Top 10 calendar watches

The complicated business of tracking time from seconds to leap years

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05 March 2013

Building mechanical watches that can keep track of seconds, minutes and hours is no mean feat. Adding dates, day of the week, months, years and moon phases becomes very complex, one of the classic horological complications. The tiny mechanisms inside a watch case that keep track of longer units of time mirror the motions of the earth, its moon and the planets. Watchmakers are often philosophers at heart, and the 18th and 19th-century pioneers realized that the leisurely progression of the wheels inside their watches were an accurate portrait of the heavenly bodies as they travelled around the sun. The watch becomes a microcosm of the cosmos. (Below, the Jaeger-LeCoultre 1928 Grand Complication pocket watch).

This is reflected by some watchmaking terminology. 'Tourbillon' is usually translated as 'whirlwind,' but in actual fact, Abraham-Louis Breguet chose the word for his invention because it had been used by Descartes to describe planetary motion. An automatic perpetual calendar watch is the perfect expression of the horological dream: building a machine that keeps track of astronomical time, without adjustment, never running down.

The complication of a perpetual calendar watch is due to the occasional adjustments that have to be made to keep calendar time in harmony with astronomical time. A watch that keeps track of leap years has one wheel that performs just one revolution in four years. Another correction has to be made every century. Just how perpetual the watch's calendar is, determines its complexity and prestige.

Montblanc Star Quantième Complet

Montblanc has taken a radical new approach to fine watchmaking in its Star collection, classic watches accessible to a younger segment of the market. The company's CEO Lutz Bethge told us in an interview at SIHH 2013, "We believe that there are a lot of people out there who would like to have a watch with a small complication. The Star Quantième Complet includes date, day, month, and moon phase, and in the steel version, you can get all that for 3,850 euro." It is a beautiful object, with day and month in windows above the centre, date shown by a fourth hand indicating numbers just inside the bezel, and a seconds hand with a small counterweight in the shape of the Montblanc logo. Classical and elegant, it has an alligator strap and a sapphire caseback.

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grand Tradition Tourbillon Cylindrique à Quantième Perpétuel Jubilee

As part of their 180th anniversary celebrations, Jaeger-LeCoultre presented the Master Grand Tradition Tourbillon Cylindrique à Quantième Perpétuel Jubilee. This limited edition – 180 pieces, of course – combines a beautiful tourbillon with a cylindrical balance spring, together with a perpetual calendar, that keeps track of the leap years so that it will only need adjusting in 2100. Stéphane Belmont, Marketing & Technical Director, explained, "Leap years ensure that we don't end up celebrating Christmas at 40 degrees! But another small adjustment is needed every 100 years – once a century, the leap year is missed out. We considered adding the additional mechanism that would enable the watch to make this correction every century, but we decided that the extra thickness involved in adding a wheel that turned once every 100 years was not justified. So you have to make that adjustment every century!" Visually, the watch is a dazzling tribute to the different dimensions of time: the flying tourbillon, which seems to be suspended in mid-air, marks off infinitesimal moments, while the beautifully-balanced dial keeps track of days, date, months and years with Jaeger-LeCoultre's legendary clarity.

IWC Ingenieur Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month

IWC is also celebrating this year, but in this case, it's a cooperation with Formula One racing team Mercedes AMG Petronas. The Ingenieur Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month has absorbed materials and features from racing cars, with a case made in titanium aluminide, and pushers in zirconium oxide, both Formula One materials. The dial design evokes a racecar cockpit, and the rotor visible through the sapphire caseback resembles the spokes on an alloy wheel. The movement is superbly engineered, with an innovation that recalls the KERS system: the display discs for the perpetual calendar absorb some energy – particularly at the end of the year when five of them advance together – and the watch stores a tiny amount of energy every night so that it can be used at those crucial moments. Like the Jaeger-LeCoultre model, this watch indicates leap years, so that adjustment will be needed only on 1 March 2100.

Breguet Classique 5447 Grande Complication

Breguet succeeds in giving a timeless, classical aesthetic to even its most complex watches, and the Classique 5447 Grande Complication is a perfect example. It's the sort of timepiece that you're going to want to watch at the end of a year (instead of those boring fireworks or kissing the wife), when the retrograde month indicator at the 10.30 position leaps from December back down to January, while the year indicator just below makes a quarter turn, as does the day indicator opposite, and the date at the bottom. Everything is superbly legible, through the exquisite design, and the Clous de Paris guilloché on the dial that absorbs light rather than reflecting it. This piece also has a minute repeater, originally designed to be able to tell the time in the dark, and now a tour-de-force of haute horlogerie. Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the gong strip in 1783, and today, this watch incorporates centuries of research into acoustics so that the sound is clear and pleasant.

Audemars Piguet Grand Complication Royal Oak Offshore

At SIHH 2013, Audemars Piguet showcased their Grand Complication Royal Oak Offshore, in which the perpetual calendar is combined with 2 other complications, the chronograph split second, and the minute repeater. With 648 parts, each watch is assembled by a single artisan, who dedicates over 820 hours to the task. The fascination of the Calibre 2885 movement is enhanced by the openworked components that enable you to glimpse deep inside the watch, with even the tiniest parts superbly finished and bevelled. The perpetual calendar is arranged within the classic sport-oriented Royal Oak design with its octagonal bezel and visible screws, creating a very masculine, distinctive watch, waterproof to 20 metres, and with excellent acoustics for the minute repeater. Not for everybody: in two versions, one with a pink gold case, one in titanium, just three of each will be made.

Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph Perpetual Calendar

Vacheron Constantin have also given their latest perpetual calendar watch a sports feel, in the Overseas collection. The Overseas Chronograph Perpetual Calendar is at once sumptuous, in its pink gold case, and tough, with 150 metres water-resistance, magnetic field protection, and powerful design. Technically it is a jewel, with its Caliber 1136 QP powering the chronograph and calendar functions. The display is amazingly simple, with subdials combining different parameters – for example, the subdial at 9 o'clock shows both the chronograph hours and the days of the week. In addition to this technical artistry, the watch includes an evocative scene of the tall ship Amerigo Vespucci, sculpted on the caseback.

A. Lange & Söhne 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar

At SIHH 2013, A. Lange & Söhne presented the remarkable Grand Complication, with grande sonnerie, perpetual calendar, and a rattrapante chronograph, a limited edition of six watches. The Glashütte manufacture also presented the 1815 Rattrapante Perpetual Calendar, in which the large amount of data available to the user is presented with superb clarity. The design is in part a reference to the brand's long pocket watch tradition: Ferdinand A. Lange was born in 1815. Of the 631 components in the new Calibre L101.1, 200 are used for the perpetual calendar, which keeps track of leap years, with adjustment needed just in 2100, and then in 2200. Leave instruction to your great-great-grandchildren in your will.

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