The chronograph watch (the name for a timepiece with a built-in stopwatch) was invented in the early 1800s to solve two very important needs of the day: making astronomical calculations and timing horse races. More than two hundred years later, we have more precise ways to do both of those things, but the appeal of wearing a tiny analog stopwatch on your wrist has never been stronger. There are good reasons to know exactly how long something takes—whether you’re boiling an egg or piloting a spacecraft back to earth—and the right chronograph watch will meet those needs while adding a dash of sophistication to your wrist.
Part of this comes down to design (the layout of a chronograph dial is inherently more interesting than a time-only watch) and part of it is historical, thanks to guys like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, whose pharmaceutical-grade cool helped to make the Rolex Daytona and TAG Heuer Monaco two of the most coveted watches on the planet. And of course, no discussion of the modern chronograph is complete without a tip of the helmet to the space cowboys of Apollo 13, who used their Omega Speedmaster chronographs (better known these days as the original MoonSwatch) to pilot their hobbled spacecraft safely back to earth.
Today, there are more chronographs on the market than ever before, from $100 plastic versions to versions festooned with gemstones that cost half a million or more. Any of them will be great for timing your morning pour-over, of course, but given the chronograph’s long association with some of the most stylish guys in history, that’s really just a bonus. No matter how much you have to spend, or which way your style skews, there’s a chronograph watch with your name on it—and it’s almost definitely on this list.
For the Dressy Fella
Chronographs started out as tools for science and motorsports, neither of which have particularly sophisticated dress codes. To meet the needs of chronograph fans who wear suits, not jumpsuits, watchmakers have come up with a huge variety of chronographs that are as dressy as they are precise. You can tell these apart from their sportier brethren by details like fine leather straps, gold cases, and fancy complications including moon phases and annual calendars.
For the Sporty Fella
Ever since Louis XVIII commissioned his royal watchmaker to invent a device for timing horse races in the early 1800s, chronographs have been inseparable from sports. The rise of motorsports in the 20th century took this relationship to another level, with each successive decade adding new technology and style to the genre. Now, in the 21st century we’re in a fortunate position to take our pick of the best of them, from retro 1960s daily drivers to off-the-wall tourbillons that cost six figures.
For the High-Flying Fella
The chronograph got another big bump in the aviation era. Before the advent of GPS and digital clocks, pilots depended on mechanical watches for everything from navigation to timing their fuel supply. Chronograph technology evolved in tandem with aviation technology for decades, with brands like Longines, Breitling, and IWC releasing some of the most iconic examples of the genre. If uber-nerdy complications like slide rule bezels and cross-wind calculators are your jam, you’re in the right place.
For the Colorful Fella
Some chronographs are all business, while others let it hang out in the most ostentatious way possible. The pinnacle of the latter category is Rolex’s infamous “rainbow” Daytona, a watch that’s so unobtainable it’s not even listed on the brand’s website, and can sell for well over half a million dollars on the gray market. Thanks to the flexing of elite collectors like John Mayer, Jay-Z, and Post Malone, the rainbow Daytona’s popularity has reached new heights in recent years, and high-end brands like Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe, and Hublot have added rainbow-set bezels to their catalogs. You don’t need a suitcase full of cash to score a colorful chrono of your own, though—provided, of course, you’re willing to do without the gemstones.
For the Fella Who Sees Things in Black and White
The 1960s and 1970s were a golden era for both motorsports and chronographs, and the first generation of automatic chronographs from Rolex, Zenith, Breitling, and TAG Heuer achieved icon status thanks to endorsements from celebrity drivers like Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti. The flashiest of them featured clean white dials with black subdials at nine and three, giving them a resemblance to the masked face of the giant panda. Watch collectors, never ones to pass up the opportunity to coin a clever nickname, seized on this, and the watches have been known as “panda dial” chronographs ever since. Thanks largely to the notoriety of the “Paul Newman” Rolex Daytona, the panda chronograph population has made a strong rebound in recent years.