What Are Watch Complications?

In horology ‘Complication‘ is a term used about the features in a mechanical timepiece that is additional to displaying hours, minutes and seconds.

Some believe that these features must be directly related to time measurement in order to qualify as a complication.

As an example many mechanical watches have a built-in power reserve indicator, but since this feature is not directly linked to time measurement, some purists consider it not being a complication.

The same is true of, for example, Tourbillon, which is a feature originally invented to make pocket watches more accurate.

Seiko’s popular Seiko 5 series is characterized by displaying the day and date in a single window at the 3 o’clock position and such feature can be termed as a complication.

Another example is mechanical chronograph watches that, in addition to being able to show regular time, also have built-in stopwatch function.

Types of Watch Complications

Complication watches are divided into two main categories. Those with few complications and those with many complications.

The mechanical watches that have many complications are called grand complications.

There is no official definition of what a ‘grand complication‘ watch is, but usually a mechanical watch with at least 3 complications is considered to be a ‘grand complication‘ watch.

However, these 3 complications must belong to one of each of the following main categories:

1. Timing complications
  • Simple chronograph
  • Counter chronograph
  • Split-second flyback chronograph
  • Independent second-hand chronograph
  • Jumping second-hand chronograph
2. Astronomical complications
  • Simple calendar
  • Annual calendar
  • Perpetual calendar
  • Equation of time
  • Moon phases
3. Striking complications
  • Alarm
  • Quarter repeater
  • Half-quarter repeater
  • Five-minute repeater
  • Minute repeater

Examples of Complications

Please note that the following examples of mechanical watch features are accepted by most as being watch complications, but some of them are not accepted as complications because they are not directly associated with time measurement.

1. 24-Hour

Most mechanical watches have a dial divided into 12 equal parts, whereas a 24-hour watch has the dial divided into 24 equal parts.

2. Automatic

Automatic watches, also known as self-winding watches, use the physical movement of the hand to create energy to power the watch.

3. Chronograph

Clocks with stopwatch function. In its simplest form equipped with a single second hand which can be started, stopped and restarted.

4. Rattrapante

Also known as Double Chronograph that features multiple second hands, which allow to measure time periods for multiple events simultaneously, as well as split-second and lap timing.

5. Flyback Chronograph

A special type of chronograph where the second hand can be reset with a single push of a button and restarted with no delay.

6. Multiple Time Zones

The Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) in one or more alternative regions of the globe, usually off by a whole number of hours.

7. Equation of Time

Some complication watches are capable of showing the equation of time.

Depending on the time of year, days can be up to 20 seconds longer or shorter than 24 hours.

This is partly because the Sun’s eastward passage through the constellations changes over the course of the year, partly because the Earth’s orbit around the Sun is not a perfect circle, but slightly elliptical.

As a result, the orbital speed varies throughout the year.

8. Sidereal Time

A timekeeping system primarily used by astronomers for easier location of celestial objects.

9. Sunrise / Sunset

The moment when the upper edge of the Sun is just visible on the horizon, morning and evening.

10. Date of Easter

Easter falls on the first Sunday after the Full Moon date that falls on or after March 21.

11. Moon Phase

The Moon Phase depends on the orbital position of the Moon around Earth and the angle to the Sun.

Some mechanical watches have a dial showing the shape of the directly sunlit part of the Moon at any given time.

12. Planetarium

A dial showing the positions of the planets in our solar system or the most visible star constellations in the Milky Way.

13. Perpetual Calendar

A fully automatic calendar that takes into account the different lengths of the months as well as leap years.

14. Power Reserve

Indication of the stored energy left in the watch before it will stop running.

15. Foudroyante

A sub-dial showing fractions of a second. This complication is also known as Jumping Seconds or the Flying Seconds Hand.

16. Tourbillon

A complication that originally aimed to improve the accuracy of pocket watches.

Not all horologists consider Tourbillon a watch complication.

The World’s Most Complicated Watches

Not surprisingly, it is a pocket watch that occupies the driver’s seat as the most complicated mechanical watch ever made.

As is well known, pocket watches are traditionally larger in size and can therefore accommodate several watch pieces.

The watch was introduced by Vacheron Constantin in 2015 under the name Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260 and contains no less than 57 complications!

It took 8 years to assemble this watch and it has 2,826 parts and 31 hands.

The world’s most complicated wristwatch is called Aeternitas Mega 4 and is produced by Franck Muller.

The watch consists of 1,483 components and houses 36 complications, 25 of them visible.

It also has a 1000-year perpetual calendar.

Image credit: Franck Muller.

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Claus is a laboratory technician, autodidact guitarist, songwriter, music publisher, co-founder of App Division ApS, dad of fraternal twin boys, Sci-Fi lover, incarnated Mike Oldfield fan, pro world peace and an incorrigible coffee addict.

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