Watch Complications You Might Actually Use

Watchmakers love adding complications to their timepieces.  For many, creating elaborate features that go beyond just telling the time is the very reason they became watchmakers.

It’s hard to come up with a clever feature that can be powered by a watch mainspring.  It’s harder to make it fit into a watch case with the timekeeping movement.  It’s harder still to find a way to make the resulting complication both functional and attractive.

dual time zone watchIt happens, however, and there are dozens of complications or non-time-keeping-features that you can find on a mechanical watch.  Some of them are fairly common and others are somewhat rare.  A few are borderline unique (Hebrew calendar, anyone?)

While complications add a lot of flash and style to a watch and give the company that makes the watch something to brag about, many complications are not overly useful to the wearer.   It goes without saying that in a world where there may be 50-60 different things a watch might be asked to do for the wearer that not all of them are going to be equally useful.

Listed below are some complications that someone who is new to the hobby of watch collecting may find to be helpful.

  • Automatic movement – Winding a watch is a pain.  It’s not as bad as it used to be, back before we had cellphones and atomic clocks to keep us apprised of the correct time.  Back then, you had to wind a run-down watch to get it going again and then find someone who had the correct time to set it.  Those days are gone, but it’s still easier to have a watch wind itself automatically.
  • perpetual calendar watchChronograph – The ability to time how long something takes using a built-in stopwatch function is one of the most popular of complications, and racers, pilots and just people who like watches that have lots of dials and buttons on them like having a chronograph.  They look busy, so people think you must be important if you’re wearing one.
  • Dual time zone watch – Some watches have the ability to display the time in two time zones at once.  That’s helpful if you travel; you can see the time at home and the time where you are.   A dual time zone watch is far more helpful than a World Time watch, which shows you the time everywhere.  Those watches are just showing off.
  • Perpetual calendar – Lots of watches have the date, or the day and the date.  A perpetual calendar takes it a step further, providing you with a calendar that also remembers which months have 30 days, which have 31 and which month is February.  Most day/date watches can’t do this, so you’ll have to fumble with them every few months.  With a perpetual calendar, you’ll have to do it once a century or so.

These are the complications that a novice watch collector will likely find to the most helpful if they’re wearing their watch on a day to day basis.  Obviously, everyone is going to have different needs, so one person might find a minute repeater to be more helpful than a perpetual calendar, for instance.

That’s up to you.   All of the complications above are likely to be useful most of the time.


Apple Cheapens Complications

Among watch aficionados, complications are special.  They are sacred.  They are holy.

OK.  Not all watch complications are sacred.  Quite a few of them, such as the day/date or the self-winding movement, are more or less taken for granted today, as they’ve been included in a large percentage of mechanical watches for a half a century or so.

tourbillon watch complication
A watch complication

Still, watch collectors realize that anything a watch does over and above telling time is known as a “complication.”   The addition of a feature such as a perpetual calendar or a moon phase display or a flying tourbillon may not complicate the life of the wearer, but you can bet that it certainly complicated the life of the designers and the people who assembled the watch.

Complications are what make mechanical watches special.  Anyone can make a watch that tells the time with reasonable accuracy, and for proof of that, one only need look at the fact that you can buy Chinese-made, time-only mechanical watches online for about $20.

Buying one with a perpetual calendar, on the other hand, is going to cost you a bit more.  And even though the Chinese are now making watches with a tourbillon, you’re still going to pay thousands of dollars to own one.

Complications interest watch collectors the way a limited edition Lamborghini interests people over and above the interest they might show in an off-the-shelf Fiat.

That’s why it’s rather disturbing to see that Apple is now using the term “complication” in conjunction with their Apple Watch.

apple watch complication
Not a watch complication

The Apple Watch is Apple’s version of the smartwatch.  It was introduced a couple of years ago and was created to function as an external interface to the iPhone.  It can also function as a fitness tracker, and it can allow you to check your email.  A new, recently-introduced Apple Watch 3 will also allow you to make and receive phone calls.d

That’s great, if you’re a fan of smartwatches.  That’s neither here nor there.

But Apple is now using the word “complication” to describe things that appear on the watch face other than the time.  In short, Apple is using “complication” more or less as a synonym for “app.”

Want to see the weather on your watch face?  That’s a complication.
Want to see a pedometer display on your watch?  That’s a complication.
Want to see a train schedule on your Apple Watch?  That’s a complication.

These aren’t complications; at least, I don’t think so.  I’d argue that the software that makes it possible to display any of those things on your watch might reasonably be called a complication, but not the apps themselves.

Watchmakers devote their lives to figuring out how to include minute repeaters and world time displays into a mechanical watch.  That’s hard work and requires some pretty difficult and sometimes groundbreaking engineering.   The work is, by definition, complicated.

The Apple Watch isn’t really doing that.  If apps for smartphones are called “apps,” then there’s no reason why an app for a smartwatch should be called anything else.

They’re not complications.  That’s an insult to people who actually make real watch complications as well as the people who collect them.


The Most Complicated Wristwatch

Watchmakers enjoy creating watches for their customers, and they obviously try to create watches that have features, or complications, that their customers will find useful.

