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July 17, 2020

What Is a Chronograph? Your Guide to Buying a Chronograph Watch

July 17, 2020

Chronograph watches are some of the most useful and sophisticated timepieces. This guide will discuss the details of chronographs, their history, and the important considerations for purchasing and finding one perfect for you.

What Is a Chronograph and Where Do They Come From?

A chronograph is a watch that combines the traditional watch face with stopwatch capabilities. The chronograph addition can be as simple as a seconds hand that is controlled by the user, or it can be more complex with several sub-registers that can keep track of hours, minutes, and seconds. Chronograph watch capabilities have a rich history. 



The chronograph was invented in France in 1816 by Louis Moinet to be used with astronomical equipment. Later in 1821, King Louis XVIII requested his watchmaker to create a timepiece for him that could easily time race horses while also telling the time. So Nicolas Rieussec created the first commercialized chronograph watch for the king. The watch was highly successful for timing sporting events. Over the next several centuries, watchmakers added small changes to the chronograph watch, including the three pusher button design that is extremely popular in this day and age. Today, chronographs can be used for timing a variety of things besides horse races. It can help you time a boiled egg or a walk around the block. Remember that a chronograph is different from a chronometer. A chronometer tells time with a specific accuracy ability, whereas a chronograph tells time and has a stopwatch function. 

What to Consider When Buying a Chronograph Watch

If you are interested in buying a chronograph watch, you will want to consider some of the key features to help you find the right fit. Chronographs can be simple or more complex and made in a variety of materials and designs. These are the most important aspects to decide on before buying a chronograph


Why a Chronograph?

While the original chronographs were used for astronomy and horse racing, you may have other intentions for your watch. If you want to use your watch to time anything longer than an hour, you will want a more complex chronograph that has a sub-register that measures hours. If you are more interested in timing extremely short events—like timing how long brownies need to cool or a lap around the track—you could choose a simpler chronograph. Remember that most chronographs can’t be used underwater to time swims, and some chronographs can’t be used to time events that last many hours. You can also find chronographs that measure distance, speed, or even heart rate. It all depends on what you plan on using your chronograph for. The final use is simply for style. Chronographs are sophisticated and stunning, and you can choose one based purely on how it looks. 


Quartz or Mechanical?

The decision between quartz or mechanical watches is common for any type of watch and applies to chronograph watches as well. A quartz watch will work well if you are hoping to use your chronograph for practical purposes. Quartz can be more affordable, especially if you are looking to include extra features. Quartz chronographs are also more likely to have an option for solar charging, if that is a feature you want. However, if you are more interested in chronographs for the look or style, you may find a mechanical watch to be more to your liking. Determining the purpose behind your chronograph will help you decide what type of chronograph you are looking for.


Extra Dials or Keep it Simple?

You will want to consider what extras you want on your chronograph, if any. How many pushers do you want? How many sub-registers? Do you want a flyback that allows you to reset and start the time with a single push? Do you want a rattrapante, which are two separate second hands that serve different purposes on the same face? Do you want a bezel? All of these features can add to the function of a chronograph and make it more useful for you. These features can also be visually appealing, and you may decide to embrace the display of complexity. But you can also explore these features and decide you like the simpler options, for either practicality or appearance. 


Is it Legible?

If you plan on using your chronograph to time, you will want to make sure that you are choosing a watch with easy-to-read faces. Some watchmakers will remove certain numbers on a face to make it more visually appealing, and this decision works extremely well for those who are looking for a chronograph for style. But if you are interested in the practical uses of a chronograph, you will want to pay special attention to which numbers are removed. Are the ones missing from the face crucial to your timing purposes? You also want to determine if the sub-registers and the numerals that are there are easy enough to read for the activities you plan on using your chronograph for. And as with all watches, you will want to make sure the main face is legible for you. 


Best Button System?

All chronographs need to have a system that allows you to reset, start, and stop the time—hopefully only on purpose and not while timing a run. Watchmakers have created two main systems, and each has its benefits and drawbacks. The traditional system is the column wheel. The column wheel can be more expensive and harder to maintain, but it is extremely accurate and beautiful in appearance. If you are looking for a chronograph focused on appearance or traditional timing, a column wheel can be the right fit. There is also the cam switching system. Cam switching is less visual, but it can be cheaper and extremely efficient as well. If you are looking for a chronograph to serve as a tool, cam switching can be the right fit for you. 


The Bottom Line on Chronographs

You don’t always need to decide between functionality and style. Chronographs can be useful, beautiful, or both. As you consider these five guidelines, remember that they aren’t rules. Focus on finding the right fit for you.

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