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Can you tell a moonphase from a perpetual calendar?

The most fascinating area of the watch world is occupied by timepieces with grand complications that do more than just tell you the time

The Patek Philippe Ref. 5327J Perpetual Calendar and Moonphase.
The Patek Philippe Ref. 5327J Perpetual Calendar and Moonphase. (Courtesy Patek Philippe)

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I have been known to rhapsodise about my love for dress watches often enough in this column. While that will never change, the one thing that sets my watch enthusiast heart racing is complications. What’s that, you ask? Well, when your watch gives you more information other than just the time of the day, it’s offering you a complication. To that end, the most common complications that you can find in a watch are the day and date readouts. 

Yes, I can imagine that’s a bit underwhelming in this day and age of the average smartwatch measuring blood sugar levels and what have you. But really, a simple day/date complication can be more useful on an everyday level than being able to read your email on your wrist. Watches with true complications, though, are on a different level to those that just give you the day and date. 

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The most complicated watch I own isn’t a mechanical one. It’s a G-Shock. A true, rugged tool of a watch if I ever saw one, my classic DW-5600 is a master of many tricks. It gives me the time, day of the week and the date, but also functions as a chronograph, an alarm watch and a countdown timer. The thing is, though, that it’s easy to pack in such functions into a digital watch with a quartz movement. Where complications get interesting are in mechanical watches. It’s hard to put together a movement made up of scores of tiny little gears and wheels and screws to somehow tell the time. It’s another thing altogether when one adds even more little gears and wheels and screws to help a watch do much more, like help calculate how far away that lightning strike is from you.

My most favourite watch complication is also probably the most useless: the moonphase. I mean, unless you’re a werewolf, what is the point of knowing when there will be a full moon? But the fact that the moonphase complication is still made for wristwatches is because it’s such a strangely romantic information to have. I just love the small, elegant little cutout on a watch dial, with a yellow or white moon gliding through its eight phases: the new moon, the waxing crescent, the first quarter, the waxing gibbous, the full moon, the waning gibbous, the third quarter and the waning gibbous. The moonphase complication reminds me of the fascination that humans have always had with the cosmos. Now you’ll find the moonphase on all kinds of watches, up and down the value spectrum. At the luxury end, you’ll get moonphases from the likes of Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin, Blancpain and A. Lange & Söhne, to name just a few. 

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I especially love a moonphase that’s part of a larger set of complications, like, say, the perpetual calendar. And one of the masters of combining these complications is Patek. From the manufacture’s first perpetual calendar, the Ref. 1526 in 1941, to the new Ref. 5327J, they’re at the cutting edge of the art of the possible when it comes to mechanical movements. A perpetual calendar tells you the day, date and month for any year, and the higher grade ones also make allowances for leap years. This is usually paired not just with a moonphase, but also with a chronograph function. Now, such a watch is difficult to engineer, and especially do so to a high grade. 

The Patek 5327J, for example, uses the ultra-thin in-house automatic caliber 240Q, made up of 275 separate parts— including a micro-rotor to help keep the watch thin—that run the complications. I find this mind-blowing. I don’t know if the people who can afford this watch actually care for such bells and whistles, but it’s a heck of a feat of engineering. And you know how small the movement is? 27.5mm wide and 3.88mm high.

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The most complicated watch ever created wasn’t a wristwatch, but a pocket watch. This isn’t surprising because till about the time the Great Depression radically altered the watch business as we know it, it was the highly complicated pocket watches that set the standard for high horology. Following in this tradition, in 2015, Vacheron Constantin celebrated 260 years in the business to unveil the Ref. 57260, with 57 complications. It would take an entire column to list out each of the complications, but here are some of the more eye-popping ones. The Ref. 57260 features a double retrograde split seconds chronograph, a perpetual Hebraic calendar, a three-axis tourbillion, the date of the Judaic holy day of Yom Kippur, seven alarm functions, and can tell the seasons, equinoxes, solstices, and the signs of the Zodiac. It makes sense, then, that this pocketwatch measures 98mm across and is 50.55mm high and has over 2,800 parts. I cannot think of something as glorious and so brilliantly useless. 

Is there a complication that’s actually useful for daily use? I would say a chronograph is an excellent complication to have, and there too are different chronographs that serve different functions. There are the standard racing chronographs like the Rolex Daytona or the Omega Speedmaster, which were originally made to fulfil timing functions for auto racing. Then there are chronographs with a pulsometer scale which are made for doctors. Of course, you could wear a chronograph and not be either a racing enthusiast or a medical professional. I would wear one just because it’s so cool. The point is that many mechanical complications that we may find superfluous nowadays were created as tools for professionals. Just as smartwatches are these days. Looking at things that way, watches will probably always be complicated. 

Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.

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