Watchmaster searches for the best chronographs!
By Manuel Lütgens, 22 December 2022Let's enter a wonderful dream world, where prices and money do not play a role, but only the quality and the desire to own the best chronograph. By and large, our test's rough guidelines haven't changed much since the last time, but nevertheless, let's revisit our requirements for the best chronograph.
Anyone who has been reading our magazine for some time will be anything but surprised by our desire for a sporty, yet elegant all-rounder, but what can you do...? "Sporty and elegant" successfully performs the balancing act of spending a contemplative evening in front of the fireplace, a day at the Nürburgring, and an elegant dinner at a Michelin-rated restaurant. And that's exactly what we're looking for: a chronograph that makes us want to buy another watch. A watch that immediately seduces us and accompanies us through everyday life, as well as a life long. Come along on this search with us!
What are we looking for in the best chronograph? Here is a general overview in bullet points:
- Practicability! We want to use the chronograph and not just wear it as a fashionable accoutrement for the sake of style...
- A comfortable fit
- Great design
- Iconic status
Bonus: Ideally, we want to fall in love with this watch (but we promise that we'll make this comparison as objective as possible)
Before we present our selection of chronographs, let's discuss one question in a little more detail.
What exactly is a chronograph?In essence, a chronograph is a stopwatch. Visually, chronographs are most often recognizable by the two additional pushers next to the winding crown and the 2 to 3 additional small subdials (called "totalizers") on the dial. However, the function of these small subdials can vary depending on the model. Often, especially if the chronograph is from the field of motorsports, the large second hand is the hand of the stopwatch (also called "central stop second"). The main hand for the seconds is then displayed on one of the totalizers, which is in turn called a "small seconds" display.
The central stop second is perfect for measuring speeds via a tachymeter scale (for example, on the bezel). The stop function of the chronograph can perform important calculations in combination with a "slide rule bezel" (for example, during flight) for navigation based on the rule of three.
In this respect, a chronograph is a practical instrument, but in all honesty, most chronographs are probably used for measuring speed as often as diver's watches are used for diving. Exceptions prove the rule – and just as most Submariner models only see action in a hotel pool or in waist-deep coastal waters, the majority of chronographs are worn for fashion and style.
If you would like to learn more about chronographs, be sure to check it out this article.
Let's turn to our candidates for the rather broad title of the best chronograph at Watchmaster. For this, we have selected 10 of perhaps the most famous chronographs, if not some of the most famous wristwatches around, and see how these great icons of haute horlogerie compare.
Just a quick reminder, the price doesn't really matter for our selection. Rather, we only want to be convinced by the watch.
Rolex DaytonaThe beginning of our selection starts with a proper favorite of the luxury watch scene and none other than the top dog among chronographs: the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona (Ref.116500LN). As the chronograph par excellence, it went from being a former low-selling model to one of the most popular watches worldwide, and is now one of the hardest wristwatches to get – at least at a concessionaire. We are lucky enough to have several models from the collection and are eager to take a closer look at this legendary model with a 40 mm case diameter, black ceramic bezel, white dial, chronometer-certified manufacture Calibre 4130, and 904L stainless steel bracelet and case.
ROLEX DAYTONA 116500LN
Breitling Navitimer 01 & Chronomat B01 42Whether you like it or not, Breitling is (at least unofficially) king among chronographs. Especially among pilot's chronographs. Models like the Navitimer and the Chronomat have made this brand's watches indispensable companions for pilots. While the Chronomat pioneered this path of wrist-worn pilot chronographs in the past, the Navitimer took the hearts of countless aviators by storm. Consequently, we couldn't decide on one of these watches and are submitting one of both series into the running.
The Navitimer 01 46 (Ref. UB0127211B1P2) is an up-to-date and very large 46 mm model with rose gold and leather strap as well as a chronometer caliber with iconic status. On the other hand, we have chosen a reissue of the Chronomat. Indeed, the new Chronomat B01 42 (Ref. AB0134101G1A1) returns with the controversial Rouleaux strap, proving its independence. Apart from that, it features a harmonic, 42 mm case diameter and makes for difficult competition thanks to its chronometer certification, 200 meters of water resistance, and incredible workmanship. We are curious to see how these models perform!
