Even a simple mechanical watch is complicated, with more than a hundred parts working together to accurately keep time. A mechanical watch, if kept wound, will tick 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Keeping all those parts moving continuously and flawlessly is a feat of microengineering and watchmaking skill.
In the world of fine timepieces, the term “complication” has a very specific meaning. It’s any part of a watch that goes above and beyond telling time. And, as longtime watch aficionados know, understanding the wide range of complications available — and the intricate machinations that make them tick — can be invaluable when seeking out the perfect timepiece. Every timepiece needs four things: a power source, a way of transmitting the power, a way of regulating that power and a way of translating the power into readable time.
For mechanical watches, the power source is the mainspring. The mainspring’s power is transmitted through a series of gears called the “gear train.” The balance wheel, which turns back and forth at an adjustable rate, is where the power is regulated. The indication is done by the hands.
All these things combine to make the watch what it is and determine how well, or how poorly, it keeps time. In its simplest terms, a watch is very similar to a wind-up car – you turn the key to give it power, it has gears, and the number of teeth in the gears determines how fast it will go across the floor. In a watch, you wind up a mainspring, supplying power to the gears to turn the hands of the watch.
Given how difficult it is to make a basic mechanical watch, it’s amazing that watchmakers are willing to make things even more difficult by adding complications. Watch brands are constantly coming out with new complications, including very useful ones that can make your life easier. A basic watch has three hands — hour, minute and second. Anything more, even a day or date display, is considered a complication. Here are some of the most popular complications available today:
Dual Time/GMT: This timepiece displays two times simultaneously, either through a GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) hand that points to the second time zone or a separate subdial for the second time zone. There are some three-time-zone watches and some brands offer world time watches, which provide a way to read the time in 24 time zones around the world. Some watches give the time in cities that are hubs for big business, such as stock trading or shopping.
Chronograph: Most commonly used to time racing events, a chronograph has two push buttons called “pushers” on the side of the case to activate, stop and return the chronograph hands to their starting position. Most chronographs have subdials that measure the minutes and hours. There are chronographs that have only one pusher, which controls all the chronograph functions, and these are called monopusher chronographs. A chronometer, not to be confused with a chronograph, is a watch officially certified to a high standard of precision.
Split-Second Chronograph: This has two chronograph hands instead of one, allowing you to time different things. Let’s say you are timing a race. To start the race, you push the chronograph pusher and both hands start together, one on top of the other. When the first runner reaches the first mile marker, for example, you push the button again, stopping the first hand, but the second hand “splits” apart and continues timing. After you record that first time, you push the pusher again, and it catches up to the second hand, allowing you to then stop it again whenever you want another time measurement. You can repeat this operation any number of times. The French term for this complication is rattrapante, which means “recovering” or “catching again.”
Annual Calendar: This watch will run for a full year (starting on March 1) without having to be reset. It will have to be reset at the end of February, the only month that varies in the number of days from year to year.
Power Reserve: This complication is an indicator that shows the amount of stored power from the last time the watch was wound.
Perpetual Calendar: This is the ultimate calendar because it knows how long each year is, even if it is a leap year. Keep a quality perpetual calendar running and you won’t have to reset it until the year 2100.
Retrograde Display: This kind of display shows time in a linear format rather than a circular one. The seconds and minutes (even the date) count upward and then snap back to start.
Minute Repeater: This is a watch that chimes out the minutes, quarter-hours and hours with the press of a button or when a lever is activated. The minute repeater is one of the most complicated watches to manufacture.
Tourbillon: This is a device that is designed to counteract the effect of gravity on the movement’s balance, thereby increasing accuracy. A tourbillon features a small cage that holds the balance and the escapement (the mechanism that transfers energy to the balance) and the cage turns independently of the watch, usually at a constant rate of once per minute. The tourbillon, which means “whirlwind” in French, is one of the watchmaking art’s most involved and elegant complications.
Grande Complication: This rare watch combines at least three high complications — usually one from each of the following groups: chronograph, calendar/moon phase (annual, perpetual, phases of the moon, equation of time) and striking (minute repeater, alarm, etc.).
Producing a watch with complications takes a great deal of expertise and attention to detail. In general, when a complication is added to a movement, it means that more can potentially go wrong, so it is important to purchase a complicated watch from a quality company.
Also, the more complicated a watch is, the more expensive it will be. Thank goodness wearing a complicated watch is simple — just slip it onto your wrist and enjoy.