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The 25 Best Chronograph Watches You Can Buy in 2018


May 7, 2018 Watches By

This is a definitive guide to the best chronograph watches you can buy in 2018. It also covers the basic history of the complication as well as all the terms you need to know to understand how chronographs work.

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The Short List

Best Value Chronograph: Seiko Presage SRQ023

At $2,400, Seiko’s Presage chronograph represents one of the greatest values in watchmaking. For starters, it features an in-house chronograph movement with a column wheel and vertical clutch, something not even seen on watches that cost twice the Seiko’s asking price. The best part, though, is the dial: it’s made from fired enamel, an incredibly difficult-to-master feature that’s otherwise only seen on watches from Switzerland’s most vaunted manufacturers.

Movement: Seiko 8R48 automatic
Case diameter: 42mm
Water resistance: 100m

Best Chronograph Under $1000: Seagull 1963

You’d be hard-pressed to find a mechanical chronograph at a better price than the Seagull 1963, and you likely won’t find one with the same kind of history behind it. Made by China’s biggest watch manufacturer, the 1963 uses the Seagull ST19, a movement originally developed as a recreation of the Venus 175 movement back the early ’60s for use in a pilot’s chronograph for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

Movement: Seagull ST19 hand-winding
Case diameter: 38mm
Water resistance: 30m

Best Chronograph Under $2,500: Sinn 103

Helmut Sinn’s eponymous watch brand got its start building aviation chronographs and servicing Heuer chronographs for the German Air Force. The Sinn 103 is a direct descendant of that history. Normally, Sinn’s watches are packed with its nutso overengineering, but this timepiece is decidedly simple. It features an old-school acrylic dial, a rotating countdown bezel (chunky enough to be used with gloves) and a plain dial with big, lumed Arabic numerals.

Movement: Valjoux 7750 automatic
Case diameter: 41mm
Water resistance: 200m

Best Chronograph Under $5,000: Longines Heritage Diver 1967

Another well-executed reissue from Longines. As the name suggests, the Heritage Diver harkens back to a diver once made by the brand, back in 1967. It features the same column-wheel chronograph movement and “big eye” configuration as its aviation-inspired sibling but packs it all in a chunky case capable of withstanding 300 meters of water pressure. The beautiful, deep-red bezel is merely a cherry on top.

Movement: Longines 688 automatic (ETA A08.L01 base)
Case diameter: 42mm
Water resistance: 300m

Best Chronograph Under $10,000: Zenith El Primero

Declaring the winner of the race to build the first automatic chronograph in 1969 is contentious business, so Zenith’s “El Primero” moniker is arguable here. What isn’t arguable, however, is the technical supremacy of the watch. It ticks away at a particularly high 36,000 bph, allowing it to record times within a 10th of a second, unheard of at the time of its launch. This modern iteration is as true to the original as it gets, right down to using the same movement, the same 38mm case design and the same dial with tri-color sub-dials.

Movement: Zenith El Primero 400
Case diameter: 38mm
Water resistance: 100m

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Introduction

Watches are passive devices. Once you’ve set the time, you can sit back, relax and let it do its thing. This is even true in the world of complications — additional functions in addition to the time — in which calendars, moon phase indicators and GMTs all, essentially, count a continually elapsing event. Save for one: the chronograph.

Chronograph means “time writer,” but you can think of it as a stopwatch, activated and stopped at the whim of its user. Its name is derived from one of the earliest versions of the mechanism, which was essentially a box filled with clockwork attached to two inky styluses. These recorded on two rotating discs of paper the difference in time between two horses on a race track. The mechanism was soon miniaturized and added to pocket watches. Then wristwatches.

To use a chronograph, you depress one of the pushers on the side of the case, engaging the function to get the second hand moving. Once the event you want to record is complete, you press that same pusher again, take note of the time, then press a second pusher and the mechanism resets to zero. Each press of the pusher is a tactile experience otherwise missing from watches, and the utility of being able to record the length of events on the fly was certainly not lost on the racers, referees, doctors, pilots and astronauts that used them throughout the 20th century.

Today modern, digital-timing systems have basically rendered the mechanical chronograph obsolete, but their associations with sports, auto racing, aviation and other exciting facets of life are in part why we love chronographs. The other part is, of course, the fact that they’re incredibly complex pieces of machinery, in which hundreds of tiny parts must operate in perfect synchrony. As such, they’re generally expensive to acquire. But if you love of watches, the complication is an essential piece to collect.

A Quick Timeline

1816: Louis Moinet creates what is considered the first chronograph, a pocket watch design with one pusher. It was only discovered in 2013 to be the first chronograph ever made.

