T
he popularity and prevalence of chronographs might just make one think that it is an easy watch complication. Quartz chronos are common on wrists from Portland to Portland, and even on the mechanical side of things, everyone from Hamilton and Tissot on up the line to the loftier likes of Patek and Lange & Söhne have one in their lineups. Something about the asymmetrical cases — those buttons poking out from under a shirtsleeve — and the gauge-like dials with tachymetric scales and multiple subdials seems irresistible to men everywhere, who are perhaps drawn to the instrument aesthetic or just a desire to play with their watches. After all, what other timepiece is as responsive and gives as much tactile pleasure as a chronograph?

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The truth is, the very nature of what a chronograph does is what makes it so difficult to produce. The basic movement keeps the time like any other watch, converting energy from the mainspring to measured pulses from the escapement at the end of the gear train. But press that chronograph start button and you’re asking the movement to start tracking elapsed time entirely separately from the timekeeping. The chronograph not only has to function independently from the primary functioning of the movement, it also has to rob the movement of energy to do it while not affecting the watch’s accuracy — no small feat. The difficulty in this is evidenced by the relative paucity of new chronograph movements. Sure, Lange has one, as do Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Breitling and a handful of others. These companies’ movements came at great expense of both time and capital, and were only made possible after years of research and development.

Most of the chronographs sold today with a “Swiss Made” on the dial rely on a base movement, the Valjoux 7750, that was introduced when Nixon was in the White House. This movement has been popular because of its ruggedness, its ease of construction and modification, and its relatively low cost. Still, the 7750, while a fine movement in its own right, is typically passed over by those for whom the mechanical chronograph transcends a machine and becomes a piece of art. Its chronograph functions are controlled by a small gadget called a “heart piece limiter,” which is sturdy and less finicky to build, but lacks the precision, tactile feel and responsiveness of the other, more refined “column wheel,” which is found in higher-end chronographs. The column wheel, as its name describes, is a small wheel in the movement that has vertical “wedges” protruding, so that it resembles the turret of a castle. Pressing the chronograph buttons rotates this wheel by one position each time (start, stop, reset) and engages a lever that makes the watch function at its master’s bidding.

While we didn’t intend to play favorites or choose a “best” from the trio, comparisons were inevitable, and a part of the fun.

So when we recently got our hands on three of the best available in-house built automatic column wheel chronographs from three legendary companies — Zenith, OMEGA and Girard-Perregaux — it presented an opportunity we couldn’t pass up. We’ll call it a shootout — loosely. While we didn’t intend to play favorites or choose a “best” from the trio, comparisons were inevitable, and a part of the fun. Before we get started, let’s review what they all have in common.

All three are sports watches. This doesn’t mean they’re intended to be worn on the squash court. “Sports watch” is a rather outdated term from a time when watches served a purpose beyond creating office wrist envy: they were worn for auto racing, scuba diving and sailing. Often they would be swapped out on Monday morning for a smaller, dressier watch though today, all of these chronographs would be considered “dressy” by most people used to seeing digital running watches on wrists.

All three make use of in-house, or manufacture, column wheel movements, meaning they were conceived of, designed and built entirely within the walls of their parent companies’ factories. These movements are a source of pride for the brands and they rightly represent a high achievement.

All three are self-winding, or automatic, movements. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal today, the introduction of the automatic chronograph was a huge milestone in 1969, when several companies, including Zenith, raced to be first to market. Ironically, while it is arguably more difficult to add the self-winding components to a mechanical chronograph, today collectors and watch buffs still consider hand-wound chronos the peak of beauty. We won’t argue with that; it’s a different shootout for a different day. Today we’re only concerned with automatics. So without further ado, here are the watches.

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timekeeping-promo-logo-gear-patrolThis article is part of GP's fresh new face to TIMEKEEPING, a weekly chronicle on the utility, design, tradition and innovation of watches.