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A vintage Omega Speedmaster

I love dive watches. My feelings about the Seiko MM300 are well documented. But if dive watches, for me, are primarily a way to capture the imagination and create a way out of the mental prisons we invariably create for ourselves in our modern lives, there is a type of watch that tugs very strongly at the practicality side as well. Chronographs.

Of course, itís not just that chronographs are immensely practical, even if many say chronograph owners donít even use them. They have other advantages as well.

My Hamilton Pan Europ

Theyíre good looking. There are some out there who arenít a fan of chronographs, sure, but for the most part, people love their look. Some less-than-reputable companies go as far as to make watches that look like chronographs, even though they lack the feature (if youíre reading this, you probably already know that a chronograph is merely a stopwatch function on a watch). And vintage chronographs--so many gorgeous looks they had in the past. The old Bulova 666, with its special subdial treatment, the heart-wrenching beauty of a mid 70s panda dial Rolex Daytona, the Nina Rindt Universal Geneve Compax, blue dial Seiko Speedtimers, Heuer Autavias, the Heuer Skipper (I get butterflies whenever I see one), and a host of other beauties from companies that died long before I was born (which are, unfortunately, mostly too small for my wrist). So many gorgeous pieces made through the years.

They come in many configurations. One register, two registers, three registers; hell, I think Iíve even seen four registers (or subdials, whatever you want to call them), though Iím not entirely sure what the fourth one does, Iím not a physicist, so I run out of ways to measure time after seconds, minutes, and hours. And then thereís register placement. 3-6-9. 6-9-12. Okay, maybe there arenít that many of those with the triple registers, outside of Hamiltonís X-Wind with its funky backwards movement and its 12-3-6 configuration. But two register chronographs add 3-9 and 12-6 to the mix. Then there are things you can do with the registers themselves. Change their colors, sink them into the dial, change the dial texture, put a ring around them, lume the hands, double up their functions (which may be somewhat commonplace in quartz chronos, but when Omega came out with that feature on the Planet Ocean 9300, I was flabbergasted); you can even color the dial so it looks like the registers are on opposite ends of a surfboard (I still kick myself for missing out on that one when I saw it on eBay). One register chronographs confuse and upset me, mainly because they seem to give up a running seconds hand, which drives me mad. But still, that option is out there, like the Seiko 6139. Hell, Omega even made a zero register chronograph in its Chronostop model. I donít even want to know how that works, because as far as Iím concerned, itís just magic; just like how a TV works.

There's even room for quartz love here; my anadigi Breitling B-1

Chronographs also evoke images of some of humankindís greatest accomplishments. Sure, dive watches have been to the unexplored depths of our oceans, but chronographs have left our atmosphere and gone to space and the moon (and not just the Omega Speedmaster, which Iím wearing right now, but others, such as the aforementioned Seiko 6139 worn by Col. William Pogue on the Skylab 4 mission). Chronographs also bring to mind pilots, breaking the sound barrier, leaving contrails, and defiantly ignoring the pull to the planetís surface while making me sing the riff to ďDanger ZoneĒ under my breath. I may find commercial air travel to be tedious and, frankly, terrifying (planes just arenít safe, come on, think about it--it makes no sense, we canít fly), but Iíve envied fighter pilots since I first watched Top Gun as a small child.

As a species, we donít just test the limits of the planetís gravitational force, of course, we also test our own limits. And one of the ways we do that is by racing. Nothing in the world stands stronger against conquering than physics, and race drivers do everything they can to fight against physical forces in a battle for humankindís adventuring soul. After all, in a world where there is no land left to survey, no mountains left to climb, and no caves left to in which to spelunk, what do we have left to explore but our own limits? What first drew me to the Speedmaster wasnít the space connection--no, I didnít even know about that until after I fell in love with the watch already--but it was the watchís original purpose that pulled me in. It was a racing and sport chronograph, not a space watch, todayís marketing be damned.

Chronographs have other connections to racing as well. Before I was a Speedmaster man, I was a Monaco man. The one in particular, the gem of my collection, is the Monaco Vintage LE, released over 10 years ago in 2005, which was an homage to Steve McQueen (a hero of mine) and the racing suit he wore in the film Le Mans. More racing. And Steve McQueen. Forget it, thatís just icing on the cake when you look at the aching good looks of the Monaco, and the bold offset red and blue stripes on the first-ever white dial Monaco. Having that watch makes any ďgrailĒ discussion a bit of a strange exercise for me, as it is my grail and I already have it.

But I digress. Letís discuss for a moment the practical benefits of a chronograph and just depart a bit from the fanciful aspects (it may be the lateness of the hour of the bottle of Neuro Bliss I just drank--whatís in this stuff? Itís so good, it should probably be illegal), but if I donít stop myself, I could go on for pages about the chronograph and humankindís need to find its own breaking point.

The practicality of timing things is immense. There are myriad uses of a stopwatch. Sure, there are ways to time things in other watches as well. If your watch has a running seconds, you can just watch it, depending on how well marked the seconds track is. If youíve got a dive bezel, you can time things that way, though to get and exact minute, youíd have to line up your pip with the seconds hand, not the minute hand, which can be tricky as it sweeps towards you. Plus, that method only allows you to time for one minute exactly. Beyond that, youíre back to counting revolutions on fingers (and maybe toes, I donít know what weíre timing here). Parking meters? Check. Steaks on the grill? Check. Time it takes for a room temperature beer to get cold in your freezer? Check. Timing your yacht race? Of course it can, donít be silly.

