A Simplified Guide to Watch Complications

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Watches are complicated. No, seriously, some watches are literally complicated. To the unversed: This is a little horological joke. In the watch world, the term “complication” refers to any function that does something other than basic timekeeping. An alarm, a second time zone, or even just a date are all complications.

If you’re already zoning out a little, that’s okay! Part of the reason why mechanical timepieces have failed to capture the imaginations of many individuals is that watch talk can quickly veer into the nerd realm. But the truth is that watches are often quite technical, in a way most fashion accessories are not. It can feel intimidating to venture into the weeds when you start to look at watches as more than something that sits pretty on your wrist. But I promise, peering beneath the surface only makes them more exciting.

This past September, I did exactly that as I toured Audemars Piguet’s Manufacture des Saignoles in a tiny Swiss city called Le Locle. The manufacture feels more like a sleek tech campus than what you’d imagine a watch workshop would be (there are no tiny elves working at wooden tables, unfortunately). Instead, real people who specialize in watch complications spend hours upon hours filing away bridges and rotors with tools not unlike those used for acrylic nails.

 

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It might not come as a surprise to learn that many watch owners do not even maintain their complications anymore. What were once groundbreaking pieces of technology used in the field are now relics of the past, markers of a time without computers. So when you’re out on a date with a macho watch guy flexing his Rolex Daytona, be comforted in your own level of expertise. But if you want to level up your knowledge and appreciation, I’ve put together a deliberately simplified list of watch complications you should know, along with musings from those who love them, below.


The Date Window

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Sofia Coppola wearing her Rolex Datejust with Francis Ford Coppola.

Alamy Stock Photo

As far as complications go, the date window is fairly simple and universal. As the name might suggest, it displays the date right on the watch face.

On a Rolex Datejust, which brought the calendar complication into the mainstream when it debuted in 1945, the date window is most commonly found at the three o’clock, often highlighted with a “cyclops” magnifier that allegedly aided the subpar vision of the founder’s wife. Beneath the dial is a disc with 31 markings that automatically jumps to the next date at midnight, which means you have to change the date yourself for the five months of the year with less than 31 days.

paris, france   june 21 hailey bieber is seen arriving at a restaurant on june 21, 2021 in paris, france photo by pierre suugc images

Hailey Bieber wearing her Rolex Datejust.

Pierre Suu

“Do you want a romantic made-up story about my obsession with date complications, or do you want the truth?” Malaika Crawford, style editor at watch publication Hodinkee, asks when I inquire about her Rolex Lady Datejust. “I’ll take the high road and be honest,” she continues. “My vintage Datejust is rarely ever set correctly. I don’t often look at my watch to tell time, let alone the day of the month.” You heard it here first: Some watch lovers don’t even keep their watches set!

The GMT

woody creek,aspen,co,   october 12 hunter thompson aka hunter s thompson aka gonzo journalist at his ranch standing against a bookcase with a ralph steadman picture on the wall  on october 12, 1990 in woody creek, aspen, colorado photo by paul harrisgetty images

Hunter S. Thompson with his Rolex GMT.

Paul Harris

A GMT complication is for our bicoastal queen. Named for Greenwich Mean Time, this complication allows the wearer to track multiple time zones in one glance. This is achieved using an additional hour hand (on top of the hour, minute, and second hands) in conjunction with a bezel labeled with a 24-hour scale. Developed in the glamorous early days of flying and chic Pan Am uniforms, for pilots who did not have digital clocks, the GMT is now a beloved and straightforward complication anyone can use.

Ryan Chong, head of watch operations at Bezel, a tech-first watch marketplace that prioritizes expert authentication, loves the GMT complication for this very reason. “Travel at the dawn of commercial aviation is one of the most romantic notions to me,” Chong says. “The use of a GMT function persists to this day, but it also reminds me of how far we’ve come.”

The Chronograph

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Zendaya wearing Tom Holland’s Rolex Daytona Panda watch.

Backgrid

The chronograph is one of the more complicated of complications, found on the historically significant and drooled-over Rolex Daytona. It’s essentially a stopwatch, allowing the wearer to track and measure elapsed time, on top of telling the actual time. If you’re running a lap, you can press a little button called a “pusher,” and the watch will tell you how much time has passed until you push the pusher again.

Typically, chronographs have two pushers flanking the “crown” or the little knob at the three o’clock position that allows you to wind the watch. One pusher starts and stops the timer, and the other pusher resets the timer back to zero. A chronograph will also typically have three “subdials” or little watch faces within the actual watch face, for tracking seconds, minutes, and hours.

In this industry, we love fast cars, and the chronograph complication was initially employed for car racing. The Daytona even gets its name from the Daytona Speedway, which has been officially affiliated with Rolex since 1962. It’s also still the official timepiece of Formula 1.

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Jonah Hill wearing his Rolex Daytona.

Gotham

Of course, professional drivers have digital ways to track time now, and the average chronograph owner likely does not use the stopwatch function at all. Rather, they’ll use it as a flex, which is exactly what the Rolex Daytona has morphed into. It has even been worn by the likes of the late Paul Newman (whose “Paul Newman” Daytona actually sold for more than $17 million in an auction) to Jonah Hill.

