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Feature: 5 best luxury chronographs in the world

It’s one of the most complicated types watches in the world and indeed one of the most popular types of watches in the world too. But which luxury chronographs are the best? Here are five peak choices to whet your appetite.

Grand Seiko Tentagraph SLGC001

For many years, Grand Seiko’s chronographs have been technically masterful, but with the looks of an aging warthog, they haven’t captured too many fans. Well can you believe that 2023 marked the creation of Grand Seiko’s first mechanical chronograph, stepping away from the Spring Drive used previously, and this time they’ve kept in mind that it might be prudent to not make the watch look like a hotdog that’s been slammed in a door.

This is the Tentagraph, and it’s special for a number of reasons. It’s not only the first purely mechanical chronograph from Grand Seiko, but also the first chronograph ever to feature the Dual-Impulse Escapement. That’s predominantly because Grand Seiko only recently invented the Dual-Impulse Escapement within the calibre 9SA5, the base movement upon which the chronograph 9SC5 is built.

Why Tentagraph? Because it has a high-beat, ten vibrations per second. It’s not as smooth as Spring Drive, but it’s pretty damn smooth, just like an El Primero. Also because it has three days of power reserve, twelve more hours than the El Primero. It’s also automatic and a chronograph. So that’s Ten, as in beats per second, T as in three days of power reserve, A as in automatic and Graph as in chronograph. Yeah, it’s the biggest stretch since my dog this morning, but somehow it sounds right and seems appropriately Japanese, so all’s good.

Some of you might be wondering how exactly Grand Seiko squeezes out those extra twelve hours of power reserve, and that’s where the Dual-Impulse Escapement comes in. Now, without getting too technical and revealing my ignorance, the Dual-Impulse Escapement finds its efficiency by removing an element of friction from one of the typical steps in the operation of the standard Swiss lever escapement by bypassing it completely. Power is communicated from the last wheel in the chain of gears that cascade down from the mainspring to the balance wheel beat by beat by means of a pivoting lever called the pallet fork. With the Dual-Impulse escapement, every other beat is transmitted from that last wheel directly to the balance wheel, bypassing the pallet fork completely.

It's not a small watch, the Tentagraph, at 43.2mm wide and 15.3mm thick, but with compact lugs and a lightweight titanium case, it wears well contrary to what the numbers might suggest. Of course, the case is polished like mercury and the dial gets the full Grand Seiko treatment, making the Tentagraph a truly complete expression of the Japanese chronograph.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch 310.30.42.50.01.002

No list of top luxury chronographs would be complete without the Speedmaster, and as such its story has been told a thousand times. But today, rather than dwelling on the aspect of the watch that pertains to people who’ve worn it before, I’m interested in looking more into why you should want to wear it now.

First up, of all the something-master watches that have been released over the years from Rolex and Omega alike, this one sounds the best. Seamaster sounds like the award you get for completing bronze, silver and gold swimming certificates. A GMT-Master sounds like a pre-war school physical education teacher. Speedmaster—now that’s a name. That’s Chuck Yeager, Malcolm Campbell, Andy Green. These are people who eat ten eggs, ten sausages and ten rashers of bacon for breakfast and Mach 10 for lunch and dinner.

And when it comes to speed, you need a speed machine. This is why I’d find it very hard to choose the Hesalite version of the Speedmaster over the sapphire, because the machine in this thing is worth the entry price alone. I think it’s borderline cruel that Omega doesn’t offer a Hesalite front with sapphire back and have almost considered writing a strongly worded letter to Omega about it, but then I remembered I didn’t have the address. Perhaps they tried and got confused and ended up making a Speedmaster entirely out of plastic instead.

For the pedants, the calibre 3861 is not the 321 as was originally in the Speedmaster. That is also available for those who want to spend fifty percent more. But for everyone else, the 3861 is everything your eyes like most about mechanical movements. It’s shiny and crisp, for one, with polished bits and brushed bits that don’t have the dull greyness a lot of the other Omega movements have. It’s also got more bits than your eyes know what to do with, which evokes exactly the same feeling of awe as seeing an exposed F1 engine, Rocketdyne or Cosworth.

I can’t think of a single other watch that packs that much top shelf material in the back for less. Closest I can think of is the Seagull chronograph you see in the Studio Underd0gs but that’s at a very different level of finish. Otherwise, there’s nothing this side of something you’d have to sell your car to buy.

Breitling Navitimer B01 Chronograph 43 AB0138241C1A1

The Breitling Navitimer is one of the most famous chronographs ever made and yet I still don’t think it gets enough love. Part of that might definitely be because there’s more going on here than Wuthering Heights, but that’s exactly what makes the watch so great. This watch is the Garmin of yesteryear, giving professionals the opportunity to unlock superpowers they never thought possible.

