Watch Complications Guide

The Watch Complications Guide

The accepted definition of a watch complication is simply any function on a timepiece that does more than tell time. This applies to everything from alarms, to tachymeters, chronographs, moonphases, calendars, and anything and everything in between. To compliment our ongoing watch series, it’s pertinent that we take an in-depth look at each and every complication to give you, the reader a better understanding of how each function operates.

In this initial primer, we will briefly introduce some of the more popular complications before providing dedicated articles on each of them as we did with Chronographs. If there is anything you do not understand, please take a look at our watch glossary.

For many men, a watch serves as a multi tool capable of providing information in addition to just the time of day. While a watch is certainly viewed as a piece of jewelry, an accessory and a status symbol, for many, it is also a practical tool of the trade that in some cases, has life saving capabilities.

Patek Philippe Grand Complication

Patek Philippe Grand Complication

From monitoring oxygen levels while deep sea diving, to measuring the heartbeat of a patient in hospital, watches offer professionals of all industries and trades, tools and functions to assist them in their daily activities. A regulated tool of the trade for everyone from police officers to military operators, the timepiece has enjoyed an illustrious history helping men perform their duties.

For someone like myself, I rarely seek out complicated watches for practical use. While I certainly respect and enjoy such timepieces, my interest in a watch separate from telling time is usually the story behind the watch or it’s exemplary movement. While I do own watches that possess a variety of complications, my favorite watch is a simple timepiece that does nothing more than provide me with the time of day.

The reason I mention this is because it needs to be noted that my interests in horology are in the minority. I haven’t bought a watch because I thought it was “cool” since I was ten, nor have I purchased a watch simply based on a complication. I seek rare finds and my primary interests lay in vintage timepieces. Trust me when I say that if I had the money to buy any collection I wanted, most would be let down as none of the watches would be “flashy” or popular among the masses.

The fact remains that popular isn’t always what’s best. Big Macs and Budweiser are very popular but it doesn’t mean they’re any good.

This is why, I constantly remind myself to write for the reader, and not for me. And, the odd time I forget, my wife is more than happy to remind me of that.

It is for this reason, that I find myself talking about complications and explaining what even the most ridiculous ones do. Not because I have a vested interest in it, but because like Big Macs and Budweiser, most men do.

However, I must caution you, that if you’re a collector my advice is to not buy a watch for its complication, but to buy the complication for the watch.

Maurice Lacroix Day Date

Maurice Lacroix Day Date

Most Popular Complications

Date Display

Probably the simplest complication, yet also the most useful, the date display is exactly what it sounds like – it tells you the date.

This particular display can most often be viewed in four various ways. The most popular of course is the Date Window which presents itself as an aperture next to the three o’clock marking on the dial. Generally this is in the form of two numbers that go from 0-9 allowing every possible date of the month to be viewed. In some cases, these numbers will alternate between red and black, in which case it will be referred to as a “Casino” date display.

The second most common date display is called a Big Date. This particular display provides the wearer with a significantly larger view of the date which is easier to read at a glance than the Date Window. On some watches, the display will be two separate windows side-by-side with the left going from 0-3 and the right displaying 0-9 like the Date Window. While this window can also be found next to the 3-o’clock marking, it can also sometimes be found at the top of the dial beneath the 12-o’clock mark as well.

The third most common type of date display is the Date Wheel which featured a center hand with an arrow or crescent that points to the date strung along the outside chapter of the dial. Often referred to as a “Bankers Dial”, the Date Wheel isn’t nearly as common as the aforementioned forms, but can still be found relatively easily throughout the American and European markets.

The fourth most common form of displaying the date is through the use of a subsidiary dial which utilizes a small sub-dial most commonly found over the 6-o’clock mark. Generally used in conjunction with other complications, this dial will rotate clockwise to inform the wearer of the date.

Of course with the constant reinvention of timepieces by quite literally thousands of watchmakers around the globe, there are many different ways a watch can inform the wearer of the date. These four aforementioned methods are simply the most common forms and should not be construed in any way as being the only date displays available on the market.

Day Date

The day date is a slightly more advanced version of the date display. The only difference between a date display and a day-date display is that the day date tells you the day of the week in addition to the date of the month. There are typically two versions used commonly today, the first being the classic day-date dial where the day of the week is present at the top (or 12-o’clock mark) of the face, and the date is an aperture next to the 3-o’clock marking on the dial.

