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Published Aug 8, 2022 9:33 AM

Chronograph watches are wrist-mounted stopwatches that have kept time for the most extreme activities of the 20th century. For as long as humans have sought to time the speed over a certain distance of an object, they have sought devices to measure this. These are iconic designs and have become some of the most sought-after watches in the world, owing to their association with automotive racing, flight, and space travel, as well as the films that covered these topics. 

These are the best chronograph watches, certified classics, worn or owned by the Task & Purpose team as well as astronauts, racers, and pilots from the golden age of analog timekeeping. Here’s why one of them deserves a place on your wrist.

The Omega Speedmaster is THE chronograph watch. Full stop. There is no other watch that is as immediately recognizable as this luxury chronograph, and that’s for a good reason. This is a mid-century classic that’s remained basically unchanged in terms of design, because frankly if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.

The Omega Speedmaster needs no introduction. If you’ve seen Apollo 13, you know this one, and that’s because it was the real-life watch selected by NASA that saved actual lives aboard that mission. It’s also a staple of sports chronographs, from automobile racing to the Olympics, because Omega watches are known for their precision and reliability. Finally, the Speedmaster hits the sweet spot for wearability at 40 millimeters wide and 45 millimeters long, meaning that regardless of the wearer’s gender, size, or height, this watch will look at home on their wrist.

The problem with buying a mechanical chronograph from a brand like Omega is that the periodic servicing that’s encouraged by the manufacturer can often cost as much as some of the budget watches on this list. The Speedmaster is also a thick watch, coming in at a whopping 15 millimeters thick, which means that it’s not very long-sleeve shirt-friendly. Finally, for as much as this is a watch associated with aviation and space travel, the lume is miserable, so good luck seeing the dial in a dark cockpit, or even when you wake up in the morning.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Product dimensions: 40mm wide x 15mm thick x 45mm long x 19mm lug width
  • Materials: Stainless steel case and bracelet, sapphire crystal
  • Movement: Omega Caliber 3330 Automatic
Why It Made The Cut
  • If you had to buy only one chronograph watch, the Omega Speedmaster would be it. It’s the standard by which all other chronograph watches are measured.
PROS

Immediately iconic

Precise

Wearable for most people

CONS

Expensive to repair

Thick

Unimpressive lume

The Sugess 1963 is an understated military-style watch that just oozes 1960s com-bloc flair, with the Chinese text on the dial, the red star, and the manual wind movement. The 1963 features a Sea-Gull movement that can draw a direct lineage back to the 1940s in Switzerland. We loved this watch so much that it made our list of the best men’s watches, where it also dominated the affordable chronograph bracket as one of the best chronographs under $500.

The Sugess 1963 is a Chinese watch that will get you actual respect from watch nerds, and it’s not just because we’re all relieved to see a Chinese watch that’s not a copy of a Rolex, Seiko, or Omega. Rather than innovating with a new, bleeding-edge futuristic design, this watch directly borrows from the design language of the 1960s in form and function, with a champagne dial, manual-wind mechanical movement, and options for a more classic 38-millimeter diameter and acrylic crystal to nail the retro aesthetic. This is also a watch that features a true column-wheel chronograph movement, in which pressing the start pusher engages a gear that fits smoothly into the rest of the movement, immediately starting the seconds and minute hand, which is visible through the exhibition caseback. The movement is a nearly 80-year-old design, being essentially a modern production of the classic Venus 175, which the Tianjin Watch Factory bought the rights for from Venus.

The issues with the 1963 largely stem from its full-tilt career into the 1960s in terms of form and function. This watch has absolutely no luminescence to speak of, instead relying on gold-tone hour markers to add some visual difference and make the dial more legible. The movement doesn’t “hack” at all, owing to the age of the design, meaning there’s no way to set the watch to the second, which is almost expected these days. Finally, the stock straps that come with the 1963, regardless of whether they’re leather or nylon, are generally unimpressive, meaning that you’ll likely be replacing them in short order, adding to the cost.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: China
  • Product dimensions: 38 or 40mm wide x 12mm thick x 47mm long x 18mm lug width
  • Materials: Stainless steel case, nylon bracelet, sapphire crystal
  • Movement: Sea-Gull ST19 (Venus 175)
Why It Made The Cut
  • The Sugess 1963 is known by many names, but the constant feature is that this is the most affordable way into mechanical chronograph watches.
PROS

Attractive vintage style

True column-wheel chronograph

Real history behind the design

CONS

No lume

Cannot hack

Stock strap is unimpressive

Editor’s Choice

Bulova, formerly of New York, now of Japan, provided the prototype watch that the Lunar Pilot was based on to astronaut Col. David Scott on the Apollo 15 mission, which he ended up wearing when his NASA-issue Omega Speedmaster lost the crystal that covered the dial, and the rest, as they say, is history. In 2015, after the original watch sold at auction for a cool $1.6 million and change, Bulova re-introduced the watch, now with a sapphire crystal and a scaled-down version of the Accutron timekeeping system that was featured in some of the instruments aboard the Apollo missions. The result is a watch that boldly goes where few others go, and one that dominates as arguably the best chronograph under $1,000 in terms of precision and pedigree.

