WATCH COMPLICATIONS: Your Guide to Watch Complications

December 15, 2020 7 min read

WATCH COMPLICATIONS: Your Guide to Watch Complications - Swiss Watch Trader


A complication is any function of a watch in addition to simply telling the time. Complications can range from the very simple such as a date window as seen on the Rolex Submariner, to the chronograph as seen on the Rolex Daytona and the moonphase as seen on the Rolex Cellini. There are watch brands such as Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin that produce some of the most complicated watches including the Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260 with a total of 57 complications! Here is our guide of watch complications to help you when buying your next. 

Common watch complications include:

  • Date Complications
  • Chronograph Complications
  • Dual Time Zone (Travel Complications)
  • Tourbillon, Moonphase, and Perpetual Calendar



Watch Complications: Date

The simplest complication is the addition of a date display.

The four most common varieties of date displays are:

Date Window: The window is also referred to as an aperture. On some watches, such as the Rolex Datejust, the colour of the numbers alternates between red and black, which is often referred to as "Roulette" or “Casino” date display.

Big Date: This display allows a much larger view of the date and is significantly more legible than the traditional date window. The variation is seen on the TAG Heuer Grande Date Aquaracer which actually has two windows, the left one displaying 0-3, and the right window displaying 0-9.

Pointer Date:This complication can be seen on the Omega Speedmaster Mark 40 Triple Date. A pointer date uses a central hand with an arrow or crescent to point to the date along the outside or chapter, of the dial.

Subsidiary Dial: Displays the date on a small subdial and is most often used with other complications.


Other varieties of date displays include:

Day-Date: The Day-Date adds the day of the week to the date complication. It is typically set using the crown; moving it in one direction changes the day, while the other direction changes the date. It may also be set using a small indented button on the side of the case with a special tool called a stylus - this method is often used by Omega.

Triple Calendar: Also called a “complete calendar,” the triple calendar is a further elaboration of date display, adding not only the day of the week but also the month of the year.

Perpetual Calendar: The Perpetual Calendar is the most complex type of calendar feature that exists on a watch, making it very expensive and rare. It accurately displays the date, day, month, and year, and even takes into account the leap year.

Annual Calendar: An annual calendar is a movement of intermediary complication between a perpetual calendar and a triple calendar. It is not programmed to take leap years into account and will continue to run to the 31st in February before advancing to the first of March.

Equation of Time: An Equation of Time (EOT) perpetual calendar is the absolute pinnacle of calendar watches. It incorporates all the features of a standard perpetual calendar with one additional feature: the measurement, in minutes, of the difference between our “calendar time” and the actual “solar time.”



Watch Complication: Chronograph

A chronograph is a practical stopwatch function. Characteristics of this complication include two pushers on the case of the watch as well as two of three totalizers on the dial of the watch. The central seconds hand on a traditional watch is replaced here with a pointer that stops the seconds. The seconds display is located on one of the three totalizers on the dial of the watch. The other two totalizers show the measured time on a 30 minute and 12-hour scale. The field of motorsports and racing has raised the popularity of chronographs worldwide. Notable chronograph models include the Rolex Daytona, as well as the Tag Heuer Monaco, which was worn by the iconic Steve Mcqueen in the famous film “Le Mans”.

Monopoussoir (One Button Chronograph): Originally, all chronographs were “monopoussoirs.” The two-button chronograph was not introduced until 1923 by Breitling. The difference between a one and two button chronograph is that the one button model cannot measure interrupted time spans.

Flyback Chronograph: The Flyback chronograph is specially engineered so that when a second button is pushed while the chronograph is running, all the counters reset and immediately start again from zero. This feature was originally designed for pilots where split second accuracy is necessary for precise navigation.

Rattrapante (Split-seconds Chronograph): It’s easy to tell if a chronograph is a rattrapante; it will have three pushers on the case. It also has two second hands on the chronograph, one right on top of the other. IWC (International Watch Company) refer to this complication as a Double Chronograph and use it on their Portuguese and Pilots watches. Visit IWC for more details on the Double Chronograph.

Tachymeter: A Tachymeter is an instrument for measuring speed and is found on the Rolex Daytona. Typically, a scale is placed on the outer or inner bezel of a watch and is generally only found in conjunction with chronographs.



