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Chronographs - Here's The History Behind Summer's Perfect Timepiece

With summer here, many people indulge in outdoor activities — from walking and hiking to biking, swimming and more. To accompany you on the journey, the chronograph could be the most utilitarian timepiece that also offers nice aesthetic appeal.

Chronographs are watches that track intervals of time. For instance, they can monitor laps around a track, the time it takes to hike a mountain or how many minutes it took you to grill that burger. The amount of time a chronograph can track varies with the watch. Most offer up to 12 hours, 60 minutes and fractions of a second.


Louis Moinet's 1815 chronograph

Up until a couple of years ago, it was believed that Nicolas Rieussec invented the chronograph, which he patented in 1821. However, more recent findings indicate that watchmaker Louis Moinet actually made his version of the chronograph before Rieussec.

In fact, Moinet's device was called a “compteur de tierces" (three-thirds) and was started in 1815 and completed in 1816. It was one of the most accurate watches of its time, measuring events to the 60th of a second via a central seconds hand. The elapsed seconds and minutes are recorded on separate subdials, and the hours on a 24-hour dial. Because Moinet used two pushbuttons to start, stop and reset the central hands, the watch is considered a chronograph (though the term wasn't coined until later).

It was in October of 1821 when French watchmaker Rieussec formally presented his watch with seconds counter to the Academy of Sciences — wherein it was termed a chronograph (time writer). Rieussec's chronograph was developed to measure laps of horse racing and the early versions used ink dots to calculate the duration of events, and often were large clocks encased in table boxes. Here's how it worked: At the beginning of a timed event, the “ink chronograph” was set in motion so that two discs began to turn, one calibrated for 60 elapsed seconds and the other for 30 elapsed minutes. The official timer would press a button each time a competitor crossed the finish line. The action of pressing the button lowered two ink-filled tips onto the enamel discs, where each tip left a droplet of ink. These ink markings on the chronograph’s discs enabled the user to calculate the competitor's finishing time.

Chronograph by Rieussec

We have  come a long way since then. Today’s chronograph watches usually have small sundials on the main dial, wherein the hours and minutes are recorded once the start button has been activated. The seconds are usually tracked via a central seconds hand on the main dial. Of course, different brands use different methods of indication, but the concept is all virtually similar.

Because of the sundials on a chronograph, it is one of the more visually attractive watches. However, mechanical chronographs are no easy feat to build. Essentially hundreds of tiny parts are crammed into that tiny diameter on the wrist. And all of those metal gears, wheels, teeth, bridges and more must work together in perfect harmony to track both the ongoing time and the time of the events. Chronographs have either one single mono-pusher, or two pushers located on either side of the crown. Those pushers activate the start, stop and return-to-zero functions.

There are also more complex  chronographs, such as Split-Seconds Chronographs (also referred to as Rattrapantes), wherein two hands split, or appears to divide, from one another so that they can act independently and time events with different durations. There are also column-wheel chronographs that have a different configuration of the movement and so engages the mechanisms differently. But we will cover those types of chronographs in another story.