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High-End Watch Complications: a Complete Guide

Girard Perregaux Neo Bridges

This article has been reproduced for Millenary Watches by Watch Affinity 

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Text, images and graphics © Watch Affinity 2020

In the world of luxury watches, eyebrows might often be raised when looking at a timepiece with a commanding purchase price. Can it really be worth that much? Notwithstanding pieces made from precious metals being an obvious factor, one other common – yet not always as obvious – factor is the inclusion of specific high-end complications within the calibre.

In this three-part series, we will explore some of the complications available in the higher end of the market, what they are, and what it is about them that lends high-end manufactures to be able to command such high prices.

We will start this article with perhaps the most famous, and mesmerizing, of the high-end complications: the tourbillon

Invented by famed watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet, the tourbillon was first invented in around 1795 with the patent filed in 1801. During this era, the personal timepiece of choice was a pocket watch, and over time, Breguet realized that with his mechanical timepieces being held in the same vertical position in a client’s pocket, the continual gravitational pull of the Earth could have a detrimental effect on the accuracy of the timepiece by, over time, altering the motion of the escapement and balance wheel.

Breguet Classique Complications Tourbillon, 5367PT/29/9WU

For an analogous example, consider the hands on a modern wall-clock: for the minute hand to move clockwise between the 12 o’clock position and 6 o’clock position will naturally be easier than going back up from the 6 o’clock position to 12 o’clock, where it is moving against the pull of gravity.

At the time, Breguet posited a new approach to counteract this by creating a complication which would enable both the escapement and balance wheel to be rotated continually as one within the timepiece itself, such that whilst the timepiece might remain static, the escapement and balance wheel would continue to rotate. What this motion achieves is to average out the detrimental effects of gravity on the timepiece, and in so doing cancels out any detrimental alterations to the accuracy of the timepiece caused by gravity. This would provide greater reliability of accuracy in a tourbillon timepiece versus a timepiece without. Breguet named his new complication the “tourbillon”, the French word for whirlwind.

With modern timepieces, any additional accuracy afforded by the tourbillon is realistically negligible owing to advancements in technology, rendering the complication itself essentially moot. However, what the complication continues to represent today is a demonstration of high-end watchmaking nous and savoir-faire; the tourbillon complication itself comprises 40 or more individual components alone. Each of these tiny parts are hand-finished to the highest quality by remarkable artisans before they are brought together and compiled to create the tourbillon by the hands of the most highly skilled watchmakers in the world.

Since Breguet’s original invention, other watchmakers have taken the concept further, and today it has evolved such that there are flying tourbillons, double and triple axis tourbillons, gyro tourbillons, and even timepieces with multiple tourbillons in a single piece. The recent MB&F Thunderdome by Eric Coudray and Kari Voutilainen is a fantastic example of the evolution of the tourbillon’s concept: here, the movement’s regulating mechanism features three fast-rotating axes that are all on different planes, with different speeds, and the result is truly a sight to behold. In total, this movement has an incredible 413 individual components. Check out the official MB&F video here:

In today’s market, a ‘standard’ (for want of another phrase) tourbillon timepiece will likely cost you in the region of £40,000 to £50,000, although, that being said, in 2016 TAG Heuer released the Heuer 02T tourbillon which retails for around £15,000, making it one of the most accessible tourbillons available from a luxury brand.

When adorned with a tourbillon, a timepiece instantly stands out as being one of exceptionally high quality and having been brought to life by a watchmaker of incredible talent. It is this which renders a tourbillon timepiece held in such high regard, and a standout piece in any collection, and why any collector would love to be able to point to one of their own.

To try and help show the fundamentals of the tourbillon in an easy to digest summary, we have created an infographic to serve as a quick introduction to the tourbillon:

Next up, let’s take a look at the perpetual calendar.

Whilst we might measure time in the short term in hours, minutes and seconds, this can be scaled up to days, weeks, months, and years, and so it becomes easy to see how and why certain timepieces would seek to incorporate this into their displays.

Calendar complications range from the simple to the complex: at their most simplistic we find date displays, which are manually adjusted 5 times per year where a month is less than 31 days; day-date displays with the date and day of the week; complete calendars with the date, day, month and moon-phase, again requiring manual adjustment 5 times per year; annual calendars which account for months with different lengths except for February, and so only need be adjusted in leap years… and finally, the most complex of calendar complications, the perpetual calendar which accounts for the dates automatically, even for leap years, with no adjustment required.

