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It’s complicated

Complications – anything on a watch other than the time – have become ever more...complicated. This season’s offerings take the art of intricacy to new heights.
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It’s generally agreed that the masters of complications are Vacheron Constantin. The bespoke maison specialises in audacious complexity, notably the famed 57260 which managed to pack 57 complications into a timepiece that weighed just short of a kilogramme. It has 2 826 parts, 31 hands, took eight years to make and, should it be put up for sale, would fetch in the region of R180m. It was by way a celebration – a milestone to mark the 260th birthday of the watchmaker. It inspired the only slightly less elaborate Les Cabinotiers Armillary Tourbillon of 2021, today a sort-after collector’s item.

Vacheron Constantin isn’t the only maison to venture where angels fear to tread. Complications, grand and otherwise, have long been a way of showcasing expertise and creativity. From early on, as timepieces moved from pockets to wrists, makers such as Patek Philippe and Breguet introduced calendars and dates, then moon phases, chronographs and dual zone complications. As the centuries progressed the challenges increased – perpetual calendars, rattrapante (recording two separate measurements), tourbillion to counter gravity, depth gauges, jump hours and mechanical arms add interest and intrigue.

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Omega’s latest Speedmaster | Patek Philippe’s Quadruple Complication

Contemporary horology now has the benefit of technology, and while most ultra-luxury watches are still handmade, advances in materials mean thinness and reliability are ever improved. Patek Philippe, who showed their most recent Quadruple Complication in Tokyo this June, is a case in point. The elegant timepiece represents the sharp end of a very long and distinguished complications history for the maison. It features a minute repeater, split-seconds chronograph and instantaneous perpetual calendar with windows, all exquisitely bound in sapphire crystal and rose gold. It’s also masterfully thin, belying the complexity within.

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Tudor’s latest Pelagos FXD Chronograph

By far the most common complication is the chronograph, or stopwatch, almost a standard feature on adventure watches. Tudor’s latest Pelagos FXD Chronograph pays homage to the partnership between Tudor and the Alinghi Red Bull Racing yacht team. Legibility is everything in a high stress environment and the matt blue face ensures no reflection. Tudor’s trademark luminous square hour markers and snowflake hands help too. The chronograph itself registers seconds, minutes and hours. Taking a leaf out of the Arnaud Psarofaghis-skippered yacht, the timepiece features a blend of carbon composite, titanium, and stainless steel.

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Panerai’s current Luminor taking its name from the Luna Rossa sailing team | Cartier’s Ballon Bleu
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Grand Seiko’s Tentagraph | Breitling’s Superocean Heritage Chronograph 44 Limited Edition

Not to be outdone on the high seas, Panerai, sponsors of the Luna Rossa team in the 37th edition of the America Cup in 2024, has revealed their latest Luminor chronograph. Of the four watches in the special collection the chronograph is the stand-out; its case is made of Carbotech, a carbon fibre composite also used for the hull of Luna Rossa’s AC40. The handsome piece features minutes, chronograph, small seconds and hours. Tag Heuer are in the America Cup fray as well – their latest Carrera Skipper celebrates the colours of the Intrepid, the original yacht which inspired the original Skipper in the 1960s. Its complications are interesting too: the three-colour regatta countdown indicator includes vivid orange to alert crew on the five minutes remaining before departure; green to recall the boat’s rigging and; light teal to echo the colour of the Intrepid’s deck.
Breitling too take to the water with the SuperOcean Heritage Chronograph 44 Limited Edition. Leon Breitling’s sports centric company is a champion of complications, notably chronography; he ostensibly invented the modern day speedometer, and the company was the first to patent the modern chronograph. Breitling’s Superocean Heritage 44 Chronograph has echoes of the past – the original 50s piece – but is bang up to date; iconic triangular-shaped hands, unidirectional bezel but also that very 2023 red gold case.

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Rolex Sky-Dweller | IWC Portugieser

As Tudor and Panerai celebrate their association with the high seas, so Omega and Rolex accent their stellar relationship with the night sky, Omega, quite literally, highlighting their 54-year relationship with the moon landing. The maison was there, on the wrists of Apollo 11 astronauts, back in 1969. The 21 July anniversary is marked every year with a celebratory update of the iconic Moonwatch, and this year the design draws from the original Speedmaster; hesalite glass, asymmetrical 42 mm case and now, domed minute and seconds chronograph hands. Importantly the watch now has a Master Chronometer certification, no mean feat, improving the power reserve, chronometric performance and magnetic resistance. Rolex’s popular new Sky-Dweller, updated for 2023, shows two time zones simultaneously and now has an annual calendar. It’s also had an ‘operating system’ update – calibre 9002 enables the Sky-Dweller to now display the date and the month, as well as an additional time zone in 24-hour format, and the hours, minutes and seconds. It’s also now available in Rolesor, Rolex’s patented combination of gold and oystersteel, and comes with the maison’s distinguished mint green face.

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Bulgari’s limited- edition Aluminium Capri Edition | Zenith’s new Defy Skyline Skeleton Boutique Edition

Complications needn’t be intricate, or necessarily be related to the world of sports – some of the simplest are the most striking. Cartier’s evergreen Ballon Bleu, shown again recently with the trademark sapphire cabochon crown protected by the integrated crown guard, is both simple and unusual. So too is Bulgari’s beautiful Aluminium Capri Edition, limited to 1000 pieces, a tribute to the company’s Mediterranean roots. Grand Seiko’s Tentagraph meanwhile is its first mechanical chronograph and carries the company’s ‘simple is best’ ethos while offering improved functionality; a running seconds sub-dial at the three o’clock position, a 30-minute chronograph counter at nine, and a 12-hour chronograph counter at six. For elegance, IWC’s Portugieser is unbeatable. The simplest of faces, barely recessed chronographs dials, and a thin bezel make it distinctive, easily worn as a dress watch. Zenith’s new Defy Skyline Skeleton Boutique Edition is almost the polar opposite, a proudly elaborate piece in a new chromatic palette of grey and silver with golden highlights. The complication, a 1/10th of a second counter at 6 o’clock, stands out proudly, a real talking point.

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Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Reverso Tribute Chronograph | Tag Heuer’s Carrera Skipper

Complications remain the added value of the ultra-luxury watch world but represent far more than just one-upmanship. They point to a brand’s core identity, reach back to a sporting heritage and underline a commitment to technical innovation. Whether this year’s lunar calendar or next year’s self-aware watch – it all adds up to the cutting edge of mechanical genius. And that’s something to be celebrated in our ever more electronic world.

by Peter Frost

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