Legible Chronograph – Two Rules to Rule Them All


Ulysse Nardin Diver Chronograph Hammerhead Shark

A chronograph is an excellent tool watch for timing an event. That said, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri are the best kitchen timers. FitBit’s got the gym, running, swimming, not-dying-from-a-heart-attack-while-trying-to-get-heart-healthy thing wired. So a chronograph is a bit of anachronism, valued as much for its aesthetics as its utility. But if you’re want a useful chrono let’s talk about legibility . . .

The Ulysee Nardin above is an excellent example of an illegible chronograph. It’s like driving past a pile-up on the highway – you don’t know where to look. If you want to yell at your kids “Ready, set GO!” this is not the chronograph you’re looking for. What’s it all about Alfie?

Setting aside engineering considerations, looking at it purely from an ergonomic point-of-view, maximizing legibility on a watch with four or more hands is a bitch. Chronographs keep track of seconds, minutes (up to an hour) and sometimes hours – but not days or weeks (there’s an app for that). Chrono functionality is additional to the main hour and minute hands, and any other complications.

The problem is, of course, overlap. Not to mention the distraction caused by rehauts and bezels. And the size, shape, position, color and number of indices, both inside the subdials and out. And the day/date, moon phase and/or power reserve indicator.

Omega Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch Chronometer

As I pointed out in my review of the OMEGA Speedmaster, even if you limit a chronograph to time + timer – as astronauts are wont to do – the dial can look like a game of Pickup sticks. Reading the result of a timed event can take a while (which you can’t time unless you’re double-wristing).

Buzz Aldrin‘s timepiece is hardly alone – or particularly exceptional – in its lack of legibility. It’s not about money – illegible chronographs can be cheap as chips or extremely expensive. Check out the previous gen Ulysse Nardin Diver Hammerhead Shark at the top of the post.

Citizen's $895 Promaster Skyhawk A-T

At the low end of the market, Citizen’s $895 Promaster Skyhawk A-T’s got it going on. And by “it” I mean everything. OK, enough of too much. If you want a legible chronograph, something you can read quickly and efficiently, there are two basic rules to follow.

IWC Portugieser Chronograph

Buy A Chronograph with Two Sub-Dials

When it comes to legible chronos you can’t have your horological cake and eat other stuff too. The less other stuff (the technical term) you have on a chrono, the better. Bye-bye-bezels!

The easiest-to-read chronographs have two subdials. Their color, size, position and markings are critical, but their number is inviolable. The new IWC Portugieser Chrono above shows us how it’s done.

Hamilton Jazzmaster Maestro Auto Chrono 41 chronograph

The more affordable Hamilton Jazzmaster Maestro Auto Chrono 41 also meets the criteria and it incorporates a day/date complication. Both watches are 41mm. Smaller watches can make chrono legibility happen, but sometimes bigger is better. Just sayin’.

Buy a Chronograph with Thin Hands

Patek Philippe 5170G-5 (courtesy govbergwatches.com)

Vintage watches like the Patek Philippe 5170G-5 above keep things readable by dint of their thin hands. That was the chrono style for a century after the first examples appeared on the horological scene. Thin hands went out of style when maximum luminescence trumped legibility. But they’re no less effective today than they were in the early 1800’s.

A Lange and Sohne 1815 chronograph

A. Lange & Sohne’s 1815 goes back to the thin hands past for the chronographical future. That said, thin hands do not a legible chrono make. Not per se. Here’s a variant of the wonderfully readable IWC Portugieser lauded above.

IWC Portugeiser chronograph

As you can see, an IWC designer picked up legibility, threw it out the window, started messing with color and decided to draw lines everywhere. This piece highlights the mission critical importance of judiciously applied color and the restrained use of indices. Which brings us, inevitably, to panda dial chronographs.

Hamilton Panda Dial Chronograph

Yes, Hamilton’s Panda Dial Chronograph’s main hands are fairly thick. But the bi-colored dial makes up some of the less-than-ideal legibility (most evident at 9:15). Which is one reason panda dial chronos are so popular – even if it’s on the subconscious level.

Breitling Premier B01 Panda Chronograph

The Breitling Premier B01 Panda Chronograph embodies best of breed. It’s a 42mm high-quality timepiece with thin hands and two subdials. It makes timing your kids – “you have two minutes to get in bed!” – a doddle.

Don’t get me wrong. Most people never use their chronograph’s chronograph. There’s nothing wrong with buying an illegible example because you like the look. But if you want a chronograph as a tool watch, follow the rules before you buy. Ready? Go!


  1. G-SHOCK does a surprisingly good job making its analog faces readable, even when crowded with subdials (e.g., AM/PM indicator, 2nd time zone, AM/PM indicator for 2nd time zone, day of week), although you end up with subdials that are small enough to be difficult to read at the precision required by a chronograph.

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