Whether for increased functionality, to uphold tradition, or just because, an extra serving of complex mechanics always delights the connoisseur. Here, we take a look at several timepieces that will make you do a double take.
Chronograph + Calendar
Mention the chronograph, and a sporty timepiece invariably comes to mind. It’s an easy association to make, since the complication has played pivotal roles in the tales of derring-do that have taken place in cockpits, race cars, and even outer space. Its contributions in less thrilling situations may be oft overlooked, but aren’t any less significant. Doctors in the past, for instance, relied on chronographs with pulsometer scales to quickly and accurately determine their patients’ heart rates. The chronograph’s myriad uses make it one of the handiest complications to have on the wrist – even today – whether in a robust, sporty timepiece designed to brave the elements, or a dressier one meant for the office. So what better complication to pair it with, than another perennially useful one – the calendar?
Date And Time
The calendar is the most relevant astronomical complication for daily life, bar none, which explains its ubiquity in watches. Combine it with the chronograph, and a winner emerges. On the technical front, this isn’t particularly difficult, since calendar modules can be stacked onto an existing movement relatively easily, if it doesn’t already have a date indicator. There are also plenty of choices, depending on the desired level of complexity for the watch, as well as the considerations for its dial design.
The most straightforward option is, of course, a simple date indicator that requires an adjustment at the end of every month with less than 31 days. Most integrated chronograph movements will already include such a complication, since it doesn’t take up much space, requires few parts, and is simple to accomplish. The Breitling Calibre 01 used in the Navitimer 01 is one such example, with the date display at 4:30 on the dial. Omega’s co-axial Calibre 9300 is another; its date window sits at six o’clock to maintain the symmetry of the watch’s bi-compax layout, as shown in the Speedmaster White Side of the Moon.
To kick things up a notch, the chronograph can be paired with the annual calendar, which requires a manual correction just once a year at the end of every February. The added complexity of the complication is apparent on the dial, which now displays the day of the week and the month. This can be managed in different ways. In the Annual Calendar Chronograph Ref. 5905P, Patek Philippe began by doing away with a running seconds hand, thus removing a sub-dial entirely. The hour totaliser was also excluded to leave a single counter at six o’clock, which marks the elapsed minutes, to further reduce clutter. Zenith, on the other hand, removed just the hour totaliser (arguably the least used portion of the chronograph), but kept the small seconds sub-dial on its El Primero Winsor Annual Calendar.
Good Till 2100
If the annual calendar isn’t enough, there’s always the perpetual calendar. The usage of this complication moves the watch into high watchmaking territory, and creates an interesting dichotomy at the same time. As long as the watch is kept running, the perpetual calendar requires no input from its wearer (at least until 2100), so having a chronograph function encourages him to interact more with it – start-stop-reset, start-stop-reset.
Presenting the information from a chronograph and a perpetual calendar becomes even more challenging with the inclusion of a leap year indicator. For Hublot, this necessitated the combination of multiple indicators into each sub-dial, as the Big Bang Chrono Perpetual Calendar shows. The counter at nine o’clock, for instance, combines the month, leap year, and chronograph minute totaliser, with the information displayed in three concentric layers. The brand also organised the information with distinct visual cues – white arrow-tipped hands for the calendar, red-tipped hands for the chronograph, and plain stick hands for the time. The thoughtful layout has even enabled Hublot to sneak in a moon phase indicator.
IWC, on the other hand, took a different route by utilising digital displays in its Portugieser Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month Edition ‘’75th Anniversary’’ watch. By confining the date and month to two such displays, the manufacture could free up valuable real estate on the dial for an airier design. The chronograph sub-dial reinforces this by merging the minute and hour totalisers, which also allows elapsed time to be read like a normal watch, rather than the more common 30-minute counter.
Time Zones + Alarm
The world timer was created to allow its wearer to keep track of multiple time zones at a glance. From this came the simpler GMT complication that Rolex developed for airline pilots, to provide them with an easy reference for Greenwich Mean Time, the basis of all flight operations. These complications didn’t remain the exclusive domain of businessmen and aviators though. Globalisation, best exemplified by the democratisation of air travel in the mid-20th century, made both the world timer and GMT complications popular with a far wider audience, and has kept them relevant even today.