Best way to time a burger. Takes more than 14 seconds, though.

And letís not forget the immensely satisfying moment when someone bothers you at work or the like, tells you that theyíll only take a minute, and you get to reach to your wrist, push a button, and tell them exactly when their time is up. Oh, how I miss that. You have the power of time in your hands (well, in one and on another, but you know what I mean). You can stop it, you can start it, you can measure it, you can create intervals; chronographs give you some semblance of power over this cosmic constant. Well, there I go again.

Two types of chronographs interest me the more than any other kind: mechanical and digital (including anadigi). Your run of the mill quartz chronograph, though Iíve owned a few, isnít my cup of tea these days, as my attitude towards quartz has led me to ones that only do things either not possible in a mechanical (or are impracticably expensive to get). Nothing against them, and I wouldnít even say that I wonít buy another one in the future. I mean, the Seiko 7a28 is something else; wouldnít mind having one of those. But my main focus is on mechanical and digital (though mostly anadigi; Iíve only got one digital in my collection, an excellent Suunto X-Lander Military, and that seems to be more than enough). And itís a journey, Iíll tell you that.

As amazing as chronographs are, there are downsides. Case thickness, though usually not a concern for me (I used to own a 45mm Helson Shark Diver, and while I never got my caliper out to measure it, I think the best way to measure its thickness is in hands, like how you measure the height of a horse; I believe it was 6,247 hands--just an estimate), can be an issue. The Valjoux 7750 movement, which seems to power so many automatic chronographs, seems to found in cases only 40mm or larger--again, not a problem for me, as I generally like them 42-44mm, but it can be an issue for those with smaller wrists or more historical sensibilities when it comes to watch sizes.

Registers can make the dial harder to read for those with aging eyes (though the Speedmaster is a graduate course on how to make a superbly legible chronograph dial--and while I like the current Rolex Daytona, they could learn a thing or two here. I mean, silver rings, on which the markings are written, around a white subdial on a white dial?). Theyíre more expensive to purchase--trying to find one below the four figure mark, or even hovering around it, can be an exercise in hair pulling. And I would be remiss not to mention the service costs. My Monaco, two years back or so, with its complicated Dubois-Depraz chronograph module set me back a cool $700 at an independent watchmaker. A basic 7750 service cost $400 at the same shop. While Iíve never actually had to service a three-hander (likely a function of how short a time period three-handers tend to be in my collection in general, whereas when I put the time and money into a mechanical chronograph, I tend to keep it), Iím told those are much cheaper to have serviced.

Of course, I wouldnít want those minor drawbacks to scare anyone away--just making sure youíre prepared for that should you catch the chronograph bug like I have. After all, connecting to our speciesí adventuring spirit and having a modicum control over time has got to be worth it, right? Besides, how else are you going to count down to the start of your regatta?

Keep time, guys.
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  1. CFR's Avatar
    Great idea for your blog. Well done, Raza.

    I'm an unconditional fan of chronographs, for the last 40 years. From a total of 68 watches I own, 31 of them are chronographs: quartz, automatic, hand wound.

    The chronograph has this almost magic quality of being able to time the duration of an specific event, without affecting the trivial presentation of a continuum, common on every other watch. In a sense, the stopwatch serves the time to its owner...ŗ la carte. Love them.

    Updated Feb 21, 2016 at 04:55 AM by CFR
  2. Samanator's Avatar
    I've been a avid anti Chronograph fan for many years. I have a long history of short term ownership until I discovered Speedmasters four years ago. I bought preowned modded by Omega Speedy moon professional. This had a white dial with charcoal grey hands and a display back. The chronograph mechanism probably needed a bit of work since it had a pronounced stutter when it started until it pasted the 5 second mark. The difference between this one and all the short term chronographs was that the speedy was easy to tell the time on. This was an epiphany to what was wrong with all of the others. On the speedy the registers fade into the back until you focus on them when in use. Otherwise you see the hour and minute hand and the markers. Most other chronograph watches just have the sub dials too prominent so basic time telling gets lost. I let that Speedy go, but it was always on my mind. Since that time three other Speedmasters have taken residence in my collection. These are the only chronograph watches I have and the only ones that interest me are other Speedys.
  3. watchdaddy1's Avatar
    I myself have found a new appreciation for Chronographs as well mostly Vintage as of late.My 1 st was my Seiko Bullhead then the Speedy & since I've accumilated quite an assortment of Chrono's .As a matter of fact that's all Iv'e been looking in2 & stalking.

    I find them very useful ... I keep telling myself I'm a Panerai guy but I think that boat has sailed

    Great post Raza
  4. Raza's Avatar
    I'm a big fan of vintage chronographs--the look, at least. I have trouble with the smaller sizes. Of course, there are some that come in more modern sizes (42mm is really the sweet spot for vintage chronos for me), like the beloved Heuer Skipper. However, I have yet to come up with the $8,000 or so that it costs to pick up one of those up.
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