Feature: 10 chronographs every watch enthusiast must experience
There are probably more chronograph watches in this world than you could every try on in a lifetime, so I’ve gone and boiled that down to ten that, no matter what, whether you have to beg, borrow or permanently borrow without permission, you need to try. This is the top ten list of enthusiast chronographs that you just have to experience.
Rumour has it the Breitling Navitimer first found a use in the aviation industry for testing the eyesight of fighter pilots. No joke, Breitling released a second chronograph watch called the AVI, nicknamed the Co-Pilot, which it expected pilots to wear alongside the Navitimer as something easier to read the time on. But nevertheless, it’s the Navitimer and not the Co-Pilot that’s earnt a legacy in the chronograph arena. Breitling’s fascination with chronographs began with its pocket watches, but really sprang to life as wristwatches took over. Breitling engineered the first twin pusher chronograph, and with the British military commissioning aircraft instruments too, it would only be a matter of time before Breitling made a proper pilot’s chronograph. And they didn’t disappoint, recalibrating the slide rule calculator of the Chronomat to make the Navitimer. It’s not an easy tool to learn, with the handbook emphasising that practice and patience are required to master it. It can be used, amongst other things, to convert units, multiply and divide, and it’ll even do your taxes.
Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope
Many of the chronographs you’ll see here have been designed to fulfil a specific purpose. This is not one of those chronographs. The Max Bill Chronoscope by Junghans is purely an exercise in taking design and removing it as far out of the way as possible. With designer Max Bill a product of the Bauhaus school of thinking, his legacy is dominated by a stream of products, watches included, that are designed to be purely functional. Compared to some of the ornate and intricate watches we’ve seen across the decades, there’s a small irony that this, the one celebrated most for its design, is actually the least about it. It’s a testament to the discipline of restraint that the Max Bill Chronoscope is considered one of the most beautiful chronograph designs ever made, despite the intention of its design being that it shouldn’t be noticed. The original Max Bill watch for Junghans was designed in 1961 and didn’t become a chronograph until Max Bill’s son Jakob extended the design in 1997, extrapolating his father’s work into those additional, ice-cold sub dials.
TAG Heuer Carrera
To be completely honest, the TAG Heuer Carrera, or as it used to be known, the Heuer Carrera, isn’t actually that special of a watch. It didn’t do anything first or change the game in any way. In fact, it was pretty well behind the curve by the time it surfaced in 1963. That was five years after the Speedmaster and the same time as the Daytona, both of which upped the stakes with the inclusion of a broad, bezel-mounted tachymetre. The Carrera, for all its similarities with those watches—including sharing many suppliers—did not have this crucial tachymeter bezel and was as such outdated before it even had a chance to get going. So why is it such an icon worthy of a list like this? It’s less the watch itself and more the company it kept. As well as taking the name of the infamous Carrera Panamericana race of the 1950s—of which Porsche was very successful, thus also borrowing the name—Heuer watches became an indelible part of motorsport. Jack Heuer was known across the industry, recruiting drivers as ambassadors—but not in the way we see today. The pay in racing was much lower, and so Jack’s driver friends would earn a bit of extra cash selling his watches. One thing led to another, and Heuer became the first non-motorsport sponsor of F1, creating a legacy with this watch almost as famous as the sport itself.
Hanhart 417 ES
There’s great debate about the watch worn by the coolest man to have ever lived. I don’t mean me—we all know what watches I wear—but a man I would consider my sensei: Steve McQueen. Steve McQueen basically spent his whole life trying not to be cool and was even cooler for it. And so when rumours abound that his watch of choice was the quirky Heuer Monaco or oddball Rolex Explorer II 1655, deep down we already know that’s intrinsically wrong. He’s the kind of man to wear a rugged pilot’s watch from a little-known German manufacturer called Hanhart—which is exactly what he did. The Hanhart 417 ES was the first pilot’s watch the German airforce was allowed after, erm, that thing that happened, and Hanhart was only able to make it after hiding a bunch of equipment during the post-war confiscation. Despite the odds, the 417 ES, a rugged, shock proof, antimagnetic chronograph watch, found its way alongside the Persol sunglasses and Barbour jacket onto the wrist of one Terrence Stephen McQueen. The rest, as they say, is history.
The only thing that’s happened more times than Omega recounting the Moonwatch story is me repeating it, but despite extreme fatigue on a level even Olympic triathletes can’t comprehend, it is just as compelling as it ever was. Really, the Speedmaster is a watch crafted from pure spite, a spite borne of contempt towards Rolex for showing it up so badly with the Submariner. Omega had been playing with the idea of a water-resistant watch since 1932, but all that had amounted to was a watch called the Seamaster that was barely resistant to dust. So, not to be outdone, Omega struck back with the Seamaster 300, the Railmaster and of course the Speedmaster. It was bigger, it was bolder and it rewrote the blueprint for sports chronographs. Really, it was such a triumph, such a step forward, that being chosen by NASA was almost an inevitability. Before NASA even got their business together to consider choosing a watch, its own astronauts were already singling it out. So when NASA did start testing watches, the competition just wasn’t there. The Daytona wasn’t really in circulation so an older Rolex was tested. Hamilton didn’t read the instructions properly and sent a pocket watch instead, presumably distracted by eating crayons. It was a complete bloodbath, with the competition falling like flies. And so it was fate that Omega’s Speedmaster would evolve into its new form, the Moonwatch, ready for Omega to milk drier than the ashen surface of the moon.