1821: Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec builds his chronograph mechanism, a box filled with clockwork driving two ink styluses recording elapsed time. It was created at the request of King Louis XVIII, who liked to watch horse racing. Previously considered the first chronograph until the discovery of Louis Moinet’s chronograph.

1844: Adolphe Nicole introduces the reset feature, allowing different times to be taken in succession.

1913: Longines produces the 13.33Z, considered to be the very first wrist-worn chronograph watch.

1923: Gaston Breitling produces the first chronograph with two pushers. Up to this point, the stop, start and reset functions were all handled by one pusher, but very quickly, Breitling’s new configuration becomes the standard.

1969: Zenith, Seiko and a consortium of watchmakers (Heuer/Breitling/Hamilton-Buren/Dubois-Depraz) all race to create the first automatic-winding chronograph. The winner is still contested: Zenith was the first to announce the development, the consortium was the first to bring it to market worldwide, and Seiko was the first to sell its watch to the public, though only in Japan.

Terms to Know

Note: The following terms pertain specifically to chronographs. For more definitions on basic timekeeping terminology, reference our comprehensive guide here.

Clutch: Much like the connection between transmission and engine in a car, this is the coupling that connects the chronograph function to the main timekeeping gear train. There are two orientations for the clutch: horizontal and vertical. The former is more common, simpler and slimmer, while the latter — generally a staple in higher-end chronograph movements — provides a more seamless connection between the chronograph and the main clockwork.

Coulisse lever: On many lower-cost mechanical chronographs (notably the ubiquitous Valjoux 775), the Coulisse lever (also called “cam lever”) is the lever-and-cam system that moves to operate the chronograph function when the pusher is activated. It’s a relatively cheap, albeit robust, solution.

Column wheel: Like the cam lever, the column wheel activates the chronograph but takes on the look of a little turret-like wheel that progresses forward when the pusher is depressed. The action is much smoother than a cam lever, and the part requires more precision to make, thus making it more desirable in the eyes of many collectors.

Flyback: A type of chronograph that can be reset without stopping the chronograph function (which is necessary in a normal chronograph) — this allows the user to take multiple times in quick succession.

Pusher: A button on a chronograph watch that starts, stops and resets the chronograph mechanism. The majority of chronographs have two pushers — one for starting and stopping the mechanism, and another for resetting (though these functions are sometimes combined on watches with one pusher, called monopushers.)

Sub-dial: A smaller dial within the main watch dial. Most chronographs have either two (called a bi-compax layout) or three (a tri-compax layout) of these. Generally, they record the running seconds for the main time function, the minutes for the chronograph function and the hours for the chronograph function.

Tachymeter: A scale around the dial of a watch used to calculate speed. The wearer simply needs to take note of how many seconds elapse to travel a mile and reference the scale to know their speed. Tachymeter scales are often a staple on racing chronographs and can be found either on the outside of the dial or the bezel.

Valjoux 7750: An automatic chronograph movement designed in 1973 by Valjoux (now produced by ETA) that has become a ubiquitous caliber in the industry. If you’re buying a lower-cost chronograph watch that doesn’t have an in-house developed movement, it very likely has some form of the 7750 inside it.

Buying Guide

Unlike with, say, dive watches, there’s not a set criterion that defines an “aviation” chronograph or a “motoring” chronograph. Historically, though, there are a few common design elements that have shown up on watches in the following categories. These are features we kept our eyes on when formulating these lists, and you’ll see more detail for each below.

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Aviation

Though pilots were strapping clocks to their wrists as early as 1904, chronograph wristwatches as standard issue for aviators didn’t come into vogue until much later. Archetypal aviation chronographs include the Gallet Flying Officer, commissioned for the U.S. Air Force in 1939 and the Type 20, a specification issued by the French government in 1954. Both of these watches are characterized by legible dials with large, luminous numerals, as well as rotating bezels that can be used to calculate elapsed time. Wristwatches aren’t the necessary cockpit tools they once were, but there are still plenty of examples you can buy that borrow heavily from that winning formula.

Seagull 1963

You’d be hard-pressed to find a mechanical chronograph at a better price than the Seagull 1963, and you likely won’t find one with the same kind of history behind it. Made by China’s biggest watch manufacturer, the 1963 uses the Seagull ST19, a movement originally developed as a recreation of the Venus 175 movement back the early ’60s for use in a pilot’s chronograph for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

Movement: Seagull ST19 hand-winding
Case diameter: 38mm
Water resistance: 30m

Sinn 103

Helmut Sinn’s eponymous watch brand got its start building aviation chronographs and servicing Heuer chronographs for the German Air Force. The Sinn 103 is a direct descendant of that history. Normally, Sinn’s watches are packed with its nutso overengineering, but this timepiece is decidedly simple. It features an old-school acrylic dial, a rotating countdown bezel (chunky enough to be used with gloves) and a plain dial with big, lumed Arabic numerals.

