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Complications: The Chronograph Watch Explained

Even if you don’t dabble in it or really have any familiarity with it at all, you should be able to admit that horology is a fascinating practice. And, more than that, it has a rich history that’s directly tied to humanity’s development. But there’s a whole lot more to horology than just simple timekeeping. Nowhere is that more true than in the wristwatch. What started as a passing fad evolved into one of the longest-running gear and fashion trends ever to have existed.

But they’re more than just wearable clocks; watches have been a major part of technological advancement, as well. And so it is with these guides that we hope to introduce you to some of the common (and not-so-common) mechanical functions of these small-scale time keepers. These are your introductions to watch complications – from how they came about, to what they do, to their practical applications. As a primer to this series, we’d like to introduce you to what is inarguably the most common auxiliary wristwatch function: the chronograph.

A Brief History of the Chronograph

For starters, it’s important that we understand exactly what the term ‘chronograph’ means. It comes from the Greek words ‘chronos’ and ‘graph,’ which – literally translated – means ‘writer of time.’ They are called this because, in their earliest form, chronographs were watch-shaped devices equipped with a single index that would literally mark the surface of the dial as it spun around the watch face as a means of measuring time elapsed. If this sounds to you like a primitive stopwatch, then you’ve got exactly the right idea.

The first instance of a commercial chronograph, however, was commissioned by King Louis XVIII of France in 1821 and built by Nicolas Mathieu – which was subsequently based on an original invention of Louis Moinet in 1816 for taking astronomical measurements. The Breitling-style 3-button chronograph is still the most widely produced today.King Louis, you see, was a big fan of horse racing and wanted to be able to accurately time the races – not just judge which horse came in first. This would allow not just for accurate record-keeping, but would give future riders and horse owners something to strive toward; namely, beating the standing records.

The first chronograph that functioned both as an elapsed-time device and a normal watch was produced by Gaston Breitling in 1915, improved in 1923 with the inclusion of a separate pusher button at the 2 o’clock position, and then further developed in 1934 by Willy Breitling. It was this third iteration, with a 3-button format, that would become the industry standard layout from that point forward. As a final note, the self-winding automatic chronograph wouldn’t be invented until 1964, when the Seiko brand would introduce it for the Tokyo Olympics. Outside of some avant-garde iterations here and there, the Breitling-style 3-button chronograph is still the most widely produced today.

How It Works

The chronograph is the first of a group of watch functions outside of normal time-telling capabilities called ‘complications.’ And yes, that means that literally any mechanical operation outside of displaying normal time falls within this category. Date windows, moon phases, and the Tourbillon all fall within the purview of complications. As far as chronographs go, there’s not a decided-upon method for displaying this functionality, but there is a most commonly used format – that being a large main time-keeping dial paired with one or more smaller sub-dials on the face of the watch (usually 2-3 sub-dials) which are controlled via side-mounted buttons.

At its basest form a chronograph only requires one specific thing: an independently sweeping second hand. You can kind of think of it like a stopwatch in which the second hand can be started, stopped, and returned to zero independently of the rest of the timekeeping mechanisms by pressing on a side-mounted button, called a ‘stem’ or ‘pusher.’ In fact, it was out of the first chronograph that the stopwatch was born – though there is sort of a chicken and egg situation, as the original chronograph and stopwatch are essentially one and the same.Think of it like a stopwatch in which the second hand can be started, stopped, and returned to zero independently of the rest of the timekeeping mechanisms Typically, extra chronographic functions just compound this idea – adding the ability to track minutes, hours, and even fractions of a second on individual dials with similar side-mounted controls. All you have to do as a user is push the appropriate button for whichever dial you are trying to control. If you’re unsure how the functions on your individual watch work, you can always consult your owner’s manual or contact the brand that made it directly for in-depth instructions.

What’s even more interesting is that chronographs, on top of being able to measure precise time, can also work as time-elapsed devices and/or a tachymeters (devices used to track distance, speed, or both). While not as accurate or high-tech as, say, a speedometer or odometer like those found on motor vehicles, with the inclusion of a rotating bezel – the outer ring around the watch dial – it’s possible to get a round-about estimation of how fast, how far, and for how long one has traveled – so long as you can do a little math. For instance, if you know your speed and how for long you’ve been in the air, you can multiply the two and get your distance traveled. Similarly, if you know your distance and time elapsed, you can divide the former from the latter and find speed. This is especially helpful when it comes to things such as racing, flying, and diving.

As a final note, it’s important not to confuse the term ‘chronograph’ with ‘chronometer.’ While similar structurally, they mean very different things. As we stated, a chronograph is used similarly to a stopwatch – measuring time, distance, speed, etc. – whereas a chronometer is a term used to describe a time-keeping device that continually tracks the time accurately regardless of motion or variations in temperature, humidity, and air pressure. Most chronographs can be considered chronometers, but not all chronometers are necessarily chronographs.

Modern Practicality

Now that you know what, exactly, a chronograph is, it begs the question: why bother carrying around chronograph with you? After all, modern smartphones can feasibly complete all of the same tasks as a chronograph wristwatch and more. If that’s your line of thinking, you may end up finding yourself sorely mistaken.

For starters, the operation of a self-contained chronograph wristwatch is entirely self-dependent. That means there’s no outside influence controlling how, when, or where it works. Phones, as we now know them, require a complex network to keep them accurate and functioning. This also means that smartphones are not immune from outside influence. If something goes wrong with the network – like a severe blackout or a targeted attack – all phones that rely on said network will be negatively affected. Watches, by contrast, will continue to work just fine. On a much smaller scale, watches will function for far longer than phones or really any high-tech instrument. A smartphone can hold a charge for a manner of days at most, whereas even the lowliest quartz battery-powered chronograph watch will work for literal years straight.There are situational circumstances in which a chronograph wristwatch is a far superior option to a smartphone.

There are also situational circumstances in which a chronograph wristwatch is a far superior option. Diving is a big one, for instance. There are many chronograph dive watches that are designed to continually operate deep beneath the surface of the ocean – most typically between 100-500 meters. Even the best water-resistant phones can only traverse a fraction of that depth for a much shorter amount of time. Non-commercial aviation is also an excellent chronograph application. Sure, most modern planes have complex computer systems for tracking even the smallest bits of information but, should they for some reason fail, a simple chronograph pilot watch can make the difference between safe survival and utter disaster. The greater point is this: depending on high-tech instruments will only do you any good so long as they don’t die on you. With that in mind, it’s always going to be better to be prepared than not.

Jack Mason A102 Aviator Chronograph ($275)
Hamilton Jazzmaster Thinline ($775)
Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch ($5,230)

An EDC Absolute

So, paired with its helpful functionality (especially as a survival gear backup tool), chronograph wristwatches are a must-have for anyone in the EDC world. They’re useful, reliable, and – even when not entirely necessary – are a handsome addition to any everyday carry loadout. What’s even better is that, because of the availability of the technology, they run the gamut of prices. That means, whether your budget is just a few shekels or a king’s fortune, you can find a chronograph that fits both your budget and style. As a means to help you on your way, the chronograph wristwatches pictured here are some of our personal favorites. So, if you haven’t already, the time to pick one up is now.

Best Chronograph Wristwatches

If none of the above options quite strike your fancy, we’ve put together an entire collection of what we believe to be the best chronograph wristwatches available right now. Check them out.