Watchmakers also have a desire to create, and many of them also have a desire to show off.  Adding a single complication to a watch is difficult; adding more than one becomes even more so.

franck muller aeternitas mega 4Beyond that, the ability to create a watch with multiple functions is the stuff that watchmakers dream of doing.  Why stop at one or two complications when you can build a watch with ten?  Or twenty?

Or thirty six?

That’s how many different complications you will find in the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, also known as the world’s most complicated wristwatch.

Note that I said “wristwatch.”  There are pocket watches with more complications, but pocketwatches don’t have the size limitations that wristwatches have.  You can’t have a wristwatch that measures 8 inches across or which weighs 5 pounds, so there are going to be some practical considerations when it comes to adding that many complications to something that someone can wear on their wrist.

Still, 36 complications is impressive, and a quick glance at the face of the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 will show you that it is indeed one very complicated watch.

franck muller aeternitas mega 4There are 1483 different parts in the Aeternitas Mega 4, and more than two dozen of the complications are actually visible to the wearer.  The watch took  5 years to create.

So, what’s “under the hood?”  What sorts of things will this amazing watch do besides tell you the time?

Here are a few of the complications to be found in the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4:

  • The day of the week
  • The month
  • A leap year indicator
  • Hour and minute repeater
  • Year indicator
  • Dual time zones
  • 24 hour indicator
  • Equation of time
  • Moon phase indicator
  • Chronograph
  • Equation of time
  • Tourbillon
  • Automatic movement
  • …and many more

It’s a nice looking watch, although it is necessarily a bit busy-looking.  It’s also a bit awkward to use, as a time-only watch might have a single knob on the crown, where this one has at least seven buttons to deal with.

On the other hand, the calendar is said to be accurate for 1000 years, so that’s a huge bonus.

The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 comes in white gold and was made in a limited edition, though I’m not sure how many were made.

As with all mechanical watches that feature complications, the more complex the watch, the higher the price.  You will pay for all of that innovation and you’re certainly going to pay for the ingenuity that went into putting that many different functions into a form factor that can fit on your wrist.

In the case of the Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, the price is something just north of $2.5 million.  Yes, that’s a lot of money, but on the other hand, an awful lot of work went into this watch and the company knows there is a limit to how many of these that they can sell.

Not everyone needs a perpetual calendar or a repeater that sounds like the Westminster chimes.




Common Watch Complications – A Few That You’ll See Frequently

As we have mentioned before, a watch “complication” is an feature found in a wristwatch that other than the ability to display the time.  Many watches have additional complications, and the more a watch has, the greater the complexity and the higher the price.

Some complications are quite common and are found on many different models of watch.  Others are somewhat more rare, and a few are seldom seen.

Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Watch
Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar Watch

Listed below is a list of some of the most common watch complications, along with their function.

Alarm – A chime built into the watch that the wearer can set to sound at a time of the wearer’s choosing.

Annual Calendar – A watch that displays the day and date for every day of the year, at least for those months that have 30 or 31 days.  Annual Calendar watches are not able to handle February; you will have to change the date to March first on your own.

Chronograph – A watch with a built-in stopwatch that allows you to time events independently of the watch’s own timekeeping.  A “Flyback Chronograph” can be instantly reset to begin timing again, where a regular chronograph must be stopped, reset, and started again.

Dual Time Zone – A watch that, as the name suggests, is capable of keeping track of the time in two different time zones at once.  This is a useful complication for people who frequently travel.

Breguet Perpetual Calendar Moonphase
Breguet Perpetual Calendar Moonphase

Minute Repeater – A watch that chimes on the minute, quarter hour and hour.  This is user-adjustable so that the feature can be turned on and off.  A useful complication for when you need to know the time when it is dark.

Moonphase – An increasingly common complication.  This one displays the current phase of the moon.   While the complication was once useful for navigation, it is now largely a novelty.

Perpetual Calendar – This is the Big Kahuna of calendar functions.  If the date or the day and date are not enough for you, a perpetual calendar will keep you informed.  These complications keep track of the day and the date, adjust automatically to compensate for the shorter month of February, and even keep track of leap years.  They do not, however, generally keep track of century years, as only one out of every four of those (2000,2100,2200,2300, etc.) is actually a leap year.

Power Reserve – This is a dial or indicator that shows the wearer how much power is left in the mainspring of the watch.  This is important for mechanical watches, as it suggests how much time remains before the watch stops running.  For mechanical watches, this may indicate that it’s time to wind it.  For automatic watches, it might suggest that it’s time for the owner to either wear it or, if wearing it already, time to start moving.

Tourbillon – Not one of the most useful of complications, but a very popular one in high end wristwatches.  A tourbillon is a rotating cage that holds the escapement and balance wheel of the watch in order to attempt to offset the effects of gravity on the watch’s accuracy.

World Time – A watch that displays the time in each of the world’s time zones.  Most world time watches show the time in 24 zones, but a few acknowledge that there are actually 37 time zones in the world, and show those, too.

