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Best Chronograph Watches: Time For An Upgrade

Cover your naked wrist with watches in every price range.

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BYMichael Febbo/ LAST UPDATED ON August 9, 2022

If you’re a car enthusiast, there’s an 84.7 percent chance you’re also a watch enthusiast. I made that number up, but I’d put money on it — plus or minus five percent-ish. Most of you who self-identify as car enthusiasts haven’t given much thought as to why. Those of us who have spent hours ruminating on our disorder have come to some interesting, but totally predictable conclusions.


It isn’t just that we love cars, we love machines in general. We love processes and we even have a weird fetish for materials. Yes, there’s still a good chance you’re just one of those jackasses who only use cars and watches as expressions of wealth, but those people are just here to scroll through the photos and aren’t reading any of this anyway.


Before we get started, I want to make something clear; you can own enthusiast watches without spending thousands of dollars. Some of us realize that affordable cars offer just as good, in some cases a better driving experience than cars costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are great watches in every price range.

Best Overall

Porsche Design 1919 Chronotimer Flyback

Summary
Porsche Design makes some of the world’s best timepieces. This is no different, powered by PD’s first mechanical movement encased in titanium and modeled after the 911’s dash chronometer.
Pros
  • Like a 911, the watch is elegant and functional but with presence
  • Design has clear lineage to PD’s first watch while looking contemporary
  • Legendary reliability of WERK 01.200 mechanical movement
Cons
  • Some will miss the heft of a stainless-steel case
  • Only 48 hours of power reserve
Best Value

Seiko Coutura SSG009

Summary
Seiko watches give you all the performance, durability and heritage of much more expensive brands. It looks and feels high-quality and will likely outlast most other watches.
Pros
  • More accurate than a mechanical watch
  • Requires less maintenance than more exotic brands
  • Stainless body and sapphire crystal
Cons
  • Tough to sync with radio signal
  • Euro-snobs won’t approve
Honorable Mention

TAG Heuer Formula 1 X Red Bull Racing

Summary
When you want a watch to tell the world you’re a car and watch enthusiast. Expensive enough to feel like an accomplishment, yet won’t keep you from buying a house.
Pros
  • Flashy looks to grab attention, but won’t look silly with cufflinks
  • Ubiquity of dealers means easy servicing
  • Feels like a tank and quartz movement runs like one
Cons
  • Your mechanical watch friends will look down on it
  • You’ll outgrow it in your 40s
Best Chronograph Watches: Time For An Upgrade
Seiko

Summary List 

Best At Everything: Apple Watch Series 7

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Our Methodology

My awakening as a watch person happened simultaneously with becoming a car person. Christmas 1978, the entire world was obsessed with Star Wars: A New Hope — I saw it in a theater. My “big gift” was the Kenner Death Star; twenty inches tall with an operational elevator and a trap door that dropped our 3 ¾ inch heroes into a working trash compactor. But more to the point, I also got a Timex Snoopy Flying Ace wind-up mechanical watch. The secondhand was a clear disc with two clouds and the red baron’s biplane circling in a literal dogfight. My brother got a slot car track — I can still remember the subtle smell of ozone and burning oil.

I was as fascinated with the watch as much as the Imperial Battle Station or the slot car track. Since then, I have owned countless watches from all sorts of manufacturers. I’ve been putting together watch guides like this for most of my car writing career, so hopefully, I’ve learned a few things along the way. I also consulted reputable watch websites and read more user reviews than anyone should have to — don’t ever think that car enthusiasts are unique in their brand biases. You will notice the product descriptions are as much about the watch’s story as its mechanical attributes. Like exotic cars, you’re buying the watch’s narrative as much as the physical product.