The Bulova Lunar Pilot is a blatantly retro watch, with long pushers, a cushion case, and a commemorative engraving on the back of the watch. The detailing on the watch is beautiful yet utilitarian, with a bead-blasted case, brushed bezel, polished pushers, and a multi-layered dial with raised hour markers that give this watch far more visual interest than one would expect from a black dial tool watch. Finally, the Bulova precisionist movement vibrates at a whopping 262KHz, as it proudly proclaims on the dial. While this reduces the battery life from 10 years to three, relative to most quartz watches, it also gives the chronograph seconds hand a smooth sweep rather than a harsh tick, and allows this watch to track time to the millisecond.

Now, Bulova claims that the Precisionist movement is super-precise, hence the name, and only loses or gains 10 seconds per year. However, when ‘Just the Watch’ on YouTube tested his Bulova Lunar Pilot, he found that it was falling far out of spec and actually was one of the worst-performing watches on his Quartz watch accuracy test. Mine has performed well within spec, so this is likely an issue with quality control, meaning that it’s good to check this characteristic of the watch before you decide whether or not to keep it. Another issue with the Lunar Pilot is that, like the Omega Speedmaster, it has miserable luminescence, barely glowing when transitioning from direct sunlight to the shade. It’s also a big watch, owing to the fact that it’s an aviation watch that’s designed to be instantly legible at a glance, and also designed to be worn over a spacesuit. At 45 millimeters in diameter and 52 millimeters in length, this excludes smaller individuals.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Japan watch, Chinese strap
  • Product dimensions: 45mm wide x 13.5mm thick x 52mm long x 20mm lug width
  • Materials: Stainless steel case, nylon or leather/Kevlar bracelet, sapphire crystal
  • Movement: Bulova Precisionist 262 KHz Quartz Movement
Why It Made The Cut
  • A watch that is just as much a moonwatch as the Omega Speedmaster, but for 10 percent of the price, the Lunar Pilot revels in early 1970s space-age styling.
PROS

Incredible retro styling

Excellent details

Unusual movement

CONS

Debatable precision

Poor lume

Wears large

Best Vintage Chronograph

My grandfather’s favorite watch, more than any Rolex he’s owned, is the Zenith El Primero. It was a special watch when it first came out, and it remains a special watch to this day, to the extent that Zenith reissued it 50 years later, relatively unchanged. This watch rattled the horological field when it hit the scene in 1969, and in every way, this is a truly historical timepiece that remains as much of a statement today as it did when Zenith first released it.

The Zenith El Primero spawned out of an arms race between various Swiss and Japanese watchmakers in the 1960s. While Seiko sold the first automatic chronograph with its 6139 “Pogue,” Zenith announced its automatic chronograph first, leading to the bold and belligerent name “El Primero.” The first. The movement that this watch housed was unlike anything that had been seen before, beating at 36,000 vibrations per second, outpacing even the 28,800 considered “high-beat” then and now, and allowing the watch to track time down to the 10th of a second. To counter the fact that this higher beat rate would expend the mainspring more quickly, they added an automatic rotor, specially engineered to move with the slightest action of the wrist. All of this has been faithfully replicated in the El Primero Revival, down to the decidedly-groovy beveled edges and mid-century sizing, which shows that Zenith has not forgotten where it came from.

If you want to own the most important, absolute best vintage chronograph of all time, it’ll cost you, because the Zenith El Primero Chronomaster comes in well north of $5,000. This is because making a movement that’s this precise is still difficult, and is still largely accomplished by artisans, rather than the roughshod parts associated with more mass-produced movements. Additionally, many people may find the size, diminutive by modern standards, to be an acquired taste, especially with the retro case design. Finally, Zenith has opted to go for the odd 19-millimeter lug width, which limits aftermarket choices.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Product dimensions: 37mm wide x 12.6mm thick x 47mm long x 19mm lug width
  • Materials: Stainless steel case, sapphire crystal, leather strap or stainless steel bracelet
  • Movement: Zenith Calibre El Primero 400
Why It Made The Cut
  • “El Primero” is Spanish for “the first,” and that’s a title that Zenith earned by being the first to market with an automatic chronograph that’s still a technical marvel.
PROS

Arguably the most important watch on this list

Ultra-high beat movement for extra precision

True to the original

CONS

Costly

Small by modern standards

Uneven lug width

Best Racing Chronograph

Steve McQueen is the coolest person to ever live, at least in the minds of many people. He was Bullitt, doing his own stunts at the wheel of a dark green Mustang in the first great car chase ever put to film. He was the rebellious and belligerent American aviator Hilts in The Great Escape, where he once again did his own stunts in the end motorcycle chase scene. However, the film that immortalized this watch was the absolute stinker of a film, Le Mans, in which Heuer, the predecessor to Tag Heuer, placed its Monaco watch on his wrist for the film, forever linking it to automobile racing. Now, more than 50 years later, the Monaco remains a weird, square watch that screams golden-era racing flair.