BREITLING NAVITIMER 1 B01 CHRONOGRAPH 43 AB0121211B1P1/small>
TAG Heuer Carrera & MonacoAs a direct competitor to the Daytona, TAG Heuer (called Heuer at that time) introduced the Carrera collection, which remains legendary to this day. As a chronograph, TAG Heuer was closely associated with motorsports from the beginning and has fought a fierce duel with Rolex for supremacy on the world's racetracks. But unlike the Daytona, TAG Heuer (or Heuer) had a broader range with other iconic collections like the Monaco, which made history as the first square, waterproof chronograph with an automatic movement. And after being seen on Steve McQueen's wrist, it became a screen legend – tough competition indeed.
For our comparison, we've chosen the TAG Heuer Carrera (Ref. CBN2A5A.FC6481) featuring a black dial, black ceramic bezel, and rose gold highlights, and the TAG Heuer Monaco (Ref. CAW211P.FC6356), which is a current edition of the original Monaco. But can these two icons hold their own against the competition?
TAG HEUER MONACO CAW211P.FC6356
Omega Speedmaster Professional MoonwatchSpeaking of other contenders, Omega offers no other model for this contest than the descendant of the original Moonwatch. On Buzz Aldrin's wrist, this hand-wound chronograph became the first wristwatch on the moon and has been an integral part of the Omega product catalog ever since. The current Speedmaster Moonwatch Chronograph (Ref. 310.30.42.50.01.002) takes the "Speedy" to a new level without ignoring its roots. With fine details such as the "dot over 90" and the transparent case back, the Moonwatch is an absolute must for any well-stocked watch collection and could not be missing from this list.
OMEGA SPEEDMASTER MOONWATCH CHRONOGRAPH 310.30.42.50.01.0
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak ChronographIf you venture into slightly different priced waters, the "Holy Trinity" manufacturer Audemars Piguet provides an avant-garde wristwatch design in the Royal Oak Chronograph (Ref. 25860ST.OO.1110ST.01). Conceived by Gerald Genta, this model brings the distinctive look of the collection featuring a "screwed-down", octagonal bezel, the elaborate bracelet, as well as the tapestry pattern on the dial, and rounds it out with the addition of a chronograph complication. Equipped with a date window and color-contrasted totalizers, this model is part of what is currently probably one of the most popular luxury watch series. But will that be enough to win this title?
AUDEMARS PIGUET ROYAL OAK CHRONOGRAPH 25860ST.OO.1110ST.01
Patek Philippe Nautilus Travel Time ChronographDid you think the AP was the most popular watch on this list? Far from it, because Patek Philippe's Nautilus may possibly be the most popular and in-demand wristwatch in the world. While the standard, three-hand Nautilus is the focus of public attention, a little less spotlight falls on the more elaborate models in the series. For instance, the Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph (Ref. 5990/1A-001) comes with a chronograph function, which is uncharacteristically located at 6 o'clock, an additional hand date at 9 o'clock, and a travel time function. That is, in other words, a second time zone. This complication by Patek truly has its price, as the Nautilus is by far the most expensive watch in our comparison. However, this watch's price is still secondary in our evaluation, which is why we are eager to see whether the Nautilus can hold its own against the other timepieces solely as a watch.
IWC PortugieserAccording to legend, the IWC Portugieser's origins goes back to two Portuguese traders who asked Florentine Jones to design a large, easy-to-read wristwatch. Their wish was his command and the watch collection known as the "Portugieser" was created, which is still considered a classic among wristwatches. The Portugieser Chronograph (Ref. IW371417) we selected is no exception. With its 40 mm case diameter, it's probably considered normal in size today, but offers excellent readability and a timeless design. Its Arabic numeral hour markers, clear dial, and two totalizers at 6 and 9 o'clock ensure that this is the case.
Zenith El PrimeroWe have to admit that we have one, last competitor as a crowning finale. Not only did the Zenith-designed "El Primero" caliber power the Daytona for decades, but the manufacturer may have gone out on a limb in terms of design with the introduction of the El Primero Chronomaster Sport (Ref. 03.3100.3600/69.M3100). Does the design look familiar at all?
ZENITH EL PRIMERO CHRONOMASTER SPORT 03.3100.3600_21.M3100
Nevertheless, the El Primero has more than earned its place in this ranking due to its groundbreaking reputation. Let's see how it fares in direct comparison with the other models. Will the El Primero ultimately take the crown?
