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A well-made watch is a combination of beauty and craftsmanship. Time, patience, and dedication are required to master the delicate skills of horology. Quality watches are high end goods that can take weeks, months or even years to finish. The more complex the timepiece, the longer the time required.
A timepiece showing only hours and minutes is known as a simple movement, with the movement being the actual time-telling mechanism. Any addition to a watch beyond this is known as a complication, with common complications in watches being day/date displays, kinetic winding mechanisms, lunar cycles, alarms and chronographs. Adding complications to a watch design increases the time required for the build, but also increases the individuality of the watch. A particularly complex watch with multiple tools added is known as “Grand Complication”
Curiously, there is no accepted standard definition of what makes a “Grand Complication”. In fact, in 2013, a selection of watch experts set out to attempt a definition during a panel discussion. Despite two of them claiming that a standard definition did indeed exist, they failed. A common and widely accepted definition however is any watch with a simple movement completed by three or more horological complexities. It should be noted that a watch with multiple non-horological complexities – anything not related to the metering of time, such as a thermometer – but only a simple movement will not be considered a grand complication.
The beginning of the watch category now known as “Grand Complication” is in 1770, when watchmaker Jean-Antoine Lepine created a watch with a minute repeater and a perpetual calendar for the French king Louis XV. This led others to follow suit, and in 1783 renowned horologist Abraham-Louis Breguet, founder of the watchmakers of the same name, was commissioned to create what is now an infamous watch in horology, the “Marie-Antoinette”.
Unfortunately the eponymous owner-to-be never received the watch before its completion as she was beheaded during the French Revolution. The completed watch was self-winding and provided a perpetual calendar, equation of time, thermometer, minute repeater, independent second hand and power reserve indicator. This watch is in general considered to be the first true “Grand Complication” watch, setting the bar exceptionally high for those who followed.
Any watch falling under the category of a “Grand Complication” is going to come with price tag as astounding as the craftsmanship. Grand complications require an exquisite attention to detail during the design and manufacturing of a watch. This attention to detail takes a great amount of time and -more importantly with regards to cost – skill. Such complexity also requires regular watch servicing when the timepieces are not in use to maintain their high degree of accuracy. Some examples of high end grand complications are as follows:
Based out of Le Sentier, Switzerland, the luxury watch maker Jaeger LeCoultre was founded in 1833 by Antoine LeCoultre. This particular timepiece was once branded the worlds most complicated. Equipped with a Calibre 182 movement with 26 complications, 1,300 parts, and a 44mm 18 carat white gold casing, this elegant luxury watch also comes with a price-tag of around £2 million.
Continuing with the theme of “most complex ever”, the Sky Moon Tourbillon is the most complex watch ever designed by Patek Phillippe and also the watchmakers’ first dual-faced wristwatch. On the front face: a perpetual calendar with a retrograde date hand. On the back: a sky chart, sidereal time, and phase and orbit of the moon. The total parts in the Sky Moon come in at a mere 686, costing a paltry £4.3 million.
It would be unfair to mention the Marie-Antoinette as the birth of the grand complications without having an analysis of its detail and cost. The commission came from an anonymous and alleged lover of the French queen. Work began in 1782 by Abraham-Louis Breguet and was finished 45 years later in 1827 by his son, Antoine-Louis, 4 years after Abraham had passed away. The timepiece is notable for – amongst other things – Breguet’s use of sapphire to lower friction within the piece, one of (if not the) first examples of such a practice. As of 2014, the watch was valued at £23.1 million.
The final time piece on this list is the Reference 57260 luxury pocket watch, designed by Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin. Claiming the title of the most complicated mechanical watch ever, the watch boasts an incredible 57 complications; for reference, the previous title holder had 33. The 57260 contains over 2,800 components, each one hand-crafted by one Master Watchmaker using traditional horological techniques. It’s clear that the Vacheron Constantin motto “Faire mieux si possible ce qui est toujours possible” (“Do better if possible and that is always possible”) was crucial in the design process.
Made of white gold, no official price is available for the Reference 57260, but it is estimated to be worth around £3.85 million.
The contest of craftsmanship between watchmakers will no doubt continue on indefinitely and it is heartening to see such fine art produced purely for the sake of art and pride. The day society loses the “Grand Complication” will be a very sad day indeed.