The watches you see beneath are some of the best chronographs you can buy for less than £10,000. But more than that, they represent a carefully curated list of the chronographs that we at QP think you should buy. There's a subtle difference - there are a lot of chronographs out there, and some of the best makers - Omega, Breitling, TAG Heuer - make several models that are absolutely unimpeachable.
We've decided to be strict, however, and only allow one watch per brand. It won't always be the most predictable, or the most mainstream, because who wants to be either of those things (although yes, the Rolex Daytona is on the list). It will be a watch that we feel is well made, well designed and within the context of luxury watchmaking, reasonable value for money. In that spirit, some cost as little as £1,500 while others are knocking hard on the door of five figures, and while they might not be either-or propositions, we think every watch on this list has the same appeal at heart.
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Bell & Ross’s V2 series has seen the brand leave square watches behind, which can sometimes mean it’s searching a bit harder for a defined identity. There are a lot of 41mm circular chronographs out there, after all. But with the Bellytanker, Coast Guard, Racing Bird and this, the Military Beige, it has hit upon a run of appealing designs that are familiar without being derivative. We like the discreet colour-matched date, the cross-hair running seconds at 3 o’clock and the screw-down pushers. Inside is an ETA 2894-2 movement, which is perfectly decent, but this is a watch you’re buying for its looks.
The Navitimer is one of the all-time great chronographs, and of course you can’t go wrong buying the straight-up, 43mm black dial model. (46mm is too big. Don’t even think about it.) But how can you look past the awesome colour of this Pan-Am edition, cashing in on all that lovely retro-aviation goodness. Red and white hands are an absolute winner. The caseback’s got the original Pan-Am logo printed on the sapphire too. Under the bonnet is Breitling’s in-house B01 movement (you know, the one it provides to Tudor in exchange for its in-house automatics), which is a column-wheel, vertical clutch, chronometer-regulated calibre with 70 hours of power reserve.
Bremont makes a lot of quite similar chronographs, and choosing between them can get a bit dizzying. We really like the ALT1-C polished steel – it’s elegant and sophisticated, if guaranteed to be a bit of a scratch-magnet – but if we can only recommend one chrono from the whole range it has to be the recently redesigned Zulu. It adds a GMT hand for extra functionality, looks a lot smarter since they re-did the hour markers, and is fundamentally more representative of Bremont as a brand. For some, the 43mm case will be a bit chunky (it’s also 16mm thick) and the movement is an unremarkable modified ETA (although it’s chronometer standard, and remember unremarkable also equals easy to service).
Carl F Bucherer isn’t a brand you’d think of in a hurry for a chronograph (or even at all, perhaps – it’s still making headway in the UK) but the Bicompax (Universal Geneve purists, we feel your pain) is worth a second look. The design isn’t revolutionary but nor is it unsightly – in fact, it’s positively restrained by CFB’s standards, and we reckon the big date sits there quite nicely, even though pushing the (over large) logo to six o’clock is an odd move. And of course, it’s the only model here to include an annual calendar complication; that may or may not float your boat but we give it points for being different.
Cartier is another brand you wouldn’t always come to for a chrono, and we know the Santos still splits opinion. But this is a winner in our eyes; modifying the in-house 1904-CH MC movement so that the start/stop pusher is on the left and the re-set is incorporated into the crown was a masterstroke when symmetry is such a big part of the design (and when design, overall, is going to be a big part of your decision to buy). At 43.3mm wide it’s not a small watch but if you’re buying a Santos you’re not really a shrinking violet anyway. It’s never going to be a mainstream proposition, but that makes it all the more appealing for those who love it.
To be entirely truthful, the best of Chopard comes when you can ascend to the ranks of LUC – although the LUC 1963 has been discontinued, more's the pity – but in the Classic Racing line it does make some worthwhile options. Across the board, the design hasn’t been interesting enough in the last few years, and it’s probably fair to say the collection is a bit long in the tooth (come back Guy Bové!) but gems like this still exist. You’ll hear us praising restrained design a lot, but this is a watch that revels in the busyness of its dial, and there’s a place for that too. It runs on a modified ETA 7750.
Okay, yes, we are recommending a brown-dialled chronograph with mint green hands and a bronze crown. If that’s not for you, totally fine. Farer does make some more conventional looking chronographs (called Segrave and Cobb) but there’s something about this that just really works for us. The silhouette is straight out of the 1950s, and the typography has all been carefully considered. Farer doesn’t have the brand cachet of more established Swiss names but the kicker is the price, for which you still get an elaboré-grade ETA 2894-2 movement. Anyone looking at a Longines, Hamilton or similar should know that this is out there.
