7 Of The Best 38mm Chronograph Watches For Every Budget
Simon Schneider14 February 2021 | 6 min read
Among watch enthusiasts, the 36mm to 40mm diameter range in terms of watch sizes has long been considered as the unofficial golden standard for the size of a tasteful watch. This would leave you to believe that the middle of that, 38mm, should be filled to the brim with great watches.
Unfortunately, with the inflation of watch sizes this is becoming less and less the case. Even the famed Submariner left half a century of its history behind as, for the first time ever, it was released with a diameter of 41mm. In an attempt to prove that size does not, in fact, matter we have made the effort to compile a list of the best 38mm chronographs for every budget.
- Sea-Gull 1963 38mm Sapphire
- Sinn 356
- Omega Speedmaster 38 Co-Axial
- Zenith El Primero 38mm Chronomaster
- Girard-Perregaux Laureato Chronograph 38mm
- Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph
- Patek Philippe 5372P
The Sea-Gull 1963 has proven itself to be one of the best value offerings the watch world has to offer. Giving you a hand-wound column-wheel chronograph with a unique design and a history to match. The purposeful retro design as well as the movement of the 1963 have their origin in a military chronograph made for the People’s Liberation Army Air force.
Sea-Gull is usually known for creating cheap mechanical movements that are very popular in the Homage market. The 1963 on the other hand proves that affordable mechanical watches do not have to copy from the big ones to be successful. This self-respecting move is what I hope could be a trend for Chinese watch manufacturing to steer away from copying others towards creating unique wrist watches that they have the ability to produce!
Their efforts have paid off with a watch that has its finger on the pulse of what the watch nerds want. The vintage military design combined with an unbeatable price make this model a great addition to any collection.
2. Sinn 356
As a German I have always had a weak spot for Sinn. This, however, goes beyond the pride I have in my nation’s watchmaking skills and extends itself to the innovative spirit with which the brand approaches watchmaking. Oddities like steel from military tanks or oil-filled dials for enhanced underwater legibility really show how much creativity is still explorable in the realms of horology.
One of their watches that sticks more to the basics is the Sinn 356 which is their take on a classical pilot inspired chronograph. You get a 38mm case akin to some IWC models with a Day/Date complication and some lovely syringe hands which make for a highly legible dial.
Available either on a leather strap or a great metal bracelet it offers a very respectable value automatic chronograph with a Sellita SW500 movement and 100 meters of water resistance.
3. Omega Speedmaster 38 Co-Axial
How could any chronograph list be complete without an Omega Speedmaster? Also lovingly referred to as just the Speedy it is a watch with one of the most diverse line-up of models available. Some may consider this a dilution of the spirit of what the watch was actually meant to be, but the upside is that there is a Speedmaster available for almost any purpose.
It is no surprise then that Omega also offers a 38mm variant. This one comes with their Co-Axial automatic movement and a date window. You get a very flexible daily watch that with the great finishing that Omega has become known for.
That money also buys you an entry ticket into one of the most hardcore fan-groups in the watch world. The Omega Speedmaster is a rabbit hole that you should enter at your own risk, just make sure to stay 50 meters away from water if you wear one.
4. Zenith El Primero 38mm Chronomaster
Zenith is somewhat of the dark horse in the Chronograph game. While this segment of the market has been dominated by the likes of the Daytona, Speedy, and the Monaco the El Primero has been trailing behind them and there really is no reason for that.
The El Primero has a great historical background being, as the name hints at, the very first automatic chronograph ever created. Their movements were in fact so good that for a long time they were the provider of the base movement that was then modified by Rolex for the original automatic Daytonas.
The El Primero Chronomaster 38mm offers all the mechanical magic you could need from a legendary watchmaker. You get one of the most satisfying movements ever made operating at a 5Hz frequency providing a buttery smooth sweep of the seconds hand and precise operation thanks to the column wheel.
5. Girard-Perregaux Laureato Chronograph 38mm
Girard-Perregaux is a brand drenched in history that like so many others lost a lot of the wind in its sails during the quartz crisis. Before that event, which led to the culling of so many Swiss watch makers, they were famed for their technical skills. They were so good in fact that their tourbillon held on by three gold bridges won them a gold medal in 1889 at the Universal Exposition of Paris and the silhouette of these very bridges is now their logo.
In 1975, three years after the introduction of the royal oak and one year before the release of the Nautilus, they presented the world the Laureato. While this model had all the potential to become a legend it unfortunately suffered from the brands decision to focus on quartz manufacturing in the 1980s.
Nowadays Girard-Perregaux is fighting to claim back its position as a top manufacturer since their revival in 1996 and the Laureato plays a key part in their attempted return to former glory. While expensive you do get a beautifully finished manufacturer caliber, a 904L steel case and bracelet, and a design that will feel comfortable among all the big dogs while still offering its own unique twist.
6. Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph
Tacking a big leap in the price we landed at an iconic watch from one of the holy trinity manufacturers: Audemars Piguet. While the classic Royal Oak is usually a time only piece this chronograph model shows how well suited this platform is to complications without having to stroll into the abomination that is the Offshore.
With 38mm in diameter and just 11m in thickness you get one of the objectively most handsome chronographs ever created.
The Royal Oak is not explainable through statistics, images, or reviews because it is a true piece of art that has to be felt rather than understood. It is not the toughest or most technologically advanced but the iconic design from the 70s has aged absolutely stunningly and is as contemporary today as it was the day it was introduced. If you are looking for a Chronograph from AP then my recommendation is to stay away from the Offshore models and head straight to this beautifully sized 38mm Royal Oak.
7. Patek Philippe 5372P
The Patek 5372P is in another league to all the other watches previously mentioned combined. Made out of 950 platinum this is more than just a chronograph. It features a perpetual calendar which tracks the day, date, month and day/night cycles while accounting for leap years.
The Chronograph is of the split-second variant which means two hands will run parallel and you can stop one while the offer keeps running allowing for interval timing. The fact that you can operate it through a mono pusher and all that is packed in a 38mm case just goes to show why Patek is considered the very best.