Wristwatch: What does "chronometer" signify?

Of course, I tried looking this up. Wikipedia says:

In Switzerland, only timepieces certified by the Contrôle Officiel Suisse des Chronomètres (COSC) may use the word certified chronometer or officially certified chronometer on them.

First, I am not really clear what that means these days where almost every watch is pretty accurate. I’m willing to bet anyone can get a $50 quartz watch that beats their best standards.

Second, does printing “Chronometer” on the watch face mean anything? Does it have to be “certified chronometer or officially certified chronometer” to mean some level of quality or can anyone print “chronometer” on anything they want?

Third, is there any reason to pay more for it? I get that mechanical watches are a luxury and your phone keeps much better time. But, in the world of mechanical watches, does it mean much?

COSC is not a government agency; it’s a private association of watchmakers incorporated under Swiss law. It owns trademark rights to its name and logo (here the Swiss entry, here the American one). So they can definitely prevent usage of anything that falsely implies COSC certification via that trademark. They don’t own the term “certified chronometer” as a trademark (neither in Switzerland nor in the United States), but possibly they can go after watch manufacturers that put “certified chronometer” on their watches without COSC certification on the basis of false advertising, if that term is, in the watch business, generally understood to refer to COSC certification. The term “chronometer” in itself is, I would say, too generic for that kind of legal protection (the Swiss trademark database has more than 400 entries from different companies using that word as part of another trademark), so my guess would be that that term alone doesn’t mean much and can be freely used. Semantically, I’d say there are two characteristics for a watch to be called a chronometer: It must be mechanical, and they are of a certain minimum standard of accuracy. But that’s a lexicographical matter which I believe is too fuzzy to have a benchmark for legal action against someone who markets a bad watch as a “chronometer”.

This article will likely tell you more than you want to know about COSC:

This one is worth the read:

So…“chronometer” basically means more accurate?

I love mechanical watches. Art and engineering meet in a great way.

And I get they are expensive without much regard to their function (keeping time…your phone does it much, much better).

But, am I wrong in thinking that “chronometer” applied to a watch only means more expensive without any value behind it?

Leaving aside misuse of the word, that depends upon how much you value accuracy of an independent timepiece.

The mariner Tristan Jones wrote about the natural conservatism of sailors - not placing their lives at risk from those (then) “newfangled” electronic timepieces. He would only accept a timepiece with years of proven performance, to keep him off of the rocks and reefs.

And for other people, just knowing that they have higher level of “something” is value enough.

(By the way, there is also a special clock and watch mechanism called a “chronometer escapement”. )

The word is roughly in the same group as ‘new’, ‘improved’, ‘natural’, ‘homemade’ and all the other words used by advertisers to persuade us that their product is somehow ‘better’ than all the other virtually identical products.

FWIW, my GMT Master II is a chronometer. My non-date Submariner (currently in for overhaul) isn’t. The Sub is just as accurate as the GMT II.

Ages ago I read that the COSC certification is basically funded by Rolex. In that over 80% of all watches that are certified come from Rolex, and the entire thing had become little more than a vanity badge that Rolex put on their watches. When Rolex have to emblazon their watches with literal superlatives cluttering up the dial, you have to worry. There are many high end watch brands better than Rolex, and I don’t doubt they could easily meet the certification. They don’t need to write little essays on the dial about how fabulous they are.
But there is little to no reason for others to bother. Rolex churns out north of 800,000 watches a year and is its own little eco-system.

There is a quartz certification chronometer standard, which is very occasionally seen. It requires accuracy of a few seconds a year - vastly better than any mechanical watch can achieve, and significantly better than most quartz watches. You need a temperature compensated system. Longines sell one, as I think so does Grand Seiko. Certainly there are Grand Seiko quartz movements that get a few seconds a year.

Right, which makes it clear that it’s really not at all about performance. Even a cheap $15 Casio watch can outperform the best mechanical “chronometer”, but they didn’t want to put the fancy label on a cheap watch, so they changed the rules.

Their puffy certificate has to mean something, though, unless they are total frauds. Problem is, it is usually not 1 second per month or similarly useful (real) chronometer-grade accuracy.

Oh, sure, it means something. A mechanical watch that meets the “chronometer” standard will be better than a mechanical watch that doesn’t. And back in the days before digital watches, that would have been a big deal.

It’s just that purely mechanical watches are now horribly obsolete, no matter their quality level.

According to Wikipedia, the certification is based on the ISO 3159 standard:

You can be sure that COSC were the progenitors of the standard. It makes them look more official. But the existence of an ISO standard itself isn’t anything special. ISO doesn’t go out making standards by itself. It is more a clearing house and and umbrella organisation.

Ha. You have no soul.

Mechanical watches are jewellery. They fit pretty much the same niche. It is just that you don’t require rare metals or rare geometries of elements in crystalline form to add value. Rather the value is in the artistry of the maker.

The revival of the Swiss watch making industry after its near death experience in the 80’s is one of the more remarkable come back stories. A few brands convinced the world that there existed a thing called a luxury watch, and built a story based on historical connection and prestige. A lot of which turns out to be a little more grubby than they might like to know about. Rolex tuning itself from a minor brand putting other peoples movements into utilitarian water resistant cases into a powerhouse brand. They rode a market shift where men eschewed traditional watches and went for the pretence of rugged individualism. And others ran into the new market. Ultra high end brands reworked themselves and forged their own new paths. Patek Phillipe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantine, Jaeger le Coulte, IWC, Breuget, Piguet, revival brands like A Lange. Now Seiko has revitalised the Grand Seiko brand and makes some utterly fabulous pieces (and they include quartz and hybrid mechanisms in their lineup.)
These brands make watches that you can only marvel at. They are not timepieces. They are fabulous works of mechanical artistry. Nobody pretends that they are simply for telling the time. Things of beauty and joys to behold and all that.

I think it’s what they call “wealth signaling.”

I understand that many standards are not based on anything other than getting the standard-maker’s product defined as the “standard”. I just cited that to point out that there are actual numbers associated with the certification; whether the numbers have any real world meaning is left as an exercise to the interested reader.

I was kind of hoping that the standard was that a “certified chronometer” would have to have qualified for the 1714 Longitude Rewards, but alas…

I mean, if you want a truly accurate watch there are plenty of GPS-capable sports watches that will be perfectly accurate for their entire operational life.

I totally understand the appeal of the engineering and craftsmanship of an accurate mechanical timepiece, though.

You say “no practical value beyond artistry”, I say “obsolete”. Tomayto, tomahto.

I mean, I get it: I think that the Curta hand calculator is a thing of beauty, for instance. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not obsolete.

For some. Some women use jewellery as wealth signalling. Others just like nice jewellery. Same with watches.
A Rolex is wealth signalling, because they are so well known and identifiable.
A Seiko Credor Eichii II will be recognised by other watch geeks. Everyone else will just see a nice unassuming watch.

My brother is jeweler at one of the high-end watch stores near Philly. I was in the store once marveling at the watches (well, really marveling at the price tags). I saw a tag that said $600 and said that I might almost be tempered at that price - then my brother told me that that was the price for the band…