8 Most Iconic Chronographs of All Time

By Montredo in Lifestyle
May 13, 2019
8 Most Iconic Chronographs of All Time


Chronographs are the eternal collector’s favorite and especially these last few years, chronographs have been experiencing an unprecedented boom in the collector community. This should come as no surprise, as no other watch lets the user to experience its inner workings in the same holistic fashion as chronographs. The ritual of timing, stopping and resetting to zero engages almost all our senses. Also their visual presentation is something that sets them apart from other watches. The abundance of dials, pointers, scales and crowns allows for enhanced creativity in the realms of function and design, which has culminated in some of the most renowned classics in the history of horology. Here they are, the world’s 8 most significant, iconic and probably best chronographs of all time.

8. (TAG) Heuer Monaco

The Heuer Monaco is not like any other watch. At first glance, the impressive four convex edges that hold the housing just slightly short of a perfect square catch your attention. Moreover, the imaginative left positioning of the crown on the caliber 11, known as the Chronomatic, bears witness to the exceptionality of this timepiece. It refuses to blend into the sameness of the works landscape which then as now is defined by just a handful of manufactures. Being one of the first chronographs with automatic winding, the caliber 11 has influenced the watch world. Depending on which moment you consider to be the most essential (and which horological belief system you subscribe to) the caliber 11 Monaco is celebrated by many watch enthusiasts as the first of its kind and as such even a step ahead of the Seiko 6139 and the Zenith El Primero. One record stands uncontested, the Heuer Monaco was the first square chronograph with automatic winding. Well, with some imagination records can be established for everything. All kidding aside the status of the Heuer Monaco as an absolute icon of the watch world is undisputed. And its iconic symbolism has been confirmed time and again in cinematic productions: The film Le Mans with Steve McQueen earned the Monaco its cult following and in Breaking Bad Jesse Pinkman presents the watch to Walter White as a gift of symbolic significance. A watch with character and a statement accoutrement, the Monaco has maintained its vintage appeal throughout the years. I am glad to see that there are still a few watches with corners and edges around today.

7. Universal Genève Tri-Compax

Several reasons explain how the Universal Genève has become a cult brand among vintage lovers: First and foremost, the manufacturer produced proprietary movements for chronographs, which was far from the norm in the first half of the 20th century and even today remains the exception to the rule. Indeed, back then almost all renowned watch houses relied on just a few works establishments such as Valjoux, Venus, or Excelsior Park. At the same time, Universal was considered one of the major innovators in the development of the modern chronograph. Point in case, the Dato Compax was the world’s first chronograph with date function and the Aero Compax once introduced a kind of business chronograph, which provided a fourth totalizer to memorize appointments. The pinnacle of horologic ingenuity was the creation of the Universal Genève Tri-Compax, whose epithet “The Glorious”, “Le Glorieux” or “Il Glorioso” has established itself in the watch world’s nomenclature in several languages at once. The clock received the name Tri-Compax, because with a chronograph, a full calendar and the current moon phase, it comes equipped with a total of 3 advanced functions. While today this feature repertoire is being met with ease by quite a few of the ETA 7750’s with optional modules, the two calibers 481, 287 and 281 were a real specialty in their time in the works landscape. The Tri-Compax, instantly became a classic with its distinctive design that included four sub-dials and a wide variety of sometimes quite unusual housings. The watch owes its iconic fame not least to its illustrious fans, among them Eric Clapton, Harry S. Truman and Jean Cocteau. Finally, in recent years the hype has been fuelled vigorously through Instagram as well as nearly every single online watch forum there is.

6. TAG Heuer Carrera

Since its introduction in 1963, the TAG Heuer Carrera quickly satisfied a niche that was underserved at that time: The production of exceedingly robust Chronographs which were intended mainly for use in racing. Before the Carrera’s arrival only the Omega Speedmaster had addressed this market, and other classics such as the Rolex Daytona or Heuer Monaco would follow suit later. Especially the famous “T” for tritium, which in contrast to most Swiss watches is not placed next to “Swiss” at the bottom of the dial, but prominently within the lower chrono dial became a frequently quoted cult detail. The Carrera Pan Americana, one of the most dangerous rallies in the world was named after the watch in honor of its reputation. Today, the Heuer Carrera is offered in an extensive range of variations and designs. Although now the Carrera is sold as a simple three-handed watch with a caliber 5 movement, to us it is and always will be a chronograph above all.

