Chronographs a have a special place in the realm of watch collecting. Many of the most sought after vintage and contemporary watches are chronographs. Early Rolex chronographs including original pre-Daytona references and, of course, Paul Newman Daytona’s are extraordinarily collectible today. Vintage Patek Philippe models such as the reference 130 and the 1463 are always strong at auctions. Even Vacheron Constantin vintage chronographs are getting in on the action, as a stunning stainless steel reference 4178 crushed estimates during a recent Phillips watches auction.
What is it about chronographs that bring so much attention, though? Chronographs aren’t exactly practical anymore, although they once were. In fact, I don’t know anyone who actually uses their chronograph in any normal capacity. Today, functionality takes a back seat to aesthetics and technicality, which is actually really interesting because only a few manufactures can actually have the technical wherewithal to produce a chronograph caliber from scratch.
I would argue that the chronograph is singular must-have complication for watch collectors. Unlike a minute repeater or a tourbillon, a chronograph is attainable at almost any budget and is in the collection of nearly every brand.
Budget Friendly Chronographs
The chronograph’s coolness isn’t necessarily directly relational to its price, which is great for people on a budget. Here are three cool chronographs for budget savvy collectors.
Bell & Ross BR 126 Sport Heritage Chronograph
Bell & Ross has long been known for their square, instrument panel style timepieces. In the past few years, the company has really done an excellent job in establishing their Vintage collection which features 60s inspired watches. There are several well executed chronographs in this collection but the BR 126 Sport Heritage is, in my mind, the best of the bunch.
This watch features clean lines, flat black bezel, bi-compax chronograph layout and sand colored lume on the matte black dial do the 60s homage look justice. The BR 126 Sport Heritage is powered by the go-to Bell & Ross movement, the self-winding ETA 2894-2. This particular BR 126 (of which there are many) comes equipped with a cool black rubber strap.
Longines Heritage Single Push Column Wheel Chronograph L2.718.104.22.168
The name is a mouthful for the classically inspired Longines chronograph, no doubt. What it offers though, is a tremendous value for the dollar. The aesthetic emphasis on classical pocket watches is evident by the lacquered, stark white dial, the hand painted over-sized old-English numerals and blue steeled hands. Less is more here. The Heritage Chronograph features single button operation, sometimes referred to a mono-push chronograph or monopoussoir, for the chronograph which is actuated inside the over-sized crown.
Again, this watch features two totalizator subdials, which balances the piece perfectly. Longines uses their caliber L788 which is a modified ETA movement that features column wheel integration rather than the more commonly used and less expensive cam/lever actuated modules like the ETA Valjoux 7750.
Longines has a rich history of highly desirable chronographs, starting and ending with the 13ZN movement. If I could own one affordable (for now) vintage chronograph it would be a Longines 13ZN, which is one of the reasons why I love the Heritage Single Push Column Wheel Chronograph.
Ball Fireman Storm Chaser DLC
The Ball Fireman Storm Chaser is a lot of watch for the money. It’s really a watch nerd’s watch. As with all Ball watches, the lume is produced by gaseous tritium tubes that emit a strong, long lasting glow. The case is coated by both PVD and hardened DLC.
The Storm Chaser is tough, large, sporty and ultra durable; created for individuals with a demanding lifestyle. The movement is Ball caliber RR1402, which is a relatively bare-bones workhorse 7750, the perfect movement for a tough sporty watch like this.
The Must-Have Chronographs
Today, there are three four must have chronograph movements by four of the world’s most important brands. These four watches should be on any collector’s shortlist.
Zenith El Primero 36’000 VPH
The Zenith El Primero 36’000 VPH is legendary. It’s arguably the most important chronograph movement ever made. It was introduced in 1969 as the very first automatic chronograph. The original Zenith A386 was a technical breakthrough at the time and the movement has reached an iconic status.
Today, the El Primero 36’000 VPH is the direct descendant of the A386 and at 42mm the case fits nicely on the wrist. The tri-colored chronograph registers are the perfect compliment to the original A386 dial. An exhibition caseback lets you peek at the beautifully constructed El Primero Caliber. The El Primero movement has had historical runs with both Panerai and of course, Rolex in the Daytona.
