Complicating time: Vacheron and Van Cleef & Arpels show how with panache

There’s something delicious about the fact that it was a protestant reformer’s banning of anything to do with luxury or indulgence that’s given us one of the most indulgent items of all time, the complicated wrist-watch.

Van Cleef & Arpels Automate Fée Ondine.

Take a bow John Calvin, the French-born lawyer turned preacher who in the 1500s laid down strict rules in Geneva, then a city state, such that it had become known as the “Protestant Rome”.

By banning such naughty things as jewellery, the straight-laced Calvin forced jewellers and crafts-folk, including goldsmiths, to turn to that practical tool the watch, whose function, telling the time, was deemed a practical necessity rather than a princely nicety.

Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600.

Protestant refugees, fleeing religious persecution in France, added to the ranks of available watchmakers and by the 1600s the Foundation of Genevan Corporation of Watchmakers was laying down rules for admitting apprentices. Earning your ticket included making a small clock with an alarm, suitable for wearing around the neck.

That sounds awfully like today’s definition of a complication, namely a timepiece that has at least one function in addition to indicating the hour of day, for example a timing function (chronograph), chiming function (repeater) perpetual calendar or moon-phase, and yes, alarm.

Back view.

It could be argued it is such “extras” that have helped make the watch desirable when the time is all around us.

Such features first appeared on clocks or pocket watches before migrating to the wrist, a process accelerated by geniuses such as Abraham Louis Breguet who invented all manner of things including the tourbillon, originally an anti-gravity device but in more recent times the complication used by brands to show-off the abilities of their watchmakers.

The celestia movment.

It’s just such skill that has put names such as Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and A.Lange & Soehne on the map, along with relative newcomers as diverse as Greubel Forsey and DeBethune, while Cartier has in recent years produced some astonishing mechanical masterworks.

In the early years of watchmaking it was competitions and world exhibitions that drove such endeavours, and modern times have seen an equally commercial aspect to the race by brands to outdo each other with complications and “halo” products; how else to protect your niche and project the right image on Instagram and Facebook? How else too, to meet the demands of a group rather important in the scheme of things, namely enthusiasts and collectors?

The Van Cleef & Arpels papillon movement.

Never mind that demand for complicated watches has always been restricted by the time it takes to create them and the money purchasers are asked to pay for them, sometimes in the millions of dollars; complications are not only here to stay, but are getting even more complicated.

The aforementioned Vacheron Constantin late in 2015 completed an order for the most complicated pocket watch yet seen, yes a pocket watch, one with 57 complications and an indicated price of more than $10 million.

In a nice twist the gentleman who ordered it hadn’t expected that many extra functions, but Vacheron’s watchmakers couldn’t resist the challenge; over the years it was taking to construct the contraption they kept on adding things, from Westminster chimes to a Hebrew perpetual calendar and not merely one, but seven different alarms.


Having crossed that challenge off the list, Vacheron naturally turned its attention to turbo-complicating the wrist watch, announcing at the Salon Internationale de la Haute Horlogerie fair in January that it had succeeded in cramming 23 complications into one.

Going by the name of Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, it’s a 45mm statement cased in white gold that took five years to nut out and an additional two to design. It’s not hard to see why; it utilises both front and back to display things on two dials and along with astronomical functions provides three modes of time – civil, solar and sidereal –  each driven by it’s own gear train with three weeks of power reserve provided by six barrels.

In case you’re wondering, civil time is the one we commonly use, based on the fictional idea that the sun moves around the equator at a constant speed every 24 hours; solar time is based on its actual visible trajectory and can differ by plus 14 or minus 15 minutes; and sidereal time is based on the earth’s rate of rotation compared to the position of fixed stars.

It means you could be running late according to one mode, but not in another, handy. Handier still, the difference between civil and solar time is displayed thanks to a “running” equation of time mechanism, something rarely seen in a wristwatch.

Equally useful, the Gregorian calendar function needs adjusting only once in 400 years, the moon-phase in 122 years – just don’t forget to keep the watch wound.


Vacheron’s Celestia was not the only wonder revealed at SIHH, the award-winning team of Stephen Forsey and Robert Greubel presenting a Grande Sonnerie chiming watch, their first such complication since the duo established their brand – a firm favourite with collectors – in 2004.

The result of 11 years’ microscopic labour, its 935 parts include tiny hammers and gongs that strike on the hour and quarter hour, and down to the minute on demand. There’s also an inclined tourbillon in there, the independent crucible of cogs synonymous with Greubel Forsey’s creations.

The price of having one of these on your wrist is an uncomplicated million dollars plus, but part of the value is surely that you’re unlikely to see anyone else wearing one – in total the duo will produce a mere 100 watches this year, just five or so of them the Grande Sonnerie.

The Papillons petal work.

If you want more exclusivity than that, possibly the piece de la resistance of 2017 comes from Van Cleef & Arpels who at  SIHH unveiled what it is calling its first ‘Extraordinary Object’, the Automate Fée Ondine.

Extraordinary it most certainly is, a whimsical testament to both jewellery and watchmaking skills, not that you’d fit it on your wrist. Rather it’s a table-top one-off that occupied enamellers, stone-cutters, and specialist cabinet-makers for the best part of a decade, easy to believe when you see it in action.

A highly complex mechanism animates various elements and tells the time, but don’t expect the usual mundane hands and hour markers – here pride of place is given to a doll-sized fairy woken from sleep by a trembling leaf. The fairy’s wings twitch, a water lily blooms and a butterfly flits in a sequence accompanied by twinkling nursery-rhyme chimes.

The hour of day is indicated by a ruby ladybug and the retrograde movement has eight days power reserve, but such detail seems incidental – rather than the time at a glance, the truth is watching this timepiece you tend to lose track of it.

In a world full of contradictions maybe this is where the future of the watch lies –  as a visual or mechanical feast that releases us from the pressure of time, even if just for a moment.

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