Complications Turn Perpetual
New York Times, March 17, 2010
To impress connoisseurs, it is not enough for a mechanical watch to keep time. It needs to have features that go far beyond that: Can it indicate the date? Display a second time zone? Account for leap years?
The degree to which a watch can perform one or all of these functions — and dozens more — determines its complexity or, in watch-speak, its mix of complications.
Collectors have long been crazy for complications. Of late, however, their tastes have been changing.
One feature in particular, the tourbillon, was all the rage during the economic boom years. A tourbillon is a rotational device that improves accuracy by counteracting the effects of gravity on the gears of a mechanical watch. That is particularly relevant to pocket watches, which tend to be carried upright, but less so for wristwatches which constantly change position, and recently its popularity has taken a hit.
French for “whirlwind,” the tourbillon was patented by the French watchmaker Abraham-Louis Bréguet in 1801. Until the turn of the new millennium, it belonged to the esoteric world of high watchmaking, with exorbitant prices to match.
As the fashion for mechanical watch collecting blossomed in the past decade, manufacturers in both the mass and prestige sectors seized upon the device, often made visible through a cutout in the dial, as a means to show off their technical capabilities. High-precision computerized machine tools superceded manual dexterity. Chanel introduced its J12 Tourbillon in 2005, demoting the feature from a symbol of elitism to a luxury brand statement. Today, it is possible to find a Chinese-made tourbillon watch for less than $1,000.
“I would assume that quite a big part of clients who bought one had a limited understanding of how it worked,” said Marc A. Hayek, chief executive of Blancpain. “The attraction was that it was beautiful to look at; and on the other side, it’s showy.”
A postrecession emphasis on sobriety may help to explain why many brands, in choosing complications to spotlight this year, have turned from the tourbillon to one of watchmaking’s more practical and classical obsessions: calendar functions. These can be as simple as a date indication or as complex as the perpetual calendar, which adjusts automatically to account for different lengths of the month — 30 or 31 days — and leap years.
Programmed to remain accurate until the year 2100, perpetual calendars were all over the watch shows in Geneva in January, as were other calendar functions, including annual calendars, which adjust automatically for short and long months, and astronomical calendars, which come decorated with symbols to indicate the phases of the moon, sunrise and sunset.
One explanation for the rise in popularity of the perpetual calendar is that it seems particularly suited to this postrecession, prerecovery moment, when time seems somehow to have slowed.
“It’s almost an austere complication,” said Thomas Mao, a management consultant based in Los Angeles and founder of ThePuristS.com, a Web site for watch fans. “Tourbillons are in your face. But with a perpetual calendar, what are you going to do? Stare at it for four years? That’s like waiting for the grass to turn brown.”
Which is not to say that Mr. Mao has not tried.
“We actually have a party once every four years on the 29th of February,” he said, referring to the quadrennial leap year celebrations sponsored by ThePuristS.com. “The last one I attended was in Hong Kong in 2008. There were 16 people there with 30 perpetual calendars staring to see if they jumped instantaneously at midnight, or over the course of four hours, or not at all.”
Mr. Mao’s merry band of collectors would have approved of the selection at the Geneva Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in January. Among the noteworthy introductions were several grand complications, costly timepieces featuring medleys of functions, including, in most cases, perpetual calendars.