A highlight of the British comedy show The Two Ronnies was Ronnie Corbett’s much loved, meandering, monologues. This was back in the early 1980s, and one such monologue, as it turned out, captured the zeitgeist for the watch industry. Its joke, here paraphrased, goes something like this...
A man is dashing through the airport late for his plane and stops another man to ask the time. This second man puts down his two heavy suitcases, mops his brow and pulls back his sleeve. “Well,” he says, “the temperature in New Orleans right now is 82 degrees, England has just taken another wicket, my heart rate is up at 105 bpm - what with these cases - and I see my pizza is on its way. Oh, and the time is 10:52.”
The first man is stunned. “What an amazing watch,” he exclaims. “It just does so much. I must have it.” What follows is extensive haggling, with the first man offering ever more ludicrous sums, until the man with his function-packed watch gives in and hands it over. “I’m just so excited to have this incredible timepiece,” says the first man, putting it on. “I’ll never be late for anything again.” He starts to walk away to catch his flight. “Hang on!” the second man calls him, gesticulating with the two suitcases he’s struggling to lift up again. “Don’t you want the batteries?”
A parking meter timer is not the first thing in anyone’s mind when you think of complications.
That’s not just funny. For anyone in the watch industry at the time, it would have been prophetic too. Here was a watch that did more than just tell the time, as mechanical watches largely did. Here was the future: a watch of utility beyond that single task. But the situation then - as the so-called "Quartz Crisis" threatened to sweep mechanical watchmaking from the realm of functionality into oblivion - wasn’t entirely clear-cut. Up until that point, many watchmakers had indeed attempted to push mechanics to provide complications of genuine benefit to the wearer, beyond the commonplace complications of a date window or the limited real world utility of the chronograph.
Today, it might be argued, mechanical complications are, in essence, about finessing the accuracy of the time display - be that a tourbillon, a perpetual calendar, equation of time or a moon-phase. Or they can be about increasing the provision of information about that mechanical movement’s efficiency, as with a power-reserve indicator. They’re traditional complications that primarily express the mechanism and the watchmaker’s skill. But pre-Quartz, pre-Corbett, there was a proliferation of mechanical complications, many translated from pocket watches, that - however niche they may have been even then - attempted to make a watch’s micro-mechanics do more, and do more for the watch wearer. Here are the most unusual complications, now largely lost to time.
The first mechanical watch to house an aneroid barometer, the Favre-Leuba Bivouac, courtesy of Hodinkee.
Take, for example, Favre-Leuba’s Bivouac, introduced in 1962. It was the first mechanical watch with an aneroid barometer for altimetry and air pressure measurement. Now, that may be no more useful to your typical 21st century paper-shuffler than a chronograph perhaps, but all the same it was an attempt to make a mechanical watch do more than measure passing time. It worked for Paul-Emile Victor, who wore the piece on his Antarctica expedition, while climbers Walter Bonatto and Michel Vaucher wore their Bivouacs to summit the Grandes Jorasses in the Alps, to be better warned of impending storms.
There's also the Thermometer watch from French maker LIP. Using a small and simple bi-metallic spring that expands and stretches according to temperature changes, it can accurately record the outside temperature. Or, at least, it can if you take it off. Leave it on and your body heat wildly distorts the measurement. This is why the idea, not a new one, worked best in a pocket-watch, such as the one Abraham-Louis Breguet created for Marie Antoinette.
The curiously useful Gruen Airflight, courtesy of Worth Point.
Of course, a useful complication need not only suit adventurers. There can be much more down to earth complications, which can be used on a day-to-day basis. During the 1960s, Gruen introduced the Airflight with a jumping dial. Its function was simple and intuitive. During the day, its Arabic numerals ran from 1 to 12, just as you would expect. However, at the stroke of mid-day, they switched over to display 13 to 24.
