5 Chronographs For 5 Budgets
The chronograph. It’s both accessible and incredible, one of the most complicated mechanisms found in watchmaking and one of the most affordable. The fact that so many manufacturers have them in their collections is a testament to the popularity of the function, and whether we really use them or not, there’s no denying that they look pretty damn good. With that being said, here are five choice chronographs for five different budgets.
Longines Avigation BigEye L2.818.104.22.168
The Longines Heritage range is often afflicted by a little condition I like to call, “almost, but.” “Almost, but” is that feeling you get when something is so close to perfect … but for that one little thing that somehow brings the whole lot down. The Heritage line has a lot of designs that are just achingly beautiful, that are for some reason, whether its budget or otherwise, spoiled by a minor gripe.
Whether it’s the case that’s too big, or a sub-dial too small, or a crown that’s too proud, the Longines Heritage line is afflicted with “almost, but” syndrome on an epidemic scale. Thing is, the watches are so well made, so reliable and so affordable that, for the most part, these little foibles can be overlooked. After all, an almost-great watch is still an almost-great watch, and for the price it’s still a high bar to hit.
But not every watch Longines adds to the Heritage collection has “almost, but”. The Avigation BigEye, for example, doesn’t have it. Contrary to the name, that references the oversized chronograph minute counter, and the extra chunky pushers and 42mm case size, the BigEye gets it very right indeed.
As with all Heritage pieces, the BigEye is inspired by a watch from Longines’ history, specifically a pilot’s watch, and it’s from there these details draw their inspiration. The “big eye” itself makes the use of the chronograph easier for pilots in the air, as do the chunky pushers, for operation with gloves. To describe the watch makes it sound like a monstrosity, but to see it is a very different story indeed.
Like the wing on a GT3 RS or the bonnet bulge on an M4, these unusual additions not only make the BigEye stand out, but also make it work. Try and imagine it with normal-sized features and it becomes ordinary and unexciting; the additions give it proportions that keep drawing your eyes back for another satisfying gaze.
For just over £2,000, it’s hard to find fault with the Avigation BigEye. The movement may be an ETA, but it comes with a column wheel exclusively for Longines, so using the pushers is as satisfying as looking at them, unlike a bog-standard 7750. It’s actually hard to think of a better chronograph for the money.
Tudor Heritage Black Bay Chrono M79350-0001
There’s one watch you’re not going to find in this selection, and that’s the Daytona. It’s a good watch, but everyone living within a lightyear of Earth with even the vaguest interest in watches knows about it, not to mention that it’s been done to death, brought back to life, and been done to death again.
The Tudor Heritage Black Bay Chrono, however, has slipped under the radar a little bit. Following on from the revitalising success of the original Heritage Chrono, the one that brought Tudor back from the dusty archives of Rolex headquarters and onto the wish-lists of many a would-be Rolex owner, the Black Bay Chrono missed a beat and got swept away in the surrounding confusion.
Here’s why that happened: the Black Bay Chrono is the result of a number of decisions that managed to overshadow the watch itself. Number one: it’s a bit of a mish-mash. Up until then, the Heritage line was home to heavily inspired watches drawn from the pages of history, but the Black Bay Chrono sort of wasn’t.
Or it was, but in a higgledy-piggledy way that was more of a parts-bin approach than any one, solid idea. Snowflake hands from a dive watch with the tachymeter bezel of a sports chronograph, all over a dial that’s kind of dive watch-ish and kind of sports chronograph-ish. It’s confusing.
Number two, the watch didn’t get the ETA 2892, it got a manufacturer movement instead. “Hey, great,” we all said. Except that manufacturer was Breitling, not Tudor. Much brow-furrowing was done when the announcement of the movement swap between the brands went live, leading to even more confusion.
But now the dust has settled, now that information has been digested, we’re left with the Heritage Black Bay Chrono in its bare, naked form. And do you know what? It’s a peach. Why that’s a surprise, well, that’s for Tudor’s PR people to explain, but now we’re here, the watch really does do exactly what you’d expect it to, which is to offer an alternative to the much more expensive Daytona but with a bit more chunk and nostalgia to it—all for a sensible £3,650.
IWC Pilot’s Chronograph “Top Gun” IW378901
Before ceramic watches were a thing, there was this, the £6,000 IWC Pilot’s Chronograph IW378901. It wasn’t the first ceramic watch, not at all, but it was one of the first that really started the trend that’s now become widespread throughout watchmaking. Funny thing is that the use of the stuff isn’t the stand-out feature of this watch—not by a long shot.
From the front, this Pilot’s Chronograph appears to be pretty standard fare for IWC, leaning on the RAF-issue Mark XI watch from the late 1940s, albeit with a couple of splashes of red, one of which looks a bit like a plane if you squint hard enough. From the side, however, and from the back especially, there’s no mistaking what IWC has done here, honouring the United States Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program—commonly known as Top Gun.
Now, the adult part of me wants to say that this watch, like the film based on the legendary fighter pilot training school, is cheesy as all hell, and it is—but the childish part of me that desperately wanted to be a fighter jet pilot thinks this thing is the coolest thing since the movie itself. It’s what you’d call a guilty pleasure—a really guilty pleasure.
