Complication watches

Complication watches, and in particular ultra-complicated watches are considered to be the most difficult to design and assemble.

Greubel Forsey Invention Piece 1

A “complication” refers to a function other than the typical time display of hours, minutes and seconds.

Fairly commonplace additional displays such as day/date or chronograph functions aren’t enough for a watch to be justified to be termed a complication watch.

A revived interest in mechanical watches during the late 1980’s led to a new golden age for complication watches.
Many of these complicated watches came from the La Valle de Joux (Swiss Jura) region, a birthplace for complication watches.
These timepieces are built in strictly limited numbers, some as one of a kind unique instruments.

As the number of complications used in the watch increases so does the difficulty to design, assemble and repair the watch.

Watches that combine three or more complications are considered to be “grande complication” or “ultra-complicated

Different types of complications



The movement of this mechanism is implied in its French name which means “whirlwind”.
It is considered a high complication and one of the most difficult to master.

The tourbillon was invented by Swiss watchmaker Abraham Brequet in 1795 to counteract the effects of gravity on watches and clocks and thereby improve their accuracy. The negation of gravity is achieved by mounting the escapement and balance wheel within a rotating cage.

There are different types of tourbillon, the traditional type uses a “bridge” to secure it in place, the “flying tourbillon” dispenses with the bridge and is secured from behind so it can be viewed more clearly.

Most tourbillons rotate around a single axis however some watches have included multi-axis versions, making them move in three dimensions like a gyroscope, in order to counteract the affects of gravity at any angle.

Tourbillons had the greatest effect in pocket watches which spent most of their time in the vertical position. Modern wristwatches have become so accurate that the main reason for adding a tourbillon is to add prestige and show off its elaborate beauty and the watchmakers skill.

Due their complexity complication watches with Tourbillons usually command high prices.

Harry Winston, Histoire de Tourbillon 4 side view
Harry Winston, Histoire de Tourbillon 4

Moon Phase Indicator

Moon Phase Indicator

It has long been a watchmakers cherished goal to depict the beauty of the orbiting planets.
With a moon phase indicator the progression of the moon phases,
from new moon, first quarter, full moon through to the last quarter can be seen.

Two types of moon phase indicator exist. Occasionally a watch hand is used to indicate the moonphase but more typically a disc which is viewed through an aperture in the watch face is used. This disc is driven by a wheel containing 59 teeth which advances one notch every 24 hours.

This results in a lunar cycle corresponding to 29.5 days.

In reality it lasts 29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes, or 29.53 days.

The moon phase is therefore one day out approximately every two and a half years.

A more complicated and accurate moon phase indicator is the “astronomical moon phase” indicator.

It also uses a disc but is driven by a wheel with 135 teeth. This is much more precise, resulting in a lunar cycle of 29 days 12 hours and 45 minutes and is only one day out every 122 years.

Some moon phase watches also show the “age of the moon” – the number of days since the previous new moon.

A particularly beautiful and unique example of a moon phase watch was created by watchmaker Martin Braun in 2007 with the “Selene” watch. It has one of the most realistic and unique moon phase indicators.

It features a novel display using a moon image that remains in place while a shadow printed on a sapphire disc passes over it every lunar month. A further astronomical reference is found in the dial which is made from a slice of meteorite.

Martin Braun Selene
Martin Braun Selene with meteor moonphase

Minute Repeater

To express the time audibly served a practical purpose before the advent of electricity when sometimes the only way of understanding the time was to hear it.

A minute repeater indicates the time using chimes, each having a different distinguishing tone.

A bass note for the hour, treble-bass combination for the quarter hours and a treble note for the individual minutes.

Repeater complications are one of the most difficult to make are therefore very expensive.

A repeater doesn’t automatically chime the time on the hour but is activated by a button or slider.

Complications that chime automatically are the “Petit” and “Grand Sonneries” which have added chime sequences and are even more difficult to construct.

Different types of Repeater include:

Minute Repeater

Using an example time of 7:50 the watch would chime 7 times first, then three times for the quarters followed by 5 for the number of minutes into the fourth quarter.

Five-minute Repeater

This type would have seven chimes followed by 10 chimes indicating the number of 5 minute intervals.

Half-quarter Repeater

This type chimes the 7.5 minute(half quarter) intervals, so for 7:50 it would chime 7 and then 6 times for the half-quarter intervals.

Quarter Repeater

Chimes the number of quarter hours at the current time. So continuing with the example of 7:50 it would first chime seven times followed by three chimes.

The Jaquet Droz “Bird” minute repeater.


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