The second common variety is a side-by-side window typically found at the 3-o’clock mark, where the day (usually shortened from Monday to Mon) sits next to the date.

Triple Calendar

A triple calendar complication is simply a function that adds the month of the year to the day-date display. Now, in addition to showing the day of the week and the date of the month, the display will also showcase the specific month. A slightly more useless complication, this is really only useful for those so forgetful that they cannot remember what month it is.

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day Date

Rolex Oyster Perpetual Day Date

Annual Calendar

This is a slightly more elaborate and even more pointless calendar function which takes the day, the date and the month, and then adds the year to it. The one note that needs to be taken into consideration, is that it does not account for leap years and will advance to the 31st of February every year before jumping to the 1st of March.

Perpetual Calendar

Many people hear the term perpetual calendar and think it’s something more impressive than it really is. While it’s certainly a horological achievement like any complication, the only difference between a perpetual calendar display and an annual calendar display is that the perpetual calendar takes into account the leap year, preventing you from having to manually set the function on March 1st. It should however be noted that this function will require correction in 2100 when the leap year will be ignored.

Chronograph

While we’ve already provided a fairly in-depth look into the world of Chronographs, this will serve as a reminder for those who need a quick reference aide.

The best definition of a chronograph in layman’s terms is simply to refer to it as a stop watch. Its original intention was to provide a way to time races and while it’s still used for that same purpose today, it has also been used for a wide-variety of other functions. As I mentioned in the Chronograph guide, my favorite story about the Chronograph is the way it saved the crew of Apollo 13 when the onboard computers failed and they relied on their Omega wristwatches to get them home.

There are three basic types of chronographs found today, with a wide variety of other kinds on the market.

The first type is referred to as a Mono-Poussier or one-button chronograph. This button is successively pushed in order to start, stop and reset the chronograph function. The only limitation of this type in comparison to its two-button and three-button counterparts is that it cannot measure interrupted time spans.

The second common type of Chronograph is the Fly-back Chronograph. It was originally invented for use by pilots who required impeccable accuracy when measuring time spans. By pushing the second button while the chronograph is in operation, it immediately causes all the counters to reset and start again from the zero marker. This type of complication is very useful for navigation when split-second accuracy is required.

1815 RATTRAPANTE PERPETUAL CALENDAR IN PLATINUM

1815 RATTRAPANTE PERPETUAL CALENDAR IN PLATINUM

Another very popular Chronograph is called the Rattrapante or split-second chronograph. This should not be confused with a fly-back. This is one of the easier chronographs to spot as it will almost always have three pushers on the case, and will consist of two second hands on the dial, one of which will be superimposed over the other. The purpose of the rattrapante is to allow the wearer to measure two separate spans of time. While one hand moves, the other can be stopped, started or reset back to zero.

Travel Complications

Travel complications, or more commonly known as dual time zone complications, are exactly that, functions invented for use by those who regularly travel or operate in multiple timezones.

There are two main categories of travel complications with various sub-categories as well.

Dual-Time

A dual time function is a watch that allows the wearer to view two separate time zones, both of which operate through the use of a singular movement.

Dual Movement

A dual movement while considered by many to be a complication, in my opinion is not a complication at all. In fact, it’s simply two different movements operating within the same case. They are set and operate completely independently of one another. The are powered separately and are basically just two watches in one. The reason I don’t consider them a complication is because a watch that only tells time is not a complication and since it’s technically two separate movements, each movement is not providing any exceptional function other than that of telling the set time.

Many people have heard the term GMT when it refers to the time zone function of a watch. GMT is simply one of those sub-categories I mentioned. It is an acronym that stands for Greenwich Mean Time and simply means that your watch displays two or more time zones.

Another phrase often heard is GMT with an independent hour hand. What makes it different than the regular GMT is that the regular hour hand is set independently of the 24-hour hand. A further evolution of which is the GMT with a fixed hour hand, a function designed for pilots which includes an additional hour hand. This hand makes only one revolution around the dial per day so that the 12-o’clock marking indicates that it’s midnight, whereas the 6-o’clock mark means it’s noon.

Vacheron Constantin World Timer

Vacheron Constantin World Timer

World Timer or World Timezone

This is a more complex complication particularly useful for those who operate in multiple timezones often from a single location. For example, international business executives that communicate with various offices around the world may find this complication useful for communicating with those offices using their local time zone.