But the Top Gun school—once at the Naval Air Station Miramar, California, now at the Naval Air Station Fallon, Nevada—is a real place, not just the work of an overcompensating imagination, and that reality is somewhat different to the flyboy heroics of Tom Cruise’s Maverick. Despite the macho name, the Top Gun school is home to studying, studying and more studying. Funnily enough, the U.S. Navy takes its job very seriously, and the kind of horsing around depicted in the film is heavily frowned upon.
Now this is starting to sound like the kind of pilot’s school IWC could get on board with. A watchmaker known for its no-nonsense approach to engineering partnering with an organisation that takes pride in precision, discipline and performance actually kind of makes sense. IWC has made pilot’s watches for pretty much as long as pilots have worn them, and Top Gun pilots are some of the best in the world.
Still, I would prefer to think IWC had the slow-motion volleyball scene in mind when pitching this watch, regardless of whether it’s true or not. To be honest, the most impressive thing is that I managed to get all the way through this without once mentioning the danger zone. Doesn’t that take your breath away?
Breguet Type XXI Flyback 3817ST/X2/3ZU
Yes, this Breguet Type XXI is another pilot’s chronograph—I guess pilots really need to time stuff—but this one is very different. The elegant, traditional detailing tells you without even needing to look at the brand that this is a Breguet, an evolution of the Type XX pilot’s watch commissioned in 1950 for the French Navy.
Even though, at around £7,500, this isn’t the most expensive watch Breguet has ever made—not by a long shot—there are some very clear markers that we’ve moved up into a different class of watchmaking. The markers themselves, in fact, are a good start, because they are one of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of details that Breguet has gone the extra mile on—even though virtually no-one will ever notice them.
Zoom right in on the three and nine markers and you’ll notice an overlap so incredibly small it needs an electron microscope to spot. That’s a lot of effort taken to fit those components together like that for something no-one but no-one is ever going to see. And the gradation on the lines that indicate the night-time segment of the twenty-four-hour dial, that’s a fiddly old detail that again, ain’t no-one gonna see.
This watch is loaded with stuff like that, flamboyant touches that add an enormous amount of trouble to make. But of course the watch has to impress in the bits you can actually see as well, and as long as you like a dash of French flair to your aviation accoutrements, you’ll be doing alright.
And it isn’t just the styling that’s a spot eccentric. The chronograph itself exhibits some unusual traits from the Lemania 1350-based calibre 584Q/2, such as that twenty-four-hour dial where you’d ordinarily expect the chronograph minutes to be, and the chronograph minutes hiding behind the central flyback chronograph seconds. If you’ve ever had trouble reading elapsed minutes off of a tiny sub-dial before, you’ll appreciate that little titbit. You’ll probably also like that you get a silicon hairspring and silicon pallets for good measure.
This may not be a fully fledged mechanical masterpiece like so many other Breguets are, but then it doesn’t cost as much as one either, and as far as the heritage of Breguet pilot’s watches go, it’s as solid as any other. With this watch, however, unlike other pilot’s watches, you also get the pride of wearing a timepiece from one of the most brilliant, defining and eccentric watchmakers in the world.
A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph 402.032
Sometimes watches need no introduction, and the A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Chronograph, despite this introduction, really doesn’t need one. It speaks for itself, both in styling and in mechanics, the execution from the German brand arguably some of the best on the entire planet.
Sure, it’s not Swiss, but despite being lesser-known, German watchmaking can go toe-to-toe with neighbouring Switzerland easily. Not only that, but the unique German styling makes any watch from A. Lange & Söhne—and indeed, any German brand—stand out from the crowd.
But not to the detriment; the subtle gothic touches and Bauhaus influence gives the 1815 Chronograph enough character to remember without being so much that you want to forget it. Most of it is in the details, the proportions, from the fonts on the dial to the shapes of the hands. Nothing is like anything else you’ve ever seen, and all of it in a good way.
This watch though, this 1815 Chronograph, you don’t buy it for that. That’s all great, really it is, but that’s not why you’d part with near-on £30,000 for one. The blued hands, silvered dial, rose gold case—they’re all top notch, but really, they’re secondary.
It’s the movement you’re paying all this for. It’s the price to pay for the ability to look at this calibre L951.5 whenever you want. And you will want to look at it. It’s like a magic eye picture, but real. It’s so intricate, it’s hard to believe that it even can be real. It’s layered, yet slender, intricate, yet ordered, overwhelming, yet all-consuming. If you don’t believe in hypnosis, just take a look at the L951.5 and be prepared to concede that a watch can indeed send you into a trance—and you don’t even have a swing it back and forth.
We could talk about the technicality of this movement, the flyback mechanism, instant chronograph minutes, horizontal clutch, column wheel—but that’s like trying to dissect what makes Monet’s water lilies so entrancing. The best thing to do is to simply sit down, take a moment, and enjoy it.
Whatever your budget, there’s a chronograph out there that’ll match it. These five all offer a variety of different flavours and feels, and there are many more besides. Whether you’re looking for something smart, sporty, utilitarian or outright incredible, the selection really is mind-blowing. Or you can just buy a Daytona after all.
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