Whichever form you choose to experience it, the Zenith El Primero is a must on the bucket list of iconic chronograph watches. Whether you go for one of the originals or this updated Chronomaster, it’s not so much the watch itself as it is the chugging engine inside. That’s because when Zenith built it in the hope of it being the first automatic chronograph ever made, they built it and then some. This movement is to watches what a VW Phaeton is to the automotive world, overengineered and, to Rolex, who borrowed it for their revamped Daytona, a complete pain in the backside. Rolex actually down-tuned the 36,000vph high beat, removed the date and later boasted about engineering its own movement to have less parts, but really that simply indicates what an unmitigated beast the El Primero is. The tank-like build required watchmakers to attack it from both sides to construct, flipping it back and forth rather than being able to solidly work on one side at a time. It’s very much like the homemade spice rack you made at school, each part held together with three screws where one will do, just in case.
Grand Seiko Tentagraph
The Grand Seiko Tentagraph isn’t exactly a legendary chronograph because it’s only about five minutes old. Nevertheless, it’s jumped the queue and ascended straight to the top ten enthusiast chronographs you’ve got to try simply because it’s the first mechanical chronograph Grand Seiko has ever made, and usually when Grand Seiko does a first, it’s worth checking out. So, what does the Tentagraph get that makes it stand out? Well it’s as oddball as you might expect. The case is titanium, 43.2mm. That doesn’t even sound like a real size, does it? Well, it is, and it holds Grand Seiko’s calibre 9SC5, a ten-beat-per-second, 72hr power reserve chronograph that is basically the exact opposite approach Rolex took to making the Daytona. Rolex lost the high beat, Grand Seiko got it. But the wildest thing about this watch is that it incorporates the Dual Impulse Escapement from the 9SA5, making it the first chronograph in history to have one. If you don’t know what the Dual Impulse Escapement does, that’s fine, because even once it’s explained to you by a helpful Grand Seiko explainer video, you, like the rest of us, still won’t know. Best I can do is that half the time the movement takes a sneaky shortcut to save power.
To be number one, you don’t have to be the best, and no better way to demonstrate that is there than the Rolex Daytona. No moon firsts, no motorsport firsts, no nothing. The greatest claim to fame this watch has, really, is that it was gifted to a celebrity once. For the longest time this was the only watch in the Rolex collection people didn’t want. Like, have you seen that Antiques Roadshow clip with the war vet whose Daytona is worth a fortune, and he explains he got a discount on it because he wanted the GMT-Master instead? The way the world feels about the Daytona has done the kind of U-turn your GPS warned you about, and yet it somehow got away with it because Rolex always gets away with it. Time and time again, Rolex has produced gold from thin air, and turning the Daytona around with its big fat 1980s makeover is one of the most impressive feats in all of watchmaking history. So the Daytona is a watch to appreciate and experience not because it contributed in any meaningful way to the history of chronographs, but because, with all the grace and spin of a politician, it did the impossible and won hearts and minds against all odds.
Patek Philippe 5172G
The way the watch industry works now is that a manufacturer releases a watch that costs more than a nickel and then we all say, “Yeah, but does it have an in-house movement?” And then, if it does, we lament how that low-production-run unit is not as well-resolved as a mass-produced equivalent from a specialist manufacturer. There was a time, however, when wristwatch manufacturers simply did not make their own wristwatches. They came fresh from pocket watches lacking the tools and skills to make the much tinier wristwatches people wanted, and so to the rescue came the suppliers. Singer made the dials, Borgel made the cases, Valjoux made the movements, and so on. That’s why so many mid-century wristwatches looked the same. They basically were. Even the mighty Patek Philippe was helping itself to watch movements from the guys down the road. The chronograph movement, one of the hardest to make and yet one of the highest production complications, was unsurprisingly the last to go in-house. 2010, that’s how recent it was. Its replacement was the CH 29-535 PS you see here. Despite its incredibly traditional looks, it has six patents, took five years to develop and is basically the perfect Swiss chronograph. At least one of those five years was spent perfecting the movement’s crowning jewel, the instantaneous minute mechanism, which saves you anguish of seeing the chronograph minutes change from one minute to the next over an agonising few milliseconds.
A. Lange & Söhne Triple Split
It’s pretty likely that all the previous chronographs here will be accessible to a wily watch enthusiast looking get some hot pusher action, with even the Patek Philippe up for temporary grabs for anyone willing to feign wealth for the duration of an appointment, but this one here is probably going to be an issue. Nevertheless, I implore you to do whatever you can to, at the very least, be in the same room as an A. Lange & Söhne Triple Split. This is the chronograph dreams are made of, and for the people who worked on it, nightmares too. For the uninitiated, a mechanical chronograph works by temporarily connecting the main movement through a clutch that’s activated with the start and stop pusher. Levers and cams then force the chronograph back to the starting position once the clutch is disengaged. With a split-second watch, which adds a second second hand, you gain the ability to pause one of the seconds hands whilst the other continues on, with the further option to have the paused hand catch up again and for the whole thing to be reset once it’s all stopped. To do that requires virtually the same mechanism again on top of the chronograph. So that’s a movement, a chronograph and almost all of another chronograph movement again. With the Triple Split, it’s not just the seconds being split, but for reasons that are a mystery to all but the Germans, the minutes and hours as well. So that’s a movement, a chronograph, and then three more almost-chronographs on top of it. Rumour has it the minds that developed the Triple Split have all retired to a beautiful country retreat where the walls are soft and the jackets snug.
What’s the one chronograph you think every enthusiast should try?