Watch Complication: GMT

Dual Time Zone complications help determine the time in another time zone.

Dual Movement: While not technically a complication, the dual movement is a watch that contains two separate movements, each running from their own power source and each set independently.

Dual Time: In dual time watches, both displays are powered by the same movement.

GMT (Greenwich Mean Time): The watch displays two or more time zones.

GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) with Independent Hour Hand: This variety of GMT is a further development of the original. What makes it different is that the regular hour hand is set independently of the 24 hour hand, which completely changes the functionality of the watch.

GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) with Fixed Hour Hand: Introduced by Rolex in the 1950's, this GMT complication is considered a pilot's watch. Its unique additional hour hand makes one revolution around the dial per day; pointing to twelve indicates midnight and pointing to six indicates noon.

World Time Zone: The World Time Zone feature has a rotating inner bezel with 24-hour display, part of the watch movement, and an outer bezel, listing the major cities in each of the 24 time zones. The outer bezel is set by the user. The inner bezel, marked to 24, makes one complete revolution per day.



Watch Complications: Moonphase

Moonphase Complication: Clocks with a moon phase complication have been around since the early 16th century. When it comes to luxury wristwatches, moon phase complications are usually found within classic timepieces. The moon phase complication on a luxury watch is displayed in a cultivated manner, providing a nice contrast with the rest of the watch face, which is usually simple and restrained. One of the most popular luxury models featuring a moon phase complication is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Moon. The timepiece showcases a date display exquisitely featured around the moon phase dial, and, as made evident by its name, measures a strikingly sleek 9.9. millimetres in height. 

Power Reserve Indicator: The Power Reserve Indicator measures the amount of power remaining in the watch by the tension of the mainspring and displays. Some watches have a power reserve of up to 10 days, in which the indicator displays days, not hours. This useful complication is found exclusively in mechanical watches.

Jump Hour: A complication in which the hour is displayed in an aperture that instantly changes every 60 minutes.

Alarm: An alarm function can be found on manual, automatic, and quartz movements. An alarm time can be set independently of the main time to remind the wearer of an event. On some models, the movement of the wrist will wind the alarm while on others it is necessary to manually wind it.

Minute Repeater: A Minute Repeater is a movement that chimes out time when a lever on the side of the case is activated. It was a fairly common complication for pocket watches around the 18th and 19th centuries and is now produced as a collectable, rather than a tool.

The Tourbillon: The Tourbillon was invented by Abraham-Louis Breguet in 1795 and served to counter the effects of gravity on pocket watch movements by placing the escapement and balance wheel into a rotating cage. Unlike pocket watches, however, wristwatches are subject to constant movement on the wrist, making the correctional displacement of gravity by a tourbillon mechanism unnecessary. Nevertheless, tourbillons in watchmaking are considered a luxury, as it requires extreme discipline in order to assemble one. Virtually all luxury watch manufacturers offer watches with a tourbillon complication. However, it is particularly charming to own a tourbillon complication that is developed in-house by the manufacturer. The Breguet Tourbillon Power Reserve, for example, is a masterpiece to behold on the wrist.

The Perpetual Calendar: Perpetual calendars are one of the most impressive and fascinating complications in the world of fine timepieces. The mechanism is usually comprised of a day, date, month, and moon phase display, all of which remain accurate for a period of 400 years. Watches with perpetual calendars take into account both shorter and longer months, as well as leap years. The complication has a particularly impressive tradition when it comes to the renowned watchmaker Patek Philippe. The Swiss manufacturer presented the perpetual calendar as early as 1941 – the reference 1518. Just in time for its 70th anniversary, Patek Philippe introduced the reference 5270, which is another successful and notable descendant of the original reference 1518.

The Grand Complication: The term “Grand Complication” is not perfectly defined. What is certain, however, is that only to most unique complications fall into this category. First and foremost, a Grand Complication is characterised by a number of highly sophisticated complications. The Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime is the most complicated watch in the world. Not to mention, there are only six of these specimens worldwide, available for 2.3 million EUR each. There are 20 complications featured in the watch in total. A little more affordable and almost as impressive, the Patek Philippe 5139G is a notable timepiece that falls into the Grand complication category, featuring a perpetual calendar, a 24-hour display, and a moon phase.



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