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Inner Beauty: The World of Watch Complications

Although the primary function of a watch is to tell the time, chronographs and complicated watches go far beyond this basic capability. Renowned for their history, elegant designs and elaborate engineering, explore just what makes these top-of-the-line accessories so popular.


Image: Jonas B on Unsplash

Wristwatches add the finishing touch to an outfit, and are particularly popular with men who may not benefit from a wide range of jewellery options. Any basic watch from Primark or Amazon gets the job done as far as telling the time, but why stop there when so many sophisticated designs are available on the market?


Louis Moinet invented the first chronograph in 1816 as a tool to track astronomical objects, and since then the device has been used in auto racing, diving, submarine maneuvering and piloting aircraft. Although the average wearer might not have so daring a career, chronographs and watches with complications are both a useful and fashionable addition to one’s wardrobe.


Patek Philippe, perpetual calendar split-second chronograph wristwatch, platinum, 37mm. Photo © Christie’s via Barnebys Price Bank

A chronograph is a display watch combined with a stopwatch, and complex models with additional complications can have multiple sub-dials that measure hours, minutes, seconds, and evens tenths of a second. Some modern chronographs also have movable bezels that act as tachymeters for quick calculations of speed or distance. Their incredible precision allows the wearer to measure their heart rate or calculate an average speed right from their wrist, and is a testament to their superior craftsmanship.


Rolex, ‘Paul Newman’ Cosmograph Daytona, stainless steel, 37mm diameter. Photo © Phillips via Barnebys Price Bank

Chronographs are synonymous with adventure, which makes their timekeeping features much more appealing than an analogous smartphone app. Jaques Cousteau wore his Omega Seamaster Diver 300 during many of his successful dives, and the Seamaster has also appeared on the wrist of every James Bond since 1995. The Rolex Cosmograph Daytona was made iconic by the actor and racing enthusiast Paul Newman, and his 1968 model sold at auction for an astounding £13,243,365 in 2017, 500% above its original estimate. Both Rolex and Omega are incredibly popular with buyers, and from 2019 to 2020 traffic on Barnebys for ‘Rolex’ increased 56% while traffic for ‘Omega’ increased 92%, indicating a growing interest in luxury watches and chronographs.


Patek Philippe, ‘Grandmaster Chime’, stainless steel, 47.7mm. Image: Christie’s via Barnebys Price Bank

Although a stopwatch feature designates a chronograph, there are many other complications that can transform a basic watch into a mechanical masterpiece. The Grandmaster Chime by Patek Philippe made headlines as one of the most complex mechanical wristwatches ever created, and set the record for the most expensive watch sold at auction when it fetched a staggering £25,234,813 in 2019. The Grandmaster Chime has 20 complications, and, as well as keeping time, tracks the moon cycle, the year, month, day of the week and date along with a second time zone. The watch can be set to a Grand Sonnerie strike (sounding both the hour and quarter hour every fifteen minutes), a Petite Sonnerie strike (sounding the hour only at the top of the hour and the quarter hour every fifteen minutes), or silent. This dizzying array of capabilities transforms the humble watch into a marvel of engineering, still small enough to be worn on the wrist.

Breguet, classique ‘Grande Complication’, platinum, 45mm. Photo © Sotheby’s via Barnebys Price Bank

Although a Grandmaster Chime is not exactly affordable for everyone, there is a huge variety of complicated watches and chronographs available at every price point. Aficionados and casual collectors alike can appreciate the creative design and fashion statement a watch makes, while enthusiasts in particular appreciate the superior performance and mechanical capabilities of a high-end wristwatch. Far from simply tracking the hour, these pieces are intricate works of art that are sure to become valued heirlooms in their own time.