What is a Chronograph Watch – Watch Complications Explained

What is a Chronograph Watch – Watch Complications Explained

In a world filled with smart technology, the elegance and functionality of a chronograph watch often go unnoticed. These intricate timepieces are not just wrist adornments; they’re a fusion of craftsmanship and practicality.

Think of it as your wrist’s versatile multitool, offering much more than just the hour of the day. From speed to time to distance, a chronograph watch captures them all with precision and style.

But what exactly is a chronograph watch? How does it work, and how can you make the most of its features? If you’re curious about these timeless wonders, we’re here to tell you more!

What is a Chronograph?

With so many complications gracing the watch world, one type of watch stands out as a true multitasker – the chronograph watch. This watch isn’t just about telling time, it’s a fusion of two primary components: the chronograph and the tachymeter.

The chronograph is read from the subdials on the watch acting like a stopwatch and timer, while the tachymeter is read from the bezel to measure speed.

While it’s possible to find watches without a tachymeter, it’s rare to come across a tachymeter watch without a chronograph. These components initially existed as separate items before being integrated into watches.

Unlike a regular watch, which simply tells the time, a chronograph watch offers additional functionalities. It can stop, start, reset, and go again.

What are the Key Functions of a Chronograph Watch?

Modern chronograph watches might look a bit different from the ones made in the past, but the basic idea is still the same. Think of a “chronograph” as just another word for a stopwatch, though modern chronographs have a lot more built-in features.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph with stainless steel case and blue dial

Dials and pushers

So, what are the three dials on a chronograph watch?

The main dial of a chronograph watch serves the same purpose as the dial of a regular watch – it displays the current time. But, the sub-dials and pushers are where the real magic happens.

Most chronograph watches are equipped with two or three sub-dials. These dials measure elapsed time in seconds, minutes, and sometimes hours to provide accurate timing information.

The top and bottom pushers, usually found above and below the watch crown, activate the chronograph’s timing functions, such as starting, stopping, and recording split times.


The stopwatch function tracks elapsed time in seconds and minutes. You can use it to measure how much time has passed, making it handy for timing sports events, races, or anything that needs precise timing.


This neat scale, typically found on the watch’s bezel, lets you measure speed based on how long it takes to travel a known distance.

To explain the tachymeter, we need a simple math formula: Distance/time = average speed. You input the time elapsed and get a speed reading, like “X units per hour.”

Tachymeters shine when measuring fast objects or short distances. The scales usually start between 400 and 1,000 units, based on where they’re positioned on the watch.


The telemeter function measures distance based on the time it takes for sound to travel. You can use this function to measure the distance from an event you see or hear, like lightning or fireworks.

The History of the Chronograph Watch

The word “Chronograph” comes from the Greek words for time (“Chronos”) and writing (“graph”). Translated directly, it basically means “Time Writer,” which makes sense since this watch complication is all about recording time.

The first chronograph watch was created by French horologist, Louis Moinet, in 1816. Designed for use in astrology, this watch offered remarkable timing precision, down to 1/60th of a second.

However, Moinet’s initial chronograph never went to the market. The first commercially available chronograph emerged a few years later, in 1821.

Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec, a watchmaker working for King Louis XVIII, took the concept further. To fulfil the king’s request to measure the length of horse races, Rieussec’s design featured two distinct watch faces. It used energy from one dial to push a needle on the other; this needle dropped ink on the dial to mark the elapsed time. Although innovative, this approach had its limitations.

By the mid-1800s, other inventors improved chronographs to be more practical. Among these inventors was the legendary Patek Philippe. The introduction of their first chronograph watch in 1856 laid the foundation for the famous line of timepieces we know today, including the Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar 5271P-001.

Around 1910, pocket watches transformed into wrist chronographs. This shift was particularly popular among military, aviation, and auto-racing professionals.

In 1933, brands like Breitling introduced separate stopwatch functions alongside the watch for controlling the chronograph hand.

This era saw new features like the tachymeter and automatic chronograph. Various watchmakers jumped on this bandwagon, introducing their own unique interpretations of this smart timekeeping tool.

In 1958, the first rotating bezel tachymeter by Heuer (now TAG Heuer) was introduced.

Rolex was also a key player. They began mechanical chronograph experiments in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until 1963 that they introduced their pioneering chronograph, reference 6239, nicknamed the “Daytona“. The Daytona would go on to become one of the most iconic watch lines created by Rolex, including the iconic Rolex Daytona Blue Dial.

How Do Chronograph Watches Work?

A watch becomes a chronograph when it has a separate second hand that can move on its own, apart from telling time. If this hand can start, stop, and reset, then it’s a chronograph.

Chronograph watches work similarly to other quartz watches but with one key difference: they have extra systems and mechanisms to control different functions or complications.

As we said earlier, the chronograph has three components: the main dial, the sub-dials, and the pushers or buttons. The main dial performs the usual timekeeping, just like a regular watch.

The sub-dials are for tracking elapsed time, found at the 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 9 o’clock positions on the watch face. These show the minutes, hours, and sometimes seconds.

For the pushers, these buttons are found on either side of the watch case to start, stop, and reset the chronograph function.

How To Use a Chronograph Watch

While you might not need to measure artillery distances, knowing how to use the chronograph feature can enhance your experience with these timepieces.

1. Starting the chronograph

Most chronographs come with two buttons, located on the right side of the case near the crown. These buttons control your timer.