Of course, one could use a little help if he has multiple time zones to keep track of. A rotating bezel could work – just align the 12 o’clock marker to the important time, and it will serve as a reminder. Why not go one step further, though, and use an actual alarm? Archaic as it seems, a mechanical alarm does offer benefits over its digital counterpart that’s available on a smartphone. For one, it’s integrated with the watch, which never leaves its wearer’s wrist, so it cannot be misplaced. There’re also no concerns with battery life either. Since the complication is powered by a separate mainspring that’s wound up manually, keeping it ‘charged’ is a nonissue.
Although the mechanical alarm isn’t a common complication, some manufactures do offer it in watches that track multiple time zones. Vulcain is one of them, as the brand was already producing watches equipped with mechanical alarms for Swissair pilots in the 1950s to help them with the important milestones in a flight. The spiritual successor to those watches is the Aviator Cricket, which pairs the world timer with a mechanical alarm. Operating the watch is easy: The alarm is set by positioning the central red-tipped hand to the desired time. Blancpain and Hublot have similar offerings, albeit with the GMT complication instead of a world timer. Blancpain’s Leman Réveil GMT has a sub-dial for the second time zone at three o’clock, with the alarm set like Vulcain’s timepiece. Rounding up the trio is Hublot’s Big Bang Alarm Repeater, which allows the alarm time to be set to the minute through a separate sub-dial at four o’clock.
What other complications can a GMT or a world timer synergise with? With each other! Strange as it sounds, the two actually complement each other perfectly. Consider this: The GMT complication is intuitive to use, but tracks just one other time zone; the world timer, on the other hand, sacrifices some legibility to display far more information. Therefore, a hybrid can offer the best of both worlds by showing a selected time zone prominently, while the rest is available on demand.
Fusing the GMT and world timer complications can be done in several ways. For the Breitling for Bentley GMT Light Body B04 S, the red GMT hand continues to track home time, as the hour hand is set when one moves to a new time zone. To read the times in other cities, its user needs only to turn the bezel to align the home city on the inner flange with the GMT hand.
In A. Lange & Söhne’s Lange 1 Time Zone, local time is indicated by the larger sub-dial at nine o’clock. The smaller one at five o’clock has a triangular arrow that points at the city ring on the flange, and displays its corresponding time. Actuating the pusher at eight o’clock advances this city ring, and changes the time in the smaller sub-dial accordingly.
Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Geographic works similarly, with the crown at 10 o’clock responsible for changing the city at six o’clock. The time for the chosen city is then displayed accordingly in the sub-dial immediately above it. Granted, these three examples are not world timers per se. They do, however, have the ability to offer the time in more than 2 cities with just a little extra effort.
IWC’s Timezoner Chronograph, a 2016 novelty, deserves a special mention here. The timepiece displays the time of just a single city – the one at 12 o’clock on the bezel – in both 12- and 24-hour formats. Turn the bezel, however, and the white and red central hands that indicate the hours will jump accordingly, with the corresponding date correctly displayed at three o’clock. It’s both a GMT and a world timer watch, yet paradoxically it is also neither.
Perpetual Calendar + Moon phase
The perpetual calendar was covered earlier as a pairing option for the chronograph. On its own, however, this complication has almost always been paired with the moon phase display. For the man on the street, an indicator showing the current phase of the moon has about as much use as one that tracks the equation of time. This hasn’t stopped manufactures from including it in their perpetual calendar watches though, and for good reason – the moon phase display is the perfect feminine balance to the masculine perpetual calendar and its practical concerns with accuracy. Besides, it also lends a poetic touch to the dial that might otherwise be cluttered with hard information like the month and the day of the week – one certainly can’t argue against this, if he still appreciates wearing a mechanical watch in this day and age.
