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Introduction to Complications of Mechanical Watches

The complex features of mechanical watches showcase the pinnacle of watchmaking craftsmanship, requiring a high level of expertise in mechanical engineering. Each watch with complex functions requires the dedicated work of master watchmakers over months and years.

Photo Credit: Vacheron Constantin

The entire process, from assembling over 500 components of the movement to adjusting and finishing all the functions, takes more than 5 to 8 months, emphasizing the skills and patience of the artisans. Among them, watches with the three major complications in the watch industry, including the tourbillon, perpetual calendar, and minute repeater, have even higher prestige, with prices reaching six or more figures. Today, the complex functions of mechanical watches not only fulfill daily life needs but also serve as a symbol of top-tier mechanical craftsmanship.

1. Perpetual Calendar

Photo Credit: Audemars Piguet

The perpetual calendar is a common complication in mechanical watches that can distinguish different month lengths, including leap years, accurately displaying the date. The perpetual calendar typically consists of date, month, and day-of-the-week hands or discs with corresponding scales or digital windows. It can automatically recognize the number of days in each month and adjust to the correct date of the next month at the end of the month. The perpetual calendar function is integrated into the movement of the watch. The movement is equipped with complex gear systems and mechanical modules to ensure the accurate operation of the date, month, and day-of-the-week indicators, which can be operated and adjusted through the crown or buttons.

2. Minute Repeater

Photo Credit: A. Lange & Söhne

The minute repeater is usually operated through the crown or buttons. When a specific button is pressed, the mechanical mechanism inside the movement is activated, and it strikes the screws or gongs inside the watch in a specific manner, producing different sound signals to report the time. The striking mechanism usually represents different time units with three different combinations of sounds. The first sound is typically a low tone, representing hours; the second sound is a medium tone, representing ten-minute intervals; and the third sound is a high tone, representing minutes. The minute repeater typically consists of hundreds of small components and requires precise assembly and adjustment.

3. Tourbillon

Photo Credit: F.P. Journe

The tourbillon is an extremely complex and precise feature in mechanical watches, primarily used to counteract the influence of gravity and improve the watch's accuracy. To compensate for the interference of gravity on the mechanical movement, the tourbillon carriage usually completes one full rotation at a constant rate per minute or hour, continuously rotating to reduce the impact of gravity on the watch's timekeeping.

4. Chronograph

Photo Credit: Rolex

The chronograph allows users to precisely measure and time events on the watch dial. The chronograph typically consists of three sub-dials, displaying seconds, minutes, and hours. These sub-dials can be driven by an independent timing mechanism and used to measure and display elapsed time. Additionally, the chronograph features start and stop buttons that allow users to initiate or halt the timing function.

5. Power Reserve Indicator

Photo Credit: Patek Philippe

The power reserve indicator provides information about the energy storage status of the watch movement. Mechanical watches typically use a mainspring to power the movement, which stores the energy required for the watch to operate. When the movement is fully wound, the mainspring stores enough energy to power the movement for a certain period, known as the power reserve. The power reserve is usually displayed on the dial using a small sub-dial, hand, or other indicators. It can be a simple scale indicating the percentage of remaining power or a sub-dial displaying the remaining time of power reserve. By monitoring the power reserve, wearers can ensure the watch is always in normal operating condition by winding it in a timely manner.

6. Moon Phase / Dual Moon Phase

Photo Credit: Omega

The moon phase function displays the different phases of the moon in the sky. The moon phase display typically consists of two small discs that represent the moon's two opposite states: the full moon and the new moon. One of the small discs features a moon pattern, while the other small disc serves as a fixed background. These two discs rotate over time to simulate the moon's changes. As the movement operates, the moon phase gears are driven by other gears, causing them to rotate slowly. This rotation speed is usually precisely calculated based on the moon's actual orbital cycle. As the moon phase gears rotate, they push the moon phase indicator (moon pattern) to move, thereby displaying different moon phase states.

7. Dual Time Zone

Photo Credit: Tudor

The dual time zone function allows for the simultaneous display of two different time zones. It is achieved through the coordination of an outer ring, sub-dials, and an independent hand to display the time in the secondary time zone. If the second time zone needs to be known, the 24-hour scale on the bezel and the fourth hand on the central axis can be used to obtain the relevant information. Some advanced watch designs can even display the time of a third time zone, utilizing a bidirectional rotating bezel to derive the third location's time along with the fourth hand.

8. World Time

Photo Credit: Vacheron Constantin

The world time function can simultaneously display the time in multiple different regions around the world. It represents different time zones through the names and abbreviations of major cities on the dial. These city markers are usually located on the outer or inner ring of the dial, with each city corresponding to a specific time zone. Additionally, the dial is equipped with a 24-hour scale, combined with an additional hand, to display the local time in a 24-hour format. By adjusting the position of the hand, wearers can quickly set and read the time in different time zones.

9. Alarm Watch

Photo Credit: Jaeger-LeCoultre

An alarm watch can be set to emit a loud alarm sound, reminding the wearer of a specific time. Alarm watches typically have an additional rotating or push-type setting crown used to set the alarm time. This setting crown is usually located on the side or bottom of the watch case. By rotating or pressing the setting crown, the wearer can adjust the alarm time to the desired point. When the alarm time is reached, the alarm watch triggers the alarm mechanism, emitting a loud sound or vibration. The alarm sound is usually generated through a small bell or vibrating membrane and conveyed to the watch case and the wearer's wrist.


Despite the dominance of quartz watches and smartwatches in modern times, the splendor of complex features in mechanical watches cannot be overshadowed. The intricate craftsmanship of Swiss and French mechanical watches was even recognized as intangible cultural heritage in 2019, showcasing the watchmaker's unique artistry, skill, and the perfect balance between craftsmanship, aesthetics, and innovation.

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