The Seven Wonders of mechanical Watch Complications

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We thought we’d do something different this beautiful Sunday. And decided to take a quick survey of watch complications and pick the Seven Wonders with one suggestion in each.

Watches tell the time. Technically, we define watches tell more than the time as complications. They tell of the weird and wonderful dreams of their creators, manifested in mechanical creations which we call complications. Complications are what watch collecting is all about. The life blood of collectors, so to speak.

The Seven Wonders of mechanical Watch Complications

Strictly speaking this rules out mechanical devices which make the watch more accurate. Complicated though these are, they do not add functions to the watch, and are thus not real complications. Though this definition has been stretched, and these days a complicated watch takes on a more literal meaning rather than the technical one. Chronometry devices are the likes of the fusée and chain, the remontoire, and indeed even the tourbillon. And some may even add the quartz movement – especially those which are thermo compensated. Perhaps we may do another list of wonders for these. But for today, we focus on watches with complication mechanical attachments which tell more than just the time. And we list them in order of increasing complexity, and difficulty of execution.

The calendar

Perhaps the simplest of complications is the addition of the date to a watch movement. And progressing in degrees of increasing difficulty, we have the day and date, the complete calendar. These are relatively simple devices, which is primarily a gear reduction to the hour wheel. If the hour hand makes two revolutions and advances a separate mechanism (the complication) by one step, we have the date. This step advances an indication which moves one day at a time and makes a complete revolution, once every 31 days. It can also be made to complete its own revolution once every seven days, which makes this the day of the week complication. And the most basic complete calendar carries this reduction further, so that it makes one movement every 31 days and completes its own revolution cycle in 12 steps which gives us the month.

This is a fairly basic watch, and our pick can run into the hundreds of possible candidates. Any number from all the usual suspects will suffice. So our pick is the Glashütte Original SeaQ Panorama Date.

A watch which meets this criteria easily, but delivers more with big date display, a diving watch capable to 300m, with a beautifully executed in-house movement.

The perpetual calendar

The simple or complete calendar merely works by reducing the gearing of the hour wheel, and takes no cognisance to the fact that there are some months in the Julien calendar with 30 days and other with 31 days. To tackle this indication, some additional complication mechanism is added to correctly indicate this. This type of calendar was invented by Patek Philippe and is known as the Annual Calendar. But what about February? It has only 28 days, with an additional day every 4 years. To cater for this, and to enable the watch to display this calendar information correctly, instead of the annual calendar complicated mechanism, we use another complicated mechanism. This is the Perpetual Calendar. Actually a 4 year calendar, as the mechanical gearing within keeps information for a 4 year cycle.

Our pick is from various top candidates from Ulysse Nardin, H. Moser & Cie, Greubel Forsey, Lange 1 Perpetual Calendar, Patek Philippe and as the representative icon to this category, the MB&F LM Perpetual for its totally out of this world mechanical nerd look.

But also for the innovation of being able to be set completely by the crown, a distinction which many of the others in this top list also share.

The moonphase

To show the phases of the moon, which makes one revolution approximately every 29.53 days, a different gear reduction is needed than that for the month. A complication with this gearing will show the phase or age of the moon.

As this lunar cycle is approximate, and this calculation is out by 0.3 days per month. This means that the entire cycle is off by one full day every two years, seven-and-a-half months. This discrepancy has been overcome by the inclusion of a more sophisticated mechanism that will correctly indicate the moon phase to only require a one day correction every 122 years. This complication was first seen in a wristwatch made by Patek Philippe with a perpetual calendar in 1925. Some more complicated moon phases, like the Lange 1815 Moonphase calculate the precision to 1 day in 1052 years. And the record is currently held by Andreas Strehler which is accurate to 1 day in 2 million years.

For this complication, our favourite is the Arnold & Son Luna Magna.

The Luna Magna is not Arnold & Son’s first rodeo in the moon phase stakes. They had cut their teeth with the  HM Perpetual Moon and the update with an aventurine dial. Both show a gorgeous, photo a realistic moon which is absolutely huge! Covering almost half the dial’s real estate. And now with this new Luna Magna, they have the largest 3 dimensional moon by volume ever made.

The chronograph

Next, we have the chronograph. This is a device (complication) which allows for an interval of time to be displayed with the user defining the start and stop positions. This invention is currently attributed to Louis Moinet with the  “compteur de tierces” by Moinet, it bears hallmarks on the case which indicates that work began in 1815 and was completed in 1816 by Louis Moinet, a contemporary to A. L. Breguet.

