The Mystery of the Chronograph

IWC Portuguieser Chrono-Rattrapante Ref 3712 a stainless steel oversize split second chronograph wristwatch, circa 2002 | Sold for $10,000

Many are drawn to the look of a chronograph dial, and who could blame them? The sharp design of the watch’s specialty subdials, calibrated bezel, independent sweep seconds hand, and pushers provide mechanical complexity and a pleasing and purposeful symmetry, beyond an otherwise basic time only piece. Yet, I would think that there is many a collector wearing a chronograph watch who never makes use of this function, appreciating it purely for its visual appeal. This aesthetic draws mainly from the association of chronographs as instruments of professional motor sports and aviation. After all, the look of these dials and the knobs on the casing are strongly reminiscent of the gauges within an instrument cluster on a classic car or the instrument panel of an aircraft’s cockpit.         

So, what is a chronograph watch? The term ‘chronograph’ comes from the Greek words ‘chronos’ or time, and ‘graphos’ which means to write/record. A chronograph watch has additional features above and beyond letting you know the time of day. At its most basic level, a chronograph is a stopwatch. You can use it to measure periods of time, it can stop, go, reset, and start again all whilst telling the time accurately. Although not a rare complication, integrating a stopwatch into a wristwatch is no easy task and is the reason why the function is considered a testament to horological craftsmanship and is still held in such high regard to this day. 

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref 116503 a gold and stainless steel chronograph wrist watch with bracelet, circa 2019 | Sold for $37,500

Chronograph watches can come with up to three dials. But what do these dials do? Well, they typically function like the hands on watches do; one measures the hours and one handles the minutes, the third is usually there for the seconds. Once the chronograph is activated, the seconds dial starts ticking, registering seconds, minutes and then hours if left on for a lengthier period.

When you need to track time for something as fast as Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint or Kylian Mbappe’s dribble across the Parc des Princes, the seconds dial works best. When calculating the best length of time to brew your perfect coffee, the minute hand is your go-to subdial. If you’re tracking your sleep patterns, you’d most likely employ the hours dial. All this with the convenience and immediacy of pressing the pushers on the watch right there on your wrist. Beyond the everyday application chronographs can have in our daily lives, these timepieces have been instrumental in life-saving NASA space missions, during exhilarating races at Daytona, and in the skies where keeping track of speed and distance travelled is vital to safety and survival.      

So, whether you are captivated by the precision functionality or just like the sharp look of the specialty dials and features, the chronograph remains one of the most functional complications in the watch world and can be used to time literally anything – its use limited only to the way that you use it.

PATRICIA KONTOS / Senior Jewels & Timepieces Specialist

Banner Image: Rolex Cosmograph Daytona Ref 116503 a gold and stainless steel chronograph wrist watch with bracelet, circa 2019 | Sold for $37,500

August 2023