Watch Complications: A Brief History Of Useful To Useless

Watch Complications: A Brief History Of Useful To Useless

Watch Complications: A Brief History Of Useful To Useless Feature Articles

It seems these days, that in order to get truly noticed in this crowded watch market, the watch companies have taken the complication pact to “boldly go where no one has gone before.”

It seems that the one-upmanship of each new watch release keeps breaking the sound barrier of mechanical “complications”: coaxial; tourbillion; moon phase; fly backs; geographic world time; minute repeater; perpetual calendars; split second chronograph; jumping hours; spitting frogs; dancing Bears; Topo Gigio. I’m ready to throw in the towel and wave the white flag… I’m finally finding these complications to be unreadable, overkill, distracting, and above all, really get in the way of what a watch is supposed to do…tell you the time.

Of course, I must take off my hat and bow down to the gods of mechanical watch design who had the vision and conceptual ability to dream these mechanical wonders up, and actually bring them to reality in a finished product. But, enough is enough already.

Watch Complications: A Brief History Of Useful To Useless Feature Articles

In order to understand how we came to this point in horological history, we must first start at the beginning, to the very first complications.

If we could take a time machine back to the 1500 and 1600’s, when timekeeping was moving towards “personal timekeepers”, rather than public formats: Church bells; ship bells; sundials; and guys yelling: “10 o’clock and all is well”…to the individual timekeeping apparatus: the pocket watch.

The very first pocket watches, made in 16th century Europe, were transitional sized instruments that were a form of a miniature, or downsized, clock. Since clocks at this time were heavy, with weights providing the energy source, it took the mechanical genius of a German locksmith, Peter Henlein, in 1510, to design the complication of a spring driven source, which allowed and evolved into the miniaturization of the energy source…today known as the mainspring. As time marched on, the watchmakers (clock makers) of the time, kept refining their skill so that they were able to produce a timepiece that could actually be worn on the body, either on a chain around the neck, or fastened to the clothing: “16th Century Bling”. This device had an amazing mechanical complication: an “hour hand”. What an extraordinary device, this little apparatus could give you the time just by looking at the round dial with numbers and knowing that if the hour hand is between 3 and 4, it’s about 3:30!! You wouldn't need to be dependent on bells or guys yelling out the time anymore…. you controlled your own time destiny. The only drawback from today’s standards was that the watch was accurate to only within 10 to 30 minutes per day. So in retrospect, a minute hand would have been pointless.

  • MarkCarson

    I hear ya. But at the extreme, that lobbies for a digital quartz watch. Aloha.

  • Lesthepom

    May be we will have to wait for the I-Watch to see what the next step in the world of telling the time ETC will it be 100 200 10000 complications or will it just beam it all to our brain would much rather here the tic tic tic of a mechanical watch as its not just about telling the time is it

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  • DangerussArt

    I can’t tell if you’re lauding or complaining. What’s interesting to me is your use of the Gruebel Forsey piece as your subject for pastiche. A few years ago I had done a “digital portrait” 3D rendering of one of their watches for my portfolio and was faced with a cease and desist order, and demand for it’s removal. – That somehow I was misrepresenting their product. It should be fun to see their position on this bit of satire.

    • Kris C

      Interesting. I have saved this picture should it be suddenly taken down.

  • Mister_w

    An excellent article… and fuel for my desire for a Meistersinger single hand watch 😀

  • Zeitblom

    My one and only dress watch, in the nature of things, doesn’t get wound up every day. And under those circumstances, I am thoroughly grateful that it has no complications, not even the date. So I don’t have to fool around with asking myself whether the damned thing stopped AM or PM, and watch out, don’t try to set the date at 11 am because it might really be PM and then you might damage it etc etc etc….

    • MarkCarson

      Zeitblom What? You own at least two watches? I’m jealous. Ha ha. Seriously, I see some of those high end wonder watches and wonder how hard is it to set everything. Oh horrors, the time might be right but the moon phase might be off!!! I’d really hate it if someone asked what  the current phase of the moon is and I was off by  1/29.5 of the current lunar cycle. Oh embarrassing would that be?

      • Zeitblom

        MarkCarson Zeitblom Actually, I own three 🙂
        I know someone who actually has a “wonder watch” and wears it about once a week. He doesn’t set any of the complications. In fact he doesn’t even set the time. Doesn’t want to wear it out. Uses his phone to tell the time. He just likes to see the innards whirling. What a world.

        • MarkCarson

          Zeitblom Oh, that’s too funny!!! There is a a man who needs a  3 (or even 2)  hand tourbilllon  – something to watch yet nothing to set.

  • I also like minimal watches, but in these days a mechanical watch that doesn’t have date (eventually day) is not a complete watch. Probably because it is most common thing after the basic timekeeping. Generally i prefer calendar functions on a watch, from simple to complex, as opposed to chronographs. To me, chronographs don’t make enough sense o justify their notoriety.

  • Kris C

    Oddball, near-useless watch complications make my world go ’round. I’m also a bit confused as to wether you are trashing them or putting them on a pedestal, so lack of wordsmithing aside, I find it odd that a 4th gen watchmaker would be anything but loud and proud about zany complications.

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  • FalconerInd

    Well let see, on my main watch i have Hour, Minutes, seconds and a day/date. and that s about as much as i consider useful.
    I also have a chronograph that i do use quite often, specifically when i m working (as it allow me to time some operation i do). 
    Now i m looking at a simple Hour/minute as a dress watch.
    GMT is also quite usefull in some professions, and some setting. Outside those it s mainly shows off

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  • GonzoSamaniego

    Actually, I have used my chronograph for more than showing it off. I’ve used it to accurately measure for how long my pizza’s been in the oven. Not all of us just show it off you know…

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