Speaking of the Rolex Daytona! No single watch demonstrates the chronograph collector’s frenzy like the Rolex Daytona. It is arguably the most famous watch produced by the world’s most famous brand. The powerhouse in the Daytona is the 4130, a completely in-house manufactured, vertical-clutch activated, column wheel chronograph and a myriad of other Rolex patents.
Aesthetically, the watch has changed little since 1988. The major change occurred when Rolex introduced the 4130 in 2000 to replace the Zenith El Primero based calibers of the reference 16520. Demand for the Daytona has remained very strong and it certainly seems to only appreciate in desirability.
Breitling Transocean 44
The caliber B01 was introduced in 2012 as Breitling’s first ever in-house manufactured movement and it now encompasses a majority of the existing collection. The B01, like the El Primero and the 4130 by Rolex, is also an automatic, column-wheel chronograph. The major difference is the extended power reserve that you get with the B01.
At full reserve, you can expect to get 70 hours of time keeping power when the chronograph is disengaged. I really like the B01 in the Transocean Chronograph, particularly the silver dial with black sub dials in steel, reference AB015212/G724. However, because Breitling uses this movement so widely, you could also consider it in the Chronomat 44 or the new iconic Navitimer. When comparing the B01 to all of the other chronographs on market today — regardless of price, one could make a compelling argument that this is THE best chronograph in the world right now.
Omega Speedmaster ‘57
When Omega introduced the Speedmaster ‘57, the iconic brand incorporated the heralded 9300 movement as the powerhouse. I believe the new 41.5 mm version, reference 322.214.171.124.01.002 (debuted this year, but yet to be released), of the Speedmaster ‘57 with the broad arrow hands to be the must-have version of this watch. It’s simply outstanding.
When you own an Omega with the Caliber 9300, what you’re getting is a very durable and reliable movement that features all the bells and whistles you are getting from the other pieces on this list: column wheel, extended power reserve and vertical coupling clutch. The Speedmaster ‘57 also features the extraordinarily steadfast Co-Axial escapement with the upgraded silicon balance spring for enhanced durability and stability. The dial and case construction have a great retro look to them. Tan lume markers and hand inserts really make the dial pop. Through the exhibition caseback, you get a wide view of the entire movement, which has a very cool design and construction.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph
Falling in line with the historically important Royal Oak, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph is understated compared to it’s big brother, the Royal Oak Offshore. The classic case and bracelet design of the Royal Oak Chronograph (reference 26320) is absolutely timeless.
At 41 mm, this newest iteration of the Royal Oak Chronograph wears perfectly. Not too big, not too small. What powers the Royal Oak Chronograph is the self winding AP caliber 2385; it’s tried and true, providing excellent performance standards.
The Royal Oak has a panache factor and wrist presence that not many watches can match. It’s totally recognizable even at the quickest glance. Audemars Piguet’s dedication to haute horology and their pursuits in continuing the tradition of excellence is certainly historically noteworthy. It can be argued that the Royal Oak has the most recognized design of any wristwatch of the past 30 years and owning one should be on the shortlist of any serious collector.
Patek Philippe 5170
Patek Philippe is widely regarded as the king of chronographs. The brand has captivated countless watch enthusiasts with timeless creations since it’s inception 175 years ago. In 2010, Patek introduce the 5170 to replace the very popular 5070 along with the all in-house caliber CH 29-535 PS, which was the very first manufactured chronograph movement in the company’s history.
Some might argue that the symmetry of the 5170’s dial isn’t quite proportional, which is true, but from a collecting prospective that should matter less than the allure of Pateks very first chronograph movement. Without exception, this is one of the premier calibers on the market, complete with exceptionally well executed performance specs as well as peerless attention to quality and craftsmanship.
More concisely, the movement is gorgeous. It’s also the only manual wind chronograph calibers on this list, this one can view the movement in its entirety without the rotor partially blocking what you can see. The 5170 provided its owners a glimpse into the manufacturer’s storied past, when other timeless examples such as the Ref. 130 or the 1463 adorned the wrist of discerning collectors of high society. No brand produces a watch that so appropriately brings past, present and future in a piece like Patek Philippe does.