History of Chronographs
The term “chronograph” comes from the Greek words “chronos” and “graph” and literally translates to “time writer.” Today, we commonly associate chronographs to stopwatches, which they are more or less. Examples of chronographs date back as far as 1816 – a Louis Monet pocket watch chronograph was recently discovered and sent to Christie’s for auction in May of 2012. Contemporary chronographs are extremely popular among collectors and they are produced at a high capacity throughout the industry.
The functionality of contemporary chronographs, while still useful, is a bit obsolete. Modern devices have replaced the need for doctors to use pulsometer scales and handheld stopwatches can record speed and distance. Nevertheless, chronographs remain an extremely popular complication, partly because they are technically and aesthetically pleasing and because, well, they’re pretty cool!
In true “haute horology” the art and science that goes into creating a mechanical chronograph movement can be breathtaking. Brands such as Patek Philippe, A. Lange & Sohne, Breguet, Vacheron Constantin, Breitling, Omega, Zenith and several other important brands create calibers that are both technically and visually impressive. Chronograph movements can be both manual-wind or self-winding with each type having distinct historical importance.
Identifying a Chronograph
Chronographs have totalizer subdials which record elapsed increments of time. Sometimes those totalizers are elapsed seconds, minutes (up to 30 per cycle) and hours. A chronograph is activated by the pressing of pushers located on the side of the watch case. Most commonly, there are two pushers which are located on either side of the crown. One pusher usually starts and stops the chronograph while the other pusher resets it back to zero. Chronographs are fairly easy to identify in most cases because they all have similar characteristics: subdials and case pushers.
Fully Integrated vs Modular
There are two types of contemporary chronograph movements, those that are fully integrated chronographs and those that are modular chronographs. The difference is fairly straight-forward: fully integrated chronographs are movements where the chronograph is built directly and harmoniously into the movement, whereas the with a modular movement, the chronograph is built separately from the base movement. Fully integrated chronographs tend to be more expensive, less common, and reserved for some of the most prestigious brands in the world (some third-party movement production companies also create, develop and sell their fully integrated chronograph movements to watch brands). On the other hand, modular chronographs are more affordable and are used by most watch brands. Both types of movement have their benefits. If affordability is what you’re after, modular chronographs are usually the way to go. If you prefer a technically striking watch and are willing to pay for it, then you should look to purchase the fully integrated variety.
Types of Chronographs:
As a consumer there are actually a few different kinds of chronographs to chose from, but if it’s a matter of dollars and cents, your choices will be narrowed down for you rather quickly. Beyond your standard contemporary chronograph — which records one instance of elapsed time with two pushers — you have these other versions:
Monopusher Chronograph (monopoussoir)
A monopusher chronograph uses only a single pusher where all the activation functions occur. The single pusher is sometimes located to one side of the crown, and sometimes it’s located directly atop the crown.
Flyback chronographs are specialized chronograph movements in which the timing mechanism can be reset without stopping the watch. This is useful for timing events in which the chronograph is continuously running, but the timekeeper is recording individual sections of that event. Think laps in a race. Flybacks can track each lap and instantly reset without ever needing to stop the watch.
A very specialized chronograph that features two chronograph second hands (a primary and secondary hand) — one overlapping the other — is known by several names: split-second chronograph or double chronograph in English, the rattrapante in French, and the doppelchronograph in German. Split-second chronographs are highly complex and allow for the recording of both an intermediate duration of time and a complete duration of time. Split-second chronographs also have a catch-up function in which the intermediate second hand instantaneously catches up to the primary second hand.
Foudroyante chronographs, also called “flying chronographs”, feature a totalizer that displays sub-second intervals with a rapidly rotating hand. Most foudroyantes totalize 1/10th of a second, but in some cases foudroyantes can display an even smaller division of time as in a a 1/100th of second.