From my blog, Fratellowatches.com, I offer up my personal list of Seven Iconic Chronograph Watches. If you don’t count the date feature, the chronograph is probably the most popular complication for wristwatches, as well as one of the most useful: one can find many uses for a chrono during his or her everyday life, such as timing diner preparation or in other work- or sports-related activities.
What makes a timepiece iconic? In most cases, it has something to do with age and heritage, but more importantly, in my opinion, its design should be truly timeless. If you can easily identify a watch as having been around since the 1950s or 1960s and that watch can still be worn today without looking old — well, that’s the definition of timeless. Another important aspect of an icon is that it should be easily recognizable as a specific model and brand. Think of the Royal Oak by Audemars Piguet, the Santos by Cartier, or the Datejust by Rolex.
Most of these watches do not need introduction, but I’ll introduce them anyway.
So, in ascending order:
7. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore
The original Royal Oak goes back to 1972 and was designed by the legendary Gérald Genta. Audemars Piguet‘s Royal Oak Offshore collection was introduced 21 years later in 1993 and was meant to be a more rugged and up-to-date version of the regular Royal Oak to attract a younger and perhaps a new target customer. The themed models from the Royal Oak Offshore collection bear interesting names as ‘Safari’, ‘Navy’, ‘Vulcano’ and so on. Watch aficionados even nicknamed them ‘Panda’ and ‘Elephant’.
6. Zenith El Primero
From all the chronograph watches listed in this article, Zenith is perhaps the only one where the movement is even more famous than the watch itself. The El Primero chronograph movement has a long (1969) and interesting history that I will save for a later article. This Zenith El Primero 36,000 VPH has the looks of those very first models from 1969 but crafted and designed to meet all current standards. This 42mm model however, will always remind you of those early automatic chronograph models due to its case shape and dial.
The brand from Schaffhausen has a long and rich history, especially with its Portuguese family of watches, and yet the Portuguese Chronograph is the youngest watch in this Top 7. A clean and classically designed watch that you will recognize instantly as an IWC, the Portuguese Chronograph has an ETA/Valjoux 7750 movement and a case diameter of 40.9 mm. And its design should be as contemporary 50 years from now as it is today.
In 1963, Jack Heuer introduced the World to the Carrera, a chronograph watch clearly inspired by sports cars and the world of auto racing. Now, 50 years later, the TAG Heuer Carrera is recognized as a legitimate icon. Last year’s 41-mm Carrera model was introduced to celebrate the 80th birthday of its founder, Jack Heuer. Collectors prefer the many vintage Carrera models that can be found at auctions and stores selling pre-owned watches.
The oldest chronograph on this list is the Breitling Navitimer, introduced in 1952. The original watch was meant for pilots and featured a slide-rule bezel. With the slide rule, pilots were able to calculate ground speed, miles per minute, fuel consumption and other mathematical calculations. The Navitimer family came in a lot of shapes and sizes during the years, but we prefer the classical-looking Navitimer piece that comes closest to the original model from the early 1950s. Did you know that astronaut Scott Carpenter wore a Navitimer when he orbited the Earth in 1962?
2. Rolex Daytona
One of the most sought-after watches worldwide is also celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Rolex introduced an all-platinum version this year, with an ice blue dial and a chestnut-colored bezel. However, Rolex refuses to call this watch a special or anniversary edition, it is – like all Rolex models – part of its ‘regular’ collection. The cult of the Rolex Daytona started in Italy – so the story goes – with a magazine featuring Paul Newman wearing his Daytona on the cover of a magazine. The Rolex Daytona – especially the oldest models – fetches very high prices at auctions and has its own subculture among watch collectors.
The so-called “Moonwatch” from Omega has not changed much over the years. Introduced in 1957 as a watch for racecar drivers, it became the choice for NASA astronauts in 1965. In fact, it played an important role during the return of the damaged Apollo 13 spacecraft in 1970. Precise timing was necessary for a safe return into the atmosphere. Couldn’t any other watch have done the job? Probably, but fact is that the Speedmaster was the only watch able to pass NASA’s rigorous testing in its search for a space-worthy chronograph watch. The Moonwatch today has the same basic design as those used by NASA in those days; only minor details have changed. It is the pre-Moon models that are most sought after by collectors.
So what do you think? Agree? Disagree? Any you’d add to this list? Feel free to chime in!
This article was originally published in 2013 and has been updated with additional material.