Best Chronograph Watches- Reviews & Recommendations

Specs

  • Case Size: 39 or 42mm
  • Movement: Self-winding mechanical
  • Material: Titanium

Pros

  • An instant classic from a company known for innovation
  • Titanium provides the ruggedness of steel at a fraction the weight
  • Available in either black or brown dial with matching leather band

Cons

  • Well priced for a luxury watch, but still a lot of dough
  • The brand does have a certain underserved stigma

Porsche Design didn’t start as part of the car manufacturer. Yes, it was started by Butzi Porsche, designer of the original 911, but it was a different company entirely. PD was founded in 1972, in Austria, the ancestral home of the Porsche family. In the last 50 years, the Porsche Design name has adorned everything from watches and sunglasses to toasters and mountain bikes. But, these aren’t co-branding exercises done for the sake of profit, everything Porsche Design touches pushes technological boundaries.

Watches were one of the company’s first products. The imaginatively named, Chronograph 1 was the first PVD(Physical Vapor Deposition) coated watch, and not just PVD, but it was the first black watch, ever. Later, the Porsche Design Compass had a watch face that flipped up to reveal a fluid-filled compass in the ground-breaking aluminum body. Then, another first, the Ocean 2000 was the first watch ever certified water resistant to 2000-meters.

Butzi is no longer with us and Porsche Design is now a part of Porsche AG, but the company’s watches are still world-class. This 1919 Chronotimer Flyback is wearable engineering. Like 911s through the years, it expresses its lineage to the Chronograph 1 while still looking modern. The case is titanium, the band is made from the same leather found in Porsche cars and both the crystal and the caseback are sapphire. Inside the watch is the 25 gemstone WERK 01.200 movement that powered the Chronograph 1. This isn’t a tank of a watch; it’s available in either 42 or 39mm, and the titanium case means it is relatively lightweight. Like Butzi’s 911, the beauty comes from form following function.

Specs

  • Case Size: 44.5mm
  • Movement: Solar Quartz
  • Material: Stainless Steel

Pros

  • Legendary reliability known for lasting decades with minimal, if any service
  • Stainless case and band with sapphire crystal
  • Solar-powered and automatic setting via Atomic Clock
  • Retail price is great value but can be found even lower

Cons

  • Non-watch people won’t appreciate your shrewd choice
  • Initial setup isn’t intuitive and might require YouTube instructional

I expect three distinct reactions to picking a Seiko for Best Value. There are 40 percent of you who will say a watch with an MSRP of $595 is in no conceivable way a value when you can get Brand X for half that price. Another 40 percent of you will say that any watch under $5,000 and without European pedigree is cheap garbage. There’s another 20% saying, yeah that’s a great watch at a great price, but there’s an even better Seiko for a little less or just a bit more.

For those of you who don’t know, Seiko is the equivalent of a GTI or Civic Type R in the watch world. You don’t have the “Hey, Look At Me” factor of a Rolex or a BMW M3, but in most situations, you’re getting more enjoyment with fewer headaches.

The Seiko SSG009, like every watch from the century-old Japanese watch company, uses an in-house movement. That’s a big deal to watch people. Instead of being powered by the wearer’s movement winding a spring, the watch is solar powered and has an energy reserve of 6 months. It’s also self-setting for both time and date using the radio broadcast of the Atomic clock. It will reset once a day, keep that in mind if you regularly arrive late for meetings and do the watch tapping/holding it up to your ear routine.

The stainless-steel case and band add a good heft, making it feel as rugged as it is. The crystal is actual sapphire and the case is glass-backed. It may not have the cache of more expensive brands, but real watch enthusiasts will give these the respect they deserve.

Specs

  • Case Size: 43mm
  • Movement: Battery Quartz
  • Material: Stainless Steel

Pros

  • Works with burgers and Jeans or martinis and sports coats
  • Real racing heritage built with decades of F1 involvement
  • Big, rugged, and heavy stainless body
  • Quartz movement is accurate and reliable

Cons

  • Quartz movement is too pedestrian for some
  • As seen in every shopping mall jewelry store window around the world

Ask random people on the street to name a luxury watch brand that isn’t Rolex, TAG Heuer is going to be at the top of the list. TAG is an acronym for Techniques d’Avant-Garde, and Heuer was the surname of a Swiss watchmaker who founded the company in 1860. Most people don’t know they were separate companies until 1985 when TAG, a company that specializes in designing and building components for motorsports and aviation, acquired Heuer, the watch company. Both names have been ubiquitous in racing, mainly Formula 1, for decades.