You can see some examples of these different levels of calendar complications below:

Chopard Alpine Eagle – note the date aperture between 4 and 5 o’clock

Vacheron Constantin FiftySix – note the day, date, month and moon phase

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar – note the additional leap year indicator in the sub-dial at 12 o’clock showing L, 1, 2 and 3

It is worth highlighting here that technically it is incorrect to state that perpetual calendar timepieces do not require updating – with calendar cycles based on the Julian Calendar and not the Gregorian Calendar, leap years need to be skipped three times in four centuries, and so a perpetual calendar timepiece will eventually need to be manually adjusted, but the next occasion for this is not until the year 2100, so for most of us, it probably won’t be an issue!

To help try and illustrate the varying degrees of complexity of these calendar complications, we can think of them as having a different length of “cycle”, or maybe a “mechanical memory” of varying degrees.

For date, day-date and complete calendar complications, manual adjustment is required for the date only, which essentially entails advancing a disc with the date display on it, showing the numbers 1 through to 31. At the end of a month with 30 days, this disc will need to be manually adjusted to advance one place in order to show 1 instead of 31. Owing to the fact that the day disc has 7 days, and the month disc 12 months and neither of these are ever ‘skipped’, these particular displays don’t need adjusting as time marches onwards. Keeping this in mind, we can, therefore, think of a date, day-date and complete calendar complications as having a cycle of 31 days.

For annual calendar complications, manual adjustment is also only required for the date, however as it knows the number of days per month, it only needs to be manually adjusted only once per year to account for February and its 28 (or 29) days. In this instance, with the complication accounting for months of various lengths, we can say that its cycle lasts 365 days or 1 year.

For a perpetual calendar, with a calibre which automatically accounts for February having only 28 days for 3 in every 4 years, and 29 days each leap year, it must, therefore, have a cycle which lasts for an incredible 4 years plus the additional leap year day, which in total comes to an incredible 1461 days.

With the perpetual calendar complication cycle lasting more than 52 times longer than a simple date display, one can start to imagine the engineering complexity that goes into such a movement, and the skill required to assemble each of the 300 or more tiny component parts.

Additionally, it can be a real challenge for the manufacturers even just to display this additional information on a timepiece, with functions including hours, minutes, seconds, day, date, month, leap year indicator, and in many instances a moon phase too, with the dial easily becoming cluttered or illegible. Some timepieces from high-end manufacturers may not even stop there, with other complications such as chronographs, not an irregular accompaniment!

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Chronograph 26331ST.OO.1220ST.03

The perpetual calendar complication is, without a doubt, the ultimate display of watchmaking within calendar display complications. The sophistication of the calibre to automatically adjust its date as required, and not require manual adjustment for a century or longer by even accounting for leap years, is what makes this complication a real collectors’ item. Of course, the more complicated these calendar timepieces become, it does become increasingly important to keep them sufficiently wound and so it might be a wise time to invest in a watch winder!

To try and help illustrate the fundamental displays of the perpetual calendar as clearly as possible, we have created an infographic to serve as a summary reminder:

Finally, we arrive at my personal favorite complication, the minute repeater. Minute repeaters are a particular type of striking watch, whereby a timepiece is able to audibly chime out the current time owing to a mechanism in the calibre. Depending on the complexity of the striking mechanism (we will cover these in a moment), the complication will chime out firstly the number of hours, followed by the number of quarter-hours, and finally the additional minutes.

There are differing degrees of striking mechanisms which are available, including half-quarter and quarter, 5 minute, and minute repeaters. Additionally, there are two distinct families in repeater complications and sonneries.  What differentiates these is that a sonnerie complication requires no involvement from the wearer to instigate the striking mechanism, whereas a repeater does.

grande sonnerie automatically chimes the number of hours every hour, and then both the hour and quarters every 15 minutes, whereas the petite sonnerie chimes the hour every hour, and only the quarters every 15 minutes.

A repeater complication is one where this audible chiming of the time is instigated by the wearer, normally via a push-piece or a slider on the side of the case – indeed as such mechanisms are internal with no ‘display’ to speak of, this slider can often be the only indication of such a complication and easily go unnoticed.