Movement: Valjoux 7750 automatic
Case diameter: 41mm
Water resistance: 200m

Longines Avigation “Big Eye”

The Longines Avigation won the Grand Prix d’Horlogerie’s award for “Best Revival” in 2017, though it’s a bit unclear as to what watch was being revived. Apparently, it’s based on a rare Longines brought to the brand by a collector, and there’s quite a resemblance to the Type 20 flight chronograph specification, which was commissioned by the French government in the ’50s. Either way, it has all the hallmarks of a classic aviation watch — notably, super-legible Arabic numerals and the oversized “big eye” sub-dial for the running seconds sub-dial. Inside the watch ticks away a column-wheel automatic chronograph based on an ETA design.

Movement: Longines 688 automatic (ETA A08.L01 base)
Case diameter: 41mm
Water resistance: 30m

IWC Pilot’s Chronograph

Reminiscent of both IWC’s iconic Mark series pilot’s watches and a series of chronographs the brand made during the ’90s, the IWC Pilot’s Chronograph is a welcome addition to the brand’s aviation lineup. The dial has the unmistakable “Fliger” design of its forebears and a healthy smattering of lume on the hands and numerals. The watch comes powered by an IWC-modified Valjoux 7750, which is protected from magnetism by a soft-iron inner cage — a throwback to the classic Mark XI pilot’s watch.
Movement: IWC 79320 automatic (Valjoux 7750 base)
Case diameter: 43mm
Water resistance: 60m

Zenith Pilot Chronometro Tipo CP-2 Flyback

Zenith’s Tipo CP-2 is a reissue of a rare-as-hell chronograph (as in 2,500 made) produced in the 1960s by Zenith and distributed to the Italian Air Force by retailer A. Cairelli. It has the original’s 43mm case (shown here in an aged stainless steel) and a flyback movement based on the iconic, high-beat El Primero movement.

Movement: Zenith El Primero 405B automatic
Case diameter: 43mm
Water resistance: 100m

Racing

One of the chronograph’s earliest uses was timing horse races, so naturally, the complication evolved when horses made way for horsepower. Early races were mostly timed by stopwatches mounted to car dashboards, but as the complication was shrunk, they were more often seen on wrists, especially in the F1 and endurance racing heyday between the ’50s and ’70s.

While race cars and chronographs share a long history now, there’s no real formula for what constitutes a “racing chronograph.” Ideally, a tachymeter scale on the bezel (used for calculating average speeds) should be present, and stylistically, it should have elements of color to aid in legibility —and if it matches your sponsor’s logo, all the better.

Oak & Oscar Jackson

Oak & Oscar is a small operation, but its latest watch, the Jackson, can go toe-to-toe with chronographs from bigger brands. Its movement is a hand-winding version of the Eterna 39 with a flyback chronograph module — given the sub-$3,000 starting price, that’s a lot of horology for not a ton of money. The engine is complemented by a dial with a clean, bi-compax design that features eye-catching orange accents and a subtle tachymeter scale.

Movement: Eterna 3916M hand-wound
Case diameter: 40mm
Water resistance: 50m

Oris Chronoris Williams

This Chronoris was built as a 40-year-anniversary tribute to the Williams racing team, but fortunately, the dial is clear of any co-branding, leaving just some beautiful blue accents. The Chronoris nameplate actually dates back to the ’70s and, as such, the watch has a period-accurate 40mm case with a legless, barrel-like design reminiscent of the original.

Movement: Oris 673 automatic (Valjoux 7750 base)
Case diameter: 40mm
Water resistance: Et harum quidem rerum facilis es

TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 16

Heuer’s chronographs are some of the most recognizable timepieces in motorsport. And while the Carrera initially designed in 1963 had a cleaner design meant to have a dressier appeal, it was nonetheless a seminal racer’s watch. Now 55 years on, TAG gave the Carrera a much more overtly racing-inspired redesign with a tachymeter bezel and a high-contrast dial loaded with lots of colorful accents.