This is a very popular complication, not only for its practical use in sporting activities, but also its tactile nature, requiring the user to start, stop and reset the chronograph provides additional pleasure points to its ownership. As such, though the chronograph is not only a true complication by technical definition, it is also literally very complicated and requires a high level of technical ability to execute. Many watchmakers feel that it is more difficult to construct and adjust a chronograph than say a tourbillon.

Thus, due to its popularity, much effort has been made to democratise it. Making it simpler and easier to make. Enter the cam actuated chronograph mechanism. This is a simpler mechanism than the traditional column wheel system which require great precision in manufacture and finesse in adjustment. The cam actuated chronograph, as exemplified by the Valjoux 7750, is simple, robust and easier to adjust.

Of course for the chronograph, our pick has to be the A. Lange & Söhne Datograph Lumen. Any watch from the Datograph family makes the pick, we chose the Lumen as this is the freshest face. To us this is the quintessential chronograph of not only the year, decade, or even century. It is the quintessential chronograph. Period.

We have discussed its merits in numerous articles, here are some for your consideration. The original 1999 Datograph, and the Datograph Ab/Auf of 2011.

The split seconds chronograph

One level up, is the ability to time two separate events. This additional complication adds a second column wheel and its attendant additional difficulty to manufacture and adjust.

Lange’s Double Split is certainly a candidate for this category, but we decided to go with the more classical Patek Philippe 5370 Split Seconds Chronograph.

A holy grail for many. The split seconds complication as the stand alone feature also makes it a purist watch. One which is treasured for its sole function as a double chronograph. The finishing on the 5370 is par excellence, as can be expected from a top drawer Patek Philippe.

The minute repeater

And we come to the queen of the complications. The minute repeater. This is an entirely different level of complication altogether, and our argument for inclusion as a complication is because it adds the function of being able to tell the time by sound instead of just by sight of the hands. This was initially developed before the time of electric lighting and luminous material. But eventually, collectors came to treasure minute repeaters for the quality of the sounds and the precision of the strikes.

The simplest of striking mechanical complications is perhaps the hour striker. It makes one strike every hour. And in increasing complexity, this includes the quarter repeater, and then the minute repeater. Striking watches have been the queens of the day since the turn of the 20th century, and many of the most beautiful ones were made just aroung 1900 to 1920. These pocket repeaters were then miniaturised for use in the wrist watch. Again Patek Philippe takes the prize for the first in 1925 with a 10 ligne watch in a tonneau shaped case.

And for our pick, we chose the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Repetition Minutes.

This is our absolute favourite. Please read our Chief Editor’s original review published in 2015 for the full details. Including personal anecdotes and a full description of the sound of the strikes. And a short quote from thence to hopefully lure you to read the entire article:

“the emotional connection to his experience with another VC repeater some 20 years ago, floods the pleasure centers. Perhaps causing a momentary lapse in objectivity. But haute horlogerie is not mere science or engineering. But it is based on subjective emotions. The core and very essence is the passion and the appreciation for the artistic”

Peter Chong, in Review: Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Minute Repeater.

The grand et petite sonnerie

Up a level, and we have the grand and petite sonnerie. This is a watch with a mechanical complication which is “self aware”. Much like a grandfather clock in the hallway. The watch keeps track of the hours and minutes, and announces the hours (grand sonnerie) and minutes (pettite sonnerie). The mechanism is ultra complicated, as the base movement train must carry with it the mechanical information on when it is time to strike, and what to strike. Of course, the entire mechanism can be silenced at the push of a button.

The first wrist watch to feature this complication was made by Philippe Dufour, and this has to be our pick.

This is the grails of grails. The entire movement is visible from the dial side through the sapphire glass dial. And it is absolutely fascinating when the gears start to move on its own accord and strikes in the lovely melodious tone.

Concluding remarks

And these are the annals of the Seven Wonders of Complicated Watches. These are all personal choices, to be sure. And these picks are what we think are representative of the category. Would you agree with our picks? Which other complications would you have listed.



  1. I more or less agree. I find the “how” of a complication important too. A retrograde date or a 3D moonphase can shift the ranking for me.

    I am a big fan of the power reserve indicator, too