5. Breitling Chronomat

As the predecessor of the Navitimer the Breitling Chronomat must not be overlooked here. Without this forerunner the Navitimer would never have come into existence. The Chronomat was the first watch to make use of the rotating bezel for a variety of purposes and it was first to enhance the function of the slide rule with a time factor. Additionally, it initiated the famous fluted bezel. The Chronomat watch was developed after the war, with the objective to put its handy calculator features to good use in the post war reconstruction of Europe. Among coin collectors, it is always the coins which were minted to celebrate peace which accrue the highest collector values. Equally, the Chronomat has exceptional sentimental value. The name is composed of the words chronograph and automatic. The only reason that the Chronomat has not been placed higher in our ranking is that the single element the models of that era have in common with today’s editions is the portmanteau. Otherwise, the Chronomat of today bears only the conditional relation to the original. However, those who love the design of a 40’s Chronomat, will find many design features reminiscent of the vintage edition in the current Breitling Montbrillant line. By the way, the reference 801 with moon phase is especially coveted by Vintage collectors, a real grail-watch particularly among loyal Breitling fans.

4. Zenith El Primero

The polemic about which automatic chronograph was the first to see the light of day in the watch world continues to this day. Was it the caliber 11, named the Chronomatic movement which was developed in collaboration among Breitling and TAG Heuer, Buren-Hamilton and Dubois Dépraz, or indeed the El Primero from Zenith? The fact is that Zenith was the first manufacturer to present a chronograph with automatic transmission, EL Primero. Most sources therefore bestow the status of the first born of its genre to the Zenith El Primero. How fitting you might think. Most remarkable is its extraordinary capacity as a high-speed oscillator with over 36,000 vibrations per hour, which reduces the amplitude measurement error of the watch in comparison to other chronographs. In plain English: The El Primero is a chronograph with exceptionally high accuracy. Follows that today El Primero signifies far more than a movement, which by the way has been produced almost unchanged for half a century. El Primero is the name of perhaps the most important model series in the Zenith line-up and, at least for watch nerds, a true legend. Here, a Zenith Defy with El Primero Movement. The color ensemble is of gray, white and blue is represented in the current collection too. 

3. Breitling Navitimer

The Navitimer by Breitling is the Aviator Chronograph par excellence. Its allure is in the variety of different functions, which are controlled through the rotating bezel and its precision scaling: From simple arithmetic operations to currency conversions and up to the determination of fuel consumption and average speed using the tachymeter, Its functionality and features primarily speak to pilots and frequent travelers. Promptly upon its launch in 1954 the watch became the official timepiece of the AOPA, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. This chronograph became the go-to-watch of official fleets from Mideast to South America. Even more than 60 years after its launch the watch still enjoys the same brand recognition as the Jersey of the Argentina national football team. Models with the AOPA logo, as well as those with Valjoux 72 are extremely sought after by collectors.

2. Rolex Daytona

The paradoxical history of the Rolex Daytona is the best example that the initial success of a current watch model hardly allows one to draw a conclusion about its future performance. The Rolex Daytona was a slow seller at its launch and as a result only limited quantities were produced. Because of its rarity it became one of the most sought- after luxury gadgets. Especially variants of the references 6263 and 6239, also called “Paul Newman”, regularly achieve middle six-figure prices at auction houses such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The Paul Newman chronograph is simply the most famous iteration of a Rolex but the “Jean Claude Killy” and the “John player special” editions of the classic chronograph trade at similar price points. While early references are home to the Valjoux 72 and without a doubt helped the same to acquire a very special status among vintage chrono movements, later models up to the turn of the Millennium were equipped with paired down El Primero movements. In the year 2000 Rolex introduced the in-house caliber 4130. Here a Rolex Daytona 6263 with contrasting sub-dials, but without the typical color demarcated rehaut that calls out Paul Newman references. For many the Rolex Daytona is the bonified prestige watch. The exclusivity of the Daytona bases itself not only on the high price, but also on the limited availability. This applies to vintage models as well as current editions. Especially for steel models, you are often required to excel in the virtue of patience. At times, enthusiasts wait several years to get their hands on a favored model. 

1. Omega Speedmaster Professional

On the market since 1957 the Omega Speedmaster is a real dyno in today’s sports-oriented chronograph market. In 1965, when the watch had already been in circulation for 6 years with the attribute “Professional” Omega added a colored bezel inlay, which elevated the watch instantly to an absolute style icon and the undisputed pioneer of the characteristic design of sports chronographs today. The fact that this watch shortly thereafter became the first watch on the moon when Aldrin wore it on the mission, earned it the nickname “Moon Watch”, and made this chronograph a Hall of Famer for eternity and one of the most significant watch classics in history. The Omega Speedmaster was once elected by NASA to be the endorsed timepiece in outer space. You might think the decision to declare the Omega Speedmaster to be the official watch of NASA was founded on existing customer relations or on winning an open bid. It was solely based on its robust features which guaranteed uninhibited and reliable functioning of the movement even under the most extreme of ambient conditions. Heroic deeds, such as playing a central role in the rescue of Apollo 11 should follow later in its impressive history. To this day the Omega Speedmaster holds the world record of most extensively tested timepiece as well as being the favorite first mechanical classic to start off new watch collections.