Movement: Heuer Calibre 16 automatic (Valjoux 7750 base)
Case diameter: 41mm
Water resistance: 100m

Tudor Heritage Chrono

The Heritage Chrono is an oldie in the current Tudor lineup, but we love it because it’s such an excellent reinterpretation of the classic but short-lived Tudor “Monte-Carlo” chronograph from the early 1970s, purportedly popular with Porsche racers from the era. Black trapezoids surround the sub-dials and the orange accents are bold throwbacks to an equally bold era in racing.

Movement: ETA 2892 automatic with Dubois Depraz chronograph module
Case diameter: 42mm
Water resistance: 150m

TAG Heuer Monaco Caliber 11

Thanks to a cameo on Steve McQueen’s wrist in Le Mans, the Monaco is another Heuer chronograph forever intertwined with motor racing. Launched in 1969, it was a boldly-designed vehicle for the Caliber 11 — one of the first automatic chronographs ever made and a movement still used in the Monaco today.

Movement: Heuer Caliber 11 automatic
Case diameter: 39mm
Water resistance: 100m

Diving

Even though they’re more complex than standard dive watches, diving chronographs should be held to the same demanding standards of utility and robustness. For a watch to comply to ISO standards, it needs to have a ratcheting timing bezel, a dial legible underwater (read: it needs to have gobs of lume) and it has to be pressure tested to 200 meters at the very least. That’s a standard these dive watches easily meet, and then some.

Longines Heritage Diver 1967

Another well-executed reissue from Longines. As the name suggests, the Heritage Diver harkens back to a diver once made by the brand, back in 1967. It features the same column-wheel chronograph movement and “big eye” configuration as its aviation-inspired sibling but packs it all in a chunky case capable of withstanding 300 meters of water pressure. The beautiful, deep-red bezel is merely a cherry on top.

Movement: Longines 688 automatic (ETA A08.L01 base)
Case diameter: 42mm
Water resistance: 300m

Oris Aquis Chronograph

They don’t come much more brawnier than Oris’s Aquis Chronograph, which clocks in at 45.5mm in diameter and features a 500-meter depth rating. The chunky case holds a Sellita SW500 (more or less a Valjoux 7750) and comes adorned with a black-rotating bezel. The beautiful black-to-blue gradient dial is a considered touch that adds some class to this otherwise burly timepiece.
Movement: Oris 774 automatic (Sellita SW-500 base)
Case diameter: 45.5mm
Water resistance: 500m

Breitling Superocean Héritage II Chronograph

In 1957, Breitling launched its first diver, the Superocean. It was not just one of the first dive watches ever made but also one of the first to sport a chronograph function and the first-known “reverse-panda” color scheme, accoridng to Hodinkee. Breitling’s new Superocean reissue comes loaded with the brand’s in-house, column-wheel chronograph and sports the same high-contrast design.

Movement: Breitling B01 automatic
Case diameter: 44mm
Water resistance: 200m

Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Co-Axial Chronograph

The Speedmaster gets all the love in Omega’s chronograph lineup, but the Seamaster has long been a vehicle for the stopwatch function. Its Planet Ocean may be the most technically impressive, though, boasting a 600-meter depth rating you’ll never use, a helium escape valve and a co-axial movement that’s accurate to chronometer specification.

Movement: Omega 9300 automatic
Case diameter: 45.5mm
Water resistance: 600m

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback

The most incredible thing about the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe Chronographe Flyback is not its 300-meter water resistance. Nor is it the ceramic case or its impressively long and French name. No, it’s the in-house developed movement, which in addition to having a flyback function, a column-wheel and a vertical clutch, ticks away at a very-quick 36,000 bph, a rarity in watches in general — let alone chronographs.

Movement: Blancpain F385 automatic
Case diameter: 43.6mm
Water resistance: 300m

Dress

Chronographs — with their bezels, scales and sub-dials — are often regarded as too complex for dress-watch duty by diehards who believe the dress watch should be as clean and simple as possible. But really, there’s no reason a chronograph should be precluded from formal wear. There are plenty of chronographs out there that retain their stopwatch function but shed the tool-driven look in favor of slim, simple and refined design.

Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope

An offshoot of the brilliantly simple Junghans Max Bill, the Chronoscope retains the original sleek, pared-down charm imparted on the standard Max Bill by its eponymous creator. The bezel is incredibly thin, while the sub-dials are merely comprised of thin dashes, giving way to a balanced, minimal dial.

Movement: Junghans J880.2 automatic (Valjoux 7750 base)
Case diameter: 40mm
Water resistance: “Splash-resistant”

Seiko Presage SRQ023

At $2,400, Seiko’s Presage chronograph represents one of the greatest values in watchmaking. For starters, it features an in-house chronograph movement with a column wheel and vertical clutch, something not even seen on watches that cost twice the Seiko’s asking price. The best part, though, is the dial: it’s made from fired enamel, an incredibly difficult-to-master feature that’s otherwise only seen on watches from Switzerland’s most vaunted manufacturers.

