In the world of horology, “complication” refers to anything a watch does beyond telling time. Watchmakers have created dozens of complications that power everything from displaying the date to minute repeaters that chime at certain intervals. The list of complications also includes chronographs, perpetual calendars, annual calendars, dual time zones, world timers, moonphase indicators, jump hours and lots of other functions. They’re called complications because adding functions to a basic movement makes it significantly more complicated to engineer, build and service.
Complications have been around for centuries, each one a mechanical invention that probably garnered the inventor some degree of acclaim. At first, the path was linear. In the 17th century when pocket watches started to become more accurate, a watchmaker recognized that adding a separate hand to count minutes would make the device more useful. With the 18th century’s arrival came a seconds hand on a sub-dial that we now refer to as a small seconds. Skip ahead another hundred years to the first wristwatch — Breguet’s Queen of Naples, which incorporated a minute repeater and moonphase indicator adapted from pocket watch movements. The watch also had a thermometer. Still, early wrist watches like the Breguet were basically one-off creations that took years to build.
During the first half of the 20th century, watchmakers began building movements using scalable production methods. While they’re now ubiquitous, complications like a date window and a center-mounted seconds hands were big innovations in the 1930s and 40s. The date window first appeared on the Mimo-Meter in 1930. It was produced by a watch company called Mimo which eventually became Girard Perregaux. Center seconds hands could be found on early 20th century watches but didn’t become standard until after the second World War. An explosion of complications followed as watches became essential equipment for racing, diving, flying, travel and space exploration.
Today, nearly every manufacturer produces watches with complications. Some venture into whiz-bang exotic functions that are designed and produced in-house – think Franck Meuller or Greubel Forsey – while others take a more conservative or utilitarian approach. Watches described as “Grande Complication” are extraordinarily complex creations that incorporate several complications into the movement. Grande complications are quite rare and valuable. The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime 6300A-010, which holds the title for most expensive watch ever sold at auction ($31 million), has 20 complications. It’s Grande on every level.
While you won’t find that Patek in the store, King Jewelers has hundreds of watches loaded with all sorts of complications. Here are a few of the most noteworthy.
COMPLICATION | Wandering Hours
When I first saw the Outlaw Drift, it took a little thought to figure out how to read the time. The dial has three independent plates marked with seemingly random Arabic numbers for each hour and a 0 to 60 scale that stretches across the top third of the concave inner bezel. The time is indicated by where the hour marker lines up with the inner bezel. On the image above, you can see that the 10 is lined up with 00 so the correct time is 10:00. As the 10 travels across the scale, the next plate rotates into place to put the 11 in position at the start of the next hour. Gorilla watches are designed by Octavio Garcia, an Audemars Piguet veteran who saw the complication on the 1991-release AP Star Wheel (ref. 25720BA). Legend has it that the wandering hours complication first appeared in the mid-1600s on a clock designed to be easily read by the light of an oil lamp.
COMPLICATION | Alarm
Mechanical watches with an alarm are fairly uncommon and the Tudor Advisor is the only one in the store. The alarm is loud enough to register, and the sound reminds me of a scaled down version of a Mickey Mouse desktop clocks with the two bells on top. Even if you can’t hear the alarm, you can definitely feel the vibration on your wrist when it’s activated. There’s an indicator at 9 o’clock that lets you know when the alarm is on along with a dedicated power reserve display inside 3 o’clock. With a mechanical alarm, a dedicated power reserve is pretty important, especially if you’re relying on the watch to wake you up or remind you of an appointment. Setting the alarm is easy with the 2nd crown at 2 o’clock. The crown’s first position lets you fill the tank with power like you would with a hand-wound watch then the second position lets you move the red alarm hand.
COMPLICATION | GMT
At first glance, the ring around the outside of the dial bearing names of cities from around the world might make you think this watch is a world timer. It did when I initially picked it up. The Lange actually shows two time zones, but it does it way differently than most GMT complications. The dial has two main sub-dials. The larger one at 9:00 is for home time. Within is a running seconds sub-dial and an am/pm indicator. The second sub-dial at 4:00 shows the second time zone with an am/pm indicator on the left side. There’s an arrow at the 5:00 position on the sub-dial that points to the city selected on the rotating ring which provides the offset between home and local time. This pre-owned Lange 1 Time Zone in rose gold is an incredibly beautiful watch inside and out. It’s worth a trip to the store just to see it.
COMPLICATION | Moonphase
There are dozens of moonphase watches in the cases from Zenith, Girard-Perregaux, H. Moser, IWC, Longines, Raymond Weil and other great brands. This one, though, is not one you see every day. FP Journe watches pair clean, elegant designs with stellar watchmaking. The Octa Lune has a simple dial that balances time and small seconds registers, moon phase and power reserve displays and FPJ’s signature large date window. There’s a lot on the dial but it is completely uncluttered as every element seems to exist in its own space. The automatic movement, which is crafted from 18k gold, is visible though the display caseback. If you want to spoil your wrist in luxury, this is a good choice.
COMPLICATIONS | Retrograde Calendar, Chronograph, Moon phase
There’s a lot packed into the angular square-ish Symphatie case, but the standout complication is the bi-retrograde calendar. You’ll see two arcs on the either side of the dial – the date retrograde that bends inward around the chronograph sub-dial at 3:00 and the day retrograde around the small seconds dial at 9 o’clock. Skeletonized hands are used for the retrogrades as well as hours and minutes. This Geneva Seal watch is one of only 28 produced by the master watchmaker.
COMPLICATIONS | Dual time zone, full calendar, moon phase
The Reverso is an iconic Art Deco design that debuted in the 1930s. The two-sided case was purpose-built for polo players who wanted to protect their watches while playing. Instead of a solid side, the Duoface has two dials powered by a single hand-wound movement. Each side of the Tribute Duoface Calendar shows a different time zone paired with a full calendar and moon phase on one side and a day/night indicator on the other.
That’s it for now but there’s some unique new inventory with several very cool complications arriving over the next few weeks. I’ll share some thoughts with you as soon as the new watches arrive.
Bobby Frank is a freelance writer and musician based in Nashville. He’s been an avid watch collector since discovering a sample case full of early digital watches at his father’s office in the late 1970s. Current favorites include the Tudor Black Bay Fifty-Eight, Zenith Chronomaster and Jaquet Droz Grande Seconde Skelet One. A timekeeper to his core, Bobby plays the drums in several bands that perform across the Southeast including Tennessee Dead, a Grateful Dead tribute band.
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