Written By: Vahid Moradi
If you’ve ever seen or worn a watch with more than one push-piece on the side of the case, you’ve had the joy of handling a chronograph. You can see that some feel decidedly futuristic, while others evoke a rich Old World charm akin to heirloom vintage watches.
Whatever the impression they give, these watches are beloved for more than just their professional, technical appearance; chronographs also serve a purpose.
In this illuminating guide, we’ll be exploring this purpose and its history before naming seven of the best chronographs available today. Whether you’re looking for a luxury gift for a watch lover or are interested in learning about the best watches under $5,000, this guide is for you.
Understanding the Chronograph Watch
From the very first, the name chronograph gives us insight into the esteem of these remarkable timepieces. The word stems from the language of philosophers and poets; “chrono” comes from the Greek word for time, while “graph” means “to write.”
A chronograph, then, records time. It uses a built-in stopwatch feature that functions separately from its standard timekeeping capacity. This feature is instantly recognizable—you’ll be able to identify a chronograph thanks to its distinctive “multi-button” appearance.
Almost all chronographs have additional push-pieces above and below the crown on the right side of the watch case. One push-piece typically acts as the timer’s start-stop function, while the other resets the stopwatch component. Chronographs also feature one or more small sub-dials to count minutes, hours, and even days.
These details make a chronograph more of a precision instrument than a wristwatch—and it is this blend of functionality and design that has earned the chronograph its place in history.
The Chronograph: A Storied History
The story of the chronograph is one of excitement and adventure, of high-speed racing, underwater exploration, and the cosmos.
We now know that the world’s first chronograph was invented in the early nineteenth century by watchmaker Louis Moinet.1 The French inventor designed this groundbreaking mechanical watch to make astronomical observations. He couldn’t have known it then, but more than 150 years later, Moinet’s chronograph technology would join astronaut Neil Armstrong among the very stars he had measured.2
In the century and a half between these events, chronograph watches drew admiration from various high-profile professionals, including:
- Submarine operators
- Military personnel
Today, the chronograph timepiece still occupies a unique space within the worlds of racing and navigation. These racing watches, designed specifically to meet the demands of high-speed sports, showcase the bond between motorsports and horology. Though smartphones and computers can replace most of the chronograph’s innovative functions, there’s a certain convenience and sophistication that comes with a precision wristwatch.
Essential Chronograph Terms to Remember
All chronographs have a start-stop timer function, but that’s not the only detail to consider. As you search for a treasured chronograph to add to your collection, there are a few terms to keep in mind.
First, there are important distinctions to make among the types of chronograph watches:
- The rattrapante – From a French word meaning “to catch up,” the rattrapante is a variety of chronograph that boasts two or more second hands. Under normal conditions, these hands travel together, but they can be stopped separately at the touch of a button to record several time intervals at once. When the wearer presses the push-piece again, the stopped second hand “catches up” to the first.
- The flyback – To reset a standard chronograph’s stopwatch, three button presses are required: one to stop the hand, one to return it to zero, and another to start it again. With a flyback function, the wearer can press a single button to restart the time from zero—the second hand “flies back” to the twelve o’clock position.
Understanding a chronograph’s additional features is equally important, as different watches vary in their intended uses. Below are some of the terms you’ll encounter when shopping for chronographs:
Other chronographs feature complications like an asthmometer (to count the number of breaths per minute) and a tide gauge. Along with serving a specific purpose, different complications offer a different aesthetic.
7 of the Best Chronograph Watches
Whether you’re searching for a sporty watch with an engraved tachymeter or want an entry-level luxury watch with a simple stopwatch function, your options are plentiful. While there are hundreds of chronographs to choose from, these are seven of the best on the market today.
1. The Pasha de Cartier Watch (WGPA0017)
This Pasha de Cartier chronograph is as bold as it is graceful. Wrapped snugly in its 41 mm 18K yellow gold case are three sub-dials (for seconds, minutes, and hours) set into a silver flinqué face.
Although the three push-pieces give this Cartier watch a rugged appearance, it still carries many of the Maison’s elegant charms: the signature blued-steel hands and the sapphire embellishments on the push-pieces. The interchangeable dark gray and navy blue alligator straps stand out beautifully against the gold, drawing well-deserved attention from passers-by.
