteur de tierces”

Discovered in 2012, the world’s first stopwatch, capable of recording to a precision of a sixtieth of a second – massively ahead if its time.

Nicolas Rieussec Timewriter

A design since aped by the Montblanc watch of the same name, an ink dot dropped onto a rotating paper disc to time horses – “chronograph” in the truest “drawing time” sense.

Longines 13.33Z

The first wristwatch chronograph – a “doctor’s watch” with pulsometer calibration.

Patek Philippe Split -Seconds Chronograph

Trust Patek to reduce all the finickety components of a split-seconds chrono’ to a wristwatch (one superimposed seconds hands can be stopped – your “lap time” – while the other ticks on).

Omega Speedmaster

By 1965, NASA has selected the Speedie as standard-issue kit for its Apollo programme, and Buzz Aldrin’s was the first on the Moon. Stone-cold classic.

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

The eminently collectable Daytona is still a modern classic, inextricably linked to Paul Newman and motorracing.

Seiko Calibre 6139

Zenith’s El Primero and Heuer’s Calibre 11 get the accolades as world’s-first automatic chronographs in 1969, but Japanese giant Seiko actually pipped both of them to the post.

Valjoux 7750

Almost every self-winding mechanical chronograph costing £800–£2,000 is still likely to be driven by this time-proven classic of a “base calibre” – rocksolid and precise.

A. Lange & Söhne Datograph

Lange is truly the watchmaker’s watchmaker, and the German brand’s Datograph is still considered the finest modern chronograph in production.

Patek Philippe CH29-535 PS

The grande dame of Swiss watchmaking surprised everyone by launching its first in-house manual chronograph movement in a dainty ladies’ watch.

Frederique Constant Flyback Chronograph Manufacture

Longines first developed the instant flyback-to- zero-and- reset function in 1923, FC has now made it truly democratic, at just £3,750 for an entirely in-house watch.

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