Understood typically as a “Function” in a watch, complications are features which have been around for centuries and give a watch its arguable utility.
To understand the meaning of a complication, we first need to understand the circumstances under which watch complications were being designed. In the early 1500’s when the tools of time measurement were scarce and timekeeping was moving towards a rather personal format, the next big innovation for watch makers was to assemble functions that improved the aesthetic of the watch along with the usability factor. With the advent of pocket watches, modern complication were being invented that boosted the overall industry substantially. The early complications were limited to the minutes hand and post the 1700’s some grand complications were introduced which included the seconds hand. We need to understand that these complications were being invented in times when modern technology was almost non-existent. Hence, for a watch to have precision unto seconds was also a big accomplishment. From here on, with improved engineering methods new and advanced complications started getting invented.
A modern day complication refers to any feature in a timekeeper beyond the usual time telling like hours, minutes and seconds. A simple complication is an added feature like a day or date display on the dial. A chronograph is also a simple feature but not sufficient enough to be categorised as a complication. The more the complications on the watch, the more intricate the designing is. A typical date display chronograph has up to 250 parts while a complex watch with multiple complications has more than 1000 parts. The whole idea is to make a single watch booming with fine functions, e.g., astronomical calculations, five minute repeater, minutes repeater, etc. Brands like Breguet, Patek Philippe, Jaquet Droz have been pioneers in the fields of watch complications. These watch brands patent their complications and usually produce limited numbers in a particular field.
Certain automatic winding mechanisms or devices for cancelling out rate disparities in vertical positions, such as the tourbillon and the carrousel, are also included as complications, even though they don’t display an indication. The most essential of complications seen in watches these days are alarm, minute repeater, annual calendar, split second flyback chronograph, double timezone, moon phase, perpetual calendar, power reserve etc.
The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4 is the world’s most complicated wristwatch. It has 36 complications, 25 of them visible, 1483 components and a 1000-year calendar.
The more the functions in a timekeeper, the more complications involved. The intricate detailing is usually maintained through high expertise in watch making. Each specific part of the timekeeper can involve a unique function that adds on to the complication.
Certain complications are added for the visual effect rather that its usefulness. Some example of these complications are:
A foudroyante, also called a jumping seconds hand which moves very quickly on a watch dial. Depending on the speed of the movement, the foudroyante hand makes a few very brief stops as it makes a full revolution each second.
In a Planetarium complication, some of the planets in the solar system are tracked and revolve around the sun on the dial. Planetarium watches originated from larger planetarium displays that existed as standalone machines or on clocks.
There is a lot of debate whether a tourbillion is actually a useful complication or not. It was designed to null the effects of gravity on timekeeping. The tourbillon style escapement assembly creates a cage which spins the balance wheel and associated parts around on their own axis (usually once each 60 seconds) thus balancing the entire watch axis and keeping the accuracy intact. A beautiful complication to look at, there is still no evidence that the tourbillon has any positive effect on mechanical movement accuracy.