2019 has been a pretty significant year for the automatic chronograph, and not just because we saw a slew of new additions to the ‘most-popular-complication-except-possibly-the-date-of-all-time’ category. No, 2019 is the year the automatic chronograph turned 50. In 1969 Zenith, Heuer, the rest of the Chronomatic consortium (Breitling et al), and let’s not forget Seiko all released their takes on the genre. While the argument of ‘who was first’ will likely simmer away for another generation or so, these days it doesn’t really matter unless you work in a marketing department. What is interesting though is the relative paucity of new automatic chronographs on the market, especially at the higher volume, lower price points. It’s a testament to the fact that an efficient, automatic chronograph movement isn’t an easy thing to develop. The reality is that even between the automatic chronographs on this list of the year’s best, there’s a fair amount of shared movement architecture going on.
So with that in mind, here are nine automatic chronographs that impressed us this year, either by virtue of their technical prowess, or their pure, unadulterated good looks.
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT
The first watch that came to mind when starting thinking about “best automatic chronograph watch of 2019” was, in less time than it would take to actuate the pusher, the Bulgari Octo Finissimo Chronograph GMT. I think it’s one of the best watches of the year, period. There’s a few reasons why the Bulgari was first to mind, but the main one probably isn’t the one you’d expect. Sure, the ‘thin king’ matters, but what makes this watch stand out is that it, well, stands out. In fact, it’s pretty much the only watch on this list that doesn’t look to the past. On the one hand, it’s a clear demonstration of market forces at work—if people want neo-vintage chronos, then neo-vintage chronos they shall get. This is what makes Bulgari’s mission to forge a new path even bolder, and the fact that it’s winning people over is all the more worth celebrating. That said, the real score here is that there’s substance behind the style. The 3.3mm thin BVL 318 movement is no joke; in addition to cramming a lot of complication (it’s a GMT too, remember) into not a lot of space, it has specifications that haven’t been trimmed down. Knocking down the F. Piguet’s 32-year-old record for the thinnest automatic chronograph is no small feat, after all. USD 13,900 on bracelet.
Zenith El Primero A384 Revival
If you’re in the market an automatic chronograph from Zenith, 2019 is the year where you’re spoiled for choice. And that’s because this year marks the 50th anniversary of the mighty Zenith El Primero, the first automatic chronograph presented to the world, and one of the all-time greatest movements. Understandably, this veteran calibre is one of the key pillars of Zenith’s catalogue, and it was celebrated in style with numerous limited editions, but we couldn’t go past the angular good looks of the Zenith El Primero A384 Revival. It’s a bit more chunky in the case region thanks to the 37mm wide, choppy tonneau design, but that only makes it cooler. USD 7,600
Sinn 206 Arktis II
Sinn can always be relied on to deliver the goods when it comes to low fuss, high function chronographs, and the 206 Arktis — which pairs the chronograph and adds diver into the mix. And this version adds a healthy dash of showmanship into the equation: the sunburst blue dial contrasts with the steel case and bezel certainly evoke the watches chilly namesake. Not only does this Arktis offer tried-and-true Valjoux 7750 reliability, and 300m of water resistance, it’s also capable of functioning across the rather extreme temperature range of -45 degrees centigrade through to a toasty +80. From USD 3,570
Seiko Automatic Chronograph 50th Anniversary SRQ029J
One of the other entries in the 1969 club was Seiko, whose calibre 6139 came as an impressive opening move from the Japanese maker. This movement and the watches it powered are what are being celebrated in the SRQ029J. Funnily enough though, the design inspiration for this handsome Prospex piece comes from the calibre 6138-powered ‘Panda’ model that hit the market a handful of years after the brand’s initial entry into the auto chrono segment. The SRQ029J keeps the overall feel of the original—like those stylish syringe hands—but alters the chronograph subdial layout, adding a running seconds register and some finishing refinement to make it thoroughly modern package. 3,700 Euro
TAG Heuer Monaco Heuer 02
One of the watch industry’s four-letter-words is ‘icon’, but when it comes to the boxy Monaco, it’s a moniker that holds true. Much like the Zenith and the Seiko, the TAG Heuer (neé Heuer) Monaco dates back to 1969 and matches the mechanical innovation of the Calibre 11 to an innovative design that captures the spirit of the times. But this new version of the classic is (arguably) the most significant update to the line since it was launched, as it is now powered by TAG Heuer’s in-house movement, the thoroughly modern Heuer 02 movement. USD 5,950
Tissot Heritage 1973 Chronograph
The 1970s was a great era of chronograph design, thanks in no small part to the massive popularity of motorsports. Tissot’s Heritage 1973 Chronograph manages to neatly sum up this intersection of inspiration and design. The particular inspiration for this watch is a Loris Kessel, an F1 driver who was sponsored by Tissot in the mid-70s, and the design of this piece is lifted straight from Tissot’s history books, particularly their Navigator design. But what elevates this Tissot chronograph from other equally worthy contenders are the details, like the boxy sapphire that replicates the warmth of acrylic crystals, and the radial brushing on the broad, cushiony bezel is both difficult to do well and absolutely period correct. USD 2,100
Tudor Black Bay Chronograph S&G
The latest expression of Tudor’s increasingly broad Black Bay offering is the Black Bay Chronograph S&G, which pairs their diver’s chronograph with the two-tone Black Bay Steel & Gold. The result is a great example of a watch that’s greater than the sum of its parts. The marriage of metals and chronograph, ushered along with a few gentle design notes results in something so wonderfully retro it’s hard not to smile when you see it. The gold is toned down both by the pairing with black, and also thanks to its brushed finish on the bracelet (there’s also leather, fabric and bund options). What really impresses though is how a watch that could simply be a throwback design, manages to look so current in 2019. USD 6,800 on bracelet.
Breitling Aviator 8 Mosquito
If you’re in the market for a pilot’s chronograph then something from Breitling needs to be high up on your list, as the Flying B has an incredible history of aviation and aviation-inspired watches. The Aviator 8 Mosquito falls into the latter category, paying homage to one of the most important (and coolest) planes of the WWII era, the de Havilland Mosquito, a multirole military plane that stood out thanks to its high speed and unusual wooden frame. Breitling has opted for a 43mm steel frame in this case, though thanks to the black ADLC coating it would be suitable for night fighting missions. The dashboard instrument influence on the dial is clear, and the bold orange highlights help it stand out. We also reviewed the Curtiss Warhawk version of this watch recently and were big fans. USD 7,710
Junghans Max Bill Chronoscope 100 years of Bauhaus
Most of the chronographs on this list have been unapologetically sporty in inspiration or application, and that makes sense given the history of the complication. But it doesn’t always have to be the way, as Junghans’ Chronoscope proves. The Chronoscope has long been one of the leading lights of design-oriented chronographs, thanks to the historic associations with prolific designer Max Bill. Bill is a Bauhaus alum, so Junghans saw fit to honour the centenary of his alma mater with the Max Bill Chronoscope 100 years of Bauhaus edition (similar to the 3-hand piece we covered here). The anthracite-coloured case and strap evoke concrete that the movement loved so much, and the red accents are a nod to the colour notes of the movements famous Dessau school. The caseback is also interesting, with a stylized rendering of the building printed onto the sapphire, with only glimpses of the mechanism peeking through. USD 2,295