The 25 best chronograph watches you can buy in 2018 • gear patrol gas bloating back pain

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Watches are passive devices. Once you’ve set the time, you can sit back, relax and let it do its thing. This is even true in the world of complications — additional functions in addition to the time — in which calendars, moon phase indicators and GMTs all, essentially, count a continually elapsing event. Save for one: the chronograph.

Chronograph means “time writer,” but you can think of it as a stopwatch, activated and stopped at the whim of its user. Its name is derived from one of the earliest versions of the mechanism, which was essentially a box filled with clockwork attached to two inky styluses. These recorded on two rotating discs of paper the difference in time between two horses on a race track. The mechanism was soon miniaturized and added to pocket watches. Then wristwatches.

To use a chronograph, you depress one of the pushers on the side of the case, engaging the function to get the second hand moving. Once the event you want to record is complete, you press that same pusher again, take note of the time, then press a second pusher and the mechanism resets to zero. Each press of the pusher is a tactile experience otherwise missing from watches, and the utility of being able to record the length of events on the fly was certainly not lost on the racers, referees, doctors, pilots and astronauts that used them throughout the 20th century.

Today modern, digital-timing systems have basically rendered the mechanical chronograph obsolete, but their associations with sports, auto racing, aviation and other exciting facets of life are in part why we love chronographs. The other part is, of course, the fact that they’re incredibly complex pieces of machinery, in which hundreds of tiny parts must operate in perfect synchrony. As such, they’re generally expensive to acquire. But if you love of watches, the complication is an essential piece to collect.

1821: Nicolas Mathieu Rieussec builds his chronograph mechanism, a box filled with clockwork driving two ink styluses recording elapsed time. It was created at the request of King Louis XVIII, who liked to watch horse racing. Previously considered the first chronograph until the discovery of Louis Moinet’s chronograph.

1969: Zenith, Seiko and a consortium of watchmakers (Heuer/Breitling/Hamilton-Buren/Dubois-Depraz) all race to create the first automatic-winding chronograph. The winner is still contested: Zenith was the first to announce the development, the consortium was the first to bring it to market worldwide, and Seiko was the first to sell its watch to the public, though only in Japan.

Clutch: Much like the connection between transmission and engine in a car, this is the coupling that connects the chronograph function to the main timekeeping gear train. There are two orientations for the clutch: horizontal and vertical. The former is more common, simpler and slimmer, while the latter — generally a staple in higher-end chronograph movements — provides a more seamless connection between the chronograph and the main clockwork.

Coulisse lever: On many lower-cost mechanical chronographs (notably the ubiquitous Valjoux 775), the Coulisse lever (also called “cam lever”) is the lever-and-cam system that moves to operate the chronograph function when the pusher is activated. It’s a relatively cheap, albeit robust, solution.

Column wheel: Like the cam lever, the column wheel activates the chronograph but takes on the look of a little turret-like wheel that progresses forward when the pusher is depressed. The action is much smoother than a cam lever, and the part requires more precision to make, thus making it more desirable in the eyes of many collectors.

Pusher: A button on a chronograph watch that starts, stops and resets the chronograph mechanism. The majority of chronographs have two pushers — one for starting and stopping the mechanism, and another for resetting (though these functions are sometimes combined on watches with one pusher, called monopushers.)

Sub-dial: A smaller dial within the main watch dial. Most chronographs have either two (called a bi-compax layout) or three (a tri-compax layout) of these. Generally, they record the running seconds for the main time function, the minutes for the chronograph function and the hours for the chronograph function.

Tachymeter: A scale around the dial of a watch used to calculate speed. The wearer simply needs to take note of how many seconds elapse to travel a mile and reference the scale to know their speed. Tachymeter scales are often a staple on racing chronographs and can be found either on the outside of the dial or the bezel.

Valjoux 7750: An automatic chronograph movement designed in 1973 by Valjoux (now produced by ETA) that has become a ubiquitous caliber in the industry. If you’re buying a lower-cost chronograph watch that doesn’t have an in-house developed movement, it very likely has some form of the 7750 inside it.

Unlike with, say, dive watches, there’s not a set criterion that defines an “aviation” chronograph or a “motoring” chronograph. Historically, though, there are a few common design elements that have shown up on watches in the following categories. These are features we kept our eyes on when formulating these lists, and you’ll see more detail for each below.

Though pilots were strapping clocks to their wrists as early as 1904, chronograph wristwatches as standard issue for aviators didn’t come into vogue until much later. Archetypal aviation chronographs include the Gallet Flying Officer, commissioned for the U.S. Air Force in 1939 and the Type 20, a specification issued by the French government in 1954. Both of these watches are characterized by legible dials with large, luminous numerals, as well as rotating bezels that can be used to calculate elapsed time. Wristwatches aren’t the necessary cockpit tools they once were, but there are still plenty of examples you can buy that borrow heavily from that winning formula. Seagull 1963

You’d be hard-pressed to find a mechanical chronograph at a better price than the Seagull 1963, and you likely won’t find one with the same kind of history behind it. Made by China’s biggest watch manufacturer, the 1963 uses the Seagull ST19, a movement originally developed as a recreation of the Venus 175 movement back the early ’60s for use in a pilot’s chronograph for the People’s Liberation Army Air Force.

One of the chronograph’s earliest uses was timing horse races, so naturally, the complication evolved when horses made way for horsepower. Early races were mostly timed by stopwatches mounted to car dashboards, but as the complication was shrunk, they were more often seen on wrists, especially in the F1 and endurance racing heyday between the ’50s and ’70s.

While race cars and chronographs share a long history now, there’s no real formula for what constitutes a “racing chronograph.” Ideally, a tachymeter scale on the bezel (used for calculating average speeds) should be present, and stylistically, it should have elements of color to aid in legibility —and if it matches your sponsor’s logo, all the better. Oak & Oscar Jackson

Oak & Oscar is a small operation, but its latest watch, the Jackson, can go toe-to-toe with chronographs from bigger brands. Its movement is a hand-winding version of the Eterna 39 with a flyback chronograph module — given the sub-$3,000 starting price, that’s a lot of horology for not a ton of money. The engine is complemented by a dial with a clean, bi-compax design that features eye-catching orange accents and a subtle tachymeter scale.