Or there was Vulcain and its MinStop, a flyback stopwatch powered by a Durowe movement, which facilitated accurate recording of the elapsed time on your parking meter, and with a parking meter-style dial to match. Vulcain, one of the pioneers of the mechanical alarm watch, was far from being alone in this idea either - Leca, Indus, Mervos, Buren, Perrier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Paul Garnier and LIP again were among the many, mostly now defunct makers, that also produced a parking meter watch at the time. Indeed, it was arguably the very proliferation of watchmakers prior to the Quartz Crisis that allowed such experimentation. However, times would change.
“The fact is that the number of watchmakers actually making movements now, compared with the pre-1970s era, is that much smaller. Independent makers that might be more inclined to experiment or produce a complication with a practical function are not making movements in any meaningful sense,” argues Michael Benavente, CEO of Bulova, a brand that is used to experimentation. “Even if they did, these kinds of quirky movements, made in small production runs, are next to impossible for smaller makers to do and for the makers to survive. The truth is that nobody needs a watch at all now, so it’s hard for a maker of any size to position a watch in the market on the basis of its utility.”
One that will tell you the temperature and the other will switch from 12 to 24 hour, courtesy of Rarebirds.
French watch brand Yema - maker of the classic Superman and Navygraf diving models, and, back in 1966, of its Yachtingraf Regate, with its innovative disc-based regatta counter - is a case in point. Anibal Martinez, its international business development director, says that a few years ago its research indicated some demand for a Yema model with a tide indicator. But when Yema looked further into such project, it worked out that it would take the company around three years and cost €2 million.
“What’s valued in a mechanical watch is really quite old-fashioned actually, and that’s the mechanics, and of course it’s exciting to be able to do something new with that, beyond yet more ordinary chronographs, GMTs and the like,” says Martinez. “But even when brands of much higher value than Yema do this kind of thing now, they make the pieces in very low numbers, and aim them at collectors. It’s more of a brand exercise. Pre-quartz, the watch world was more ready to explore the potential in mechanical complications doing interesting things. But it’s hard to justify a tide indicator now when there’s a Garmin connected watch to do the same job.”
The Yema Yachtingraf Regat had one, very specific purpose, courtesy of Sean Song.
Indeed, throw in the recent rise of the smartwatch - and never mind the ubiquity of smart phones - and it's unrealistic for a mechanical product to seek to compete on functionality with what are, in effect, pocket-friendly computers. That’s where the mechanical watch industry has found itself over recent decades, according to Walter Volpers, associate director of technics at IWC. We're facing a market that is “far more interested in a watch that looks cool, and far less interested in what’s going on inside it or what it can do. It’s the recognisability of the brand and the versatility of the style that matters, so the nature of the demand for watches has changed”.
The challenge, he says, is now to keep-up with the ever greater, ever pickier performance specifications of mechanical watches - their anti-magnetic rating, or their daily loss or gain in seconds. And with that “the challenge to do something new mechanically, has been lost,” he adds.
"The truth is that nobody needs a watch at all now, so it’s hard for a maker of any size to position a watch in the market on the basis of its utility.”
But this, as he hopes, may be changing. The vintage watch market might be helping to kick-start a new fascination with precisely these kinds of more odd-ball, tool-like timepieces. Internet journals and online watch forums have helped to introduce these quirkier, lost complications to an audience that might otherwise have never have known they existed.
It’s why, for example, the Skipperera - a rare version of the 1960s Heuer Skipper - has, it’s been claimed, become the most valuable of the standard production vintage chronographs from that maker. It too has a more left-field tool complication: instead of the chronograph counting up to 30 minutes, it counts down from 15 minutes. Why? Because that allows yachtsmen to correctly time the crossing of the starting line in a yacht race.
An early aquatic Heuer, the Solunar, courtesy of Time and Watches.
