The chronograph, a metal-born tautology. A time-keeper with the super power to stop the time. No wonder it has become one of the most desirable complications today. Two extra pusher that make every watch-nut smile, one to make the extra second start and one for it to fly back to zero. But there’s more, from a design standpoint the chronograph has a pretty unique appearance: A dial that features several sub-dials indicating the passing of clocked seconds, minutes and often hours. Additionally, a second seconds hand, which is so vital that it is partially occluding the brand on the dial. It is one of the archetypes of modern horology.
October 15, 2021
Golden Age of the Chronograph - History
Marcus Siems @siemswatches
Collector, Author, Data Analyst
The chronograph, a metal-born tautology. A time-keeper with the super power to stop the time. No wonder it has become one of the most desirable complications today. Two extra pusher that make every watch-nut smile, one to make the extra second start and one for it to fly back to zero. But there’s more, from a design standpoint the chronograph has a pretty unique appearance: A dial that features several sub-dials indicating the passing of clocked seconds, minutes and often hours. Additionally, a second seconds hand, which is so vital that it is partially occluding the brand on the dial.
It is one of the archetypes of modern horology. Yet, in over 100+ years of chronograph wrist watches[1,2] there are thousands of distinct executions that found their way into the collections of watch enthusiasts world-wide.
Every watch collectors dream: the chronograph. Ageless, timeless, designed to last, just like this 1950s Jaeger. Photo @goldammer.me
As universal as the idea of this timepiece is, there is not “the chronograph”. Design and taste shift with every generation, new technologies come and go. A design evolution that is reflecting the contemporary spirit. But for it to be true evolution, there need to be certain steps – epochs – within the development that are distinguishable from others. In other words: What makes a 1960s watch so 1960s? Do vintage chronographs look different from a modern one? To define what was special one needs to understand what was normal first.
The perfect tool to answer these questions is quantitative data analysis. Analyzing more than 4000 watches – including more than 800 chronographs – publicly listed on chrono24 I assessed their key design elements and looked for patterns marking each time period. With this dataset we take a closer look at the progression of chronograph-design through the last 80 years, a profile of a true horological super star.
Just as much as the watch design itself changes, the market for these watches does. It’s a back and forth between blueprint and wrist-experience. The stop-watch complication is quite common nowadays but has it always been? How did the market evolve over the last 80 years?
Figure 1. Distribution of watch types between 1940 and 1990. You can see clear peaks of chronograph popularity around 1950 and 1970 (purple line). Thus, we define those as our two epochs of interest: 1945-1955 & 1965-1975.
As it seems the chronograph design has been speaking to several generations. Throughout history at least 10% of watches on the market have been chronographs. The appeal of this archetype comes from the long heritage of over one century and the chameleon-like versatility of applicable design elements. Every generation could leave its mark on the contemporary design.
Still, we observe that the demand for stop-watch complications spiked several times in history. Our super hero's abilities have been quite the asset during World War II. The functionality has been extremely useful but the design during these dark times was rather regulated.
Nevertheless, the chronograph makes a new entrance on the center stage just a few years later. The longing for chronographs increased but as we will see quite differently to what a war tool would look like. However, we also observe that this trend is temporary and the demand decreases again. Soon after the mid 50s people are looking for more modern watch styles. The dive watches and dress-casual watches are starting to take over from the early 1950s onward. The watch market is transitioning, as it seems satisfying a more active lifestyle fostered by the post-war economic boom. Similarly, the watch industry is becoming more utility oriented.
We are preparing for a clash of the generations. The old-school chronographs like this 1940s Juvenia vs. the daring designs of the 60s & 70s. Photo @goldammer.me
But the second chrono wave follows put. In the 1960s the chronograph makes a comeback with a new image. Due to the high diversity of styles it even becomes the most popular watch type. The public heroes are men that push the boundaries of what is possible. It’s the space-age era. A time of longing for the stars, and looking at test drivers and pilots in awe. And what tool do these men need? You guessed it, a chronograph and the watch market follows.
For more than five years - from 1968 to 1973 - the chronograph is the go-to watch style. And just like new designs are sparked by public demand, so are technological advances. One of the largest marketing opportunities of the time has been the invention of the first automatic chronograph movement[2,4,5,6]. And it has been such a close race that in the end three different movements, all presented in 1969, claim victory. It’s a story that Hollywood couldn't script better.
It’s a fast-lived world and trends come and go. In every epoch the popular opinion shifts and so do the watches that were designed, produced, bought and collected. The goal of this series is to give novel insights into the world of vintage watches. Here, it is the world of the chronographs and how it shifts in shape, form and function. All in all, we’re looking at two very exciting periods. What defines a chronograph from 1950 versus one from 1970? How did the appearance of our time-stopping super hero change over its long lifetime? Looking ahead it will be the clash of two concepts that couldn't be more distinct: The classic and elegant versus the futuristic and funky.
The Golden Age of the Chronograph
Part I - History
Part II - Elegance & Utility
Part III - Case Design
Part IV - The Dial
Part V - The Essence
 History of the Chronograph – The Watch that Stops; James Smith, Heddels;
 The History of the Chronograph; Crown & Caliber;
 Watches from Chrono24, extracted 2020 Nov. 29th; Karlsruhe, Germany;
 Chronomania: The 50-Year History of the Automatic Chronograph, WatchTime;
 Who invented the first automatic chronograph?; Simone, Catawiki;
 Seiko 6139, The Other First Automatic Chronograph; Blake Buettner, Hodinkee;
All rights on text and graphics reserved to the Author.
Thank you for posting a very interesting article. I am wondering what would be the period 1990 to 2020.
Chronograph Watches had a special space in my collection regardless of age and I am very proud of them.
Yanis Meintanis on