Mechanical watches have been around for centuries, although for much of this time they were pocket watches rather than wristwatches. For much of this time though, these watches could only chart the passing hours and minutes.
Although the idea of a chronograph was conceived and developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, these were mostly separate items. A watch with a chronograph contained in the mechanism was famously commissioned from watchmaker Breguet – the Marie Antoinette watch, but this contained all the possible complications at the time, and considering it took so long to make that Marie Antoinette had been dead for 34 years when it was finished, possibly it can be counted as a rather exceptional individual, and not an ordinary chronograph.
Chronographs really took off when they were added to wristwatches. Initially, they worked by a button next to the crown, which when pressed once would start timing, when pressed a second would stop the timing, and when pressed a third time would reset. This, of course, meant that there could be a further degree of inaccuracy in the second hand, so a second dial was inserted into the main dial, most commonly at the 9 o’clock position. The next major feature of the Chronograph to arrive was the split second function. A rattrapante or split second chronograph has an extra second hand and is able to time two events simultaneously. The chronograph starts normally but the additional rattrapante button separates the two second hands, stopping one while the other continues moving. This allows the watch to record the time for event A while the remaining second hand continues to time event B. The hands can be re-united and separated at will giving the instrument the capacity to record multiple split times during an event.
As time progressed, chronographs also gained additional dials to measure increasingly large periods of time, with hour dials allowing the wearer to record 12 hour sessions. The increasing range of uses for Chronographs has also led to scales which can help the wearer calculate speed, measure the speed of sound, or take someone’s pulse quickly and accurately.
Chronographs are in great demand for military and aviation purposes. The timing of military exercises has lead to the flyback chronograph, in which the timer can be reset without interfering with the timing. The delay in stop-starting a chronograph can cause a considerable inaccuracy in some situations where precision is vital.
Automatic Chronographs appeared in 1969, a considerable while after the first automatic wristwatches. This was because it had been seen as such a difficult task that no individual watchmaker could achieve it, and so rival brands banded together to develop it. The first to unveil theirs was a conglomerate of Breitling, Hamilton-Buren, Heuer-Leonidas and Dubois-Depraz, with the first three each subsequently claiming the glory.
Chronographs are now a common feature in luxury watches, and have given rise to the ‘sports watch’, a very masculine style of watch designed to be resilient as well as accurate, and for this reason have a lasting popularity that makes them an excellent investment. Some popular models include the Rolex Daytona and the Omega Speedmaster, the watch that went to the Moon.
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Jemma Hill is a writer with a passion for watches, and writes about both mechanical and quartz luxury watches.