If you’re just getting started in the world of mechanical timepieces, you may find you constantly have the word complication thrown at you. But, what does it actually mean for a watch to have a complication?
In this guide, we address just that:
We’ve also put together a list with quick info on each variety. You may use the above links to skip to one of these specific sections.
Before going any further, we want to note that we are only considering complications in the context of mechanical watches and not those with quartz movements. Quartz complications are essentially cheating; if you’re not sure why, then you’ve come to the right place.
List Of Watch Complications
The list we present here covers the most popular and widespread wristwatch complications, though it is not all inclusive. This is even more true considering how much horological technology is advancing – seemingly day-by-day.
As innovations in complications are introduced, we’ll continue updating this guide for your reference, so make sure to check back for the latest watch complications.
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What Is A Watch Complication?
In its simplest form, a watch complication is any feature that a mechanical watch may possess outside of the most elemental functions: an hour hand, a minute hand, and a second hand, all on the same (center) axis.
Even a “small second”, where the seconds are recorded within a smaller subregister on the dial, is technically a complication. This can seem contradictory given how common a date or a GMT function are in luxury watches today.
But in the earliest days, clocks began at the most basic level of horology and grew from there. Similarly, pocket watches and wristwatches, which reduced the space in which the mechanics had to fit, shared the same beginnings.
It didn’t take long before the lone timekeeping feature was challenged. The greatest watchmakers are notoriously restless, and are constantly wondering “what if?”; this is true in watchmakers of the past and likewise of the present.
To this proverbial question often come answers, except that for watchmakers, the solutions come in the shape of horological devices.
They’re not always strictly practical, and some have become less useful with time, but watch complications nevertheless continue captivating watch aficionados everywhere.
Integrated vs. Modular Complications
When building new functions or new complications into a movement, a watchmaker has a decision to make.
They can either build a new, separate component that attaches to an existing movement, or they can start from the ground up, essentially creating a completely new movement around the complication.
When the complication is designed separately and later attached, it is called “modular”. As in, a module with the complication is attached to an existing base movement to enhance its functions.
This is very common with chronographs; many of them are, in fact, modular chronographs, as it’s cheaper to craft the chronograph and base modules separately and then marry them within a case. It’s also heaps easier to maintain or repair.
Other movements are built with a specific complication in mind, and are therefore referred to as “integrated”. The specific complication is integrated into the whole movement; they are one, and cannot be parted and married with different movements.
The integrated complication requires much more planning, often entails computer modeling for movement architecture, and takes much more time (and money) to produce a final product. They are also more highly regarded for the horological expertise and time input required and, naturally, also carry a premium.
Why Are Complications Desirable?
This question is, quite honestly, a subjective one. Different watch collectors have different reasons for why they enjoy the horological hobby. What is true is that a very deep appreciation for the craft is nurtured, even without understanding the internal minutiae.
A complication is the embodiment of the advancement of that craft, of the watchmaking tradition itself. Progressively complicated watches prove that the art of watchmaking a living thing, constantly changing and evolving.
Watch collectors want to feel a part of this evolution. Therefore, they’re constantly seeking out the newest complication, or group of complications, offered in a timepiece.
It is also true that many others may just find the functions imparted by a complication interesting and useful. Moreover, it’s difficult to come across such a sophisticated mechanical device as a perpetual calendar, for example, in every day life.
Everything is digital nowadays. Everything has a processing chip, and everything needs to be charged. Well, not this world timer, and not this alarm watch. As long as you keep them wound, they’ll keep on ticking. There’s an innate and highly-perceived value in this.
Lastly, also consider the price that mechanical complexity in watches commands. The most elaborate complications, and therefore the most difficult to make, will also be the most expensive. Ironically enough, the restrictive price tag itself makes the watch desirable, simply due to its exclusiveness.
All in all, complications help develop the “story” of a watch. This is ultimately what the watch enthusiast yearns for, be it to tell the stories of others, or while writing their own.
List Of Watch Complications
The date is one of the simplest, most widespread, and most useful watch complications available. We’d even argue that it’s still easier to look down at your wrist for the date rather than reaching for your phone.
Unfortunately, simple date complications have to be corrected often. The date discs used have 31 days, which means you’ll have to adjust the watch whenever the month is shorter. Some consider this an enjoyable ritual, others not as much.
