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A Look At Some of Horology's Most Celebrated Complications

By Evigan Xiao

 
Patek Philippe
 

The original function of a watch was to provide the wearer with an accurate readout of the current time, but the concept of measuring time is not restricted to a singular understanding. Rather, horology takes other concerns into account as well: the measurement (as opposed to just reading) of time, the irregularities of a solar calendar, the mechanical limitations of a watch escapement, and so on. Complications serve to provide us with an additional layer of information, often meant to complement our perception of time. Regardless, the development of complications in watchmaking has always been preceded by an abundance of imagination and trial-by-error. This arduous journey has, in turn, gifted us with some truly memorable instances of innovation - many of which continue to impress us despite the onset of the digital age.

A. Lange & SöhneTriple Split Chronograph
Triple Split Chronograph

Chronograph

The invention of the chronograph is credited to Louis Moinet, who conceived it to assist with charting the movement of planetary bodies. Over time, its list of applications came to include aviation, auto racing, regatta timing and diving. It also saw some usage in artillery rangefinding and submarine manoeuvring. The chief utility of a chronograph is to time specific events; improvements in precision and accuracy are the primary focal points when it comes to design. Other prized features inherent to chronograph design include the "flyback" feature - which allows an instantaneous reset of the mechanism for back-to-back timings - and a rattrapante or "split-seconds". The latter uses a pair of chronograph seconds hands which can be independently stopped and resumed to simultaneously time separate events of the same origin point (e.g. lap times).

Due to the requisite amount of skill and precision required in its engineering, a rattrapante chronograph is widely regarded as a high complication in horology. There are also what can only be referred to as "enhanced" versions of this mechanism, like A. Lange & Söhne's Double Split and Triple Split. Instead of being limited to just the measurement of split-seconds, the Double Split includes an additional hand in its 30-minute totaliser for measuring split-minutes. Likewise for the Triple Split, a supplemental hand in the hours sub-dial tracks split-hours on top of the existing split-minutes and split-seconds.

MB&FLegacy Machine Thunderdome
Legacy Machine Thunderdome

Tourbillon

The benefits of a tourbillion are an anachronistic element of the pocket watch age - not necessarily relevant when it concerns wristwatches. Abraham-Louis Breguet originally invented the tourbillon to counteract the negative effects that gravity imposed on a watch escapement in a stationary position. The wristwatch - due to its positioning and the constant movement of the wearer - share none of these concerns and scarcely benefit from the inclusion of a tourbillon. These days, tourbillon watches are instead prized for their aesthetics and craftsmanship - a testament to the house and hands that produced them. 

Despite its obsolescence, the tourbillon continues to occupy a venerated place amidst the pantheon of wristwatch complications. For it to perform as intended, a tourbillon must essentially subject the escapement and balance wheel to a continuous rotation of approximately one revolution per minute, allowing it to average out positional errors. The challenges faced are thus those of scale and physics. Watch escapements and balance wheels are no larger than a fingernail, and tourbillon cages are no different. Furthermore, a tourbillon cage must possess high levels of inertia while being as light as possible. It is perhaps due to this maddening juxtaposition that tourbillon watches continue to appeal to watch enthusiasts, who are by and large romantics at heart.

F.P. JourneChronomètre à Résonance
Chronomètre à Résonance

Remontoire

Despite it being considered a "dead" complication (due to an absence of direct interaction between it and the wearer), the remontoire (AKA. constant force mechanism) remains very much alive and well in the halls of horology. The issue surrounding constant force and watchmaking is a naturally-occurring dilemma that has vexed watchmakers for centuries. Due to the mechanical nature of gear trains and mainspring design, lapses in precision were treated as an unavoidable fault. The release of energy via an uncoiling mainspring is far from linear, which means that variances will inevitably present themselves as time wears on. These variances translate to losses and gains in time that will carry on incrementally.

fusée and chain transmission was conceived as a workaround. Originally found in antique spring-driven mechanical watches and clocks, the assembly relies on a cone-shaped pulley wound with a chain that is attached to the mainspring barrel. As the power stored in the mainspring dissipates, the tension from the fusée's chain on the now-rotating barrel helps to ensure consistency in the rate of dissipation, thus achieving isochronism. It was a simple solution, if not unwieldy solution on account of the additional mass and weight contributed by the fusée and its chain. In contrast, the remontoire that was invented by John Harrison in 1739 utilised a small spring to power the escapement, which is isolated from the mainspring and gear train (which are instead used to rewind the remontoire spring at specific intervals). Due to the reduced size of the spring and its frequent rewinding, a remontoire assures greater precision for longer periods regardless of the amount of energy stored in the mainspring. Like the tourbillon, the remontoire is a testament to excellence in mechanics and basks in a similar amount of appeal.

Patek PhilippeRef. 5270J-001 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph
Ref. 5270J-001 Perpetual Calendar Chronograph

Perpetual Calendar

It could be argued that fans of perpetual calendars are merely people too inundated with tasks to bother adjusting their date apertures every four years, but it really is so much more than that. Watches with perpetual calendars differ from their annual calendar counterparts in that they take the quadrennial Leap Year event into account, resulting in a timepiece that promises date-accuracy in perpetuum (so long as it remains sufficiently wound).

While the equation for leap years may be easy to recite, distilling it into mechanical equations is no mean feat. Furthermore, there is the Gregorian calendar consideration, which excludes every 100th year from being a leap year. Regardless of whether the individual movement takes this into account, perpetual calendars are still a marvel of mathematical and mechanical precision. Patek Philippe is largely recognised for bringing the complication - previously only seen with pocket watches and astronomical clocks - to the wrists of discerning gentry with the Patek Philippe Ref. 1526 in 1941. 80 years on, perpetual calendars continue to enthral watch enthusiasts on account of their practical applications and elegance of execution.

Monochrome WatchesCartier Rotonde de Cartier Grande Complication Skeleton
Cartier Rotonde de Cartier Grande Complication Skeleton

Minute Repeater

Blending the majesty of a chiming grandfather clock with the wearability of a wristwatch, timepieces with minute repeaters are considered one of the most romantic examples of complications around. The term "repeater" is sometimes conflated with "sonnerie", when in fact there is a small yet appreciable difference between the two. Sonnerie watches chime the passing of time but only as it passes. Minute repeaters, on the other hand, are capable of chiming on demand (often both ways as well). Minute repeaters are largely divided into three main categories: quarter (chiming hours and quarter-hours), minute (chiming hours, quarter-hours and minutes) and decimal repeaters (chiming hours, decimal-hours and minutes). 

As one can imagine, it is one thing to fit a striking mechanism into the size of a wristwatch case. Ensuring that the chimes are audible and distinct from one another presents an entirely different challenge. A well-executed repeater requires that the hourly, fractional and minute chimes be easily distinguishable to avoid confusion. To achieve that, the individual hammers and gongs used to create those sounds must be created to painstaking specifications and precise tunings, to achieve the richness in sound minute repeaters are known for.