The mechanical chronograph is perhaps the most recognisable complication to be seen on the watch since the late ’60s. It is also one of the least understood. Often confused with a chronometer, the chronograph is simply a stopwatch integrated into a wristwatch. Pretty simple, right?
The first things you’ll notice about chronographs are the extra subdials and the buttons, or pushers, along the side of the case (or sometimes on top). These pushers start, stop, and reset the timing function, while the rest of the watch runs as usual.
A press of the top pusher brings the chronograph dials to life, starting with the long, centered seconds hand. Every trip that hand makes around the dial will be recorded in one of the sub dials. Some record up to 30 minutes, while others go a step further and record up to 12 hours with the help of an additional sub dial. Another press of that top pusher stops timing and the bottom pusher resets everything.
Mechanical chronographs have had a certain cool guy cachet since the late 60s, when most of the iconic models were designed. Sure they have been around much longer, but Apollo Astronauts strapping Omega Speedmasters to their space suits and Formula 1 drivers sporting Heuer chronographs on the track did wonders for their popularity. Some of the coolest watches of all time came from this era, including the Rolex Daytona and the iconic Heuer Monaco.
There are also all kinds of more esoteric chronographs that are variations on the basic theme. Some use a centre minutes hand, some feature only one pusher that does all the functions, and others beat extremely fast to track tiny slivers of time.
Sure, these days you can whip out your iPhone and time anything down to tenths of a second, but if you want to cook al dente pasta, avoid parking meter expirations, or time your bike rides like Buzz Aldrin, look at your wrist instead.
HODINKEE is a robust online magazine featuring in-depth reviews, critiques and reports on watches of a particularly high calibre.