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Know Your Watches: Complications

by Jonathan Fairfield
15 February, 2013
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About the author

Jonathan lives and works in Thailand as a writer and English Teacher. He is fanatical about football which makes it all the more strange that he should support Stockport County. In addition to watches, Jonathan has a passion for fitness and nutrition and writes for a blog on the subject.

Watch Complication

The Know Your Watches series explores and explains the many different types of watches available on the market today. It is true that many of these watches often confuse even the people who are supposed to be selling them. Armed with the information provided in this series you should be able to convince people that you’re something of a horology buff at your next sophisticated soiree.

Having previously looked at quartz and mechanical watches, this week we’ll take a look at watch complications.

What is a watch complication?

If you have ever taken the back off a watch to try and find out how it works, you’ll have seen all the tiny screws, delicate parts and gears that make the watch function. All these moving parts will no doubt have looked very complicated, and for good reason, as even the simplest of watches can often be made of over 200 individual parts. For all intents and purposes a watch is a demonstration of micro engineering at its finest and this is even the case for the ones that merely tell time. Just imagine how complicated the movement of a watch can be when it has multiple functions.

In watch making, watches that include features beyond the display of hours, minutes and seconds are known as ‘complications’. Complications can include all manner of different functions such as annual calendars, flyback chronographs, dual timezones, double axis tourbillons, sign of the zodiac and power reserves, just to name a few. For high end watch aficionados, the more complicated the watch, the better.

It’s an irony that the quartz watch, which nearly put paid to centuries of watchmaking tradition in Switzerland, eventually resulted in the re-emergence of interest in mechanical watches which continues to this day. It has led to a golden age for fine watches and some of the most remarkable mechanical watch complications ever produced. Many of these watches originate from the La Valle de Joux region in the Swiss Jura Mountains, the area of which is generally considered to be the home of Swiss watch making.

These unique instruments are often incredibly expensive, with the price a reflection of the work and craft that has gone into creating such a timepiece. In addition to this, complications are normally released as limited editions, which of course adds to the value.

Popular Watch Complications

A complicated watch!

Some of the most common watch complications include tourbillon, chronograph, minute repeater, moon phase indicator, perpetual calendar and power reserve. A watch that combines two or more of these complications are known as ‘grande complications’.

Only the very finest watchmakers, some of whom can spend several months making just one watch by hand, have the necessary levels of expertise to be able to create a watch of this kind.

Amongst the watch making companies who are famous for making some of the most complicated watch movements are Breguet, Vacheron Constantin, Patek Philippe, Franck Muller and Greubel Forsey.

The Complication: Tourbillon

A tourbillon complication is considered by many to be one of the most difficult complications to master. The tourbillon movement was invented in 1795 by Abraham Brequet in order to try and counteract the effect gravity had on watches and clocks.

The negation of gravity is achieved by the tourbillon as the escapement and balance wheel are mounted within a rotating cage, helping  to improve the watch’s accuracy, which was crucial back in the 1800’s.

Today, most modern watches are so accurate that the inclusion of a tourbillon complication is more for prestige. Due to their complexity, tourbillon’s are often highly sought after and can command very high prices.

The watch: Breguet Grand Complications Double Tourbillon Platinum

A fine example of a tourbillon complication, the Breguet Grand Complications Double Tourbillon Platinum costs around $400,000, making it one of the most world’s most expensive watches. It’s 44mm case is crafted from platinum and houses a 588 calibre hand wound movement, which features not one but two tourbillons that rotate as the hours pass by.

The sapphire crystal caseback displays a hand drawn engraving of the solar system that has been inspired by the tandem 60 second rotation of the tourbillon’s over a 12hr period.

The complication: Chronograph

A chronograph is a watch that is capable of measuring independent time intervals. Essentially a stopwatch, a chronograph will typically have 3 sub dials which will display that the watch is running, as well as showing the elapsed minutes and elapsed hours.

The use of a chronograph, revolutionised the world of sport as in 1896 at the world’s first modern Olympic games in Athens, speeds could be properly measured for the first time and records set.

The first chronographs had only one button that was used to stop, start and reset the timing function. It wasn’t until 1934 when Breitling introduced an independent button, followed by a second button for the stopwatch reset function that the classic chronograph was established. Typically chronographs are associated with the world of sport.

Having said that, Patek Philppe and Vacheron Constantin have released some pretty stunning chrono dress watches.

The watch: Citizen Eco-Drive 180 WR100 Chronograph Watch

With a retail price less than £200, the Citizen Eco-Drive 180 WR100 Chronograph (model no AT0270-00E) is proof that not all complication watches are expensive. A good all rounder or excellent entry level watch, this particular Eco-Drive measures 42mm in diameter and features a scratch resistant mineral crystal.

Water resistant to 100m, it’s a good choice for those who enjoy swimming or snorkelling. The watch also includes a one second chronograph that measures time intervals up to 60 minutes, as well as featuring a 12/24hr time display. Find out more on Citizen’s Eco-Drive technology.

The complication: Minute Repeater

A minute repeater complication uses chimes to indicate the time, with each chime having a distinguishing tone. Normally chimes are sounded in the form of a bass note for the hour, treble bass for quarter hours and for individual minutes, a treble note is used. A repeater doesn’t automatically chime on the hour but will instead be activated by a slider or button of some kind.

Repeater complications are one of the most expensive as they are so difficult to construct. Complications which are able to chime automatically are known as ‘Grand Sonneries’ or ‘Petit’ and are even more complicated!

As well as minute repeaters, other types of repeaters include five minute repeaters, half quarter repeaters and quarter repeaters.

The watch: Patek Philippe 3939/A

In 2011, Patek Philippe’s 3939/A Minute Repeating Tourbillon sold at auction in Monaco for $1,909, 740. The watch may not look all that special but its small diameter (just 33.3mm), hidden tourbillon, enamel black dial and unobtrusive repeater represents one of the finest achievements in watchmaking.

The watch features Breguet style hands and a mechanical winding calibre R TO 27 PS movement. The minute repeater, which is activated by a slide piece on the side of the case, chimes with two gongs.

The complication: Moon Phase Indicator

A moon phase indicator is a sub dial that displays the phases of the moon. This complication was incredibly useful for night travellers who used moonlight to help them find their way. Starting with a new moon the indicator progresses to the first quarter, then full moon right through to the last quarter.

The watch: Maurice Lacroix Lune Retrograde ML104

This elegant timepiece from Swiss watchmaker, Maurice Lacroix is a wonderful illustration of different complications. The watch features a 46mm diameter case and is powered by the in-house ML 104 Moon Phase Retrograde movement, which is based on the ETA calibre 6498-1.

The dial displays two perfectly symmetrical displays, which shows the retrograde date and power reserve at 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock respectively. The 37 jewel movement beats at 18,000 vph.

The moon phase function is displayed via a finely calibrated celestial disc at 6 o’clock. The Maurice Lacroix Lune Retrograde ML104 is water resistant to 100m.

The complication: Perpetual Calendar

As the name suggests, in watch making, a perpetual calendar is a watch mechanism that displays the day, month, date and year. It automatically adjusts to the varying number of days in each month and will also adjust to leap years.

Most perpetual calendars are based on the traditional Gregorian calendar, so they don’t need to be reset until the year 2100.

The watch: Jules Audemars 30th Anniversary Perpetual Calendar by Audemars Piguet

Perhaps some of the most highly regarded perpetual calendar complications can be found in the IWC Da Vinci collection and the Patek Philippe 1518, the latter being the world’s first perpetual calendar watch to feature a chronograph.

However, the Jules Audermars 30th Anniversary Perpetual Calendar by Audemars Piguet is another stunning example of this kind of complication. At $100,000, this limited edition timepiece almost certainly won’t be available on Amazon!

Released in 2008, the watch is driven by the calibre 2120/2802 mechanical automatic movement, which has a thickness of just 4mm. This ultra thin movement comprises of 355 parts, most of which are less than 1mm thick.

The dial shows the usual day, date and month displays, as well as including the lesser used leap year and moon phase cycle complications. This excellent video tells you all you need to know about the Jules Audemars Perpetual Calendar Calibre 2120 movement.

The complication: Power Reserve Indicator

This handy complication uses either a linear indicator or sub dial to instantly tell the wearer how much time is left before the watch will stop. In order to run at a regular rate, a mechanical watch normally needs to have around 30% of its mainspring wound. Whereas, an automatic watch needs to be worn for about 10-15hrs before it is fully wound.

The power reserve indicator on a mechanical watch shows how long is left before the watch needs its next winding. The indicator on an automatic watch shows how long the watch will operate when it is not being worn.

Today, most mechanical watches have a power reserve of about 40hrs, with some higher end watches, such as this from Panerai, achieving a power reserve of up to eight days.

The watch: A. Lange & Sohne Lange 31

The A. Lange & Sohne Lange 31 has a power reserve of a staggering 31 days. This timepiece is a genuine feat in engineering, with its extra long power reserve made possible by the use of two large mainsprings, which when combined in length are over 6ft long!

Now it has to be said that with a price of about $150,000, unless you’re a member of the Royal Family, a wealthy oil baron or an international rock superstar, the closest you’ll get to an A. Lange & Sohne Lange 31 is reading about it on Click Tempus!

The watch measures 45.9mm in diameter and is available in either platinum or rose gold. Looking at the dial you can see the power reserve indicator located at 3 o’clock.


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Jonathan Fairfield | Website

Jonathan lives and works in Thailand as a writer and English Teacher. He is fanatical about football which makes it all the more strange that he should support Stockport County. In addition to watches, Jonathan has a passion for fitness and nutrition and writes for a blog on the subject.

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