A similar complication to the date is the “big date”. While both achieve the same function, the big date does so in a much more mechanically complex way, with two independently rotating discs.
The chronograph function has to be the complication most often encountered in both luxury and lower-end watches. The tri-register look itself is extremely familiar, and sometimes employed in watches that don’t even have the chrono function.
The chronograph has also been the complication of choice in iconic models which have survived for decades. These include the Omega Speedmaster and the Breitling Navitimer, to name just a few.
For a deeper dive into the history of this renowned complication, and to learn about the different types that exist, jump over to our chronograph watch guide.
The moonphase complication is an often seen, though sparsely used, complication. And although it can serve as the focal point of a watch dial, it usually takes a complimentary role to perpetual calendars.
Nevertheless, it remains a captivating feature of the most coveted dress watches.
If you’d like to see some noteworthy examples of this complication, including one which employs actual meteorite on its dial, check out our page on the best moonphase watches.
The world time complication was first devised in pocket watches with the advent of global travel in the 1800s. Yet it wasn’t until the first half of the 20th century that the complication was re-engineered to fit within the confines of a wristwatch case.
Fast forward almost a century later, and it’s become the quintessential traveler’s watch, especially in sports watch styles. It’s also likened to the bustling businessman who needs to keep tabs on global markets halfway around the world.
To find out which modern brand commissioned that first world time watch, head over to our world time watch guide.
If having to adjust your date watch more than half a dozen times throughout the year is too much of an inconvenience, then an annual calendar may be for you. Although theoretically an annual calendar should be less mechanically intricate than the traditional perpetual calendar, it only came to be a couple of decades ago.
Nevertheless, it is still a useful calendar complication, arguably more practical than perpetual complications, and often more accessible in price. To learn all about this relatively recent complication, check out our page on the history and picks of the best annual calendar watches.
Whereas other watch complications may seem difficult to comprehend or read on a watch dial, the power reserve is truly simple; some may even find it intuitive.
What the battery icon does for a smartphone, the power reserve does for a mechanical watch.
The history is, as you can imagine, a bit more intricate than this. If you’re interested in reading up on its past, jump over to our power reserve watches guide, where we’ve also included our top power reserve picks.
The alarm complication is likely one of the least popular. In fact, there’s very few watch models in production today that possess it.
This is a bit ironic as it’s a complication that could prove most useful to watch enthusiasts, particularly those who enjoy putting their timepieces to work.
It may be due in part to their designs, which can often appear convoluted and confusing. We’ll let you be the judge here, though, with this page on our favorite alarm watches.
Ah, the tourbillon. The most beautiful watch complication, and often the least understood. Yet, at its usual price point, it doesn’t really matter.
Most who buy a tourbillon do so because they think it looks cool, which it does, and not because of any enhanced accuracy it could provide.
Yet traditional tourbillons are no longer enough, so the most prestigious watchmakers have kept on innovating. Nowadays, we have Gyrotourbillons like the JLC pictured above, and there’s seemingly no end in sight to the modifications and enhancements. Good! There’s no such thing as too many tourbillons.
The perpetual calendar complication embodies one of the most alluring virtues of the wristwatch – a mechanical timepiece will continue keeping time accurately for as long as it is wound.
More specifically, a perpetual calendar will correctly indicate the day, date, month, and sometimes the year for hundreds of years to come. Worry not, as it also accounts for leap years, hence the ‘perpetual’ moniker.
For many watch collectors, the perpetual calendar is the ultimate grail complication. Luckily, these are becoming more and more accessible in the present-day. If you’d like to know more, we’ve previously covered an example with a retail price under $10,000 in our perpetual calendar watch guide.
The minute repeater is a historic complication that is not know to many outside of the world of horology. Even those familiar with it are unlikely to have ever seen one in person. Indeed, they are rare, ludicrously expensive, and breathtaking when experienced first-hand.
A minute repeater, when ‘activated’ by the wearer of the watch, will sound off in different tones that indicate the current hour, quarter hour, and minutes. This is a very basic explanation, so if you’d like a more detailed description, make sure to check out our minute repeater watch guide!
Now that you’ve gotten an overview on the most common watch complications out there, you’re more than equipped to tackle the catalogs of the most prestigious brands with confidence. If you’d like to keep learning, feel free to browse our other popular watch guides below: