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
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.
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
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.
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.