While some watch brands’ real-world connection to cars is nothing more than a branding exercise, TAG Heuer is legitimately part of the sport. This Formula 1 X Red Bull Racing chronograph is a fitting tribute to its partnership with the team. I hear you, two-grand is a lot of money for a decidedly un-exotic quartz movement, but it’s accurate and reliable. I own an Aquaracer, which is very similar mechanically and it’s been through hell and back without a hiccup. Think of it this way, Lotus built some of the best driving cars in modern history powered by completely pedestrian Toyota engines.

The 43mm case is machined from 316L stainless steel, the L denoting a lower carbon content making it more corrosion resistant than normal 316. It’s available with either a metal link bracelet or a rubber pin-type band. The caseback is engraved with the Red Bull F1 logo and the crystal is sapphire. This is a hefty, sturdy timepiece. Yes, “TAGs” are as frat-boy-famous as leased BMWs, but have more F1 heritage than half the car manufacturers competing.

Specs

  • Case Size: 55 x 44mm
  • Movement: Hand Wound Mechanical
  • Material: Titanium

Pros

  • Limited to a 126-piece production run
  • Thinking about the lives you’ve crushed when you check the time
  • It has a tiny little engine in it
  • People will assume you own a Bugatti(you probably do)

Cons

  • A Bugatti-themed watch for the price of a Lamborghini car
  • Only 60 hours of power reserve

During my time in the car industry I’ve met several people in the watch business; from designers to brand reps to salesmen. A guy who ran a high-end watch store told me something interesting. For customers buying a watch in the mid-4-figure to low-5-figure range, it’s a more serious life event than their wedding day. They dress up, want to be treated like a celebrity, and their sphincters are sealed up tighter than a submarine hatch between the time the credit card swipes and the approval pops up on the screen. Customers buying a watch, errr, a time-piece in the high-5-figure and even 6-figure range take it as seriously as the average person buying a new pair of Nikes.

This Bugatti Chiron Tourbillion from Jacob&Co is in the mid-6-figure price range. I’ve included it in this guide to not only give you an idea of what the higher-end of the watch market looks like, but also to inspire you to vote – in every election. Remember, people buying watches that cost as much as your house don’t own one watch like this, they own a custom-built glass box full of them. The price of this watch, before tax, is the equivalent of working over 21 years in a full-time minimum wage job. I’m just saying.

The movement of this watch includes a miniaturized version of the Bugatti’s W16 engine that actually spins. The mechanical movement is supported by four springs, reminiscent of the car’s suspension. The movement uses two different power reserves, one for the watch and one for the engine animation. Both are wound with the center stem. The watch has a power reserve of roughly 60 hours and has a reserve gauge resembling a fuel gauge. The case is titanium and rated at 30 meters water resistance; for when you fall off your mega-yacht into the cool azure waters off the coast of Mykonos. Is this the best-looking watch in the world? No, it’s hideous. But, that’s the point; it will never be confused with a Timex.

Specs

  • Case Size: 41 or 45mm
  • Movement: Rechargeable Silicon
  • Material: Aluminum, Stainless Steel, or Titanium

Pros

  • If you had a calculator watch in the 80s, this is the watch you thought you’d have now
  • Affordable compared to most mechanical watches
  • Face is infinitely and instantly changeable
  • People will assume you don’t own a Bugatti(you probably don’t)

Cons

  • Must be charged every night
  • Holds its value like expired milk

I promise you, this is not here for rage-clicks or SEO-gaming, you really should consider an Apple Watch. I have a modest collection of watches that all hold some combination of monetary and sentimental value. Almost three years ago I bought an Apple Watch and haven’t worn anything else since.