This complication is typically a rotating inner bezel with a 24-hour display that sits inside an outer bezel which lists the major cities in each timezone. While the outer bezel is set by the wearer, the inner bezel which runs off the movement, makes one complete revolution every 24-hours.

Additional Complications

There are many other types of complications, but for space-sake we will mention only a few of the more common functions.

Tourbillon

The tourbillon is one of the most cost-enhancing complications found on a watch, and yet, in my opinion also one of the most useless. In fact, many horologists argue that the tourbillon is not a complication, since it actually provides no functionality whatsoever. The entire purpose of the tourbillon is simply to make the watch more accurate. While it’s a very elaborate and time consuming part to make, the tourbillon is basically a cage that spins the balance wheel on its own axis. Initially it was designed for use in pocket watches by Breguet to negate the effects of gravity since pocket watches were typically kept in a vertical position. The interesting thing is that there is absolutely no evidence to support that it in any way, shape or form, improves the accuracy of a mechanical timepiece. It really is offers nothing more than aesthetic appeal and for whatever reason has come to be a symbol of luxury and quality in a watch. In my opinion, it really doesn’t belong in this list at all, however, the vast majority of watch admirers and aspiring aficionados do consider it to be a “complication” that is worthy of their attention.

Minute Repeater

A Minute Repeater is just a function that causes the watch to chime out the time when a lever on the side of the case is activated. Fairly standard on some vintage pocket watches, it’s a relatively obsolete complication that is primarily only manufactured today to increase the cost of the timepiece or for collectible purposes.

Grovania Moonphase

Grovania Moonphase

Moonphase Complication

Ah, the aesthetically appealing, yet completely pointless moon phase complication. Perhaps useful by astrologers or fishermen to some degree, the moon phase complication is simply an indicator that tells you if it’s a full, half, quarter, or new moon in the sky above. Originally designed for sailors to determine the tides, today despite its incredible reliability and accuracy, it really serves little purpose on a timepiece. I would recommend purchasing a star gazing app on your smartphone for $2.99 rather than a moon phase complication on your watch for $100,000.00. That or simply look up.

Planetarium

This is one complication like the moon phase that can look very elegant yet serves no reasonable purpose other than allowing the wearer to be a source of useless information. What is a planetarium you ask? It is simply an indicator of the alignment of our solar system. While this particular complication is actually quite complex and difficult to manufacture, unless you have a vested interest in knowing each planets position, this function is really nothing more than an interesting topic of conversation and a testament to complicated watchmaking.

Alarm

Self explanatory, an alarm is simply a complication that permits you to preset a specific time and will notify you when that time is reached.

Equation of Time

If you enjoy useless information, this complication may be for you. While interesting to note, the actual solar length of most days differs by anywhere from 16 minutes shorter to 14 minutes longer then 24-hours typically shown on most timepieces. Because of this difference, the equation of time display was introduced. It’s only purpose to differentiate solar time and civilian time informing you of the addition or subtraction of minutes for the day.

Power Reserve Indicator

Finally, another useful complication. A power reserve indicator is fairly self explanatory. It’s simply a way to determine how much life your mechanical watch has before it needs to be wound. By measuring the tension of the mainspring and displays, it will indicate how much power is left in the watch. Typically the indicator will show in hours, however, some timepieces offer a 10-day power reserve in which case it will indicate days instead of hours.

Omega Rattrapante

Omega Rattrapante

Tachymeter

I feel that although it was briefly discussed in the Chronograph Guide, one complication that should be mentioned is the Tachymeter. The Tachymeter is a scale most commonly found on the bezel of a chronograph that is used to measure the speed of the wearer over a specific distance. Relatively simple, what makes this considered a complication is that it is a function over and above the primary time-telling function of a watch.

Foudroyante

As with many complications, I consider this among some of the most pointless ever invented. Often called a jumping second hand, it is a small dial that jumps very quickly to show you how fast each second ticks by. It’s sometimes neat to watch and can become oddly addictive, but in the end it serves absolutely no purpose and cannot be used to measure anything beyond the fractions of a second. Another cost enhancing, yet absurdly pointless complication.

Conclusion

While we will continually update this guide as well as our watch parts glossary and will of course venture deep into the heart of each complication in upcoming articles, we hope this primer on complications will serve as a stepping stone into the world of luxury timepieces.

As always, the topic of horology is vast and expansive. To detail all of its milestones and achievements would require volumes and while our aim is provide you with a complete library of resources and information for both the beginner as well as the connoisseur, the process of providing such information will be ongoing and will of course take time.