Habring is the ace of trumps in any chronograph conversation; whatever you’re looking for, Habring makes it for less money and often with more style than any other watchmaker out there. Monopushers, flybacks, split-seconds – you name it. Best of the bunch right now is the Doppel Felix, a split-seconds chronograph now powered by the husband-and-wife duo’s in-house base calibre, the Felix. The trade-off for such incredible horological value is in the off-the-shelf cases and pretty basic finishing (albeit still better than many on this list) but honestly, this is such a phenomenally good buy.
Talk of the devil. This is by leaps and bounds the nicest chronograph Hamilton is making right now, so it walks onto this list. Based on a 1968 reference, it’s a fairly simple proposition: panda-dialled two-register chronograph, with date (yeah…). Bonus points for the old-school Hamilton logo, and the overall simplicity of it. When you ask someone to imagine a chronograph, you get pretty close to this, although in fairness I think it still has to yield to the TAG Heuer Carrera Calibre 18 “Glassbox” on that front. As you’d expect from Hamilton, there’s an ETA under the dial, in the form of Calibre H-31, with a 60 hour power reserve.
Another brand that relies heavily on chronographs; you could do a lot worse than the Pilot’s Spitfire or Portofino versions, but our pick is the ever-present Portugieser. Significantly better in black than the other trim options, it’s a masterpiece of design that stands apart from almost every other chronograph simply for embracing and completely owning the 12-6 subdial layout. Yes, it still relies on a modified ETA 7750 (IWC calibre 79350) rather than the new in-house chrono calibre in the Pilot family, but 44 hour power reserve aside, most days you won’t notice the difference.
A chronograph from Jaeger-LeCoultre is an interesting thing; an in-house movement from one of the most prestigious and storied watchmakers in the business, yet it's not something the brand shouts about. The fact you can get a proper complication from JLC for under £10k is also impressive, and since this model was introduced you can scotch any talk of underwhelming design. The Polaris Worldtime chrono is also a very good buy, and most likely easier to find, too – but that’s the point. This one gets our vote because it won’t be around for ever. Miss it and you’ll be paying over the odds on the secondary market.
Laying claim to the Max Bill legacy was the smartest thing Junghans ever did. While the designer’s estate does exercise a lot of control over what’s permitted in his name, it has signed off on something lovely here. The standard Max Bill Chronoscope is an exercise in efficiency; witness the “H” and “M” on the subdials, the miniature lume plots at 3, 6, 9 and 12 and the pencil-thin lines. The bezel-free design also means it feels wide and airy while only measuring 40mm, and for this special Bauhaus centenary model, as well as a white gold case and some dashes of red ink, the build quality has been improved with sapphire crystal over the regular plexiglass.
Longines’ Heritage range deserves to be treated as a brand in its own right, it’s so different from the rest of the brand’s offering. With traces of the character and history that made the brand what it is, they get it right far more often than they get it wrong. This one – with no date window, the asymmetrical subdials and an otherwise elementary pilot’s watch aesthetic – is a no-brainer. Like the Hamilton, the pushers do feel a bit big for the case, but that’s faithful to the original inspiration. Yes, like several others on this list, the movement is nothing to write home about, but at the price it’s hard to complain.
For a major global brand, the extent to which Louis Vuitton’s watches plough their own furrow is remarkable; only sold in their own stores, they absconded from Baselworld before it was fashionable, and stylistically pay little regard to industry trends. That’s a plus point, in our book: LV watches always look sensational, albeit a little loud. The Tambour chrono is powered by a 7750, so you are very much paying for the name and the looks, but that’s Louis Vuitton for you.
You have to give Montblanc credit for trying. With Davide Cerrato at the helm, the watches are looking more and more beautiful with every passing year (even the Timewalkers), and you feel that he really cares. Above £10,000 they are toe-to-toe with the big guns; in this price bracket it’s a bit more cutthroat, but if you can get over the brand name (we did, years ago – who cares if they make pens, or bags; they’re not exactly bad at those either) where else are you going to get a monopusher with these kind of looks? The worst you can say about it is that it’s reaching for a history that it never had but no-one has a monopoly on watchmaking’s golden age.
Ok. Controversy time. Are we really saying this is the one Speedy you should look at above all others? Well, yes. Omega makes such a wonderful wealth of Speedmasters, from the Dark Side of the Moon to the 1957 Broad Arrow, and naturally the standard Professional Moonwatch is a must-have for any watch fan. But the CK2998 is so pure, so essential. It’s the perfect size, at 39.7mm, and while beauty remains firmly in the eye of the beholder, if you don’t think that’s a good looking watch you need your eyes testing. With apologies to the excellent work Omega has done to raise the standard of its movements, there’s something about the hand-wound calibre 1861 that’s still authentic and desirable.