A comparison of our picks
|Brand and model||Movement||Diameter||Material (case/bracelet)||Bezel||Water resistance||Date window||Other special features||Feel on the wrist||Price|
|Rolex Daytona (Ref. 116500LN)||Automatic||40 mm||Steel/steel||Ceramic/black/tachymeter scale||100 Meter||-||Chronometer||Somewhat small, yet present, sovereign/ confident, very comfortable||€30.000|
|Breitling Navitimer 01 (Ref. UB0127211B1P2)||Automatic||46 mm||Steel/leather||Rose gold/slide rule bezel||30 Meter||Yes, between 4 & 5 o'clock||Chronometer, transparent case back||Very large, yet comfortable, sovereign/ confident, somewhat flashy||€7.780|
|Breitling Chronomat B01 42 (Ref. AB0134101G1A1)||Automatic||42 mm||Steel/steel||Steel||200 Meter||Yes, at 6 o'clock||Chronometer, transparent case back||Large, very present, heavy, somewhat flashy||€6.250|
|TAG Heuer Carrera (Ref. CBN2A5A.FC6481)||Automatic||44 mm||Steel/leather||Ceramic/black/tachymeter scale||100 Meter||Yes, at 6 o'clock||Chronometer, transparent case back||Large, very present, heavy, somewhat flashy||€5.350|
|TAG Heuer Monaco (Ref. CAW211P.FC6356)||Automatic||39 mm||Steel/leather||Steel||100 Meter||JYes, at 6 o'clock||Chronometer, transparent case back, crown on the left side of the case||Large, somewhat clunky and very present, feels pretty cool to wear||€5.200|
|Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch (Ref. 310.30.42.50.01.002)||Manual winding||42 mm||Steel/steel||Black anodized aluminum/tachymeter scale||50 Meter||-||Chronometer, transparent case back||Feels somewhat small, very comfortable, not that attention-grabbing & not overly boring||€6.540|
|Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (Ref. 25860ST.OO.1110ST.01)||Automatic||41 mm||Steel/steel||Steel||50 Meter||Yes, between 4 & 5 o'clock||-||Large, very present & confident, flashy, very comfortable||€73.500|
|Patek Philippe Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph (Ref. 5990/1A-001)||Automatic||40,5 mm||Steel/steel||Steel||30 Meter||Yes, between, hand date at 12 o'clock||Travel time function, Patek Philippe seal, transparent case back||Surprisingly large, very bulky, felt somewhat soft, in total a lot going on, yet comfortable||€295.000|
|IWC Portugieser (Ref. IW371417)||Automatic||40 mm||Steel/leather||Steel||30 Meter||-||-||Feels pretty small, understated & minimalist on the whole||€4.790|
|Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Sport (Ref. 03.3100.3600/69.M3100)||Automatic||41 mm||Steel/steel||Ceramic/black/ tachymeter scale||100 Meter||Yes, between 4 & 5 o'clock||Transparent case back||Feels rather small, comfortable, sporty||€10.500|
Our candidates competing for this title should approach the bench!
In the pleasant position of being able to compare all these watches at the same time side by side, the immense difference in the design concepts from the various manufacturers immediately caught the eye. That's a pretty predictable observation, though. We'll start with our models from TAG Heuer. While the Monaco is simply extremely cool to wear, it's quite eye-catching and draws more attention to the wrist due to its design and the winding crown positioned on the case's left side. Apart from that, it's simply a touch too retro for everyday life, in our opinion. The same goes for the Carrera. In principle it's an excellent watch, but the 44 mm case diameter makes it somewhat large and it wears accordingly. That's why it's the end of the line for both watches.
Our nominees from Breitling also brought out the big guns and went all out with their iconic status. While we just complained about the 44 mm case diameter of the Carrera, we are inclined to forgive the 46 mm of the Navitimer. But why? It simply works for the Navitimer. Nevertheless, a somewhat limited resistance to water and the striking appearance of the watch lead us to the conclusion that the Navitimer can't really hold its own against its extremely strong competition. The same goes for the Chronomat. Despite the minor weakness we have for the reissue of this icon, the Chronomat fails to hold its own against the rest. That said, the description "bang for a buck" cannot be more apt than in the case of the Chronomat.
