At the word “chronograph”, a surprisingly broad range of images can come to mind, though I imagine most people’s imagination would settle on the sort of schematic representation used in catalogues from movement suppliers such as ETA and Dubois-Depraz: minutes, hours and chronograph sweep seconds running from the centre, with sub-dials for chronograph minutes, hours (sometimes) and running seconds.
The surprise here is less that these restrictions permit variation, but more that the variation is as broad as with any other type of watch. And that’s even accounting for the widely differing purposes for which chronographs have been made, and despite their – apparently – having an extra requirement to be legible above all other considerations of “brand DNA” and fashion. It’s that tension, however, that makes the chronograph so particular a challenge for watch designers, and so interesting for collectors.
The tension is there in the two very different functions that a chronograph performs: that of recording elapsed time and indicating passing time. Alongside normal time functions, chronographs have independent hands that can be started, stopped and reset independently of the running time. Less simple chronographs have additional complications such as seconds hands that can split or “fly” back instantaneously; but even at the minimum, the extra information is a load on what is an already a small and crowded canvas.
It should be said that the first restriction is the movement underneath the dial, which sets out the size, functions, basic proportions and positions of the indications. With minor exceptions these are effectively absolute, particularly the distance between counter and central pinions and the consequent proportions of the dial. There’s quite a variety of chronograph movements out there but the vast majority today are variants of a few base movements, principally ETA’s 7750 and 2894. Just how restrictive the architecture element is can be illustrated by the vanishingly small number of chronographs where all the hands are mounted on the central pinion – De Bethune and Peter Roberts form quite a select club.
But how to set out the information? While Nicholas Rieussec’s timer relied on an ink hand (literally a “time writer”), the earliest chronograph, by Louis Moinet, was designed as an aid to astronomical observation and put the second hand at centre stage, relegating larger time fractions to sub-dials much in the same manner that regulator clocks did. In other words the original chronograph cracked the basic design problem, and pocket watches throughout the 19th century followed the same pattern, varying only in the degree of dial ornamentation.
Where matters get interesting however, is with the first wristwatch chronographs from Longines and Breitling (1913 and 1916 respectively). The more limited space available meant the tension between space and detail was even more pronounced, and both companies opted to lower the profile of the chronograph element, the sub-dials being as unobtrusive and bare of unnecessary markings as possible.
It’s a pattern that was followed by Patek Philippe and others over the next decade: essentially these were horology-first designs, intended to show off the maker’s prowess rather than deliver on utilitarian grounds, a contrast that is marked when you compare them against pocket stop-watches such as the original Heuer Mikrograph from 1916.
As wristwatches quickly overtook pocket watches during this period, a number of companies simply did what they could to refashion existing pocket watches for wearing on the wrist. Quite naturally, these transition watches kept the much more functional look of the pocket watches they derived from, with busily marked second tracks and otherwise plain dials (an exception being the minor vogue for “doctor’s watches” with pulse-counting scales on the dial).
This compromise approach seemed to be the default even as watch companies began to develop wristwatch-scale chronograph movements from scratch; it was only in the 1930s that chronograph design acquired any sort of maturity.
The impetus to address the design question seriously came both from the growth in the supply, with consequent lowering of prices, and the demands of professional users such as pilots and the military (government procurement was to have a huge impact on the industry by the middle of the decade).
With chronographs being bought as tools rather than for pleasure, the timing functions started to take centre stage. With aircraft design itself developing at speed, including the new phenomenon of covered cockpits full of complex instrumentation, there was a ready-made template to follow.
A good example is the Heuer Flieger, produced from 1935 (right) – a black-dialed watch with luminous white hands and markings highlighting its simple, ultra-legible display (it was also notable for its coin-edged case).
Concurrently, though, there were much more complex, and expensive, designs – also with very specific military purposes – emerging from the likes of Omega (with its Lemania 13CH and 15CH-based watches) and others.
If the 1930s, and preparations for war, had influenced chronograph production, the war itself saw Swiss makers looking into the future.
One result was the ever more technical approach characterised by Breitling’s 1942 introduction of the Chronomat with its patented slide-rule bezel – despite the later success of the Navitimer, which was released a decade later, the Chronomat was conceived for – and promoted to – the scientists, engineers and businessmen that would be creating the new post-war world. Such is the Navitimer's success that it is indelibly associated with the slide-rule bezel; however, the Chronomat bore the complication a full decade earlier.
1963 is often identified as the year that modern culture finally shook off the post-war gloom – it was the year of the Beatles, the Alfa Romeo Giulia TZ, the pill, Martin Luther King etc. It was also the year that saw the emergence of two landmark, thoroughly “modern” chronographs: the Heuer Carrera and the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona. You could make a case for something being in the ether, but watch design doesn’t necessarily work that way.
As we saw with the Omegas and Heuers from the 1930s, different strands develop at different rates, the backward-looking over-complication of the Omega becoming part of the template for the most forward looking template of the ‘50s. The Speedmaster, the other of the classic chronograph triumvirate, actually made its debut in 1957.
Nevertheless, the Carrera and the Daytona represent a high-water mark of chronograph design. Both watches were designed within the particular methods and restrictions of the time – for instance, cases and dials were produced by external suppliers who would push for designs to use existing tooling (making new ones being vastly more expensive than today), and both used Valjoux ébauches to start with.
Both had a stripped-down aesthetic that emphasised clear delivery of the basic information – the Heuer moved the railtrack to an interior flange at the edge of the dial and did away with the tachymeter, while the Rolex placed the tachymeter on an external bezel, like the Speedmaster. Just a little flatter and with more open dials than the Speedmaster, both the Heuer and the Rolex have a more deliberate modernism that sets them apart.
These watches set a template for chronograph design that was strong enough to be the reference point that brands switched back to after following fashions too hastily or deeply – think here of the macho exuberance of the ‘70s or the Jorg Hysek-led “natural form” approach of the early ‘90s.
Over the last decade and more, there has been wave after wave of 1960s revivals, proving the point that the decade really did offer a synthesis of design and purpose worth preserving. More interestingly, there’s now a sense that designers have mastered the balance between detail, brand heritage and aesthetic intention – Christophe Behling’s work with the Carrera template for TAG Heuer being a fine example.
Even where brands have looked further back for inspiration, you can see a similar balance at work. Two of the most striking chronographs of recent years, A. Lange & Sohne's Datograph and Patek Philippe’s 1950s-inspired ref. 5975 from last year’s 175th anniversary collection, have a concern for balance and detail that owes a debt to those Heuer, Longines and Rolex designers of 50 years ago.
The leading designer Eric Giroud has even said that his most satisfying chronograph to work on was the Tissot PRS 516 from 2003 for exactly the same reason – a chance to re-engage with the best.