The Monaco is a weird, square chronograph watch, the same as it was when it graced Steve McQueen’s wrist. This is a bonafide classic of cinema and racing, and is bold and full-throated in its proclamation as a vintage chronograph. But the beauty of this watch isn’t just skin deep, as the included movement is not only as accurate and reliable as you’d expect of a luxury Swiss movement, but also includes an impressive 80-hour power reserve, meaning you can take it off on Friday, and put it back on when Monday comes around, without having to reset the time.

This watch is square. Not rectangular like the JLC Reverso or Cartier Tank. Square. To add to this bizarre look, the crown is on the left side of the watch, opposite the pushers, and the subdials are similarly angular. Additionally, this watch is thick, coming in at 15 millimeters owing to the bulging sapphire crystal that’s designed to enhance the view angle while racing. Finally, like most Swiss watches, especially luxury chronographs, this isn’t cheap, and the cost of a mechanical chronograph is further amplified by this watch’s cinematic connection.

Product Specs
  • Country of manufacture: Switzerland
  • Product dimensions: 39mm wide x 15mm thick x 39mm long x 22mm lug width
  • Materials: Stainless steel case, sapphire crystal, leather strap or stainless steel bracelet
  • Movement: Tag Heuer Calibre Heuer 02
Why It Made The Cut
  • This is an eccentric racing chronograph for the eccentric wearer, immortalized by one of the coolest people to ever live, Steve McQueen.
PROS

Cinema classic

Extremely retro design

Fantastic movement

CONS

Design is an acquired taste

Costly

Thick

Things to consider before buying a chronograph watch

How to use a chronograph watch

Subregisters

The smaller dials on the main dial of a chronograph watch are known as “subregisters,” and track increments of time when the start pusher is pressed. These can track hours, minutes, seconds, or milliseconds. Extremely expensive chronographs can also track things like split times, to measure the difference between the speeds of multiple laps or objects in motion.

How to read a chronograph watch

Tachymeter bezel

A tachymeter, not to be confused with a tachometer, is a measurement tool to determine the speed of an object over a known distance. Measuring units per minute, a tachymeter was popular in racing because it allowed coaches to determine the speed of their driver’s car by measuring how long it took the vehicle to travel a known distance. To read this bezel, simply observe an object in motion, start the chronograph when it passes the start point of the known distance, and stop it when it reaches the end. The number that the seconds hand stops at is how many units the object traveled per minute.

Pulsometer

A pulsometer bezel measures pulses per minute, designed primarily for medical personnel to easily determine a patient’s pulse. These days, there are electronic devices that measure this, but in bygone years, doctors and nurses would use a stopwatch with a pulsometer bezel to help them convert units. To use this bezel, start the second hand, and stop when you hear 10 pulses. The position of the hand along the bezel tells you how many pulses per minute the patient’s heart is currently beating.

Telemeter

Telemeters are a very rare bezel type for chronograph watches, and their heritage is largely linked to warfare, given that they were used to calculate the distance to enemy fire or artillery strikes using the “flash-to-bang” method, where you calculate the number of seconds from when you see an explosion to when you hear the explosion, multiplied by 330 to determine the approximate distance to the target. A telemeter assists with this task, where you simply start the chronograph second hand when you see the explosion, and stop it when you hear the explosion.

FAQs about chronograph watches

Q: What is a chronograph watch?

A: A chronograph watch is essentially a wrist-mounted stopwatch that measures, at the very least, seconds. It will usually feature a start and stop pusher, as well as a reset pusher. More sophisticated chronographs will feature the ability to track split times, and some may feature specialized bezels to measure units over time.

Q: What is the difference between a chronograph and a chronometer?

A: The question of chronograph vs. chronometer is the difference between the stopwatch complication that is a chronograph, and a watch being rated minus four to plus six seconds per day.

Q: Why do chronograph watches cost so much?

A: Chronographs are more complicated and require more effort to make them reliable and accurate. Due to this, they always cost more than equivalent quality watches that are less complex.

Q: How long do chronograph watches last?

A: Chronograph watches will burn through their spring power reserve or battery at a faster rate than their conventional watch counterparts, and experience more parts wear over time. Don’t leave the chronograph running, and get your watch serviced every three to seven years.

Final thoughts

Chronograph watches are some of the coolest watches in the wide world of horology, and they occupy a decidedly sporty and militaristic niche. All of the watches on this list are retro-styled, and that’s for a reason. Chronograph watches occupied a brief moment in time where analog mechanical watches had advanced to the level that made them possible, but before digital watches had shaken up the market. The mid-20th century was the heyday of the chronograph, and every option on this list hearkens back to this era, honoring the people who raced, flew, and fought against the clock to progress humanity into the future.

Methodology 

These watches were selected out of the thousands of chronograph watches on the market based on three major factors: accuracy, style, and historical significance. All of these watches were personally evaluated by myself and the Task & Purpose team, and I wore my Bulova Lunar Pilot as motivation throughout the writing process because it’s legitimately one of my favorite watches.