But many watch lovers, like antiques and vintage watch dealer Alan Bedwell, appreciate the chronograph for its enduring sophistication in complicated watchmaking. Bedwell’s favorite chronograph is the historic Zenith El Primero movement. Conceived in 1962 and officially launched in 1969, the El Primero launched right before the “quartz crisis,” an upheaval in the watchmaking industry where battery-powered watches threatened the survival of mechanical timepieces.

Without getting into the nitty-gritty, just know that this incredible technological feat would have been completely lost in the ’70s if it weren’t for one of its original craftsmen, Charles Vermot, who saved the tools used to make El Primero and revisited them as watchmaking pivoted back toward mechanics after the quartz crisis. “It’s a story of ingenuity, technical innovation, resourcefulness, and longevity,” Bedwell says. Romance!

The Perpetual Calendar

beverly hills, ca   december 09  john mayer attends the opening of audemars piguet on december 9, 2015 in beverly hills, california  photo by jason laverisfilmmagic

John Mayer wearing his Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Perpetual Calendar.

Jason LaVeris

The perpetual calendar is the crème de la crème of complications. It’s the Oxford-educated, extravagant big sister of the basic date complication. Befittingly, perpetual calendar movements are often found in more formal timepieces with precious metals and hefty price tags. You’re paying a lot for a perpetual calendar, but the sophistication of the movement makes it well worth it: It’ll tell you the date, but it’ll also track the month of the year, accounting even for leap years! If you keep a perpetual calendar running, the only time you’ll have to adjust the watch’s date is the next time the Gregorian calendar skips a leap year, which isn’t until 2100. In other words, you’re set for life.

While visiting the Audemars Piguet headquarters, I was able to see its newly released bright blue ceramic perpetual calendar watch. I also met complications expert Anne-Gaëlle Quinet who was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds, a small Swiss city built on watchmaking, and has been working with watch movements since 1996. Hopping from Breguet to a 21-year stint at Patek Philippe, she now is client-facing at Audemars Piguet, in addition to implementing strategies related to the production and commercialization of the manufacture’s rare complications created annually. When I ask about her favorite complication, Quinet says its the perpetual calendar, which she assembled by hand when she was a watchmaker.

“From a poetic point of view, to think that this is the complication that will accompany you for all your life without having to be adjusted—at least until 2100—is absolutely fantastic!” Quinet enthusiastically tells me. “Also, the fact that its mechanism is based on the rhythm of our planetary system, in which ancient civilizations were already located, always fascinates me.”

The Moon Phase

crans montana, switzerland august 27 george clooney attends gala evening at cry d’er part of the omega masters 2022 on august 27, 2022 in crans montana, switzerland photo by mike marslandgetty images for omega

George Clooney with his Omega Speedmaster Moonphase watch.

Mike Marsland

Last, but not least, is my personal favorite complication: the moon phase. As its name suggests, this complication tracks the phase of the moon with a moon replica on the watch displaying its position lit by the sun from the earth’s vantage point. It’s essentially a reminder to look up when you look down. Within the mechanism is a disc with 59 “teeth” that will advance the moon phase via the hour hand one full phase per day, aligning with the 29.5-ish-day moon cycle. It really is a gorgeous complication, often accented by clouds and stars, which adds cosmic and existential beauty to any watch.

“I’ve always been someone to gravitate towards a moon phase complication, because I am a very spiritual person,” Leigh Zagoory, vice president and specialist in the watches department at Sotheby’s, says. “This could be one reason I find a lot of women really enjoy wearing this complication.” Indeed, girls, gays, and theys are particularly drawn to the moon phase in watchmaking for emotional and spiritual reasons.

“Not to be sappy,” Zagoory continues, “but I do believe our fate lies within the stars. So for me, I find comfort in seeing the stars and moon phases on our wrists. It also takes us back to a simpler time when people would actually use the stars as a navigational tool, as well as using them to tell time.” We are nothing if not ancestors.


Watches are frequently brushed off as vain indulgences, overpriced signifiers of net worth and status. We have smartphones to tell us the time, so why wear a watch other than to flex?

“As an industry, let’s stop talking about how potential customers may look more sexy or wealthy [with a specific watch] and instead concentrate on what is really important: the real artisan watchmakers,” Max Büsser, founder and creative director of the cult-favorite indie watch brand MB&F, says. “Those creators have given their lives to watchmaking because it is their calling. And they live and still go through hardships to transform their watchmaking dreams into reality. These incredible pieces of mechanical art are first engineered, and then painstakingly hand-finished, so that 12 to 18 months and thousands of hours of skilled craftsmanship later, they finally tick on your wrist.”

Reverso Tribute Duoface Calendar
Jaegar Lecoultre Reverso Tribute Duoface Calendar
Traditionnelle Perpetual Calendar
Vacheron Constantin Traditionnelle Perpetual Calendar
Lady-Datejust
Perpetual Date GMT Master Ⅱ
Rolex Perpetual Date GMT Master Ⅱ
Chronomaster Original
Zenith Chronomaster Original

When I ask about his favorite complication, Büsser responds simply, “I do not need a complication to fall in love with a beautiful piece of mechanical watchmaking. Even the most simple piece is astounding if it has been beautifully designed and exquisitely hand-finished.” Loving a watch clearly isn’t very complicated at all, complication or not.



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