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here is no other type of watch that requires as much interaction from its owner as the chronograph. There is, furthermore, a certain pleasure that comes from interacting with a finely-made mechanical chronograph movement: you feel the button release under the right amount of finger pressure, hear the satisfying click, and the sweep hand begins its march. There is a tension that builds as the hand approaches 60 seconds again and again and the minute counter ticks over to another hash. Push the button again and time comes to a stop. Press the reset button and all hands snap back impossibly fast, ready to go again.

The first patented chronograph was a simple clockwork mechanism in a box connected to two ink styluses that wrote on rotating discs of paper to compare the times of two race horses on a track. The word “chronograph” literally means “time writer”, and it wasn’t long before its usefulness was understood and watchmakers scrambled to make their own, more portable and more accurate. At first, chronographs were in pocketwatch cases and did nothing more than act as stopwatches; they didn’t tell the time of day at all. You see, it’s easier to develop a stopwatch than to integrate this function with a movement that also keeps the time of day.

At first chronographs had only one button, which was coaxial to the winding crown itself. Pushing the button in succession started, stopped and reset the chronograph. But in 1915, Gaston Breitling invented the separate pusher chronograph, and then a few years later the two-button chronograph; the industry hasn’t looked back since, except as a retro design exercise.

The two most popular types of chronograph movement: The coulisse-lever (top) and column wheel (bottom).

While early chronograph movements were made up of simple mechanical levers, the two most prevalent types of movements that still persist today are the column wheel and the coulisse lever. In a column wheel movement, a mechanism that looks like a small castle turret rotates one increment with each click of the chronograph pusher. A mechanical finger falls between the teeth of the column wheel to activate the functions. The column wheel movement requires precision in design and build, and the resulting action is perceptible to the user in the smooth and quick response, usually visible from observation. Column wheel chronographs are generally more expensive and not as common but are typically more desirable to watch collectors because of the level of quality and attention to detail in their manufacture.

A coulisse lever movement has its advantages, too: it’s easier to manufacture and very robust, without the finicky tolerances required in a column wheel. In this type of movement, each push of a chronograph button moves a heart-shaped cam (the coulisse) back and forth to start, stop or reset the chronograph. The action of a coulisse lever movement is firmer, requiring more effort to engage and not quite as tactilely pleasurable to operate. However, the vast majority of mechanical chronographs sold today use one type of coulisse lever movement that was first introduced in 1974 and still very much alive today.

In the late 1960s, several watch companies were racing to develop the world’s first self-winding, or “automatic”, chronograph. Up to that point, despite a ubiquity of automatic watches, chronographs still had to be hand wound due to the complexity and space restrictions in creating an automatic chronograph. Three groups crossed the finish line neck and neck in 1969. A consortium of Hamilton, Buren, Breitling and Heuer worked together to develop the Caliber 11, an automatic chronograph movement that used a small oscillating weight called a micro-rotor. Meanwhile, Zenith presented their own auto chrono, the “El Primero” (“the first”) which used a full-sized winding rotor. But in Japan, Seiko may have beaten them both with its own automatic, the 6139. Who made it first is a matter of semantics; most of the mechanical chronographs sold since that time have wound themselves, making handcrankers rarer and more appealing.

In all its guises — automatic or hand wound, column wheel or coulisse lever — chronographs have long been the tools of pilots, astronauts, race car drivers, soldiers and doctors. They’re also worn by those who appreciate the tactile pleasure of taking part in the dance of gears and levers every time the button is pressed. In short, there is a chronograph for just about any taste or budget.

Five Great Chronographs

Your Very Own “Time Writer”

Hamilton Khaki Pilot Pioneer Chronograph

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Originally a Pennsylvanian maker of pocket watches for America’s railroads, by the 1960s Hamilton had a Swiss factory and was building chronographs for Britain’s Royal Air Force. The Khaki Pioneer is an homage to those watches, with the same asymmetrical case and two-register dial. The chronograph is driven by Hamilton’s H-31 caliber, tracking time up to 30 minutes and boasting a 60-hour power reserve.

TAG Heuer Formula 1 Chronograph

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You can’t have a list of chronographs without a TAG Heuer. Since its founding in 1860, the brand has been a leader in automotive and aviation chronographs, and the Autavia of the 1960s and ’70s was one of its icons. The latest generation of Formula 1 recalls the tonneau-shaped case and bold bezel of those Autavias but updates it with better water resistance and a sapphire crystal.

Longines Column Wheel Chronograph

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Chronographs with column wheel movements are a sign of high watchmaking prowess and often come with a price tag to match. But you’d be hard pressed to find a more affordable one than the proudly named Column Wheel Chronograph from Longines. Not only is the watch classically styled but its namesake movement yields crisp, precise actuation that is a pleasure to operate.

Bremont Boeing Model 247

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Bremont cut its teeth building tough aviation-inspired chronographs, but the British brand’s recent partnership with aircraft giant Boeing has taken its watches to a new level. Boasting a case made from the same steel Boeing uses on the 787’s landing gear, the Model 247 will stand up to just about anything, all the while keeping time with chronometer-certified accuracy.

Vacheron Constantin Harmony Monopusher

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In the rarified air of high watchmaking sit the few brands that design and build their own chronographs in-house. Just this year, Vacheron introduced a new hand-wound chrono calibre in a watch that was inspired by one it built in 1928. With its two-register dial and crown-mounted mono-pusher, you’d swear the Harmony doesn’t just stop time, but actually travels back in it.

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