The Forgotten Complication

When one thinks of watch complications, one tends to think of the surreal and the unusual.  That’s because those are the complications that watchmakers tend to use to show off in the marketplace.

These days, new models come along on a regular basis with an increasing number of fascinating features.  You’ll see perpetual calendars, and minute repeaters, and all manner of astronomy-related mechanisms showing you the relative locations of the sun, the moon, the planets and who-knows-what else.

automatic watchIt’s enough to make us wax nostalgic about the “old days” when a moonphase display was considered to be an exotic complication.

With the race on to see who can create the most elaborate watches with the most unusual features, people tend to ignore what may be the single most common watch complication of all – the automatic watch.

In fact, the automatic watch movement is such a common complication today that it, like the tourbillon, is often not regarded as a complication at all.  Still, by the most common definition, that being a watch feature that does something other than tell the time, the self-winding automatic movement should qualify.

Self-winding pocket watches were first made experimentally more than two hundred years ago, though they never were produced on a mass scale.

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the self-winding movement began to appear in wrist watches and even then, it took several decades to come up with a movement that was reliable and which didn’t have drawbacks.  Early models had “knocks” which occurred when the rotating weight hit a spring that was installed to cushion the rotor as it hit the end of its stroke.

rolex oyster perpetual automatic watchObviously, no one would want to own a watch that either made noise or which had a weight that you could actually feel moving while you were going about your day.  These early models used a mechanism that modern automatic watches use, but one that had yet to be refined.

Eventually, someone patented a method that worked well and then, as these things usually go, someone else got a hold of that method and improved it.  In the case of the automatic watch, that movement was improved by Rolex, which began working on it in the early 1930s.  By the mid-1950s, they were using it in most of their watches.

Of course, other companies picked up on it, too, as no one was going to allow Rolex to be the only company that sold a watch that didn’t need to be wound on a daily basis.  By the mid-1960s, the automatic watch was so common that few people found it remarkable anymore.

There have been a few refinements since, mostly involving making the movement as thin as possible.  Anything that adds complexity to a watch movement will also add size, and in the case of automatic movements, which require a moving weight to wind the watch, these movements usually resulted in a thicker watch.  Over the years, however, many companies have developed a way to make a self-winding movement that isn’t noticeably thicker than one that is manually wound.

Fortunately for buyers, automatic watches are now common enough that the addition of that complication also adds little to the cost of the watch.   In fact, in addition to being the most common watch complication, a self-winding movement is also likely the most affordable and most useful.




Too Complicated to Use?

Watchmakers clearly enjoy their craft, and adding new features to any watch is something that a craftsman looks forward to doing.  The more complex, the better, but sometimes, one cannot help but wonder if a watch that is overly complicated is really good for the wearer.

ulysse nardin executive moonstruck worldtimerA good example is the recently introduced Executive Moonstruck Worldtimer watch by Ulysse Nardin.  This company has been making elaborate watches with celestial complications for decades, and as time goes on, they seem to get more and more elaborate.

This isn’t a problem, since you’re unlikely to end up owning one of these watches by accident.  For starters, Ulysse Nardin is only going to make 100 of the Executive Moonstruck Worldtimer, so unless you are rushing out to buy one, you likely aren’t going to find one for sale.

Furthermore, the watch, as you might expect from this company, is not inexpensive.  The watch is available with a case in rose gold, for $75, 000, or in platinum, for $95,000.  That means, as we’ve already mentioned, that you aren’t going to come across this watch by accident.  If you end up owning one, it’s because you want one.

And want one you very well might.  It’s a horrendously complicated automatic watch that offers world time and the date, and a clever pair of buttons at 8 o’clock and 10 o’clock allow you to quickly advance the time ahead or back one hour, making it very simple to adjust your watch if you happen to be changing time zones.

ulysse nardin executive moonstruck worldtimerThe watch depicts a world map, as seen from the north pole.  Greenwich Mean Time is indicated at 6 o’clock.   Three concentric discs rotate this map of the world throughout the day.

The Executive Moonstruck Worldtimer also shows you the phases of the moon, the position of the moon and the sun in relation to the Earth, their respective gravitational strength, the status of tides, and, for those who need something more normal in their watch, the date.

The watch has a 46 mm case, making it a bit large, but not excessively so.   Ulysse Nardin says that this watch, despite a mechanical movement, is accurate to 5.7 seconds per day.

Obviously, very few people are going to actually need such a watch.  Few people need to know the position of the tides.  Even fewer people need to know the relatively positions of the sun and the moon to the Earth.  So why put such complications into a watch?

Because they can. Beyond a certain point, adding complications such as the state of tides is simply the designer of the watch showing potential buyers what is possible.  It’s one thing to come up with a device that can track such things, but it’s something else again to put it in a wristwatch and have it work in harmony with a mechanism that needs to keep accurate time.

That, you may recall, is the reason that most people buy a wristwatch in the first place, but allowing everything to work together and fit in a case that’s still small enough not to be a nuisance is what makes the Ulysse Nardin Executive Moonstruck Worldtimer a piece of art.


Why Are Complications Expensive?

