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The 10 Most Popular Watch Complications Explained

Watchmaking may well be the only place in the world where a complication is a coveted thing.

In simple terms, a watchmaking complication is any function above and beyond the hours, minutes, and seconds that a watch offers its wearer. While most people hear the word “complication” and want to run away, in watchmaking a complication means the watch is more sophisticated and complex than other watches. There are simple complications, more intricate complications, and high complications. Understanding the difference and how it impacts a watch is critical. For instance, complications generally mean an increase in the price and value of the watch, so, naturally, the higher the complication, the more expensive the watch.

Simple complications run the gamut from dual and triple time zone functions to moon phase indication, simple calendar with day/date, or annual calendar. A little more sophisticated complication in a watch includes functions like a chronograph and on up to a split-seconds chronograph, world time watch, GMT, and multi-hemisphere moon displays.  High complications, meanwhile, include the tourbillon, chiming watches or petite and grand sonneries, perpetual calendars, and astronomical complexities like sidereal time.

When someone refers to a grand complication, it is a watch with several high complications brought together under one roof, so to speak. There are also categories that watch pundits argue if the added feature is actually a complication or not. This is the case with skeletonized watches and ultra-thin watches that require a great deal of work but don’t really add a technical feature, only an aesthetic one. Here we take a look at the 10 most popular complications amongst collectors today.

Simple Watch Complications:

Moonphase

Considered one of the most beautiful and romantic complications on the market, the moon phase function – at its very least – showcases the different phases of the moon, usually through an arched or circular aperture on the dial. Some moon phase indications are more intricate, with stars and even constellations in the background. The most complex moon phase functions offer the phases of the moon in both hemispheres.  Most of today’s finest moon phase watches are accurate for 122 years.

H. Moser & Cie Endeavour Perpetual Moon Concept Aventurine
H. Moser & Cie Endeavour Perpetual Moon Concept Aventurine

Multi-Time Zones

For those who travel frequently or need to know the time in another location, a watch with a dual or triple time zone indication is helpful. Dual time zone watches are usually preferred because they are clean and easy to use. Typically, a second hand tucks away beneath the hour hand and only comes out onto the dial when one needs to know local and home time. When the traveler returns home and no longer needs the second time zone indication, the hand tucks away again offering a clean and neat dial. Triple and multi-time zone watches usually have other markings and arrows to showcase the added zones.

Maurice Lacroix AIKON Venturer GMT 43mm white dial
Maurice Lacroix AIKON Venturer GMT 43mm

Simple Calendars & Annual Calendars

There are many levels of the calendar in a watch. The simplest is a watch that showcases the day of the week and the date. This is often done via two small apertures opposite one another, wherein the day of the week and the date appear digitally.  Some watches use pointers within subsidiary dials to point to the information. Typically, the wearer needs to set the date at the end of each month (due to the various month lengths). The next step up from a simple calendar is an annual calendar. With an annual calendar, the mechanical parts track the date, shifting automatically through months that have 30 or 31 days. However, at the end of the shorter month of February, the wearer needs to adjust the date to March 1 manually.

Carl F. Bucherer Adamavi FullCalendar
Carl F. Bucherer Adamavi Full Calendar

Medium Watch Complications

World Timers

This is another complication that can be beautiful when executed properly. Like its name implies, the world timer indicates the time in the 24 main time zones that are separated in hourly increments. Some watches even indicate the time in the other 12 zones that are off by 30 minute and 15-minute intervals. The finest world time watches feature an outer ring that lists the main cities in the world’s 24 zones. Most also offer a day/night indication so the wearer knows if it is day or night in that particular zone. Additionally, some brands offer a world map in the center of the dial, adding aesthetic appeal.

Frederique Constant Classic World Timer Manufacture. red gold
Frederique Constant Classic World Timer Manufacture.

Chronographs

Just like the calendar, there are varying degrees of chronograph complexities. Essentially a chronograph is a watch that can time an event – much like a stopwatch. It can be started, stopped, and returned to zero to begin again with the push of either two pushers located on either side of the crown, or from a single crown/pusher that is called a monopusher. There are also fly-back chronographs where the timing hand automatically returns to zero without the need for another push of the button. The most sophisticated chronograph is a split-seconds chronograph (also called a Rattrapante),  wherein the watch can time multiple events that start at the same time but end at different times (like a race).

TAG Heuer Carrera Porsche Chronograph Special Edition CBN2A1F.FC6492
TAG Heuer Carrera Porsche Chronograph Special Edition

Alarm

An alarm watch is one of those “insider” complications. Collectors love them because no one really knows you have an alarm on your wrist until it sounds. This is no easy feat to make, though, because it requires a sound and reverberation system. There are only a handful of watch companies that can create a good, easy-to-use alarm. This watch is particularly helpful for those with busy schedules who seem to lose track of time,  and for people needing to take multiple prescriptions throughout the day.

Breguet Marine 5547 with alarm function
Breguet Marine 5547 with alarm function

High Watch Complications

Perpetual Calendar

The much more advanced sibling of the simple calendar and the annual calendar, the perpetual calendar tracks day, date, month, leap year and so much more – automatically taking into account the months with different end dates, including February and leap years. They are typically accurate until the year 2100 when the leap year that should occur is skipped in order to align the calendars with reality.

IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar 42
IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar

Tourbillon

The tourbillon escapement compensates for the effects of gravity on the watch when it is in different positions on the wrist. Today there are many new tourbillons that feature double and triple axis to compensate for all positions on the wrist. There are even gyroscopic tourbillons that rotate at different speeds and angles.

Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon
Audemars Piguet Code 11.59 by Audemars Piguet Selfwinding Flying Tourbillon

Chiming Watches

This single high complication warrants its own separate story because it is such a complex category. Essentially, a chiming watch is one that chimes the time on-demand or automatically – depending on the mechanism. The on-demand versions require the push of a slide or button to activate the chiming. There are minute repeaters (that chime the hours, quarter-hour, and minutes past the quarter ), decimal repeaters that do the same but chime in 10-minute intervals, and others. There are also watches called Grand and Petite sonneries that chime the time automatically. Most are also equipped with a silence mode.

Astronomical Watches

Another very hefty category of complications, astronomical watches, like their names imply, showcase different information about our planet and our solar system. There are complex planetarium watches that depict the planets in orbit, and watches that enable the calculation of information such as the Equation of Time, Sidereal Time, and more.

Jacob & Co Astronomia Solar Planet
Jacob & Co Astronomia Solar Planet

While these are just 10 of the most sought-after complications, a host of others exist and anyone in the market for a watch should familiarize themselves with the various mechanical options. If you are interested in knowing more about the many watch complications that exist check out our Guide to Watch Anatomy.

About the Author

Roberta Naas - Watch Journalist
Roberta Naas

Roberta Naas is a veteran watch and jewelry journalist who began her career in the early 1980’s, and was the first female watch journalist in the United States. She is the editor and founder of the authoritative watch blog, ATimelyPerspective, has written six books on watches, writes for numerous consumer publications (including Forbes and Elite Traveler) – and always brings forth in her work the essence of what makes watches tick. She tirelessly travels the world in search of watch news and stories that she turns into compelling and enlightening articles.

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