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Movements and Complications

The Best Luxury Chronograph Watches

Chronographs are among the most useful watch complications. Learn about the different types of chronographs and see who makes the best.


Since the primary purpose of watches is to keep track of time, it’s unsurprising that one of the oldest complications is the chronograph. A chronograph watch shows the regular time and also has a stopwatch function that measures and shows the elapsed time of an event. 

How Does a Chronograph Watch Work?

The central hand on a chronograph watch is not a seconds hand; it is the chronograph hand that tracks elapsed time when the stopwatch function is in use. If the chronograph is not active, the chronograph hand will be stationary. For this reason, most chronograph watches have a small running seconds display. 

To activate the chronograph, press the pusher at 2 o’clock, and the central chronograph hand starts to move while the subdials begin to track the amount of time that passes. You’ll press the same pusher in simple chronographs to stop the chronograph hand and counters. Check the chronograph display, and you will know precisely how much time has passed. The second pusher, at 4 o’clock, will reset the chronograph display. Chronographs are handy for timing races but also have many practical uses, as well. Wilhelm Schmid, CEO of A. Lange & Söhne, told me that he uses his chronograph to time his Sunday eggs. 

What Are the Different Types of Chronograph Watches?

A historical chronograph pocket watch from Louis Moinet

Simple Chronograph

Simple chronographs typically have two pushers: one at 2 o’clock that starts and stops the chronograph hand and counters, and one at 4 o’clock that resets the chronograph displays and hand. 

Monopusher Chronograph

As its name suggests, a monopusher chronograph uses a single button to start, stop, and reset the chronograph functions. These have less flexibility than a simple chronograph. Once you push the button to stop it, you can’t restart the chronograph timer again. It will reset to zero on the third push. 

Flyback Chronograph

A flyback chronograph watch lets you instantly reset the chronograph function while it is running, so you don’t have to stop it in order to reset it. This saves precious seconds when recording multiple events, such as lap times. 

Rattrapante (Split-seconds) Chronograph

Rattrapante chronographs, also called split-seconds chronographs, are rare. Instead of a single central chronograph hand, the watch has another hand hidden beneath it. Start the chronograph and both hands move in tandem. Press the rattrapante button and the hidden hand stops while the main hand continues. This allows you to time multiple events at once, such as two track runners. These are difficult to produce and are among the most expensive chronograph watches. 

What Are the Different Types of Chronograph Displays? 

A subdial is a small dial within the main dial. In chronograph watches, subdials can also be called counters, totalizers, or registers. Chronographs typically use multiple subdials to show the elapsed time of an event, and one subdial is not related to the chronograph — it shows the running seconds. 

A dial with a central chronograph hand and three subdials is the most common layout. You can track seconds, minutes, and hours, allowing you to time events up to 12 hours long. The small seconds display shows running seconds and is not connected to the chronograph; remember, the central chronograph hand starts and stops to precisely track time using the scale on the bezel or edge of the dial. 

Two subdials and a chronograph hand display running seconds and can accurately time events up to an hour long using a 60-minute counter.

These chronograph dial designs also are called tri-compax and bi-compax, respectively. If a chronograph has four subdials, the fourth subdial typically shows a complication like a moon phase or the date. 

Some chronographs have a single 60-minute counter. Usually, these watches let you use the central hand as a running seconds hand and as a chronograph hand. Be sure your watch is designed this way. If it’s not, letting the chronograph hand run constantly will quickly deplete your power reserve and can negatively affect the precision of your watch. 

Are Chronograph Watches and Chronometers the Same Thing?

Sometimes people mistake chronograph watches for chronometers, but they are different things. Chronometer watches are ultraprecise watches that have been certified by an independent third party. Some chronograph watches are also chronometers, but not all are. You can learn all about chronometers here. 

The Best Luxury Chronograph Watches

Rolex Cosmograph Daytona

A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Up/Down

Patek Philippe Ref. 5204G

Audemars Piguet Code 11:19 Self-winding Chronograph

Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT

Zenith Chronomaster Sport

Grand Seiko Spring Drive Chronograph

Omega Speedmaster 57

Tag Heuer Autavia Chronometer Flyback

Tudor Black Bay Chrono

Cartier Santos de Cartier Chronograph

Czapek Faubourg de Cracovie Purple Panda

Hublot Big Bang Integrated Blue Indigo

IWC Portofino Chronograph 39

Louis Moinet Memoris Spirit

Each product on our site is independently selected by our editors. We may earn a small commission on items you purchase using our links at no extra cost to you.
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