To begin timing, use the top pusher, typically found around the 2 o’clock position. When you press this button, the second hand will start moving, tracking elapsed time.

2. Stopping the chronograph

To pause the timer, use the same upper pusher. A simple press will halt the timer. When you’re ready to resume, just press the pusher again.

3. Reading the elapsed time

The timer shows a different time than the regular watch time. Some watches have smaller dials that can show up to 30 minutes or even 12 hours. If there are three smaller dials, one shows seconds, one shows up to 30 minutes, and another shows hours. The main second hand on the big dial shows timer seconds.

4. Resetting the chronograph

If your chronograph isn’t a flyback type, you’ll need to reset it manually. Use the watch’s crown to move the chronograph hand back to 12. But if it’s a flyback chronograph, just press the bottom button and the hand will go back to 12 quickly.

The Movement in Chronograph Watches – Automatic vs Mechanical

Case front back of the Audemars Piguet Perpetual Calendar 26574OR.OO.1220OR.01 revealing the watches mechanical artistry of this chronograph watch

Chronograph watches can come with different types of movements: automatic and mechanical.

Automatic movement means the watch winds itself as the wearer moves their wrist. They offer convenience as they don’t require manual winding or battery replacements. Some of these watches show off the inner mechanics through exhibition case backs that reveal the mechanical artistry within.

With other chronographs, the mechanical movement needs manual winding. People who like this movement enjoy winding the watch themselves and feeling connected to watchmaking traditions.

Mechanical movements show visible gears and springs, which look artistic and appeal to watch lovers. Craftsmanship is key with mechanical movements, making them both functional timepieces and beautiful pieces of art.

Each type of movement has its own benefits and appeals to different people. Automatic movements focus on convenience and modern features, while mechanical movements highlight tradition and craftsmanship.

What is a Flyback Chronograph?

Skeleton Rose Gold RM 72-01 - the first Richard Mille watch with a flyback chronograph

There are popular sporty chronograph watches that people love, and then there are special kinds of chronographs that stand out. Among the unique types of chronographs is the flyback.

What makes the flyback special is its ability to restart the stopwatch instantly without the usual stop and reset process.

With the Flyback function, you don’t have to go through the usual steps of starting, stopping, and resetting like with most chronographs. Instead, you can reset it using the bottom button without stopping the hand. This lets you quickly start timing a new event.

Chronograph and Chronometer – What is the Difference?

Let’s talk about the difference between a “chronograph” and a “chronometer.” These terms might sound similar, but they mean completely different things. Imagine them as two separate ideas with specific meanings.

A chronograph is a complication built into a watch, such as a stopwatch function, while a chronometer is like a quality stamp for a watch. It means the watch has passed tests to show it’s accurate and reliable. But it doesn’t have anything to do with what the watch can do.

Luxury Brands and Their Chronograph Masterpieces

When it comes to luxury watches, some brands truly shine with their remarkable chronograph creations. These timepieces blend elegance, precision, and innovation.

Rolex: Timeless Legacy and Classic Chronographs

Rolex’s Chronograph series carries a legacy of excellence and innovation. The Rolex Oyster Chronographs, known as Daytona watches, embody a racing spirit and boast a rich history.

Take, for instance, the Rolex Panda 116500LN, featuring a captivating black and white dial. Another gem is the Rolex Platinum Daytona (116506) with an ice blue colour dial.

Patek Philippe: Elegant Complications

Patek Philippe’s chronograph legacy dates back to 1856 when the brand introduced its first chronograph model. This marked the beginning of a journey into crafting elegant complications that have since become synonymous with Patek Philippe’s name.

The Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Baguette 5271P-001 is a masterpiece, featuring diamond hour markers for a touch of opulence. On the other hand, the Patek Philippe Nautilus 5980R with a flyback chronograph function offers sophistication.

Audemars Piguet: Combining Tradition and Innovation

Since its establishment, Audemars Piguet has embraced the potential of the chronograph, creating exceptional timepieces with innovative features. The brand’s history intertwines with its fascination for the chronograph, evident in its early production of pocket watches.

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chrono Frosted 26239OR.GG.1224OR01 stands as a contemporary masterpiece. The frosted finish blends perfectly with a beautiful black dial and contrasting white gold sub-dials.

Are Chronograph Watches a Good Investment?

Chronograph watches, loved for their style and functionality, can be a smart investment. Unlike regular watches, chronographs are not just timekeepers, but also practical tools.

Investing in a chronograph watch holds several benefits, especially when considering pre-owned luxury options. Firstly, chronographs can prove handy for tracking activities, workouts, or events with precision.

The aesthetic appeal is also a major selling point. Chronograph watches also come in various designs, from sporty to elegant, catering to different tastes.

In terms of investment, pre-owned luxury chronograph watches can be especially appealing. They often retain their value and even have the potential to increase in worth over time.

Explore Pre-owned Luxury Watches at Global Boutique

Chronograph watches offer more than just a stylish accessory, they’re a seamless blend of craftsmanship and practicality. With the ability to measure speed, time, and distance, chronograph watches are like versatile multitools for your wrist.

Eager to explore the world of chronograph watches? We have a selection of unworn and pre-owned luxury watches to choose from and our Watch Sourcing Service can procure most watches that you don’t see in our store at the moment within a day or two. Discover your perfect chronograph watch and add a touch of elegance to your wrist from brands like Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, and many more.

Mayfair’s finest collectable jewellery and watch retailer - Book an appointment

Free Worldwide Shipping