Buying a Chronograph? Here Are 10 Things You Should Know

Sometimes, the analysis of which watch to buy proceeds little further than, “Wow, that one looks cool.” Chronographs, however, are often thought of as “tool watches,” and when it comes to tools, you want the right one for the job. To guide your choice we offer 10 factors to consider when selecting a chronograph, to help make sure it suits your wants and your needs.

1. It’s the Way That You Use It

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Salesman: “How will you use your chronograph?” Customer: “Use it? I hadn’t thought about that.” Chronographs are not just for timing races – they offer many practical uses. Tracking cooking times, parking meters, walks or runs, bike rides, exercise routines, meetings, and guaranteed pizza delivery are often cited. So is determining the shortest commuting route. With your chronograph, you can find out how long an “instant” oil change really takes. Or, try this: when they tell you your table will be ready in five minutes, press the start button. When your wife says she will be ready in five minutes, press the… no, wait, that’s a bad idea.

Lawyers and others who sell units of time can track billable hours. Or you can pass the time by measuring intervals spent stuck in traffic, watching TV commercials, or waiting for the doctor/dentist. Activate your chronograph for a short time when you have an idea you want to remember. Later, when you see the odd elapsed time, it will jog your memory (assuming the idea is still in there). Other uses require that the watch have particular features. For example, most chronographs can’t be operated under water, and many can’t time hours-long events. Some chronographs are designed to run continuously, while others are not (more on this later). Choose carefully if these are features you desire.

2. Can You See Me Now?


Legibility – the easy-to-read display of elapsed times – can no longer be taken for granted. In days gone by, manufacturers  assumed that chronographs would be used and relied upon, so legible elapsed times were a given. Today, elapsed-time indications are often sacrificed on the altar of fashion. Manufacturers will ditch them in a second for the sake of a design they think will induce the customer to say, “That one looks really cool,” and reach for his or her wallet.


Hungry subdials: the IWC’s “eat” several chronograph seconds, while the Zenith’s eat each other.

But you’ll want displays that are easy to make out when you’re using your chronograph, so pay attention to the dial, and especially to what’s missing. If you need to read the chronograph in the dark (we won’t ask what you might be timing), you’ll have to search even more diligently, as very few chronographs will suit your needs.

3. The Origin of the Species

A. Lange & Söhne’s Caliber L951.6 from the Datograph Up/Down is a finely finished in-house movement.
A. Lange & Söhne’s Caliber L951.6 from the Datograph Up/Down is a finely finished in-house movement.

Chronograph movements come in a range of flavors: in-house, third-party and hybrid, integrated and modular, and more. To some, this is a virtual caste system, and place of birth and physical form confer status, or stigma, for life.

In-house chronographs are typically integrated, not modular, in design, and a column wheel usually occupies central command (more on these concepts below). In-house movements can offer fine functional finishing, careful adjustment, and the resulting smooth feel of quality. They can also be beautiful to behold. In-house production gives brands the freedom to produce singular designs, and offers control over every step in the manufacturing process. Of course, all of that requires investment. Chronographs with in-house movements tend to be rather dear, and service can be costly as well. The service is also likely to take a long time, and be performed far away. Collectors often joke about the number of frequent flier miles their timepieces have accumulated. That’s called using humor to mask pain. 
Third-party movements offer their own advantages. Most have been around for awhile, or they are based on tried-and-true designs, so they are extremely reliable. Service is relatively inexpensive and can usually be handled without sending your watch overseas. Replacement parts are in ready supply. These movements are generally quite sturdy, and they can be excellent timekeepers. (ETA offers mechanical movements in various grades, and as you move up the quality ladder, the timekeeping improves. The top level is COSC-certified.) On the other hand, third-party movements are produced in large quantities, so they are not exclusive. They exhibit little or no hand work. Their components are often stamped, not milled.

Girard-Perregaux’s new chronograph caliber is an integrated, column-wheel design.
Girard-Perregaux’s new chronograph caliber is an integrated, column-wheel design.

They are rarely beautiful to behold. They tend to employ mechanisms designed primarily to reduce costs. Some of these calibers can be found in watches costing from hundreds of dollars to several thousand, even reaching into five figures, which can be distressing to those who buy in at the upper end of the spectrum.

23 Responses to “Buying a Chronograph? Here Are 10 Things You Should Know”

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  1. Frank W DePietro

    I don’t understand all the hype about chrono accuracy to 1/8 or even 1/100 of a second. The timing function and biggest source of inaccuracy is the user reaction time to start and stop. A function can be no more accurate than its least accurate component. This seems to be ignored when manufacturers tout how accurately their watch can time an event

  2. I have a Sinn EZM10. I use it from time to time for its intended purpose; mostly I just like looking at it.

  3. Paul mutua

    I like buying Pre-owned vintage watches and mmy customers give me best motivation ever

  4. john langley

    You can’t overstate the importance of the dial. After a lot of looking for a truly rugged chronograph dive watch, I found one I really liked, bought it, Then discovered that those big super luminova covered hands that made the watch so easy to read in the dark, blocked visibility of the sub-dials–it takes the minute hand an excruciatingly long time to get past the hour and minute sub-dials. Nice thin tritium-lit hour and minute hands would make this watch perfect.

  5. The older I get, the simpler I like my watches. At this point I prefer a good old 3,hand automatic. However, I still love my Breitling Navitimer Montbrillant Datora, even though it isn’t exactly the easiest watch to read. It has the day, date, even the month and of course a chronograph function. It is just very cool.

