In watchmaking, a complication is any feature beyond simple time-telling — even the humble date window is, technically, a complication. While most watches merely tell you what the local time is and nothing more, others can tell you the day, date, phase of the moon, whether it’s a leap year or not, how much time has elapsed since the start of a particular event, and more. Perhaps you recognize certain of these complications as the day-date, the chronograph, or the perpetual calendar.
Others, however, are more obscure. During the mid-20th century, watch companies churned out gobs of interesting complications in order to solve problems that arose as a new leisure class came into being. How can one accurately measure the time that elapses between the sounding of a starting gun and the beginning of a regatta, for instance? Or keep track of decompression times while SCUBA diving? Or know when is an optimal time to fish or hunt according to the tides?
Believe it or not, each of these questions was addressed by a watch company at some point during the 20th century. (And, for the record, many are still being addressed by watch companies today, though largely in the form of digital readouts on the likes of the Apple Watch and various Garmin models.) For our part, we at Analog:Shift love to shed light on these more obscure complications and the watches that housed them. Proof of the innovative spirit that made do with simple gears and springs decades before the advent of the quartz movement (let alone the graphics processor), they’re like tiny, analog computers that can be worn on the wrist.
Here are five innovative complications that we think you should know about. Be sure to constantly check our growing inventory of excellent vintage and pre-owned watches for even more of these fascinating timekeepers!
Tide Indicator: Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer Ref. 2443
Abercrombie & Fitch Seafarer 'MKII' - IN THE SHOP
When Abercrombie & Fitch approached Heuer to develop a special watch, a young Jack Heuer jumped at the chance. He worked with his high school physics teacher on a design that would mechanically indicate high and low tide according to solunar theory, which posits that there are better and worse times for fishing and hunting according to the position of the moon. The Seafarer, which was retailed by A&F from the 1950s through the 1970s, combined this new and innovative complication with a chronograph, the results of which remain one of the downright coolest, most colorful, purpose-built timepieces ever devised.
Yacht Timer: Gallet Multichron Yachting ‘Big Eye’
Gallet MultiChron Yachting ‘Big Eye’ Chronograph - IN THE SHOP
Racing a boat is different than racing a car — on dry land, the car (and the land, for that matter) isn’t in constant motion! Thus, regattas are begun like this: A starting indicator initiates a countdown, whereupon the competing vessels must maneuver their craft so that they cross the starting line as close to the actual race start as possible. (Cross the line early, and you’re heavily penalized.) In order to help skippers precisely time this countdown, watch companies such as Gallet modified their chronographs to create “regatta timers.” Take a look at the 3 o’clock totalizer on this Multichron Yachting ‘Big Eye,’ for example, and you’ll notice that it’s calibrated with individual minutes shown next to a red wedge. Once these run out, the countdown is over, and it’s time to cross the starting line and begin the race.
Decompression Scale: Cornavin Diver’s Watch
Cornavin 'Decompression Dial' Dive Watch - IN THE SHOP
The advent of recreational SCUBA brought underwater fun to the masses, but careful attention must be paid to the act of decompressing during a dive in order to avoid the “bends,” or decompression sickness. Watches such as this Cornavin diver took a more conventional decompression table and placed it on the dial — relegating the hour indicator, in this case, to a window above 6 o’clock in order to clean up the design. (The hour isn’t particularly important underwater!) Using this scale, the diver can tell how long he must perform his “deco” stop given a certain time at a particular depth. Mido recently reissued its own colorful take on this complication in the form of the Ocean Star Decompression Timer.
Wandering Hours: Urwerk UR-100V Blue Planet
URWERK UR-100V “Blue Planet” - IN THE SHOP
This out-of-this-world time display is actually 400-plus years old, but it was really Audemars Piguet’s Starwheel that brought it back to the fore in 1991. Now, there are various companies that produce models using the wandering hours complication, foremost among which is high-end indie Urwerk. In the brand’s UR-100V Blue Planet, rotating satellites — each of which contains four hour indices — indicate the hour as it passes along a minutes track suspended at the bottom of the watch. While different brands have different variations on this theme — (the UR-100V also features a special astronomical complication) — the net effect is always the same: a sense of awe that all of this is being accomplished mechanically!
Striking Watches: A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Striking Time
A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Striking Time - IN THE SHOP
For centuries, striking watches — which feature a set of tiny gongs that strike the inside of the case to audibly chime the time — have been produced for loyal clients, including royalty. Upon activating a discreet pusher on the case flank, the timepiece in question will perform this melodic dance for the wearer, displaying its mechanical sophistication for all to hear. One of the best contemporary expressions of this poetic complication is the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Striking Time. Combining a “digital” time display (itself a unique complication) with a set of visible gongs, it’s a world's first, and a gorgeous piece of industrial design, to boot. (The movement features a whopping 528 components.)