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.


The Appeal of Watches in the 21st Century

Some people will likely wonder why,  nearly two decades into the 21st century, that anyone, anyone at all, would be interested in wristwatches.

Sure, they have been around for more than two centuries, and at their best, they represent the pinnacle of engineering prowess, but today, you don’t need to wear a watch.  In fact, nobody does, right?

stuhlring tourbillonYou can carry a cell phone or just look at the nearest computer.  The days when we needed to know the time and it wasn’t readily available are long gone. Today, everyone knows the time and if you have to, you can just ask someone who happens to be nearby.

But mechanical watches still have their appeal, as do the new smartwatches that are coming along.  Engineering is still engineering, and what was interesting 50 years ago is likely still interesting now.

More importantly, the engineering behind mechanical watches continues to improve.  It’s true that even the best mechanical watches are no match for atomic clocks or even your average cellphone when it comes to precision.  But most people don’t need to know the time to within one or two seconds per year, and for the majority of people, the time offered by a high quality watch is accurate enough.

Plus, manufacturing has improved, and designers continue to come up with clever ideas that are based on what has gone before.  Watch cases used to be made only from steel or possibly gold.   These days, you’ll find those, along with platinum, ceramic, carbon fiber, and even machined sapphire.

watch complicationWatches also include complications, which are additions to the timepiece that allow it do things other than tell times.  For smartwatches, we call those “apps,” but complications are far more interesting, as the engineers who design them have to figure out how to create a mechanism that displays the phases of the moon, for instance.  Then they need to figure out how to make it small enough to fit inside a watch case.

Then they have to figure out how to put it inside the watch case along with the movement that makes the watch work, and they need to do it in a way that allows everything to fit together in a harmonious way.

Finally, it all needs to be done so that the end result is something that is small enough to fit on a wrist and is easy to use.

That’s true of any watch complication, and some watches have more than one.  Some even have dozens.  The work necessary to make all of that into an attractive watch is admirable.

New designs, new styles, and new ideas are coming along all the time, and I’ve been amazed at how many different features have been put into watches in recent years, and even more amused in that some makers are creating these designs, only to see them put into limited edition models that are so rare that few people will ever likely see them, let alone own them.

Since watches with unusual complications and designs are fairly rare and will never make it to your local jewelry store, I’ll blog about them here.

For the basics, though, you’ll need to understand how a mechanical watch works in the first place: