Watch Complications: They Don’t Have to Be So Complicated

Watches or timepieces need only the ability to display hours, minutes, and seconds to be considered functional in the world of horology. Any other abilities beyond these three constitute what horologists refer to as ‘complications’. The one thing to know about complications is this: they do not have to be complicated to understand.

Watchmakers, jewellers, and retailers alike have a language all their own. Technical terms are bandied about among professionals with regularity. The rest of us don’t understand what they are talking out because we do not speak the language. Watch complications are a good example.

Watch complications fall under a number of broad categories including timing, astronomical, striking, and non-horological complications. For the purposes of modern watchmaking, there are nine horological type complications to choose from:

  1. Alarm
  2. Calendar
  3. Chronograph
  4. Date
  5. Day-Date
  6. Moon Phase
  7. Perpetual Calendar
  8. Repeater
  9. Tourbillon

If you would like to learn more about these complications, keep reading. We have arranged them in alphabetical order rather than popularity.

1. Alarm Complication

Considered a striking complication, an alarm is just what its name implies: a complication that alerts the watch owner at a predetermined time. It is considered a striking complication because of the way alarm mechanisms actually sound their alerts. Mechanical watches with alarms rely on technology that has been in use for generations.

Setting an alarm activates a notched cam that rotates with the rest of the movement. When the cam rotates to the correct time, it triggers a mainspring which, in turn, causes the alarm to sound. Electronic watches do much the same thing utilising digital signals rather than mechanical cams and springs.

2. Calendar Complication

A calendar complication takes a simple date display to a whole new level. Making it work actually requires three display components. One handles the date, the next displays the day, and the third looks after the month. Requiring three separate displays has led to the calendar complication being sometimes referred to as a complete calendar or triple calendar.

Calendar complications can be subdivided into two categories: annual and perpetual. The annual calendar must be manually managed during leap years in order to keep it on track. Perpetual calendar complications account for leap years automatically. We will discuss perpetual calendar complications in more detail shortly.

3. Chronograph Complication

The easiest way to remember this particular complication is to think of a chronograph as a stopwatch. The chronograph complication offers all the functions of a stopwatch without affecting regular time display. Chronograph watches are fairly easy to identify at a glance thanks to extra push buttons protruding from the case.

A typical chronograph comes with two or three extra dials that are used to measure elapsed time. The chronograph is activated and deactivated with the extra buttons. Some of your more basic chronographs utilise just one extra button because they only keep simple time in seconds.

More complex chronographs allow for tracking seconds, minutes, and hours. They also allow for tracking interrupted time. This particular complication is popular among pilots, race car drivers, runners, swimmers, and a variety of athletes and professionals to whom time tracking is important.

4. Date Complication

The date complication is arguably the most basic of all watch complications. It is simply a display of the calendar date – minus the month. The date complication is easy to implement because it requires just a single rotating disk that easily turns to the next position as the watch passes midnight.

A simple date window is the most common implementation of this complication. Watchmakers sometimes refer to it as the aperture. One can easily change the date being displayed by rotating the watch’s crown.

Some watchmakers prefer to dispense with the date window in favour of a separate dial. Another popular method, which has since gone out of style, relies on dates printed on the outer edge of the dial with an additional hand pointing to them on the appropriate date.

The date complication is considered a necessity by some watchmakers. If they are going to design watches with analogue dials, they are going to include the date at all costs. That is not a bad position to take. The date complication is quite handy in a lot of circumstances.

5. Day-Date Complication

How do you improve on the date complication? By adding the day of the week. Watches with his complication do not require a second button to adjust. Both day and date can be adjusted with the crown. A typical watch adjusts the date by rotating the crown clockwise. Rotating counterclockwise adjusts the day.

So how is this complication implemented under the hood? With the addition of a second rotating disk. Both disks have notches that allow them to rotate forward one position as the movement passes midnight. It is actually pretty basic technology. The trick is implementing it while taking up as little space as possible inside the case.

In some watches, the day and date appear side-by-side in identically sized windows. Days of the week are abbreviated to three letters each. However, this is not the only way to implement the day-date complication.

Some more modern watches leave the date window to the side but place the day window at either the 12 o’clock or 6 o’clock position. This allows for a larger window that can display the day of the week in full, without the need for abbreviations.

Note that watches with both day and day-date complications usually require manual adjustment for months that do not have 31 days.

Seiko Day-Date Watch

6. Moon Phase Complication

Sailors used to rely heavily on moon phases to keep track of the tides. Some still do so today. Nonetheless, a moon phase complication tracks the different phases of the moon on your wrist. It displays when the moon is full, half, or new. It will also show no moon when applicable.

For all practical purposes, this is a complication that has very little use in the 21st century. Sailors and ship captains have complex electronic equipment for tracking tides. Urban dwellers have little need to know moon phase either. Still, watchmakers are quick to offer this complication for aesthetic purposes.

Some watchmakers have been known to combine moon phases with a perpetual calendar. Again, this is mainly for aesthetic appeal. Sailors and fans of maritime themes might appreciate the complication as a reference to a bygone era.

7. Perpetual Calendar Complication

A perpetual calendar complication is one of the most complicated for watchmakers to design. It is also expensive, due to its complex nature. This is why it is nearly impossible to find perpetual calendars on low-end and budget watches.

Citizen Eco-Drive Perpetual Calendar

Like the triple calendar complication, the perpetual calendar accounts for day, date, and month. But through complicated workings deep inside the case, it can automatically account for both leap year and months without 31 days. A perpetual calendar watch does not require manual adjustment at all.

Day, date, and month are generally displayed with three separate dials. However, they don’t have to be. There are multiple ways to implement this complication.

8. Repeater Complication

Have you ever heard a wall or free-standing clock chime at the top of the hour? For those of us who grew up before digital clocks were a thing, hourly chimes were a normal part of life. They told the time and reminded us of how it continues to march on.

At any rate, the repeater complication adds the same function to the wristwatch. There are two types of repeaters: quarter and minute. A quarter repeater only chimes on 15-minute increments. It chimes at the top of the hour and then every quarter hour thereafter. Different chimes at each interval tell you what time it is.

The minute repeater chimes at the hour, quarter, and minute. Different chimes denote the time increment you are being alerted to. It takes some time getting used to a minute repeater, especially if you have never experienced a watch that chimes before.

9. Tourbillon Complication

The tourbillon is a component originally developed in the late 1700s to improve the accuracy of mechanical timekeeping. Though not technically a complication by modern horological standards, many watchmakers still refer to it as such. It is hard to find this feature in all but the most expensive luxury watches.

Designing a tourbillon requires a tremendous amount of skill and precision. A typical tourbillon features a balance wheel and escapement in an assembly that slowly rotates inside the watch case. Implemented properly, it reduces positional errors by averaging them out.

Non-Horological Complications

A non-horological complication is one that has nothing to do with keeping time. Such complications are usually intended for a very specific target audience. Here are a few examples:

  • Altimeter – Pilots and parachute jumpers are especially interested in altitude. Watches with altimeter complications provide the information they want.
  • Compass – The compass complication tells you what direction your watch is pointed in. It is a handy complication for hikers, climbers, and a full range of outdoor enthusiasts.
  • Thermometer – Have you ever wanted to know the current temperature only to be thwarted by not having access to a thermometer? Well, the thermometer complication solves that problem.
  • Barometer – Along the same lines is the barometer complication. It displays current barometric pressure. If the pressure drops, you know that a storm is on the way.

There is some debate over whether or not non-horological complications should be considered complications at all. It is the belief among some horologists that any additional function not directly related to tracking or displaying time should not be considered a complication.

Complication FAQs

Complications are of little importance to some consumers. To others, they are everything. If you are new to horology or watch collecting, understanding everything you can about complications will only improve your understanding of timekeeping in general. To that end, here are some of the most frequently asked questions regarding complications.

What is a complication?

As stated at the start of this article, a complication is essentially any extra feature above and beyond displaying hours, minutes, and seconds. Some people describe complications as those features that tell you more than the time. That is not technically correct inasmuch as the day and date are also a designation of time.

Complications are so named because they add complexity to basic time-telling. The more information a watchmaker hopes to provide with a complication, the more complex that complication becomes. Such is one of the unintended laws of watch design.

What is a grande complication?

From time to time, you might see a luxury watch marketed as having a grande complication. A grande complication is not a single element. It is actually a combination of multiple complications added together. For example, a grande complication could include one timing, one striking, and one astronomical complication.

Such complications are exceedingly difficult to design and implement. They generally require sizeable cases as well. Due to their complex and costly nature, grande complications are rare. Watches featuring them are almost always produced in limited numbers. As a result, they are highly prized by watch collectors.

What are timing complications?

Timing complications are divided into two categories: visible and invisible. They all relate to the immediate task of telling time. For example, a chronograph is considered a timing complication. It is also visible. The chronograph is more or less a stopwatch that functions separate from a watch’s normal timekeeping.

Other examples of visible timing complications include day, day-date, and simple calendar functions. They are all clearly visible complications directly related to displaying the time.

Hidden timing complications are related more to timekeeping rather than display. The previously mentioned tourbillon is a good example. Those who insist on it being a genuine complication refer to the fact that it is implemented to keep time more accurately.

What are astronomical complications?

Astronomical complications display something that relates to timekeeping, though not the functions of hours, minutes, and seconds. They display information we extrapolate from basic timekeeping. An example that immediately comes to mind is the perpetual calendar. Calendars are not only based on hours, minutes, and seconds, they are also based on astrological movement.

Other examples of astronomical complications include annual calendars, sunrise and sunset times, zodiacal signs, moon phases, and so forth. Some consider time zone and solar time complications to be astronomical complications as well.

What are striking complications?

Striking complications take their name from the idea of a bell or chime being struck in order to alert you to the time. As such, an alarm complication is a striking complication. So are repeaters. Even if modern watches rely on electronic chimes, the complications themselves are still considered striking complications.

Complications Are an Art Form

If you haven’t realised yet, complications are the domain of watches with analogue dials and mechanical movements. They do not pertain to electronic and digital watches. Though such watches can offer the same functions, they are not considered true complications in horology.

One of the things that makes watch complications so impressive is the amount of technical skill that goes into designing and building them. Complications are a real art form. To create effective and accurate complications, you have to be part engineer, part watchmaker, and part artist.

The best in the business create complications that make good watches great. A well-conceived complication offers both function and form. It can also make a particular watch more desirable. Indeed, there are watch collectors who organise their collections based on complications.

If your needs are limited to basic timekeeping function, complications might mean very little to you. On the other hand, you might be genuinely interested in the finer details of watchmaking. Complications are right up your alley.

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