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What Is a Chronograph Watch?

Paul Altieri

Of all the various species of complication to be found on luxury watches, the chronograph is definitely one of the most useful. Beyond their practicality, mechanical chronograph watches are also among the most desirable. A modern Rolex Daytona sells for roughly three times its brand-new retail price on the secondary market – simply due to the insane level of desirability of the piece. Additionally, certain rare vintage chronograph watches like the Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona can be worth well over six-figures. So, what is a chronograph watch?

Vintage Rolex Daytona Paul Newman Dial

What Is a Chronograph Watch?

A chronograph watch is a timepiece that acts as a stopwatch and displays the regular 12-hour time. The ability to precisely time events is something we can all take advantage of, whether we’re competing in any number of sports, heading out for a run, or even trying to make dinner without setting off the smoke alarm.

It is a feature that has been around for over a hundred years, first in pocket watches and later, with much of the early development pioneered by Breitling, on wristwatches. Today, practically every brand has at least one chronograph in its arsenal, and the function has evolved over the years into several different types.

Below, we will take a look at some of the most popular variations, and explain what makes each distinctive. But first, a couple of terms you will often come across as you delve into the world of mechanical stopwatches.

Bi-Compax vs Tri-Compax Chronograph Watches 

Sub-Dials and Bi-Compax vs. Tri-Compax Models

As the name suggests, a sub-dial is a smaller dial contained within the area of the watch’s main dial. On a chronograph, these additional displays are called on to measure different elapsed time readouts.

In general terms, a chronograph will come in either a bi-compax form, otherwise known as a twin-register, or else a tri-compax, or triple register. The names relate to the number of sub-dials each watch uses.

Bi-compax models use two subsidiary dials, one that is constantly running as the standard seconds counter, while the other is usually a minute totalizer which only comes into operation when the chronograph is in use.

With a tri-compax, using three sub-dials, again one is the main seconds hand, the second is a chronograph minute counter and the third measures elapsed hours.

As a general rule, bi-compax chronographs record for up to one hour, while tri-compax models can time up to 12 hours. With that in mind, there can often be variations and exceptions to this rule depending on the movement and the design of the watch. Now, let’s look at the different types of chronograph available.

The Standard Chronograph

Standard Chronograph Rolex Daytona

About Standard Chronograph Watches

By far the most plentiful, this form of chronograph has two push buttons, generally straddling the crown at the two and four o’clock positions. Pressing the top button sets the counters going, and pushing it a second time stops them.

From there, you can either press the top button a third time to set the timer off again from the same position or else reset the chrono hand back to zero by pressing the lower button.

Legendary names such as the highly desirable Rolex Daytona and the Omega Speedmaster are both this type, and most of the chronograph watches available on the market follow this standard format.

The Monopusher Chronograph

Monopusher Chronograph Panerai Luminor

About Monopusher Chronograph Watches

No prizes for guessing the difference here. Where the most common style of chronograph has two buttons, the Monopusher only has one.

It gives the advantage of a cleaner looking case, with some brands even incorporating the button into the crown itself, but with the downside of a somewhat diminished performance. As all the functions are controlled by the single pusher, it is not possible to continue the timing again once it has been stopped. The hand will always go back to zero with the third press.

Panerai’s extraordinary, and extraordinarily named, Luminor 1950 Ceramic 8 Days Chrono Monopulsante GMT is a modern take on the complication.

The Flyback Chronograph

Flyback Chronograph Breguet Type XXI

About Flyback Chronograph Watches

Looking very similar to the common type, with two push buttons, the Flyback has an additional feature that comes in extremely useful if recording an event with multiple laps.

It works in the normal way, with the top button starting and stopping the timer and the bottom one resetting it. But the lower button can also be pressed when the chronograph is in action, which causes the main hand to reset to zero and immediately start again, all with just a single push.

It means the operator doesn’t have to press the top button to stop the hand, then the bottom one to reset it, and then the top one a second time to restart it again, all the while losing vital split seconds of whatever race they are trying to record.

The Rattrapante / Split-Seconds Chronograph

Split-Seconds Chronograph Breitling Duograph

About Split-Seconds Chronograph Watches

The Rattrapante, or split-seconds chronograph is the most complicated and usually most expensive type. Additionally, beyond the standard Rattrapante chronograph, there are also triple-split models, although these can cost six-figures.

Along with the buttons at two and four o’clock, the Rattrapante has an additional pusher, most commonly found on the opposite side of the case at the 10 o’clock. It is this third button which controls the split-second function. Split-seconds chronograph watches also have a second chronograph hand, tucked away beneath the main one, which is not visible until it comes into use.

After starting timing in the normal way, with the first pusher, pressing the split-seconds button stops the upper of the two hands, while the bottom one continues on. Therefore, if you are timing two competitors, you can stop one hand as the winner crosses the line, and the second as their opponent finishes and instantly be able to see the difference.

Alternatively known as a doppel-chronograph or a double-split, the Rattrapante (from the French for ‘catch up’) is generally only found at the very top end of horology. On the most affordable side of things, you can sometimes find one on the pre-owned market for slightly above the 10k mark, but most will cost tens of thousands of dollars, and certain split-seconds chronograph watches can sell for small fortunes.

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Paul Altieri