What is a Chronograph Watch?

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chrono watch
Chronograph Watch. Image Credit: Soumyadeep Paul

The modern wristwatch is a fashion accessory of nearly infinite functionality. With the new smartwatches, it’s possible to make phone calls, take voice memos, and check your bank account on a device that ostensibly only exists to tell you the time.

Yet, for all these advancements, some of the most sought-after features have been around for decades.

Chronograph watches have been around for nearly two centuries and they remain a popular item. For casual watch buyers, though, there is often some confusion about what exactly qualifies as a chronograph watch. We’re here to clear up that confusion.

What is a Chronograph Watch?

In the simplest terms, a chronograph is essentially a stopwatch. It’s used to track the length of time of an event or occurrence. Chronographs were originally invented for measuring the movements of astrological bodies but quickly came to be used for more terrestrial purposes.

The term for an extra watch feature like a chronograph is “complication,” so named because they add extra levels to the mechanics of a traditional mechanical watch. The chronograph is actually considered the first complication, but in the centuries since its invention, things have only gotten more and more complicated for wristwatches.

History of the Chronograph Watch

close up chronograph watch
Chronograph Watch (Victorinox). Photo Credit: annca

There are two men who are credited, separately, with inventing the chronograph: Louis Moinet and Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, both French horologists. In reality, Moinet was the inventor of the first chronograph, officially releasing his invention in 1816. Designed to be used for astrological purposes, it wasn’t designed with day-to-day practical use in mind.

This is where Rieussec comes into the story and gets to claim some of the credit. In 1821, King Louis XVIII commissioned Rieussec, a respected (and loyal) watchmaker, to construct a personal chronograph.

The king’s desire was to have a device to time horseraces. This invention would not only change watchmaking forever, but it would also transform how sports and racing were enjoyed.

Until recently, that has been the established and accepted origin of the chronograph watch. However, the discovery, in 2013, of a pocket watch chronograph made by Moinet puts the official timeline in question.

Dubbed the “compteur de tierces” (third counter), this watch was completed in 1816, suggesting that Moinet was the creator of both the chronograph and the chronograph watch.

How does a chronograph watch work?

Chronograph Watch dials edxplained
Anatomy of a Chronograph Watch (Omega Speedmaster Dial)

The chronograph watch is a fairly simple and intuitive device. In its most basic form, a chronograph watch will have an extra second hand to time short intervals. Most modern chronographs are capable of measuring minutes and even hours, with some capable of measuring time intervals of 12 or even 24 hours.

The chronograph function is operated by two extra buttons on the side of the watch. One button starts the timer and the second button stops and resets the timer. Like we said, simple.

As chronographs became more popular in the 20th century, they also became more sophisticated. These days, you’ll often find a tachymeter, which is used to measure time over a specified distance. You can also get pulsometers (measures pulses), altimeters (measures altitude), and pedometers (measures steps). The chronograph paved the way for all of these extra complications.

Why Buy a Chronograph Watch?

In this era of ubiquitous and ever-advancing technology, it might seem strange that anyone would still bother with a chronograph function on a wristwatch (it’s seemingly the timekeeping equivalent of having a Blockbuster card in your wallet). It’s true, a mobile phone or computer is just as capable of keeping time, and stopwatches can be found for a few bucks.

The appeal of a chronograph watch is twofold. On one hand (no pun intended), they are convenient. Having a timer function on your wrist is more practical than carrying around a stopwatch and it’s not always feasible to have a phone with you or out. If you need to time something, there’s no need for an extra device.

The second and, realistically more important reason is that chronograph watches are often finely crafted, beautiful fashion pieces. You can find cheap, ugly watches with a chronograph function, for sure, but spend a few minutes shopping for these types of watches and you’ll often find pieces of exquisite design, like the Zenith El Primero Original 1969.

What chronograph watch should I own?

There is no shortage of chronograph watches available, some with classic styles that harken back to the early days of watchmaking, others with far more modern looks.

If you don’t mind paying out a few thousand for something more high-end, you can always look at the aforementioned Zenith El Primero or the IWC Pilot’s Fliegeruhr Chronograph.

Both come with hefty price tags, but both are also made by companies known for their attention to detail and high-quality craftsmanship. They’re uncomplicated but sophisticated, just like a good chronograph watch should be.

If you are looking for more affordable options, see our full list of the Best Chronograph Watches Under $500 here

Seiko SSB031 Men's Chronograph Stainless Steel Case Watch
Seiko SSB031 Men’s Chronograph (Image: Amazon)

For those looking to buy their first chronograph watch, there are plenty of more affordable options that are still worth your time. Take, for instance, the Seiko SSB031 Men’s Chronograph.

This Japanese quartz watch is stainless steel and includes a tachymeter. Normally retailing for under $200, this is an excellent, reliable chronograph watch by a well-established watchmaker.

Citizen Men's Eco-Drive Perpetual Chrono Atomic Timekeeping Watch with Day/Date,  AT4008-51E
Citizen Eco-Drive Perpetual Chrono (Image: Amazon)

In a similar vein is the Citizen AT4008-51E Perpetual Chrono, another Japanese quartz watch. With Citizen’s trademark Eco-Drive, this watch has extra long battery life. It’s been designed with marine activity in mind and is water resistant up to 200 meters (660 feet). For the price, this is another quality chronograph watch.

If you are considering either of these watches, check out our Citizen and Seiko brand comparison here.

Oris Men's 77476554154RS Aquis Analog Display Swiss Automatic Black Watch
Oris Aquis (Image: Amazon)

Speaking of water resistance, maybe you’d be interested in the Oris 77476554154RS Aquis.

This watch is water resistant up to an impressive 1640 feet. The case is stainless steel, the face is sapphire crystal, and the strap is sturdy black rubber. The chronograph function measures seconds, minutes, and hours. For the serious diver, this is the chronograph watch to buy.

The thing about a chronograph watch is that, whether you actually need the function or not, once you have it at your fingertips, you very well will find yourself using it. A chronograph might not be the most important accessory in your life, but you’ll never regret having it.

Related Video: How to Use Chronograph Watches

Interested in learning more about watch types: check out field watches, tank watches, and tool watches.

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