When Montblanc launched its latest signature watch this year, the style chosen for the TimeWalker TwinFly had historic significance, both for the brand and for horology in general. The TimeWalker is a chronograph, designed to mechanically measure elapsed time with split-second precision. Day/date displays aside, the chronograph’s stopwatch function is arguably the world’s most popular complication (the horological term for a feature other than the display of hours, minutes and seconds). This year is also the 190th anniversary of the first chronograph, invented by Parisian Nicolas Rieussec.
Montblanc has begun to produce watches with movements designed and made itself. While the TwinFly is 43mm in diameter and made of a titanium alloy, Rieussec’s prototype comprised a wooden crate with a watch movement that powered two enamel dials, calibrated for seconds and minutes, with ink-filled nibs fixed onto its hands. It was unveiled at the Champ de Mars racecourse. When a horse crossed the line, the timekeeper could press a button so that the ink marked the dial; the ‘time writer’ was patented the following year.
The fascination with chronographs has barely diminished over the intervening centuries, rising to a peak over the past 50 years. Nicolas Mohs, brand manager of Piaget, whose new Polo FortyFive is also a chronograph, argues that its appeal is almost philosophically deep-seated. ‘Man has always been eager to get a grasp of measuring everything, especially uncontrollable things like time.’
This is despite the fact that the chronograph’s utility is perhaps becoming less relevant. While diving watches are super-tough and waterproof, aviation watches boldly legible and dress watches slim and elegant, the chronograph function seems redundant to everyday life in the digital world. There is, however, some appeal simply in the existence of the chronograph, suggests Rob Diver, UK managing director of Tag Heuer. Diverse brands cannot escape those tell-tale sub-dials and buttons, from jeweller Carl F Bucherer, which makes diamond-studded watches, to Wempe, the pioneer of marine clocks, proud makers of the only certified German-made wristwatch chronometer. Predictably, the highlights of Wempe’s new Zeitmeister collection are chronographs.
‘The main appeal of the chronograph is that it’s typically a sports watch but with a little complication, one that is still accessible,’ says Denis Giguet, world-class independent watch designer for brands such as Rolex and Harry Winston. ‘The aesthetic of a chronograph is a shorthand for sportiness, but there are so many now that it is hard to design a distinctive chronograph while respecting the function of the watch. It’s true that you might never actually need to time anything with it, but it’s also something you can play with – it’s a way of interacting with your watch.’
Alexander Schmiedt, director of watches for Montblanc, notes that, while other complications may be harder to make and smaller in number, the chronograph is actually one of the few its wearer can actually see in action. ‘You may know they are there, but complications are hidden away and hard to appreciate for those without specialist watch knowledge,’ he says. ‘But the chronograph is easily appreciated. It’s a pleasure to the eye, which is why some people just leave them running.’
In a professional setting, sometimes precision still matters. Next year is the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 13 moon landing mission, when a complete systems failure meant the astronauts on board the spacecraft had to time the rocket burst that aligned their capsule for re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere using their NASA standard-issue Omega Speedmasters. The Speedmaster is also the only watch to have been worn on the moon. The Bremont watch brand makes watches primarily for pilots, which gives co-founder and flyer Giles English a particular respect for the chronograph. ‘People think of chronographs as being particularly stylish but they also take them slightly for granted and forget how complex that makes the movement inside,’ he says. ‘Precision timing is a lot to expect from such tiny mechanics. And they can actually be quite useful if you’re flying – but more typically if you just want a perfect boiled egg. Besides which, every man loves a gadget.’
Sometimes too much so. According to English, the most common reason that chronographs need to be repaired is that their owners have passed the time during tedious meetings by repeatedly clicking them on and off. The intention seems to be precision measuring of the time elapsed until the wearers can escape for coffee.