Introduction to watch complications

A. Lange & Söhne Grande Complication

A. Lange & Söhne Grande Complication features seven complications, it is considered to be the most complex timepiece ever made in Germany.

John Mayer did a great interview last year for a popular watch blog. For those who don’t know, John Mayer is a singer. I think he’s cool- I saw a feature about him on 60 Minutes and he has a cool, human story. Although I’m not a chick, I actually like some of John Mayer’s songs. Anyway, back to his watch interview. He collects high end timepieces such as Rolex and IWC and he referred to complications as “apps of the old days”. A chronograph, according to Mayer, was like a stopwatch app for your smartphone, back in the day. How true!

Now let’s define a “complication” because there is great debate about this. I define a complication as any function on a mechanical timepiece over and above the display of seconds, minutes and hours. A chronograph is a complication because it allows you to measure elapsed time (ex. a lap time, a steak on the BBQ, your commute, etc.) while still telling the time of day. A tourbillon, which is often regarded as the most supreme complication in all of watchmaking, is NOT a complication! Why? A tourbillon is a mechanism that counters the effect of gravity on a movement’s escapement and enhances the accuracy and performance of said movement. But it does not ADD a function to the timepiece. A tourbillon, like Girard-Perregaux’s new Constant Escapement, is an extreme and spectacular feature of a timepiece, but technically not a complication.

Let’s discuss a few complications and I’ll share my thoughts on them.

Hamilton Khaki King Pilot

Hamilton Khaki King Pilot with day date displays.

Although date displays are very common, they are complications by my definition. And now I’ll contradict myself. The date display is, from my experience, one of the most useful features on a timepiece. And I don’t like date displays. First of all, a date window ruins the symmetry of a piece and clutters the dial. As well, a date function means you have to worry about AM/PM when setting the time and I already blogged about the dangers of this. If a piece were available in two versions, date or no date, I would always choose the no date version. The Longines Legend Diver, for example, was available in both versions, with the no-date version looking much better. To contradict myself again, I had a Hamilton King Pilot with both a DAY and DATE display and I actually found these features quite useful.

OMEGA Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon

OMEGA Speedmaster Dark Side of the Moon pays homage to the Speedmaster Professional chronographs worn by every Apollo astronaut.

The next best-known complication is surely the chronograph. The potential disadvantage of a chronograph is that it makes the dial much “busier.” But that might not matter to you anyway. I dig the look of racy subdials- it makes a piece look utilitarian, like a piece of scientific equipment. I use my chronograph all the time- to time cooking, commutes, laps around the block, you name it. Not all chronographs are created equal. Some were designed from the ground-up as a full unit. And some are a basic movement with a chronograph mechanism tacked on. Regardless, it’s nice to wear a piece with a feature you can play with. A chronograph usually adds some thickness to a movement, making it “beefy” and macho. On more expensive chrono’s, you may have a flyback complication. This allows you to stop, reset and restart the chrono at the touch of a single button. That would be great for timing racing laps. You can have a dressy piece with a chrono as well as a big diver chrono. Cool stuff.

The back of a Panerai Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days (PAM00422).

The back of a Panerai Luminor Marina 1950 3 Days (PAM00422). Take a closer look to see the power reserve indicator.

I think my favourite complication is the power reserve indicator, which is like a fuel gauge for your mechanical timepiece. This displays the remaining “charge” on your movement- the length of time that your piece will keep ticking without further winding or movement (in the case of an automatic). Once again, a power reserve gauge can clutter a dial. Panerai solved this “problem” on the PAM00422 by placing the indicator on the BACK in one of my all-time favorite watch design moves. Here, you get the function while retaining the beauty of the clean dial. The power reserve indicator allows you to monitor your “charge” and avoid your watch stopping by winding it or putting on a winder or wearing it when needed. Very useful.

Another favourite complication of mine is the seconds reset function. With this, your seconds hand will reset to zero when you pull the crown all the way out. I obsess about synchronizing my watches perfectly- I make sure the minute hand lands on the minute precisesly when the seconds hand hits zero and so on. A seconds reset makes synchronizing much easier. This is a great function.

Montblanc Star Twin Moonphase powered by calibre MB 29.13 was constructed for a new type of complication that shows the moon’s phases in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres and the age of the moon in days

Montblanc Star Twin Moonphase powered by calibre MB 29.13 was constructed for a new type of complication that shows the moon’s phases in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres and the age of the moon in days

The moon-phase is not for me. The mechanics behind it are mind-blowing, but it serves no purpose for me. I would not spend for this feature. Nor would I spend for a minute repeater, where a chime is struck at each minute or hour. That’s just not for me.

IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar with 7-day power reserve

IWC Big Pilot Perpetual Calendar with 7-day power reserve

Annual calendars and perpetual calendars, on the other hand… This is getting into some real complex watch engineering. A perpetual calendar will display the date, month and year and actually adjust for leap-years and some can keep going without manual adjustment for hundreds of years or more. My favourite example is the IWC Top Gun perpetual calendar. Some of these complications are so complex that, if accidentally set to the wrong date, could require a master watchmaker to re-adjust. That’s crazy. But, despite all the added clutter to the dial, the perpetual calendar adds great use to a piece that you would wear regularly.

There are, actually, other complications and than, there are the grand complications, watches with several complications. There is no official definition, in general it is agreed that a timepiece that combines at leas three complications: a chronograph, an astronomical and a striking complication, can be labeled a grande complication.

Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, featuring 36 complications, using 1483 components and 99 jewels.

Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, featuring 36 complications, using 1483 components and 99 jewels.

I believe the “most complicated” timepiece is a Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, which has 36 complications (!!!). In second place is the Hybris Mechanica Grande Sonnerie by Jaeger-LeCoultre with 27 complications. Ultra high-end brands such as Patek-Philippe and Blancpain are known for their complications. But if you crave a mechanical timepiece with at least one complication, you can pick up a Hamilton with a DAY/DATE display for less than a thousand bucks. Once you’ve gotten that under your belt, I think you need to aim for a chronograph. My complication wishlist for my next piece includes a seconds reset and a power reserve. After all, what fun is a smartphone without a few cool apps?….

Yours truly,


TimeCaptain is a self-confessed timepiece junkie.  He spends nearly all of his spare time buying,  selling,  trading,  researching, admiring and trying different timepieces. He's also a fanatic Formula 1 fan, having followed every single Grand Prix since 1991.  He switches to NFL football in the fall and roots for the Green Bay Packers. A child of the 1980's, TimeCaptain is mad about 80's music,  TV, cinema and pop culture.  Another interest of TimeCaptain is space exploration and the study of distant planets and galaxies. When asked about his favorite watch,  TimeCaptain remembers Enzo Ferrari's answer as to his favorite car- "the one I haven't built yet."