Some of these complications are more useful than others.  A world time watch, for example, is only going to be useful if you travel a lot.  Others, such as a calendar, will likely come in handy on a regular basis.


Some Not So Useful Watch Complications

In my last post, I talked about watch complications in general, what they are, why we have them and then listed a few complications that I thought might be useful to a watch owner.

Many complications (and there are dozens) are useful to watch owners, and that is why some of them, such as the date and chronograph features, turn up in hundreds of different models each year.  They truly are beneficial, and people often buy specific watches because they have those features.

Vacheron Constantin World time watch
A world time watch

Not all complications are equal, however, and some of them are a lot less useful than others.  In fact, some of them might not be of any use to the average person at all.  Of course, you will pay for any complication, as they cost more money to add to the watch, but here are few complications that likely won’t improve your life in any way:

    • Moon phases – A display that shows the phases of the moon is an increasingly common complication, and oddly enough, it’s turning up increasingly frequently on watches for women.  It hasn’t quite reached the status of being known exclusively as a “woman’s complication,” but it’s getting there.  Still – when was the last time that you cared at all about the current phase of the moon?
    • A foudroyante – A what?  Also known as a “flying seconds hand,” a foudroyante is a dial indicating fractions of a second.  While this isn’t a common complication, it is an odd one; there’s a hand or marker on the face of the watch that rotates every second.  It’s not really useful in any way; it’s just another way to run down your mainspring.
foudroyante watch
A watch with a foudroyante
  • Position of the planets – A few watches have an indicator on the face of the watch that will show you the relative positioning of the planets.  If you occasionally need to know the position of Venus vis a vis Neptune, then this might be useful to you.  On the other hand, if such things are important to you, you probably already work at either an observatory of a planetarium.  In all likelihood, this one isn’t particularly useful to anyone.
  • World time – This one is particularly odd, especially in its full-blown incarnation.  A world time watch will show you the time of day in all of the world’s time zones.  How many is that?  24, you say?  No, it’s actually 37, as there are some very small time zones that are off by 15 minutes or 30 minutes from the rest of us.    A true, 37 time zone world time watch is a remarkable piece of engineering, but it’s not overly useful.  You’ll thank me for this, because such watches are very rare and very, very expensive.
  • A tourbillon – Purists will argue that a tourbillon, a rotating cage that contains the balance wheel and escapement of a watch movement, isn’t really a complication.  It’s an increasingly popular feature, however, as the engineers get to show off how talented they are and you get to see the rotating mechanism through a window on the face of your watch.  Originally thought to make watches more accurate, a tourbillon today is more an excuse to dramatically increase the price of the watch than anything else.

Of course, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor, and while I don’t think these complications are useful, others may regard them as essential.  The kind of features you want to see in a watch is up to you.


Some Useful Watch Complications

The basic purpose of a watch is to allow the wearer to be able to tell the time.  That’s a helpful feature, and the entire reason why we have watches in the first place.

Over the years, watchmakers have added additional features to wristwatches, and these features that are not complications make things more complicated about displaying the time are known as “complications.”  As I have mentioned previously, for the watchmaker, as squeezing new features into an existing form factor is quite difficult, and it’s even harder to make it both useful and attractive to the wearer.

A Citizen Chronograph

Often, complications simply reflect the watchmaker’s efforts to show that they are clever and competent, and the more unusual the complication, the more attention the company will receive.

That’s fine, but from a practical standpoint, not all complications are equally useful to the wearer, even though all complications necessarily increase the price of the watch, often significantly.

Listed below are five complications that most watch owners will find to be helpful things to have on their watch besides the basic display of time:

Omega Calendar watch
Omega Calendar watch
  • Power reserve – With a manually-wound mechanical watch, the spring will run out of power eventually, leaving the watch unable to run.  It’s a simple matter to wind it again, but a power reserve indicator will clearly display the state of the mainspring, giving the owner an idea as to when the watch will need to be wound again.
  • Date – This is one of the most common complications, but it is a useful one.  If knowing the time is important, knowing the date is likely almost equally so.  A date feature is a fairly basic complication; a day-date complication is a much more elaborate and difficult mechanism to add to a watch.
  • Minute repeater – This is not a common complication, but a minute repeater, which chimes at certain intervals that are usually user-adjustable, can be helpful.  It can function as an alarm, and if you have to meet an appointment, it can let you know when it’s time.  A repeater can also let you know the time when it isn’t convenient to look at your watch, such as when it is dark.
  • Chronograph – A chronograph is basically a stopwatch function that allows you to time events independently of the timekeeping function of the watch.  Many people think this is a useful complication, as chronograph watches are among the most popular models sold on the market, and have been for decades.
  • Dual time zones – Some watches are able to display the time in more than one time zone at once.  There are also watches that can show you the time in all timezones, but those are more an example of showing off than producing usefulness.  Still, if you travel a lot, having a watch that shows you the time both at home and where you happen to be can be handy.

Some of these complications are more common than others.  A minute repeater, for example, is fairly rare (and expensive,) while a chronograph or a date complication are fairly common and affordable.

Still, all of them can be useful to a large percentage of people who wear wristwatches on a regular basis.