A dial with additional circular counters, two push-pieces above and below the crown: many people might not know the technical term “chronograph“, but they recognize immediately at what kind of watch they are looking: a watch that does not only show the time but also makes it possible to exactly measure time intervals from fractions of a second to the length of several hours, which comes in handy when you are doing sports, preparing a meal or rehearsing an important speech. This stop function is probably the most popular complication after the date display, but not the simplest. It is quite the opposite because the starting and stopping of the counter hands has to be always executed with the same exactness and with immediate effect. Pressing the push-piece, the wearer of such a watch can literally feel this precision.
A mechanical chronograph movement contains up to 300 individual parts; it can take weeks to precisely mount it at the manufacturer’s workshop. A chronograph function and a self-winding movement were first combined only around 50 years ago. And until nowadays, there are some renowned manufacturers who don’t carry their own chronograph movement in the assortment. It is not because this would be too mundane, but because it is so difficult to design such a complicated yet sturdy mechanism and to manufacture it in series.
Race Driver or Aviator: It’s a Question of Scale
The word “chronograph” literally means “time writer” and the predecessors of today’s watches actually marked short time intervals with ink on rotating discs. The first pocket watches with chronograph function were developed for horse racing aficionados. And it is the world of sports to which these watches are still attached nowadays: they don’t only serve to measure total and lap times, but with their circumferential tachymeter scale on the dial or the bezel they can be used to measure the speed of a vehicle or aircraft. High or low values indicate whether the watch’s wearer is passionate about automobiles or aviation. However, one rule still applies: the task of timekeeping should best be left to the spectator, co-driver or copilot.
“It’s Something You Can Really Sense”
The technical sophistication increases with a chronograph’s special functions: The chronograph hand of flyback models can be returned to zero and restarted to measure lap times with the press of a button. Split-seconds chronographs (rattrapante) are equipped with several chronograph hands that are started simultaneously and can be stopped separately to measure for example the time difference between two runners or drivers.
It is all the more challenging to build such mechanisms if they are meant to fit into comparably small cases. This is required nowadays not only because the trend of extra-large watches is over, but also because an increasing number of women have appreciated mechanical chronographs for the last ten years, as observed by Wempe workshop director Taco Walstra. Chronographs are above all, of course, a practical device. In addition, they look sporty and always give the impression of self-confidence. And: “When you press the pusher, the levers activate and the time is set to zero…it’s something you can really sense, it’s a feeling. It’s a very sensual experience,” says Walstra.