For both a sonnerie and a repeater, the sound is achieved by the mechanism triggering two hammers to strike two respective gongs within the timepiece, which each produce different tones.

Vacheron Constantin Patrimony, 30110/000P-B108 – note the subtle slider placed between the 8 and 9 o’clock positions

The hours are usually chimed by a lower pitch tone, which we will call ‘dong’. The additional minutes are a higher pitch tone, which we will call ‘ding’. The quarters are denoted by combining the two, for a ‘ding-dong’ sound. So, an example time of 3:51 would be chimed by three ‘dongs’, a further three ‘ding-dongs’ as three quarter-hours have elapsed, and a final six ‘dings’ to count from 45 to 51 minutes.

(Just to complicate things, most modern sonnerie watches come with a repeater mechanism so that the wearer can disable the automatic chiming of the timepiece every 15 minutes where it might be unwanted, such as at night-time).

When you take a step back and consider that the minute repeater as a mechanism affords the wearer the opportunity to, on demand, instigate the timepiece to chime out the current time down to the minute, you realize just how remarkable this actually is. However, when you learn that the first minute repeating pocket watch was in fact made in 1750, I find it then becomes even more awe-inspiring.

How exactly does one go about creating a mechanism which is capable not only of keeping accurate time, but also including the capability of chiming out the time down to the minute – and fit all this into a humble wristwatch? The striking mechanism within repeater and sonnerie wristwatches is based on something called a ‘rack and snail’, a mechanism created by Reverend Edward Barlow in 1676 for the repeating clock.

For the minute repeater, this portion of the mechanism is essentially led by the traditional hours and minutes functions. The part of the repeater mechanism which then stores this information is called the snail, and there is a snail for the hours, quarters and minutes. As time progresses, the information is stored in this trio of snails with support from the racks, which then remain poised to chime the time whenever initiated to do so by the wearer. When the push-piece or slider is activated, the time information stored is then ‘released’, and the mechanism triggers the gongs to sound out the time – magic!

In order to transmit this information to the hammers and gongs, the mechanism uses a set of racks, levers and cams. Each rack is connected to the snail by a ‘finger’, which as the time advances will move along the teeth on the rack, allowing a different amount of lateral movement of the rack when the mechanism is activated. You can think of this as almost pointing to the time.

For instance, the hour snail has twelve teeth, so at 12 o’clock the finger will be ‘pointing’ such that the hammer will strike the gong 12 times. At 4 o’clock, the finger will ‘point’ to only allow enough lateral movement in the rack for the hammer to strike the gong 4 times. For the quarter snail, the hammer will only strike the gong after 15 minutes of the hour has elapsed and the finger is set for one chime. The minute rack only has 14 teeth, because the 15th minute of the quarter is instigated by the quarter snail.

Bulgari Commedia Dell’Arte minute repeater with a jumping hour and retrograde minutes

After the time is sounded, each rack can reset itself without setting the hammers to strike the gongs as they are only engaged as the rack passes in one direction. As the racks reset their positions, they do so silently.

These mechanisms which facilitate these complications can contain over 100 individual components alone, and so it is easy to see why the minute repeater is perhaps the most technically difficult complications to assemble.

I can still remember the first time I heard a minute repeater chime the time, and that the sense of awe I experienced is something I will not forget for a long time. If you ever find yourself in a boutique or retailer with a minute repeater timepiece, I cannot recommend strongly enough that you ask to hear one in action – I’m sure the attendant will be only too happy to oblige!

The minute repeater would surely be the jewel in the crown of any watch collection. To try and better illustrate the complexity, we have created an infographic to try and point out some of the key components we’ve discussed on a scale model of Vacheron Constantin’s caliber 1731:

In summary…

Beyond even the complications we have covered in this series, there are of course many more that exist, from high-end grand complication pieces which combine a multitude of specific and high-end complications into a single piece, astronomical complications such as the terrarium, and other striking complications, through to the more widely accessible complications such as chronographs, moon-phases, and mechanical alarms. Hublot has even released a complication enabling you to keep score whilst playing golf!

This plethora of choice is, of course, thanks to the great watchmakers of the world who continue to push the boundaries of horology ever further – who knows what we will see in the future…

We really hope that you have found this article informative and helpful – please get in touch and let us know what you think via our Contact page, or via our Instagram!

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