5 Questions to Ask Before You Buy a Chronograph Watch

Before you drop big bucks on a complicated watch, be sure you understand what a chronograph does and how it might fit into your life.

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Editor’s Note: So you’re ready to make a watch purchase? Not so fast. Before committing, it’s worth thinking carefully about your needs to make sure you’re truly buying the right timepiece for you. Our series Five Questions aims to help you do just that.

There are a lot of good reasons to want a chronograph, not the least of which that they add a potentially useful function to your wrist aside from telling the time — namely, a stopwatch. The resulting watch is often busy with the captivating look of a technical tool, as the stopwatch is manipulated with protruding buttons and displayed on additional hands and subdials.

Inside, the mechanics are also busy. Chronographs, especially mechanical ones, are significantly more complicated than simple time-only watches. As a result, they’re also often near double the price of their comparable three-hand counterparts. So you have to really want a chronograph watch to pay that premium. We put together a list of 5 questions to ask yourself as you’re shopping around for your first “chrono” that should make the process a bit easier:

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1. Mechanical or quartz?

The eternal debate. This can, of course, apply to any watch. However, if you’re looking for a chronograph for practical reasons, a quartz one is going to be the far more affordable solution — and there are plenty of solid options. With quartz, features like a flyback are significantly less expensive than they are in a mechanical watch. Solar charging is another good option to look for in a quartz watch.

While one can be fun to play with, however, most people don’t need a chronograph today for its functionality. Let’s face it: chronographs are popular in no small part because they look cool — and serious, and masculine. People wear watches in general for “the look,” but also because they represent some interesting history and run on fascinating (vaguely antiquated) tech that you don’t often see elsewhere in the modern world. If you appreciate watches for this reason, then you already know why you want a mechanical chronograph.

2. Will it fit on my wrist (and under my cuff)?

Be aware that chronos tend to be on the larger side, in both width and thickness. It’s common for brands to release time-only and chronograph watches side by side in the same collection, so you can often see the exact size difference the stopwatch feature makes. Mechanical chronograph movements are chunky to begin with, and if they’re automatic, you can expect significant thickness that’s surely been a deal-breaker for many watch buyers.

Perhaps the most common automatic chronograph movement — used by brands big and small, all over the world, for decades — is the Valjoux 7750 (and its Sellita equivalents). Watches with this movement can often be thick indeed, so you’ll want to consider the situations and type of clothing your chronograph will accompany. Bigger watches are a lot easier to live with if you, say, reside in a warm climate and wear short sleeves everyday.

Not all chronographs are giant, but it’s important to understand and consider these points since pictures (and even specs) don’t always convey watches’ dimensions well. As much as possible, even in a world of e-commerce convenience, it’s recommendable to see a watch in person and try it on before buying.

3. What kind of chrono do you want?

As chronographs are one of the most popular genres of watches, there are plenty of options, the most popular of which have historical roots in motorsport or aviation. That’s why the tachymeter bezel (for measuring speed) is so common — even though almost nobody uses it today. Other bezel scales include telemeter (for measuring distance), pulsometer (for measuring heart rate), or even a simple 0-60, and these can be found on all kinds of chronograph watches.

Further, there are differences in how much information is offered. Very basic chronographs might only measure up to a minute (these are rare), while measuring up to 12 hours is common (as offered by the 7750 movement). Those with only two subdials, one of which is usually for the main time’s running seconds, constitute yet another option with a clean, symmetrical, retro feel.

There are monopusher chronos (those with only one button for stop, start and reset), flybacks, and others as well, but it helps to be aware of the common varieties out there. In the end, what kind of chronograph is right for you will probably be determined more by your tastes and interests more than practical needs.

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4. What’s your budget?

Chronographs range in price from Dan Henry all the way up to Richard Mille (a couple hundreds bucks to millions of dollars, basically). At the lowest end of the price spectrum, you can find quartz chronographs that may very well satisfy your needs, and there’s even the occasional mechanical one powered by an inexpensive Chinese movement for not too much more. For a Swiss automatic chronographs, however, anything under $2,000 has historically been considered entry-level. Microbrands and the gray market are now pushing those starting prices lower, and they can now occasionally (rarely) even be found under $1,000.

A few thousand dollars is a sweet spot for mechanical chronographs in which you’ve got great choices — including some options with in-house movements — but that remain within the range of everyday wear. Some of the most iconic chronos from Omega, Zenith, IWC and TAG Heuer are available for four figures at MSRP, for example.

5. What features add value to a chronograph watch?

As in other watches, premium materials like sapphire crystal, ceramic and titanium add value to a watch, just as in-house movements, more complications, or the option of a steel bracelet does (of course, there are many other factors that can affect value as well). Exotic movements or certain types of chronographs (like monopushers) also tend to cost more, though not necessarily because they add intrinsic value.

There are some technical features, however, that are specific to chronos which tend to be valued by enthusiasts. The kind of chronograph movement that uses a column wheel and vertical clutch is spoken of with great ardor among collectors. It’s valued as more difficult to produce, and for its smoother tactile experience when operating the chronograph’s buttons, and, ultimately, watches that contain it even seem to be valued highly at auction.

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