A mechanical chronograph is a naturally aspirated, manual transmission, unassisted steering sports car, and an Apple Watch is a turbocharged, dual-clutch, torque-vectoring all-wheel drive GT. There’s a reason 911 Turbos outsell BR-Zs nearly four-to-one. The reasonably priced wrist-mounted device has more computing power than all six Space Shuttles combined. It delivers nearly all the information that my iPhone can, plus I get a heart rate monitor.

I wear my Apple Watch instead of bringing my phone when I mountain bike. I can change the face of it to match my needs, my outfit, or even just my mood. I am not easy on watches, although as an admitted watch enthusiast I am probably more conscious than most, but I have yet to put a nick or scratch on the thing. An Apple Watch starts at roughly the same price as the Seiko listed as our best value, but admittedly, it won’t hold its value as well. But, of every device I do or have ever owned, nothing makes me feel like I’m living in the future like making a phone call on my wrist.

Our Verdict

The car industry likes to say “there’s a butt for every seat.” Meaning every car has a customer and that’s why the car market is so diverse. There’s also a wrist for every watch and the industry is even more diverse than cars. While I picked the Porsche Design 1919 Chronotimer Flyback as the best overall watch, it won’t be to everyone’s taste, needs or budget. You may like either the Seiko or even the Apple Watch, or something completely different. Any of these are great choices, but click through the links and browse around different retailers and you might find something you like even more.

Consider Secondhand

When we start shopping for tools and products, we never overlook the secondhand market. In fact, it’s usually the first place I look. Whether you’re scrolling through Amazon’s Renewed section, eBay for car parts or tools, or flipping through the pages of Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, you have hundreds of thousands of used tools, parts, and gear ready to be shipped to your doorstep. Refurbished to like-new status, they’ll be willing to give you many more years of faithful service all while saving you money. 

If those options don’t have what you need, your local salvage yard is great for car parts, while swap meets are a great resource you should tap. Just Google either and head on down.  

Secondhand Tips

To make your secondhand search easier, here are two tips for finding the best deals and making sure your new-to-you stuff wasn’t destroyed by the previous owner. 

  • Buy from a reputable dealer. Counterfeit watches are rampant online and some are good enough to fool experts at a glance. Choose a seller with a long history and even a physical retail location, if possible.
  • If you don’t have watchmaking skills, choose a preowned watch that is already in the condition you are after. Buying a car that needs a clutch is a great way to save some coin – if you have the skills to fix it yourself. A watch is no different except learning to be a watchmaker on YouTube isn’t as likely to happen.

FAQs 

You’ve got questions. The Drive has answers.

Q: What’s the difference between a quartz and a mechanical watch?

A: In simplest terms, quartz watches are electrical powered while mechanical watches store energy in a spring.

Q: How much do chronographs cost?

A: Watches are available in literally every price range. Amazon has models under 10 bucks. Will they last more than a couple of button pushes or one good hand-washing, probably not. But, for a watch that will last years or even decades, you can pay as little as $150. It may not be the type of thing the protagonist in a sci-fi movie holds onto as the last memory of her grandfather and turns out to be the ignition key to a spacecraft, but it’s still a great watch. 

Q: Why do watches have jewels or gemstones?

A: When a watch says it has a seven-jewel movement, it means it uses seven tiny jewels as bearings in high-wear points.

Q: How does a watch know how to change the date?

A: Watches use what is basically a geared transmission to move hands at different speeds. The secondhand spins at 60 RPM, the minute hand at 60 Revolutions Per Hour, and so on. The date is timed to one revolution every 24 hours.

Q: How do I resize my watch band?

A: If you have a metal bracelet type band, you will need tools to remove links. Either buy tools or visit a watch store that will usually do it while you wait, for a reasonable price.

Q: Do all mechanical watches need winding?

A: Most modern mechanical watches are kinetic wound, meaning a pendulum inside the watch winds up the spring every time you move your arm.

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