Why grand complication watches are the pinnacle of horology. By Elisabeth King.
Where love, business and health are concerned, it’s best to steer clear of complications. But grand complication watches have long been the Holy Grail of horology. Stacy Perman’s engrossing book – A Grand Complication: The Race To Build the World’s Most Legendary Watch – details the gripping tale of the greatest battle in watch-collecting one-upmanship.
Money was no object for early 20th Century American tycoons, James Ward Packer of auto-making fame and banking mogul, Henry Graves Jr. Both men commissioned Patek Philippe to produce “the most complicated watch”. Graves emerged the victor – then and now. With 24 complications, the Graves Supercomplication, completed in 1932, remains the most complicated watch made entirely by hand. In 2014, the so-called Mona Lisa of watches was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for a record-breaking US$24 million.
The history of grand complication watches dates back to 1770, when legendary French watchmaker, Jean-Antoine Lepine, created a luxury pocket watch for King Louis XV featuring a minute repeater and perpetual calendar. But the most famous early model was the Perpetuelle Grandes Complications, made for Marie-Antoinette by Abraham-Louis Breguet. Unfortunately, the tragic queen lost her head before she could take delivery of the masterpiece, but it boasted a perpetual calendar, minute repeater and an independent second hand – a forerunner of the chronograph.
A complication is, of course, any watch feature beyond a display of hours and minutes. There is no official definition of a grand complication watch and the topic is as contentious an issue as building one. The most common rule is that a grand complication timepiece should contain at least three of horology’s most complex achievements – an astronomical complication (a calendar, for example); a striking complication such as a repeater or sonnerie; and a timing complication, usually a chronograph of some sort. Two of the biggest names in grand complication watches – Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin – disagree and both have made watches that fit the category without chronographs.
Watch-collecting by Russian oligarchs, Arab sheiks and Chinese millionaires isn’t the only reason there has been an upsurge in the number of grand complication watches over the past 20 years. In the 1990s, the adoption of computer-assisted design and numerical control machining revolutionised the watchmaking industry. It’s still a tough challenge to fit several complications into the small space of a watch case, but this key shift not only broadened the scope of grand complication watches, it also accelerated innovation.
Pushing Beyond The Boundaries
According to Osvaldo Patrizzi, founder of Antiquorum, the international auction house for modern and vintage timepieces, the more complications you want, the more problems you have. Although clickbait headlines such as – “the watch that needs its own bodyguard” – focus solely on price, grand complications are more about skill and indicating where a brand’s future lies.
When A. Lange & Sohne debuted its first Grand Complication three years ago, it was to make a clear point. There is no tradition of striking watches in Germany and the company had to build the striking mechanisms from the ground up. The watch wasn’t about the number of complications, either, but featured five (some rare) which had never been brought together before. The most expensive watch ever made in Germany at US$2.5 million, only six were made and three were sold before its official launch.
Blancpain’s 1735 Grande Complication debuted in 1991. With a tourbillon and a moon phase, it was a landmark launch because it was developed in the early days of computer-assisted watchmaking techniques. For over a decade, it reigned in a class of its own.
Patek Philippe launched the Sky Moon Tourbillon 6002, with 12 complications, as an “application piece”. Displaying a sky chart on the back of the watch which shows the evening sky wherever the wearer is in the world, it took seven years to develop and the engraving took 100 hours. Priced at US$1.3 million, one of its main purposes was to show Patek Philippe’s century-long leadership in grand complication watches.
Patek Philippe lays claim to making the three most complicated timepieces ever made – all pocket watches – the Patek Philippe Calibre 89 (32 complications), the Graves Supercomplication and the Star Calibre 2000 (21 complications). Vacheron Constantin went one better in 2015 with the Reference 57260 to grab the title of undisputed king of mechanical watches, featuring a massive 57 complications, 242 jewels and weighing 957 grams.
The Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, launched in 2010, is the world’s most complicated wristwatch – with 36 complications (25 visible) and a 1,000 year calendar. Two years ago, Jaeger LeCoultre, another master of the art, trumped its rivals by announcing “a new era in the world of grand complications” with the Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon – at 7.9mm, the world’s thinnest watch combining automatic winding, a tourbillon and a minute repeater. Other major brands with grand complications in the stable include Audemars Piguet, Cartier and IWC.