If you are a fan of wristwatches, you likely admire watches with complications.  For many collectors, the more complications a watch has, the better.

Unfortunately, those complications usually come with a price, and sometimes, the prices are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Even less expensive complication watches usually cost thousands of dollars.

You might think that these days, with watchmaking being pretty much a refined craft, that companies would be able to sell watches with features other than the ability to tell time for more modest prices.

Why are complication watches expensive?

jaeger lecoultre hybrisThere are a few reasons for this.  Some of them will make sense, and others may not make sense to the casual buyer.

One must keep in mind that the vast majority of people who buy watches only want one for either a fashion statement or want a simple device that will tell them the time.  Most buyers do not care at all how the watch is powered or what is inside the case.

That probably accounts for 99% of all watch buyers.  That is why most watches sold today have quartz movements.

That leaves the remaining 1% of the market for mechanical watches.  Buyers of mechanical watches want more than just an off-the-rack watch, but even most buyers of mechanical watches do not necessarily need one with elaborate features.  Many might like the ability to display the date, or have a built in stopwatch, but beyond that, the demand for other features or complications is fairly small.

a lange and sohneAfter date and chronograph complications, the market for watches with any other features is quite small.   The market may be small, but the amount of work that goes into designing and building a watch with unusual complications or multiple complications is extensive.  This is rarely offset by the ability to sell those watches in the market; if often costs a company more to make watches with multiple complications than they can readily recoup at the point of sale.

Many companies do it for prestige purposes, but they do realize that the market is going to be small for whatever it is they are building.   That doesn’t change the fact that it is very difficult to incorporate a tourbillon, a minute repeater, a perpetual calendar and/or a moonphase display into a watch at the same time.

That is very complex work that not anyone can do, and creating the mechanical parts that make such movements work is painstaking and expensive.

That is why, when such watches come to market, they are usually manufactured with gold or platinum cases.   Many of them have added diamonds.  Almost all such watches also have extremely limited production numbers that are publicly announced so that potential buyers will know that these watches are rare.

This allows the makers to increase the prices to the point where the price may offset the cost of making the watches in the first place.

Of course, few, if any, companies pay their rent with elaborate complication watches.  Most companies sell less complex watches to pay the bills, and the more elaborate models are their show pieces.

At the end of the day, it comes down to a combination of supply and demand vs. the amount of work and expense of making such watches.

Lots of people want complication watches.  Few people are actually going to buy them, and that drives up the price.


A French Twist – Charlie Watch With a Complication

When one thinks of watches, and particularly when one thinks of watches with complications, one usually thinks “Switzerland.”

It’s true that the Swiss have long been leaders in horology and particularly when it comes to innovation.  Others can make watches that display the time, but when you want complications in your wristwatch, you go to the Swiss.

charlie watch complicationIf you really want to get a bit edgy, you might go with the Japanese, as Seiko and Citizen have come up with a few interesting innovations over the years.

What about the French?

The French aren’t exactly known for their watches.  They’ve built the Eiffel tower, and some rather odd looking automobiles, but France isn’t usually anyone’s “go-to” place for watches, especially watches with complications.

But Charlie Watch, based in Paris, is seeking to change that.  Founded in 2014, the company was founded by two watch fans who wanted to create watches of their own that would please them and their families.  That’s all.

But Charlie Watch makes some tastefully elegant watches that look great when you’re wearing them in the office or for an evening at a nice restaurant or a visit to the symphony.

charlie watch initial power reserveYou won’t find Charlie Watch to be particularly “edgy” when it comes to styling; there aren’t a lot of flashy colors or diamond-covered bezels.  They’re simple, austere, attractive timepieces that are offered at a good price point.

…and now, thanks to the introduction of the Initial Power Reserve model, you have a Charlie Watch with a complication.

Offered in five colors (maroon, blue, chocolate, black and camel,) the Initial Power Reserve is a timepiece that offers several different complications:

  • 24 hour indicator
  • Date
  • Power reserve

Not a bad start.  You do not, after all, start adding complications to your watches by adding minute repeater functions or a perpetual calendar.  These are complicated complications that can come in time.  You start small, make sure that the resulting watch works and that it looks good.

Charlie Watch has the good looks part down pretty well.  The Initial Power Reserve is a great looking watch that displays the complications nicely but doesn’t come across as gaudy.

The Initial Power Reserve features an automatic movement, though it wasn’t developed in-house.  Instead, you’ll find a Miyota 9132 movement inside.  Miyota is a Japanese company that is actually owned by Citizen.  They manufacture movements exclusively and sell them to other watch companies that can put them in their own cases and market them under their own name.

Miyota has been making automatic movements (with and without complications) for years and they are very reliable.

The case on the Initial Power Reserve is made from 316L grade stainless steel, and the watch is protected by sapphire crystal.   Water resistance is rated at 30 meters and the power reserve on the watch is 42 hours, which will allow you to go without wearing it for a couple of days.

Best of all is the price, as the Initial Power Reserve is priced at £595, or about $900 U.S.  That’s a bit more than the rest of the watches in the Charlie Watch line cost, but it’s a pretty reasonable price when compared with other comparable models from other brands.

You can see the Charlie Watch line at their Website.