“I think it’s a matter of the watch world having been that much less corporate in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, when a lot of these more interesting complications were produced. There was a greater flexibility to produce watches that met a smaller consumer need,” argues Jonathan Scatchard, founder of specialists Vintage Heuer. “They were made in such small runs that, for example, I’ve only ever had one Heuer Mareograph [an early Heuer watch with a tide indicator function, the successor to the Solunar]. It doesn’t matter much that such a watch might not be used for its original purpose now. That real world functionality is still an extra point of interest.”
But who knows quite how such a watch might be used? Jack Heuer - of the Heuer family - reports in his autobiography that, soon after World War Two, his father told him that he thought a watch with a moon phase indicator would be useful to him predominantly when out mushroom hunting, since he believed that morels seemed to spring up in greater numbers when the moon was waxing. But he also confessed to his son that he had no idea how to fulfil the latest request, from sporting goods retailer Abercrombie & Fitch, to provide a watch that could display the time of tides. The then teenage Jack’s contribution was to introduce his father to Dr. Heinz Schilt, his physics teacher at school, who would perform all the calculations necessary for a mechanical movement to predict high tides at a given location.
The Heuer Mareograph and an insight into the vintage world of Abercrombie and Fitch, courtesy of Archival Clothing.
That’s a great story of a rare watch. Julien Schaerer, managing director of watch auction house Antiquorum Geneva, says that it’s just such pieces that have become highly collectible, if less for their utility as for their rarity. “The fact is that so many complications that did exist just don’t anymore because there’s no clear use for them, especially if the information they provide relates to you somehow putting your life on the line. Really the likes of the chronograph only still survive for aesthetic reasons,” he says. “But there’s no question that vintage examples of these complications are super cool.”
Perhaps recognition of this is why there are signs over more recent years that some watchmakers have again turned their attention to producing useful complications. Oris has introduced the first automatic wristwatch with both a mechanical barometric altimeter and barometer movement, the hefty Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter. Breva, in collaboration with Chronode, has launched its Genie 01, dubbed a wearable mechanical weather station - and perhaps heralding a new era in which watchmakers address their potential to transcend the long democratised market for mechanical time-telling devices, however accurate they may be, in order to produce something closer to scientific instruments. HYT has recently launched a watch which allows energy stored in a mechanical micro-generator to illuminate a cluster of tiny LEDs, and hence the whole dial, with such brightness that the watch almost doubles as a mini torch.
The Jaeger-LeCoultre parking timer was part of their anniversary collection, although has sadly slipped out of their catalogue since.
Thankfully, the industry is also remembering that even trivial uses are still expressions of a mastery over micro-mechanics. Independent watchmaker Christophe Claret has his Casino watch, of course, complete with blackjack game, roulette wheel and tumbling dice. Meanwhile, back in 2012, Jaermann & Stubi introduced what every wannabe Tiger Woods has been waiting for - the first golf chronometer with a mechanical counter and yards-to-meters conversion, complete with plenty of shock absorption. After all, forces of around 20 to 40G are generated during a golf swing.
“In fact, I think the watch industry is gradually looking to produce more of these kinds of unusual complications again now, because it’s a clear way for a watch to stand-out in a crowded market. These complications are talking points. They appeal to that engineering interest that many men have,” argues Nick Wiseman, UK and Ireland brand manager for Ball Watch, whose own Trainmaster Celsius, Fahrenheit and Kelvin models, launched from 2011 to 2015, brought the thermometer back to mechanical watch-making. “And, you know, there’s always the chance that they might be useful one day...”
After all, while such functions can still easily be handled by a wearable connected device, this is true only as long as there’s a supply of electricity... “Yes, there’s still a point for watchmakers to devise these kinds of tool complications, because the one big problem with electronics is that if you have no power you have nothing,” laughs Volpers, who notes that IWC’s inventory includes a watch with a mechanical depth gauge. “In fact, I think it’s this need to be independent of electricity that will ultimately allow mechanical instruments [like these] to survive. It’s about making the mechanical watch more of a mechanical tool.”