Analysis: A Quick Guide to Key Watch Complications (and What Angelina Jolie Has to Do with One of Them)

We guarantee the Angelina Jolie part will appear somewhere in this article. Read on.

​We all know what a watch fundamentally does: it tells time, either to the accuracy of a minute (for two-hand watches) or a second (for three-hand ones). However, a good amount of mechanical watches, especially in the realm of Haute Horlogerie, were created to do so much more than just telling you what time it is. Some give you extra information such as date and day of the week. A chronograph watch allows you to measure the lapse of time. While an annual calendar watch saves you the hassle of having to adjust for the date at the turn of a month for at least a year. These features are what we call “Complications”. And they are totally awesome.

A Complication is essentially any extra feature a watch possesses beyond simple time-telling. And in this episode of Analysis, we will break down for you several popular and significant Complications to give you a good sense of the matter so next time when that watch sales is trying to promote a complicated watch to you, you’d know exactly what he/she’s talking about.

The Non-Complication Complication: Tourbillon (陀飛輪)

The futuristic Angelus U10 Tourbillon, with its Tourbillon prominently shown in the compartment on the right hand side (photo courtesy: The Horophile)

Interestingly enough, we would like to begin by introducing you a Complication not by definition, but more by habit instead: the unmistakable Tourbillon.

​A Tourbillon is an addition to the usual watch escapement which, in theory, enhances the regulating capability of the escapement, by making the latter constantly rotate along an axis (or multiple axises in more complex renditions of a Tourbillon), so as to cancel out the effect gravity has on it. First developed by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1795 to resolve the accuracy issue with pocket watches, the Tourbillon has since become the go-to mechanism via the adoption of which watch brands showcase their engineering prowess, since a Tourbillon is extremely intricate and difficult to manufacture. Like it or not, Tourbillon has become the most sought after “Complication”, mostly thanks to how it is usually the most eye-catching part of the watch.

Having said that, a Tourbillon is not strictly a Complication in itself, since it is merely a setup that allows a watch to tell time more accurately, without actually adding extra functionality to it. However, that doesn’t stop it from being considered as THE Complication.

Trivia: Rolex, the most popular watch brand by a large margin, (un)surprisingly has NEVER produced a Tourbillon watch, which many believe to have something to do with its utilitarian approach with its product creation.

Close-up shot of a Tourbillon

The Most Engaging Complication: Chronograph

The very rare Patek Philippe 1436 Split-Second Chronograph in Steel

Perhaps the most engaging Complication, chronograph is a function you could use (or play with, for that matter) all day long. A chronograph watch is essentially one that comes with a stop-watch function. Typical chronograph watch has a button (usually located near 2 0'clock) for starting/ stoping/ restarting the chronograph hand, while another button (usually located near 4 0'clock) serves the function of resetting the chronograph hand to zero. Apart from the standard chronograph, there are also a few more advanced variations of which that we’d like to share with you here:

Flyback Chronograph: A chronograph type that does not require the chronograph hand to be stopped first before being reset. The chronograph hand could be reset to zero any time after it is engaged and “flies back” to zero, restarting counting right after.

Monopusher Chronograph: A chronograph that could be activated, stopped and reset by one button only. A more traditional and dressy chronograph solution first found in early chronograph watches, this is perfect for someone who might not necessarily prefer the inherently sporty vibe of a standard chronograph. Only draw back is the counting hand cannot be re-engaged to continue counting once stopped, without first having to be reset. But it does look more elegant.

A monopusher chronograph from Longines. Note the presence of a single button on the crown.

​Split-Second Chronograph: Arguably the coolest type of chronograph which is capable of timing two events simultaneously. This is achieved by having not one, but TWO chronograph hands that could be “split”, or separated on demand when the shorter of the two events ends, while not interfering with the subsequent timing of the other event that’s still on-going. You can learn more about this specific type of chronograph in the clip below.

Trivia: The Omega Speedmaster, a world famous chronograph watch, has actually proved critical in helping to bring the astronauts in the Apollo 13 mission home safely. Read full story here.

The Complication for the Lazy: Perpetual Calendar

Dial face of a perpetual calendar from Montblanc

The perpetual calendar is great for the lazy ones amongst us. A Complication that is decidedly hard to create, a task only the best of the watchmakers could excel in. The perpetual calendar rids its owner of the need to adjust for the date at the turn of a month (some months have 30 days and some 31, 29 or even 28) and on top of that, the need to worry about the leap year factor. Everything is taken care of by the perpetual calendar which only requires a small push forward towards the end of February at the turn of a century, when leap years are skipped.

Trivia: The most expensive wristwatch ever sold, the unique Patek Philippe 5016A, is, you guess it, a perpetual calendar watch. With a tourbillon. And the next Complication we are about to introduce.

The Most Romantic Complication: The Minute Repeater

The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie, the latest concept minute repeater from AP

We all know we could tell the time by looking into the face of a watch. But does it ever happen to you that one could actually hear what time it is? Yes. And that’s what minute repeaters are about. They literally “tell” time. Here’s how they work.

​Take the Audemars Piguet Supersonnerie pictured above as an example, once the button at 8 o’clock is engaged, it winds up a dedicated mainspring used to power the minute repeater function and via a very intricate network of gears, two tiny hammers slam themselves against the metal gong that forms the wall of the movement and start making a series of sounds that corresponds to the current time, usually in the sequence of hours, 15-minute intervals and last but not least, residual minute(s) beyond the 15-min intervals.

​To hear the AP Supersonnerie chiming away, look no further than the below clip from ABlogtoWatch (chiming starts at 00:25).

In case you’re wondering, YES, minute repeaters are super expensive which again has to do with the sheer level of difficulty of designing, finishing, assembling and testing one. But hey, if it’s easily obtainable and common, it wouldn’t be romantic, right?

Trivia: Angelina Jolie owns a lady Patek minute repeater that’s worth more than HKD3,000,000. The story behind? Brad Pitt actually travelled to Geneve to pick this watch up personally as a gift to his super radiant actress-wife. I’m not sure if I want to be Jolie or Pitt more.

Like what you read? Give Jason Mai a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.