Unlike in most other circumstances, “complicated” is not a bad word in haute horlogerie, quite the opposite, in fact. Complications elevate both the intricacy and popularity of a timepiece, but what exactly are they? The answer is straightforward: any additional function a watch offers besides its elementary time display. They can be divided into two categories, or two difficulty grades: “Small complications” refer to more simple features, such as date displays and moon phase indicators, while “grand complications” showcase more mechanical sophistication, like that seen in a perpetual calendar. Obviously, we no longer need a watch to tell us what date it is, a quick glance at our smartphone suffices, but no one can deny that complicated watches are fascinating works of art that show us what true watchmaking is all about.
The more complications a watch has, the more components its movement needs. Not only does this make servicing complex (and expensive), but a lot of complicated watches are relatively large to accommodate the extra odds and ends. If you’re new to the watch community, you might be tempted to write off these premium timepieces as men’s models, but you’d be mistaken! If you’re looking for specific functions (and open to unisex models), you’re guaranteed to find elegant watches in more compact sizes. After all, beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Today, we’re looking at some of my favorite complicated watches.
Day and Date Display: The Rolex Day-Date 36 mm
Let’s start simple with date and day-of-the-week complications. In this case, the date is displayed via a date window, a popular design choice seen on countless models. The complication is provided by a rotating disk under the dial that turns a little every day to reveal the correct date through an aperture. The same concept is used for the day of the week. Since the inner workings are pretty straightforward, they don’t take up much space and are thus found on many women’s watches.
The most popular timepiece combining both complications is hands down the Rolex Day-Date. The model has another claim to fame: It was the first water-resistant, chronometer-certified watch with an automatic movement to feature a date display and the day of the week written out in full. The best part is that this all this comes in a 36-mm case, a size that suits virtually any wrist. Not only that, but the day complication is even available in 26 different languages. Rolex crafts all models from precious metal and pairs them with its legendary President bracelet. The timepiece oozes opulence, and has been spotted on the wrists of many world leaders. History aside, it’s quite a thrill to see for yourself how, at the stroke of midnight, the date and weekday displays change in perfect harmony. It’s easy to explain how these complications work, but seeing them in action is really indescribable.
Flyback Chronograph: Blancpain Air Command Flyback Chronograph Automatic 36.2 mm
Not only are chronographs hugely popular, but they’re also one of the most practical complications. These watches show the time like any other, with the addition of a stopwatch function. It’s easy to recognize a chronograph: They usually have two push-pieces on the side of the case to start and stop the measurement, and subdials on the watch’s main dial that show the elapsed time. While these watches are helpful in a range of everyday situations, they have a rich history with a number of professional applications, such as aviation and racing. However, in situations where every millisecond counts, like in military operations or flying blind, it’s important to be able to restart the measurement as quickly as possible. For standard chronographs, this means the wearer would need to press the right push-piece three times – precious time wasted in an emergency. This is where the flyback chronograph comes in: The wearer presses one push-piece to stop the time measurement and reset it to zero. When they let go, the measurement begins again automatically.
The flyback chronograph is no longer exclusively reserved for the cockpit, and you’ll often come across them in everyday life. Blancpain is primarily to be credited for the existence of women’s models; they released the first flyback chronograph model for women in 1998. More recent releases include the 36.2-mm Air Command, a sporty timepiece inspired by one of the brand’s chronographs from the 1950s. Like its ancestor, the Air Command has two timekeeping mechanisms, namely the chronograph function and a countdown bezel. Its dial layout, including the hands and hour markers, leans heavily on the design cues of the original, awarding the model a vintage flair. The Air Command balances a sporty aesthetic with retro details, and is a practical tool to boot!
Minute Repeater: Patek Philippe Grand Complications Minute Repeater
The minute repeater is not only one of the most elaborate complications, but also perhaps the most amazing. By means of a chiming mechanism with different tones, this complication acoustically relays the time. Unlike church bells, for example, the chiming does not occur regularly, but only on request, and down to the exact minute. Patek Philippe uses a lower tone for hours, a two-tone sequence for quarter hours, and a higher tone for minutes in the Grand Complications Minute Repeater, as in other watches. For example, when it’s 8:42, the watch strikes eight low tones, two two-tone sequences, and twelve high tones.
When holding the Patek Philippe Grand Complications Minute Repeater, you’ll notice the pusher at 9 o’clock used to trigger the chiming mechanism. At 38 mm in diameter, this model is a fantastic unisex watch to be passed down through the generations. The artistic design, enamel dial, and display case back are of course impressive in their own right, but once you press the pusher and hear the chimes ring, you will be blown away. Understanding the technology behind it is one thing, but actually hearing the artistry at work is something else altogether. My words of wisdom: If you have the opportunity to experience this magic for yourself – take it!
Date Display and Power Reserve Indicator: Vacheron Constantin Malte Tonneau Tourbillon Platinum
Turning now to the Malte Tonneau Tourbillon Platinum, what stands out immediately is its tourbillon. Now, while a tourbillon is a fine piece of watchmaking craftsmanship, it’s not considered a complication. This is because it “only” improves the accuracy of the watch, and does not provide any additional information, per se. That means you’ll have to tear your eyes away from the tourbillon to find the two real complications on this model: the date display and power reserve indicator. Vacheron decided on a pointer date and not the familiar date window, and while this is a little harder to read, it’s no less aesthetically pleasing.
The second complication is a power reserve indicator. But what is it and what does it do? To answer that, we need to look into the movement itself. Mechanical watches get their energy from a mainspring. The amount of time that a fully wound mainspring can supply the movement with energy is the watch’s power reserve. Following this logic, a power reserve indicator shows how much longer the watch will run before it needs to be wound again. Not only is this feature practical, but your watch’s movement will thank you if you rewind it before letting the watch stop completely. That said, reducing the Malte Tonneau Tourbillon Platinum to its complications, tourbillon, or case shape doesn’t do the timepiece justice. It’s really the interplay of design, technology, and dedicated craftsmanship that makes this watch a unique piece that you can only truly understand once you have felt and seen it on your wrist.
Does a watch need complications? If we’re being rational, then no, of course not. We can easily get all the information we need from our smartphone. We could even set an alarm for the next time we need to wind our watch if we wanted to. But let’s face it, you can’t look at a passion rationally. The same goes for us watch enthusiasts – it’s the emotional factor that decides.
Complications are more than just fancy features, they tap into our innermost being and fuel our passion for exquisite watchmaking. No matter how deep we delve into the theory and mechanics behind them, we are still spellbound by their intricacy and elegance. Whether toying with a flyback chronograph or listening to the tolling of a minute repeater, the magic is never lost.
So yes, watches do need complications, and you’ll have a hard time convincing a true watch enthusiast otherwise!