It annoys us no end that the Chronoris range is composed primarily of time-only watches that get mistaken for chronographs thanks to the name and their supercompressor crowns. This is the real deal; an actual chronograph that’s one of the most unheralded options at this price point. Sure, it’s not what Oris is best known for and in the same vein, the movement is an unremarkable ETA 7750. But the brand does have a fascinating history, plenty of credibility, and it nailed the design with this tonneau-cased, 1970s inspired model. Like many others on the list, it’s a good example of a retro logo looking so much nicer than the brand’s regular one.
Panerai isn’t much heralded for its chronographs, which is remiss as since moving to a shiny new factory a couple of years ago, it had been producing some excellent in-house movements. The P.9100 powering this watch is a flyback chronograph (only one on this list), and unusually, features a central chronograph minutes hand, as well as the seconds. That keeps the design clean, as it does away with the need for multiple subdials. It has 60 hours of power and is 100m water resistant.
The 2017 Rolex Daytona is only a sub-£10,000 watch in the most academic sense, because if you haven’t got one by now, you’ll still be on that waiting list by the time the next one comes out, or you’ll have bitten the bullet and paid twice as much for one that’s been flipped on Chrono24 or Watchfinder. It’s a fine piece of watchmaking, with its ceramic bezel, calibre 4130 and market-leading build quality. Objectively there is too much dial text, and every Daytona since 1988 still suffers in comparison to the Valjoux models, but as one of very few watches that has become more than a mere timepiece it has no equal. For our money, it’s the white dial (or, you know, a watch you can actually buy), but let’s face it, you’ll take whatever you can get your hands on.
From one extreme to the other: this Seiko is probably the most shy and retiring model on this list. It’s not perfect; the logo is a tad large and somewhat mismatched with those 19th-century numerals, and you won’t gaze for hours in wonder at the movement finishing. But it has a lovely enamel dial, is easily one of the most appealing designs for this level of chronograph (some would say it’s inoffensive but we’re not that harsh), and did we mention the price? Another watch that, if you’re looking at a run-of-the-mill Longines or maybe a time-only Nomos, you need to be aware of.
Like Longines, we recommend that you click straight to the “Heritage” section for the best of TAG Heuer. Here you’ll find Monaco, Monza and Carrera models that we’d wholeheartedly agree with. But the one we want to single out is the special (so much so, it commands a £500 premium) edition of the Autavia, which marks Jack Heuer’s 85th birthday. A monochrome silver palette and double-scale bezel, together with a beads-of-rice bracelet, makes it classier than the regular Autavia, while retaining everything that made that a hit. Inside is the in-house TAG Heuer Calibre Heuer 02.
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Another choice that, we suspect, will result in a few raised eyebrows. Tudor’s movement swap deal with Breitling may mean that in the Black Bay Chrono you can get Navitimer-level engineering for a sizeable discount, and after a year or so we’re getting used to its looks. But the Heritage Chrono remains the more coherent design – in fact, it’s one of the best examples of heritage throwback design we can think of. And now that the Black Bay has become such an all-conquering monster, there’s leftfield appeal in choosing an alternate path. The price is eminently fair for something that, if you keep it long enough, should at least hold its value.
By now you will have recognised the emphasis on not buying the same watches as everyone else. Vertex is a brand with genuine military and mid-century history, re-born in a way that we think is a decent example of revivals done right. After the MP100, an update on the “Dirty Dozen” field watch, the difficult second album proved not to be that hard at all with the MP45, a monopusher chronograph whose signature marks are an asymmetric case and legitimate broad arrow insignia (apparently Vertex has obtained the MoD’s permission). Best of all, it's available in automatic or manual.
This might be the most controversial call on the whole list. Zenith is such a purists’ watchmaker, and its entire brand is built on the El Primero. CEO Julian Tornare has reorganised the range (again) but there are still about a zillion very similar chronographs to choose from. Some do it for us – the 38mm Chronomaster Heritage 146; the Tipo CP-2 pilot’s watch – and some don’t (basically all the open-heart stuff). But hand on heart, even given the price, the Zenith chronograph we would recommend in 2019 is the Chronomaster El Primero Blue Solar, produced in collaboration with George Bamford. It’s just cool in a way that the rest of the range can’t match.