Where the Garmin Tactix 7 offers pro features like ballistics calculators and night vision mode, the Breitling Navitimer dispensed with all the slide rules rattling about in the cockpit and packed them all into one very handy watch. And a slide rule is a bit like an Excel spreadsheet—the deeper you go, the more you realise it can do and the better it gets. We’re mostly all familiar with the idea of using a chronograph with a tachymeter to measure speed—but how about throwing in the slide rule and calculating fuel use as well?

Never mind the Swiss army knife. The Navitimer has so many uses it makes even the thickest Victorinox seem as multipurpose as a teabag. Want to do some long multiplication or division? The Navitimer can do that with ease. Converting one unit into another? The Navitimer is the UN of multinational measurement. But this is a pilot’s watch, so let’s get really specifically complex. How about rate of climb or descent, or even the distance of a climb or descent? Obviously it can do that or I wouldn’t have mentioned it. About the only thing this watch can’t do is get you a reservation at The Fat Duck.

It would take longer to learn all the myriad uses of the Navitimer slide rule than it would to roll your eyes through the entirety of Atlas Shrugged. You can even get a little plastic practice Navitimer slide rule to learn on, and to be honest, it needs it. These days, app technology gets the problem solved much faster without introducing new problems of its own, and so the slide rule has lost favour with working professionals, but somehow that makes the Navitimer an even more impressive and important piece of memorabilia in acknowledging the individuals clever enough to use it.

Patek Philippe 5172G

The great advantage of being Patek Philippe is having both the resources and budget to whatever the hell they like. And when it became clear that using someone else’s chronograph movement wasn’t going to cut the mustard with collectors anymore, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work creating this, the calibre CH 29-535 PS.

On the one hand, it’s as basic as chronographs get. There’s no ultra-smooth vertical clutch. It gets an old school horizontal one complete with bitey teeth. It’s not automatic either. The 65-hour power reserve relies on you doing a little fingercise. It keeps the foundational architecture of chronograph watches since they were being worn in the pocket.

That’s not to say that Patek Philippe didn’t improve a few things along the way, however. That bitey-teeth clutch would ordinarily be a littler jerky on first start-up because the teeth only have a finite number of engagement points, however here Patek Philippe has cleverly profiled the teeth asymmetrically so the meshing is smoother and less perceptible. The wheels blend from one state to another with the creamy goodness of a French dinner.

Where Patek Philippe really went to town is on the chronograph minute counter. Typically, that’s activated by basically a single-toothed gear going around with the chronograph seconds hand that nudges the minutes along once per rotation. It’s not an instant thing, the single tooth snapping the minute hand along one over the course of a few seconds, and that’s completely fine. Unless you’re Patek Philippe.

Instead, Patek Philippe have bolted on an entire additional mechanism that takes that slow action and condenses it into a single, instantaneous snap. It’s kind of like the mechanism that makes a dead beat complication tick once per second instead of eight, storing up the building energy and releasing it all in one go. It’s ridiculously intense for a feature people are only going to notice if they stare at their watch for a full solid minute. Which if I had one of these, I’d definitely do.

Rolex Daytona 116506

The king of all chronographs ever is of course the Rolex Daytona, and the king of all Rolex Daytonas is the anniversary platinum addition with cheeky diamonds littering the dial. Why is this watch so revered? Did it slay sales records at launch? Did it achieve remarkable things? Was it a landmark moment in the growth of the brand? No, not really. None of that. It would be a quarter century before anyone even started paying attention to it.

So why is it so revered? Because it marks the moment watches came back again. There were many watches before it that sparked a revival in mechanical after the devastation of the quartz crisis, but really the moment watchmaking truly become a thing again was when the Daytona re-emerged in 1988. Before then, there weren’t really any vintage watch collectors. People weren’t really buying into new mechanical watches. Rolex was doing okay, but brands like Omega were dead in the water. The Daytona changed that.

When the Daytona was redesigned at the end of the eighties, it looked sleeker, heavier, more luxurious. It told people that watches were something to not just be used, but coveted. And covet it they did, because that Daytona was the first to become known for the much-maligned waitlist. You could walk into a store and get a Submariner at discount, but the Daytona—no, you had to be patient for one of those.

The nineties was a real revival for watchmaking. Omega resurfaced. Patek started making tourbillons again. Collecting vintage became a thing. The Daytona was the first domino. And this platinum edition is the ultimate expression of the essence of that. It weighs a tonne, shines like nothing else and the icy blue dial, limited to just the platinum models, is cooler than Santa’s patio.

What do you consider to be the best luxury chronograph in the world?

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