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What Does A Chronograph Watch Do?

what does a chronograph watch do?

A chronograph watch is used as both a display watch and stopwatch. The chronograph mechanism is used to measure elapsed time, compute speed based on travel time and/or measure distance based on speed. Chronograph watches can be self-winding, manual, or quartz battery powered. 

So, How Do You Use A Chronograph Watch?

Now they may look a bit daunting to start with, but they’re actually really easy to use.  


A chronograph has three main functions: start (when it is activated), stop (when you take a reading) and return to zero (to reset). These functions are operated by pushers on the side of the watch, which allow you to start (pusher at 2 o’clock), stop (pusher at 2 o’clock) and reset (pusher at 4 o’clock) without actually interfering with the display watch itself.

what does a chronograph do


Generally, a chronograph watch will have three dials to register the time elapsed - a second dial, a minute dial and an hour dial.

chronograph watch


The Tachymeter

The majority of chronograph watches will have a tachymeter on the bezel. If you know the time and the distance of an event, you can use the tachymeter to calculate your speed. In addition, if you know the time and speed of an event, you can also use it to calculate your distance.

Learn more about how to use a tachymeter here. 


Who Made The First Chronograph Watch?

Chronograph watches have been part of watchmaking for a long time.

Louis Moinet, a French watchmaker, is recognised as being the first to invent the principle of the Chronograph under the name "Compteur de Tierces" in 1816. This instrument, which translates to "counter of thirds", was invented to use in astrology, as it could measure time more precisely than most watches of the time—down to 1/60th of a second. However, his first chronograph watch never went to market.

In September 1821, Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, a watchmaker for King Louis XVIII, iterated on the concept by using two different watch faces. The king wanted to be able to time the laps of horse races, so Rieussec’s watch used the power reserve from one face’s movement in order to move a needle around the other. That needle dropped a tiny spot of ink on the dial marking the elapsed time.

This was a little impractical though, so by the mid 1800’s other inventors, such as Adolphe Niocole, created chronographs that incorporated a reset function, removing the waste of ink. 

Around the year of 1910, companies began to experiment with turning pocket watches into wrist chronographs and they quickly gained popularity with race drivers, pilots, the military, divers and eventually, it went to the moon. 


Zenith El Primero

There are heated debates over who made the first automatic chronograph, but one thing is for certain, Zenith produced the very first Swiss-made, fully integrated automatic chronograph - the El Primero.

The El Primero really was a watchmaking marvel of its time. For one, the watch featured a column wheel chronograph with a tri-compax layout which, to produce, is more complex and labour-intensive than the cam-actuated chronograph. The fact Zenith chose to utilise a column wheel chronograph just shows the level of end-to-end watchmaking that went into the El Primero development.

No matter what El Primero-powered Zenith you’re talking about, it’s not only a solid watch, it’s a representative of arguably the best automatic chronograph calibre ever created.

Our Top Chronograph Watches 

If you’re looking to add one of these incredible watches to your collection but not quite sure where to start - we’re here to help! Here are our three top picks:

Zenith Automatic Chronograph Skeleton Dial

what is a chronograph watch

This beautiful specimen of Zenith's Defy 21 line is a remarkable timekeeper, portraying a balanced mix of modernity and heritage. It features an automatic mechanism equipped with two organs; one tuned to 5Hz for accurate conventional timekeeping, and another at 50Hz, allowing for a true 1/100th of a second chronograph readout.

The timepiece is fitted on a stunning black alligator leather strap with rubber lining and housed in a titanium chassis with skeletal dial and exhibition case back, allowing you to marvel at its intricacies from almost any angle you choose, as it runs.

OMEGA Speedmaster Moonwatch

what is a chronograph watch

The Omega Speedmaster is one of the most iconic chronograph watches and was in fact the first omega to reach space in 1962. Since then, it has been a part of all six lunar missions and is still used by NASA astronauts to this day in Omega Speedmaster X-33 form.

This OMEGA Speedmaster Moonwatch features a black dial covered by a hesalite crystal and graced by a small seconds sub-dial, 30-minute recorder and 12-hour recorder along with a central chronograph hand. The black bezel, with its tachymetric scale, is mounted on a 42mm stainless steel case and presented on a matching bracelet.

Rolex Daytona 

Named after the Daytona International Speedway in Florida, the Rolex Daytona is a racing chronograph designed to meet the demands of professional racing drivers and has since become one of the most popular and sought after watches in history.

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Written by Kate Jones, for Watch Obsession.