The chronograph is easily one of the most popular complications in the history of watchmaking. To explain it in the simplest manner possible, the chronograph is essentially a stopwatch—it functions like one and it looks like one too. Throughout the history of watches, the chronograph has served pilots, divers, and various other watch wearers with its function. It remains today to be one of the most sought after complications, but it’s also sought after today largely because of its rugged look and appeal. But there’s truly more to the chronograph than meets the untrained eye.
Types of chronographs
The different types of chronographs evolved out of necessity. After all, chronographs were precision instruments for professionals in various fields. When chronograph watches were first invented, they were actually cumbersome for most workers that had to use the stopwatch functions quickly. A couple of chronograph types were developed to improve that situation, and both types are important to distinguish. The first is called the flyback, which essentially improves on the basic reset function of a basic chronograph. The second type of chronograph is the rattrapante, and it’s much rarer and even more impressive in comparison.
What is a rattrapante chronograph?
Rattrapante literally means, “to catch up” in French. Rattrapante is a chronograph movement, which features 2 second hand movements instead of the usual one. It’s also commonly referred to as the split-second chronograph or the double chronograph. Rattrapantes feature an additional pusher that operates this function. The pusher normally located on the 2 o’clock, both second hands would begin to spin. When the additional pusher on the 4 o’clock is depressed, the additional second hand would stop. Press that same pusher again, and the stopped second hand will move to catch up to the first one. It serves to measure time intervals that start at the same time but do not have the same end time.
The inventor of the chronograph, Adolphe Nicole, was also the inventor of the rattrapante chronograph. The 19thcentury Swiss watchmaker developed the system in 1844 in London, but didn’t get approval for his patent until 1862 in Paris. Rattrapante chronograph watches didn’t gain popularity until the early 1920s, when brands such as Patek Philippe jumped into production. The first rattrapante created by Patek Philippe in 1922 sold at auction in 1999 for $1.9. At the time, this was the most expensive wristwatch ever sold at an auction.
With the function of a rattrapante, it’s easy to understand that the technology behind it is much more complex. The tech itself is delicate, and it has become the hallmark of the rattrapante designation. There is clearly a connection between the two second hands, but this connection actually separates when the chronograph pusher is depressed. The connection stays with the hand that continues to move forward, as the rattrapante hand sits still in waiting for its next command. When the rattrapante pusher is activated, the spring attached to the rattrapante hand will force it back to the notch of the cam, which ultimately sets the rattrapante parallel to the other second hand.
Back in the days, professionals used rattrapante watches as a measuring device. This is essentially true today. Rattrapante chronographs are the better stopwatches. With this kind of watch, you can track multiple times—only in succession however—without having to reset the watch completely. It not only saves time and effort; this function also eliminates confusion and mix ups in the end. Modern rattrapante may have different names and additional functions, but the basic purpose of the rattrapante remains the same.
It doesn’t need explaining how complicated it is to make a rattrapante watch. It takes an incredible amount of skill and precision in order to get this function perfect. Rattrapantes are difficult to manufacture, and that’s one of the main reasons why they are so rare—even with today’s modern watchmaking technology. There are only a handful of watch brands that make them in-house, and these watchmakers are typically the same ones that make their watches by hand. While there are quite few manufacturers that tackle the rattrapante, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to find one. These watches are absolutely worth the trouble.
When everything is said and done, it all comes down to price. You can expect the price of any rattrapante chronograph to be on the higher end for many reasons. They are difficult to make and difficult to find—they are quite rare as a matter of fact. This rarity lends to the cost, which differs depending on the manufacturer. Patek Philippe sells rattrapante chronograph upwards the price of $40,000, but you’ll be able to find variations for a lot less. If you have $10,000 to spend on a watch, you might be able to get yourself a unique rattrapante chronograph around that price range.
Some of the best rattrapante watches come from manufacturers that have already been established as the best in the industry. Patek Philippe, for one, has been manufacturing rattrapante chronograph for almost 100 years now. That’s a legacy that you can’t replace, but it certainly can be emulated. The Patek Philippe 5370P may not just be the one of the best modern rattrapantes, but it’s likely one of the best modern watches—period. You’ll also find worthy rattrapantes from Habring² Perpetual-Doppel for roughly $25,000, but this watch also features a perpetual calendar. The perpetual calendar is another complicated movement on top of the rattrapante complication. IWC has several offerings in this niche, but many of them are in limited production of about 100 to 150 pieces. If you truly want a rattrapante watch, you’ll have to spend quite a bit of time and patience in finding them first. They’re absolutely worth the effort, and they’ll likely become a legacy piece for you.