By: Tom Mulraney
Once watchmakers figured out how to accurately track the passage of time in a form that was both reliable and accessible, the obvious next question was: “What’s next?” All true watchmakers are actually inventors at heart; they love nothing more than a good problem that needs to be solved. The more complex the solution, the better, which brings us to arguably the most exciting aspect of mechanical watchmaking: complications.
Generally speaking, when we hear the word “complication,” there’s a certain negative connotation; something has unexpectedly gone wrong. In the world of watchmaking, however, this is not the case. The term “complication” refers to any function the watch can perform beyond telling the time. It can take years for a watchmaker to gain proficiency in just the assembly process, let alone in creating a complication from scratch.
Some complications are infinitely more useful (and more exciting) than others. Whether you’re a seasoned collector, or someone new to the world of watches, we’ve put together a list of the four complications every watch enthusiast should look for when adding to their collection.
The humble chronograph is probably one of the best-known complications. Invented in 1816 by Swiss watch-maker Louis Moinet to aide in tracking astronomical objects, the chronograph’s primary purpose is to allow its user to accurately measure elapsed time. With tachymeters incorporated into their bezels, chronograph watches proved immensely practical tools for undertaking precise calculations involving repetitive timing, making them immensely popular among astronauts, pilots, and race car drivers in the 20th century. A number of improvements and additions have been made since the original, including functions like fly-back resets and split-seconds for timing multiple events simultaneously.
The GMT (Dual Time Zone)
The GMT or dual-time zone watch came into its own in the 1970s when international travel started to become a regular occurrence. Professionals needed a way to keep track of the local timezone as well as the time back home to avoid accidentally calling their loved ones at four in the morning. Still a popular feature of many new watches today, the GMT function is incredibly handy if you travel a lot or if you have friends or family living overseas. In its most basic form, the GMT is equipped with a second hour hand and a 24-hour bezel, however there are a number of more elaborate versions available with features like jumping hours, when the hour indication is displayed in digit format, and changes at every hour automatically.
The Perpetual Calendar
The perpetual calendar is arguably the most useful complication in our list as it serves a myriad of functions. As the name suggests, a perpetual calendar is designed to be perpetually accurate without any interference from the wearer. Most models only need to be corrected once every 100 years or so, which is handy if you’re constantly forgetting to manually change the date in months with 30 days or less. If you’re in the market for a perpetual calendar, at the very minimum, you’ll want a watch that can accurately track the day, month, year, leap year, and even the phases of the moon.
The Repeater complication – sometimes referred to as a “chiming watch” – is considered the ultimate expression of a watchmaker’s skill and ingenuity. As the name suggests, the watch is able to audibly repeat – or chime – the time to its wearer, which made it particularly popular in the days before electricity was invented. A number of variants exist, such as the quarter repeater and the half-minute repeater, but the most popular is the minute repeater.
A wonderfully elaborate complication usually activated by a slide built into the side of the case, the minute repeater is capable of audibly chiming the hour, quarter hour, and the number of minutes since the last quarter hour. It can take years for a watchmaker to develop the expert ear required for precise tuning and millions have been spent at watch companies in Switzerland during a never-ending quest to achieve the perfect combination of clarity and tone.
Not surprisingly, high quality vintage examples are exceedingly rare given the immense amount of work and time required to produce just one. Even modern day examples that benefit from all of the latest technology can take years to develop and are still only produced in limited numbers. But once you hear that first chime, you’ll know it was worth the wait.
Find these 4 watch complications and more in upcoming auctions including Baltic Auction Group’s European Works of Art, Clocks, Jewellery, Amber (December 11), Sotheby’s The Wish List: Jewellery, Watches, and Accessories Online (Ends December 12), Auctionata US’s Important Luxury Timepieces (December 14), Balclis’ Jewelry, Coins, and Watches (December 20), and more.