  6. I have a Smartphone, actually two, one of each flavor, Apple and Android. Both have the ability to give very precise answers to the “Do you have the time question?” I use the chronograph function to time my cigar moments. I have not, nor will I ever pull out my phone when asked what time it is. I pull back my cuff and glance at my wrist. Smartphones are precise but a wristwatch is elegant. Elegance trumps precision

    • John Sigsbury

      Love your assessment. I only own one chronometer, a Speedmaster, the rest of my small collection are dress watches that exude elegance. Vintage Constellation, vintage Deville, new JLC, etc. I love elegant watches, which is why I’m not fond of Rolex.

  7. Truthfully, you probably buy a chronograph because you think it is cool. Most people will not use it as a tool. Your cell phone will do a much better job as a tool than a chronograph. Buy a chronograph because you love the way it looks and because you appreciate the work that went into creating it. But remember, repairing it if it stops working will probably be a long and expensive proposition, especially if it has an in house movement.

  8. An in-house column wheel flyback chronograph with a vertical clutch can be very expensive. Or you can spend $200 on a vintage Citizen Bullhead chronograph. :)

  9. Martin Dawson

    I love chronographs and have a ‘couple’ – Omega Speedmaster Snoopy Award 2003 (bought with funds left to me when my father-in-law passed away), Hanhart Pioneer Tachytele (mother bought me it before she went blind) – why did I make these choices? am interested in spaceflight especially the Apollo missions to the moon and am also interested in WW2 Luftwaffe and German Secret Weapons. But All chronographs are great in my eyes and to wear one is a nice feeling… Great article and great photos as always.

  10. Robert Cuny

    This is a very informative article for those, like myself, who are interested in how a mechanical watch functions.
    I found the comments on modularity to be especially interesting as I would buy a mechanical chronograph for it’s timing accuracy.
    While I agree that the phones we carry – actually a small computer- would be able to provide better accuracy than a mechanical chronograph, battery powered devices seem to have a way of being discharged just when most needed.
    I especially agree about the comment that legible ( elapsed timing ) functions are being sacrificed on the altar of fashion. I am currently in the market for a chronograph and have found far too many displays are nearly unusable due to the design of the face and hands.
    Regarding night time legibility:
    When the pupils of my eyes are dilated due dim light, I prefer to glance at a watch rather than the blinding light of a cell phone display.

  11. Mario da Silva

    Thank you for this unusual piece summarizing what I should know when buying a watch with a complex dial… This article fills in a lot information on how we can properly make use of the different functions.
    There’s also a watch made in Japan, the Casio Edifice Pilot’s Edition EF-527L which is pretty and has a Slide Rule on the outermost dial face operated by an 8-o’clock crown!…
    But of course you might not feature Casio in this summary.

    I appreciate the work put into this article, what makes this newsletter Special.
    Thanks again!

    M. da Silva

    • Stephen

      I had a Casio Edifice which I loved, but in actual use there was so much packed into it, and some of the positions were marked with such tiny letters that to do anything more than read the time I had to put my reading glasses on – which kind of spoilt it. I gave it away in the end…

  12. I think of chronographs as the entry complication for guys who are not interested in moon-phases (now there’s a beautiful but fairly useless complication.)

    While I agree that electronic alternatives have rendered chronographs obsolete, I would argue that as long as you have a phone with you, you probably don’t need to wear a watch either. I wear a watch because I feel undressed without one and I love the way a chronograph looks.

    Just as it is more convenient to glance at your wrist to tell the time than it is to take a phone out of your pocket, so it is more convenient to have the chronograph on your wrist when timing something.

    I run training classes and I use my watches to time tea and lunch breaks, as well as time assessments for competency certifications. I have three mechanical chronographs and two analogue quartz chronographs and I wear them all to class, just not all on the same day!

  13. Sokunroath

    I like this article with exception to note 7. author did not give credit to the movement of this company. It looks like GP or Girard Perregaux movement. Yet you acknowledge crappy company like Tag. Is there a promotion of pushing certain companies through media? I think Tag more inline with Oris, Tissot, Invica, Fossil, Citizen, Hamilton, Nomos. And, not with league as GP, JLC, UN, Lange, Rolex, Cartier, Glasshutte Original, AP, FP J, and Gruebel Forsey.

    • Craig Sweeney

      I find it upsetting that you would lump Invicta or Fossil with a brand such as Nomos, You also underestimate Tag Heuer whom have just given us a tourbillon and the mechanical 1/100 chronograph function.

  14. Great article, but why does a pop-up ad for the TV show Bar Rescue appear on every page? Very annoying.

    • WatchTime

      This was an error on the server of our advertising agency, has been fixed. Sorry.

  15. Robert Harper

    Thanks for the interesting article.

    I love chronographs and have owned two … still have one … but I have never known anyone except an old-time physician to ever use its timing features. Like so-called Pilots watches … which are not necessary because all aircraft today have clocks. I love their appearance but would have no use for one, even an IWC “Spitfire” which I think in appearance is the cat’s pajamas in pilots watches. And truth be known I think most people buy chronographs for show and not because they need their features.

    As for timing, etc., the cheapest hand-held smart phones have timers that are more accurate than any mechanical chronograph and probably most quartz watches, too, so why would anyone really interesting in timing of speed, pulsations, etc. want to fiddle with a watch that is only reasonably accurate … assuming that close timing is even necessary.

    I am not opposed to watches that offer conveniences such as the Rolex Day-Date I have worn for about 30 years now. I bought it when I was doing a lot of international travel and I would awaken in some strange city and it was nice to know the day (I always knew the city.). And, truth be known, I bought it because at the time bling was pretty important in my business and I thought it was blingingly beautiful. For the record, I don’t travel overseas much anymore but I still love the watch.

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