Movement: Seiko 8R48 automatic
Case diameter: 42mm
Water resistance: 100m

IWC Portugieser Chronograph

The Portugieser Chronograph has been a hot seller in IWC’s lineup since its introduction in the 1990s. Why? Because its design is so utterly cohesive. It’s just one round, simple dial, two sub-dials stacked vertically and classy propeller-like hands. This particular reference is the “150 Years” edition (celebrating the brand’s 150th anniversary) and has a beautiful lacquered dial with printed numerals.

Movement: IWC 79350 automatic (Valjoux 7750 base)
Case diameter: 40.9mm
Water resistance: 30m

Vacheron Overseas Chronograph

Inside and out, the Overseas is a masterpiece. Its multifaceted, integrated design is sleek, and its column-wheel, vertical clutch chronograph has some of the finest finishings coming out of Switzerland today. That said, it’s still remarkably rugged, boasting water-resistance to 150 meters; it’s even anti-magnetic. It may be refined enough to wear with a suit, but it’s feasibly something you could wear every single day.

Movement: Vacheron Constantin 5200 automatic
Case diameter: 42.5mmm
Water resistance: 150m

A. Lange & Söhne 1858 Chronograph

The 1858 Chronograph is by no means the most horologically mind-boggling Lange chronograph made, but it might be the most balanced, which is precisely why it’s become a cult favorite in the nerdiest of watch circles. The movement inside is an exquisitely-finished hand-cranker. This allows the watch to stay fairly thin (for a chronograph) at 11m in height and, more importantly, it leaves all of the mechanical splendor to be viewed through the case back unobscured.

Movement: A. Lange & Söhne L951.5 hand-winding
Case diameter: 39.5mm
Water resistance: 30m

Icons

Simply put, these chronographs have become benchmarks. When they debuted in the mid-20th century, they set the mold for what a chronograph should look like and how it should function. Their supremacy made them stalwarts of racing, aviation and even space exploration. Because you shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken, they’re all still being sold today; some have barely even changed since they were brought to the public decades ago. Truly, they’re timeless.

Omega Speedmaster Professional

The Speedmaster Professional you can buy today is nearly identical to the one worn to the moon in 1969 — it has the same case shape and size, the same dial design, nearly the same movement, even. And that’s fine. The Speedmaster of the ’60s was built to meet NASA’s incredibly tough standards, and its iconic status as the first watch on the moon makes it a must-have for any serious watch collector.

Movement: Omega 1861 hand-winding
Case diameter: 42mm
Water resistance: 50m

TAG Heuer Autavia

After a long hiatus, Heuer brought the Autavia back in 2017, using the reference 2446 (famously worn by F1 driver Jochen Rindt) for design inspiration. The Autavia was the first watch to have a rotating tachymeter bezel, making calculating average speed a quicker, far easier task. This helped it catch on with racers, solidifying the link between motor racing and Heuer chronographs for decades to come.

Movement: Heuer 02 automatic
Case diameter: 42mm
Water resistance: 100m

Zenith El Primero

Declaring the winner of the race to build the first automatic chronograph in 1969 is contentious business, so Zenith’s “El Primero” moniker is arguable here. What isn’t arguable, however, is the technical supremacy of the watch. It ticks away at a particularly high 36,000 bph, allowing it to record times within a 10th of a second, unheard of at the time of its launch. This modern iteration is as true to the original as it gets, right down to using the same movement, the same 38mm case design and the same dial with tri-color sub-dials.

Movement: Zenith El Primero 400
Case diameter: 38mm
Water resistance: 100m

Breitling Navitimer

By 1952, pilots were already familiar with Breitling, its instruments adorning the dashboards of many airplane cockpits and its Chronomat on many of their wrists. That didn’t stop Breilting from working with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) to perfect the aviation watch, building a chronograph with a sliding rule specifically for use by pilots. The addition of an additional scale taken from the E6B flight computer made it quicker and easier to do various flight calculations on the fly.

Movement: Breitling B01 automatic
Case diameter: 43mm
Water resistance: 30m

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

The Daytona is one of the most beloved and sought-after watches, both on the vintage and new watch markets. The current model is especially a fan favorite, as the addition of a black-on-white panda color scheme, red Daytona text and a black ceramic bezel give it the appearance of a reference from the 1960s.

Movement: Rolex 4130 automatic
Case diameter: 40mm
Water resistance: 100m

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