2. The IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 mm (IW388103)
With a day and date display on its green luminescent dial, the IWC Pilot’s Watch Chronograph 41 stands out among other chronographs. Even so, the conventional complications are still present, with hour markers, minute markers, and second sub-dials dotting the watch face.
On the backside of the stainless steel case, a transparent sapphire crystal cover provides a stunning view of the chronograph timepiece’s 69385 caliber movement. This versatile automatic watch is perfect as a first foray into chronographs or an addition to a growing collection. For enthusiasts of aviation timekeeping, our range doesn't stop here; dive deeper and you'll find a curated selection of pilot's watches that echo the heritage and precision demanded by aviators throughout history.
3. The Jaeger LeCoultre Polaris Chronograph WT (Q905T480)
Jaeger LeCoultre has outdone themselves here: the JLC Polaris Chronograph WT is a wonder to behold. The three-tone blue dial of the Polaris Chronograph WT is the ultimate backdrop for its white luminescent numerals, and the supple brown leather strap ties it all together.
A traveler’s delight, this automatic chronograph simultaneously displays the time for 24 world cities within its 44 mm titanium case—from Anchorage to Auckland and Moscow to Mexico. With a 65-hour power reserve, this chronograph is the perfect companion for your next transatlantic trip.
4. The Santos de Cartier Chronograph Watch (W2SA0008)
The design of the extra-large Santos de Cartier Chronograph Watch is somewhat of a rarity in the world of chronographs. The characteristic three-button look of the traditional chronograph watch has been replaced with a two-button system; the rectangular push-piece on the right-hand side stops and starts the timer, while a hidden button atop the seven-sided crown resets the count.
Aesthetically, the Santos de Cartier Chronograph Watch combines a polished stainless steel bracelet with an 18K yellow gold bezel for a high-contrast look. Pair it with the included steel bracelet for dinner parties or the black rubber strap for underwater adventures up to 100 meters.
5. The IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph (IW392103)
All watches tell you the time. But the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph tells you everything you need to ground yourself in the present. The perpetual calendar complications display the current day, date, month, year, and moon phase against a slate-colored dial. In stark contrast, the sapphire blue of the moon phase dial is complemented by the blue chronograph seconds hand, making for a striking visual display of time.
Enrobed in a 43 mm stainless steel case with a see-through back and self-winding, automatic movement, this flyback luxury watch is a treat for lovers of quality craftsmanship.
6. The Panerai Luminor Chrono (PAM1109)
The PAM1109 is an automatic mechanical watch featuring a blackface and black leather strap with luminous Arabic numerals and hour markers. This timepiece is geared toward the demanding sportsmen.
The PAM1109 is more than just a sports instrument—it’s also a work of art. With a 44 mm case of brushed steel, a P.2004 hand-wound calibre, and a second time zone, this timepiece is truly magnificent and practical.
7. The A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph White Gold
This is the pièce de resistance for lovers of chronographs. The 1815 Chronograph White Gold timepiece was introduced in 2017 and has since become a masterclass in watchmaking.
By placing the tachymeter on the outer edge of the sleek black dial instead of on the bezel, A. Lange & Söhne has managed to imbue this chronograph with a refined subtlety. The white gold of the case pairs effortlessly with the Rhodiumed Gold and Rhodiumed Steel hands, and a sapphire crystal case back provides a glimpse of the watchmaker’s genius. This timepiece is nothing short of a triumph.
Discover All the Best Chronograph Styles with CJ Charles
In the end, the best chronograph watch is the one that inspires you to exceed the extraordinary.
It’s a mission we know well. At CJ Charles Jewelers, we’ve been creating extraordinary moments since 1986—and we’d love to help you find a chronograph that stops time in its tracks for you.
Written By: Vahid Morai
Vahid Moradi’s lifelong passion, dedication, and commitment for the jewelry industry led him to become the respected owner of CJ Charles Jewelers in 1988. From that moment, Moradi’s single focus in business was to become recognized as the pinnacle of value and world-class quality in the his Community. Over 34 years later, CJ Charles continues to grow and thrive as a successful, family-owned business that consistently provides exceptional service to all their clientele.
- WorldTempus. Louis Moinet: The chronograph’s inventor. https://en.worldtempus.com/article/watches/auctions-and-vintage/louis-moinet-the-chronographs-inventor-14550.html
- Smithsonian Magazine. The Watches That Went to the Moon. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/space-timekeepers-180957295/