Unfortunately, this is where the air starts to get thin for IWC. Although the Portugieser feels relaxed when worn, it's almost a bit small, and shines with its discreet, unobtrusive design – which simply leaves us a little underwhelmed. This is a beautiful watch, which is excellently crafted, but (in our opinion) somewhat emotionless compared to its competition.
We've reached the halfLet's continue with two watches in whose origins are inextricably intertwined and one could not have existed without the other. The El Primero and the Daytona are two very related wristwatches. The Daytona used Zenith's "El Primero" caliber for decades, and the El Primero collection, named after that exact caliber presents a design that looks surprisingly similar to the Daytona. In fact, the Zenith feels particularly great on the wrist and has definite potential for this title due to its familiar design. But can it hold its own against its presumed role model, the Daytona?
Unfortunately for us, the answer to that question is a resounding "no". The Zenith is truly superbly built, but the Rolex is frankly better. On all counts. The Daytona exudes a charm that is rare and difficult to put into words. On all of our wrists, it seemingly disappeared and became part of our overall look. Exceptionally well-built and unparalleled in design, the Daytona is arguably one of the best chronographs around... But can it fight off the other 3 entries?
Welcome to the world of haute horlogerie! It's time to clear the way for the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph and the Patek Philippe Nautilus Travel Time Chronograph. Even if you've had extremely high-end watches on your wrist before and already admired their wonderful quality, AP steps it up a notch from the moment you take it out of its box. Do you know the scene from "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" when Harry holds his wand in his hands for the first time? It's a similar situation with the Royal Oak. Long story short, the Royal Oak makes it to the finals without any fuss.
PATEK PHILIPPE NAUTILUS TRAVEL TIME CHRONOGRAPH 5990 1A 001
But this is only the beginning, because the Patek follows shortly behind it. Looking at the Nautilus after the Audemars was perhaps one of the smartest decisions we could have made during this review. This way, we were able to examine these two, iconic watches by Gerald Genta completely uninfluenced by the hype surrounding the two models. The Nautilus, much like the Royal Oak, shines with unparalleled quality and truly practical complications. The Travel Time function is quick and easy to adjust, and the design of its "soft" contours make for a tremendous amount of comfort. The Nautilus advances to the finals, as well. Although this may not be a big surprise, it is well deserved.
The Omega Speedmaster Moonwatch concludes the list. Dramatically listed last here, but it was actually tested first. This one got our testing off to a phenomenal start, and offers a pleasant feel, incredibly versatile design, and its position as a "no-brainer" set the bar extremely high right from the start. By the way, with "no-brainer" we mean a watch that you don't really have to think about buying. As long as it fits within your budget, you probably should buy it. In any case, you won't be making a mistake. And that's exactly what allows the "Speedy" to enter the finals alongside the heavyweights of haute horlogerie and the crowned top dog. Things are going to get exciting!
Who will win the competition?
Third place goes, perhaps surprisingly for some, as a tie to the Patek Philippe AND the Audemars Piguet. Don't get us wrong, we fell in love with both models and wish we were in a world where money didn't matter, but both models were entirely too eye-catching in their designs. What we admired in both would eventually get on our nerves for how much attention they would attract in everyday life. Accordingly, both watches simply overshot the mark a bit in our opinion and thus share 3rd place. (Nevertheless, we've already started saving up!)
Second place goes to "Speedy"! With a "set it and forget it" look, a great story, tremendously comfortable wear, extreme versatility, and an all-round cohesive package, this value-for-money champion is invariably a good choice. The only drawbacks in everyday life: the limited water resistance of only 50 meters and the hand-wound caliber. For purists and fans, this is a plus point, but for someone who simply wants to buy a very good watch, it might prove to be a bit of a nuisance. That's why the Moonwatch "only" makes it to 2nd place.
And the best chronograph is… The Daytona..
Actually, that's enough justification, but let us explain our decision a bit. In all honesty, it's kind of annoying that the Daytona won this comparison... Somehow, it just feels too predictable.
Nevertheless, the Daytona emerged as the narrow, but clear winner and convinces in every aspect. Whether in terms of the craftsmanship, the iconic status, the mechanics and complications, the range of models, the feel of the watch, as well as the design – in our opinion – the Daytona is the best chronograph on the market and has every right to wear the crown on its dial.