The Top Five... Fine timepiece complications

Anyone new to the world of fine timepieces will pause for a moment at the word 'complication' in the descriptions of most of the truly valuable watches which come to auction. What does it mean?

An ordinary watch will display the current time from a manually set start in hours, minutes and (if you're lucky) seconds. A complication is strictly speaking anything beyond these functions, although some common additions such as date displays and automatic winding are often discounted.

Watches boasting many complications require extreme ingenuity, care and time to put together, and the ultra-complicated timepieces created by the likes of Breguet and Patek Philippe are extremely valuable masterpieces which represent the pinnacle of the brands' achievements.

Here are five of our favourite complications:

The Tourbillon

A tourbillon - French for 'whirlwind', is a mechanism intended to support the escapement of a watch mechanism.  The escapement regulates the unwinding of the watch, ensuring the un-tightening of the spring results in accurate timing over a prolonged period.

Concerned about the effects that gravity might be having on the accuracy of timepieces, the idea was conceived (by John Arnold) and developed (by Abraham-Louis Breguet) of suspending the escapement and balance wheel in a rotating cage to counter the effects.


Whilst modern watches do not need this complication for a high degree of accuracy - and some dispute whether it even counts as a complication given that it may do nothing other than help show the normal time - a tourbillon is one of the most sought after features of luxury horology.

Perpetual calendar

Perhaps a surprise to some, a perpetual calendar is one of the more difficult complications to include in a watch. That is, a calendar which shows the correct day and date indefinitely, taking into account the different lengths of months and leap years.

Most perpetual calendar watches provide the four functions (date, day of the week, month, and moonphase) through essentially separate mechanisms, each of which may be driven separately from the base movement, and have to be reset separately if the watch stops.

By contrast, the Da Vinci, created by IWC in 1985 controls all of the functions through a single calendar plate, representing something of a breakthrough.

Mechanical memory

To keep things cutting edge, which is where many followers of fine timepiece like to be, we should include a recent complication.

The Maurice LaCroix Memoire I watch was released in 2008 demonstrates just such an innovation. It has a chronograph function as many watches do to measure elapsed time. But what the Memoire I watch does is show either using the same hands.

At the touch of a button, the hands will spring from the position of measuring the passing day to timing an event, and back again without losing the information held by the other function. Mechanisms, it appears, can remember.

Sidereal Time

Many fine watches display more than one type of time, and whilst showing the time in other time zones is straightforward enough, some timepieces aim to display other things such as sidereal time.

Sidereal time can be used by astronomers to keep track of where to point their telescopes in the night sky to keep track of an individual star, on the principle that the stars appear to rise and set in the sky just like the sun and moon.

Whilst the sun reaches its high point, noon, on average every 24 hours, a given star will take slightly less time as the earth moves a little way round its orbit during 24 hours, so a sidereal day is 23.93447 hours - just over 99.7% of a solar day.

Minute repeater

The classic complication is that of the repeater: some watches are designed to produce tones to indicate the time.

The repeater was originally created in a clock by the Reverend Edward Barlow in 1676, and Barlow also tried to patent the repeater in a watch just before 1700, though the patent went to Daniel Quare.

Amazingly, a repeater capable of telling the wearer the time to five minutes was created as long ago as 1710 by Samuel Watson.


In a watch, the main purpose was to provide the time for its wearer even in darkness. Luminous dials largely negated the need for the function, but minute repeaters continue to fascinate luxury watch fans everywhere, and dumb repeaters (which vibrate rather than sound the time) are useful for discretion.

Minute repeaters are exceptionally complicated to engineer and function by sounding three different tones: the hour, most recent quarter and minutes since the quarter (for ease of counting) on request (not by default or the wearer would rapidly lose their mind).

That concludes our short tour of watch complication, but others are described in other articles, including some of those below.



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