Integrating a moon phase display into a calendar complication is easy. The period of the lunar cycle is roughly 29.53059 days, so a wheel with 59 teeth is commonly used. This wheel is advanced by a finger once every day, just like the rest of the calendar’s displays. The tiny difference between the two accumulates over time though, so a correction of one day is needed every 2.64 years. For the perfectionists out there, there’s good news – alternative gearing ratios for the moon phase do exist, and can drastically increase the complication’s accuracy. The A. Lange & Söhne Richard Lange Perpetual Calendar “Terraluna”, for instance, has a moon phase display that requires a correction just once every 1,058 years.
Technical details aside, the way the moon phase indicator meshes with the perpetual calendar’s displays also bears some study, and Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony Perpetual Calendar is about as classic as it gets. Three sub-dials for the perpetual calendar’s full array of information, balanced by the graphical moon phase indicator. To reduce clutter, the manufacture merged the month and leap year into a single hand at 12 o’clock, which makes a complete revolution just once every four years. This reductionist approach extends to the simple aperture that shows the moon phase.
Montblanc’s Heritage Spirit Perpetual Calendar Sapphire has all its information sorted into the same positions on the dial, but looks far more contemporary because of its smoked sapphire dial, and the more elaborate sub-dial for the moon phase. IWC’s Big Pilot’s Watch Perpetual Calendar Top Gun is another variation on the theme, with the information presented in a slightly different arrangement. The highlight here is the double moon indicator at 12 o’clock, which simultaneously displays the moon phase as it is viewed from the Northern and Southern Hemispheres.
Finally, there’s Glashütte Original, which has stripped things to the bare minimum on the Senator Perpetual Calendar. The central hour and minute hands remain alongside a sweep seconds hand. All other information is shown via five apertures on the dial, including a single coloured dot that indicates the leap year.
Minute Repeater + tourbillon
It’s impossible to talk about the minute repeater without bringing out the superlatives. The complication remains the most revered among watchmakers and collectors alike, not least because of its complexity; a ‘simple’ minute repeater watch consists of over 300 parts that must all be finished, assembled, and adjusted. What’s more, there’s no room for error in several of the steps, like the removal of material to tune the gongs, as they are irreversible. It’s little wonder then, that the minute repeater remains the last bastion of high watchmaking that’s still well out of mass production’s reach. Its rarity is just part of its charm though. There’s nothing quite like listening to a minute repeater ‘live’ as its chimes announce the time down to the exact minute.
Spins & Strikes
Although minute repeaters frequently display their inner mechanisms through transparent case backs or open-worked dials, to admire them is to, above all else, have an auditory experience. As such, what better complication than the tourbillon to pair it with in order to create a multi-sensorial experience?
The tourbillon was conceived to even out a balance’s positional errors by constantly spinning it through all its possible positions. It might be an unintended consequence, but the rotating tourbillon carriage is mesmerising to watch, to say the least. Franck Muller was the first to recognise this and designed a movement where the device was first visible from the dial side of the watch, to create a constantly moving spectacle on the wrist. Combining the minute repeater with the tourbillon results in a timepiece with both audio and visual interest in spades.
Several manufactures offer such a match currently, but their executions differ widely from each other. Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon has its tourbillon prominently displayed at six o’clock, but keeps the minute repeater hidden when the watch is viewed from the dial side. Cartier’s Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater with Flying Tourbillon, on the other hand, has its gongs and hammers in the same position, while its tourbillon is moved to 12 o’clock to provide balance instead.
Those who want even more visual details will do well to consider either Breguet’s Tradition Minute Repeater Tourbillon Ref. 7087, or Girard-Perregaux’s Minute Repeater Tourbillon With Gold Bridges. In each watch, the movement design allows large portions of the minute repeater mechanism to be visible from the dial side. These components only come to life when the strike train is activated though, which leaves the tourbillon as the star attraction normally.
Patek Philippe’s Ref. 5539G-001 deserves special mention here. Ever the stalwart of tradition, the manufacture has kept the tourbillon on the back of the watch, with the only hint of its existence being the text on its dial at six o’clock.
Text by Jamie Tan
This story was first published in World of Watches.