It is my sincere hope that this, in addition to my previous articles in our watch column has provided you with a fundamental introduction to horology so as we venture forth, you will have a rudimentary knowledge base to reference as we focus on detailed and technical aspects of watchmaking, probing and reviewing specific timepieces and manufacturers worthy of a gentleman’s attention.

20 replies
  1. Kory D.
    Kory D. says:

    Thank you for a goos article JA. While I will never use many of these features and thus will likely never purchase a watch with them even if I could currently afford it, I must admit that the Patek Philippe Grand Complication at the top of the article is one stunning watch.

  2. Michael
    Michael says:

    Just coming back from Valentine’s day. Sorry it was las Friday, I happened to by a Chronograph by Cartier. I did look around for many years, but as my wife has a cartier for nearly 20 years we happenend to go to the shop and I just asked for men’s watches and especially light and small ones as my wirst is very thin and a those modern big watches won’t fit at all. I found a chronograph with a wonderful antique touch and Roman numbers and a medium size prize.
    The watch will matc perfectly to bespoke suits from Savil Row and Tweed garments. So Valentine’s Day can be also a man’s day :-)

  3. Jonathan
    Jonathan says:

    About the “annual calendar section”, it states that “it does not account for leap years and will advance to the 31st of February every year before jumping to the 1st of March.” but there’s actually a model of Vacheron Constatin that prevents this mistake thanks an incredible mechanism.

  4. Tom
    Tom says:

    I’m afraid to say that I found this article rather poorly researched and overly sceptical.
    You seem dismiss any date function beyond the simple date display as pointless, however without keeping track of the month and leap years, how would a perpetual calendar work?
    You dismiss a moon phase indicator saying that one should buy a $2.99 app (you can get free apps that do this) instead of a $100,000 watch, when you can get a $1000 watch with a moon phase indicator. And while you are at it, why not save that $1000 and use your phone to tell the time??
    You dismiss so many complications as cost enhancing and pointless. The entire luxury watch market is based on the idea of maintaining mechanical movements and pushing the limit of what they can be made to do. People who are passionate about this are happy to see a tourbillon or a minute repeater on a watch as it shows craftsmanship and quality. If we didn’t care about this we would buy £5 plastic quartz watches; or better yet, as I previously mentioned, use our phones.
    I don’t wish to be over critical as this article provides a lot of useful information about what the complications are and what they do. However the attitude with which the article was written strikes me as that of someone who doesn’t really understand the draw of a complication on your watch in place of an “app on your smart phone”.

    • J.A. Shapira
      J.A. Shapira says:

      At first glance, I can appreciate where you’re coming from Tom. If you’ve read any of my other articles in the column, you would quickly realize that I agree with you that complications are important as they are indicative of a horological achievement or advancement. I absolutely agree with you that some are beautiful, however, the fact is that many of them are useless. Many increase the cost exponentially and for the non-collector, the amateur, the guy who just wants one or two watches, many of these complications will do nothing more for him than break the bank.

      These are my opinions, and as I mentioned, I too have some watches that feature many of these complications. The purpose of this article was to educate the reader by describing what each function does, and why. As for the moon phase costing $1000, you’re absolutely right. There are many watches under the $100k mark featuring that complication, I simply used “$100k” to get my point across.

      Please don’t get me wrong – I absolutely adore watches, far more than anyone I know. But, in the end a watch is there to tell time and for most men who aren’t collectors, aficionados or horologists, having a moon phase is nothing more than for aesthetic appeal. They don’t understand how the movement works, they just think it’s neat.

      • Tom
        Tom says:

        I have read your other articles, and I must say that they were very good and a pleasure to read. I also understand your intention to separate the bare essentials of a mechanical watch, from the luxury additions.

        I simply felt that your comment of using a phone over a watch was not of the spirit of the article, and that stretching to 100k to emphasise you point of the cost of complications was an excessive overreach, and possibly misleading to “the amature” you speak of.

  5. Juan Manuel
    Juan Manuel says:

    Fantastic article. Glad to have read it… and have verified what I thought: that I don’t really need any of those complications! Not that I criticise those who like them, of course.

    Waiting for next instalments!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] A complication or complicated watch is simply put, a watch that tells more than just the time. Simple complications include that of chronographs, alarms and calendars where a more intricate complication, often called a grand complication can include perpetual calendars, tour billions, minute repeaters and more. For a more in depth guide to complications, look here. […]

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