A Guide to Finding Value in Complications

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There’s a perception among some in the watch community that you have to spend a fortune to get into interesting complications beyond a simple calendar. While it’s true that you’ll always pay for quality, and there are some complications that are truly exotic and rare, there are also a lot of great values in complicated watches if you know where to look. In this guide, we’ll be taking a look at some interesting complicated watches that offer a great value compared to more well known watches with the same complication. Not all of the watches here are necessarily affordable in a meaningful way, but they’re priced in such a way (particularly on the second hand market) where you could potentially categorize them as a steal. In other words, it’s all relative, and we’ll be highlighting examples of watches at the top of the market to illustrate this. 

It’s also worth mentioning that this guide is (quite obviously) not exhaustive, and also not the last you’ll hear on the topic of finding great value in complicated watches. If there’s a complication you’d like us to explore, or a specific watch we should look into, leave us a comment, or find us on Instagram to let us know.

Flyback Chronograph

The flyback chronograph is a relatively simple idea. Rather than the normal “start, stop, reset” functionality of a traditional chronograph, a flyback chronograph allows for a rapid reset to zero while in the course of timing an event. By most accounts, Breitling was the first watch manufacturer to introduce a chronograph with this functionality in a pilot’s watch, and it’s easy to see how flying a plane would necessitate cutting out a step from the resetting process – it’s more convenient, significantly quicker, and allows for greater flexibility in how you time an event (most flyback chronographs can still be operated in a traditional way – you don’t have to fly back if you don’t need to). 

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We often see flyback chronographs come together in sporty references that conjure early aviation vibes. The Blancpain Air Command Flyback is one such watch. It looks an awful lot like the brand’s iconic Type XX chronograph, but adds flyback functionality to its pilot aesthetic. The Air Command Flyback was introduced in 2019 and based on a historic Blancpain reference, but while it looks an awful lot like the original, it features modern movement technology like a column wheel and vertical clutch mechanism in the chronograph works. It’s finished immaculately, and is basically everything you’d expect of a high end chronograph from a major luxury house. That includes the original retail price of just over $20,000.

Of course, you don’t have to spend nearly that much for a flyback chronograph if that’s a complication that’s of interest to you. There are a bunch of affordable flyback options on the market to choose from, but one of our favorites is the Frederique Constant Flyback Chronograph Manufacture, released just over a year ago. Frederique Constant has developed a reputation for producing interesting complications at affordable prices over the last several years (their perpetual calendar comes to mind), and their sister brand Alpina has gotten into the act as well, with a well regarded monopusher chronograph from a few years ago. 

The Flyback Chronograph Manufacture is a handsome watch in a different style than the Blancpain, but the functionality is essentially the same. Under the hood, however, FC’s movement is unique. Their FC-760 caliber uses a star shaped wheel instead of a standard column wheel that results in a movement that is considerably thinner than many similar entry level flybacks, which often use modules that are clunky and result in extra thick cases. The A-13A Pilot’s Chronograph discussed by Mark McArthur-Christie right here is a good example. This is a rather ingenious design developed by an actual pilot, and it looks the part (and thus has a much clearer connection to early flybacks) but the case size and shape (it’s over 16mm thick) make it more of a curiosity than a usable watch. 

But the Frederique Constant is very much an everyday wear type of chronograph, though it might be on the formal side of the line between dressy and sport. With a retail price of $4,250, it’s not even a quarter of the price of the Air Command, and arguably boasts a movement that’s a bit more interesting simply for solving a case thickness problem. 

World Time Chronograph 

Combining multiple complications is one of the great flexes of an accomplished watchmaker. If you exclude Rolex sports watches from the list of the most valuable watches sold at auction in recent years, you’ll find plenty of examples of highly complicated grand complications featuring multiple implementations of chiming mechanisms, perpetual calendars, and various astronomical complications. These watches are “complicated” in every sense of the word. From a mechanical perspective, they’re difficult to design and manufacture, and looking at them to read the time and whatever additional information they provide often requires several advanced degrees, or at least plenty of time studying the dials under a loupe to ensure you’re translating what is likely to be French correctly. 

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A chronograph coupled with a world time complication is not exactly a classic combination, but there are several notable examples of watches that are so equipped that sit at highly disparate price points. Girard Perregaux’s WW.TC collection is enormous, and awkwardly named (the acronym stands for “worldwide time control,” which sounds like a promise that no brand can deliver). The WW.TC watches don’t always feature a chronograph, but the worldtime functionality is standard, and works in much the same way as other watches that are designed to be able to tell the time across many time zones simultaneously. A ring around the outside of the dial lists major time zones across the globe, and an inner ring with a 24 hour scale rotates throughout the day, lining up with the correct time in each city. This also gives you day/night functionality through the use of a 24 hour scale and (often) the use of a multicolored ring for said scale. On WW.TC watches, the cities ring is controlled by the crown on the left flank of the case, so the movement behaves differently than a world timer with an “integrated” world timing function, but the end result is essentially the same, and completely useful if you’re staying in one place (and easy to adjust if not). 

When a chronograph is added into the mix, it makes the dial busier, but not significantly so. Because the world time information is read exclusively at the perimeter of the dial, the interior section of the dial is available for the usual chronograph subdials. Girard Perregaux made this watch in virtually every metal you can think of, plus ceramic, and has also tied it to their various brand partnerships over the years, and they’ve of course released a bunch of limited editions as well. This is all to say that prices on the second hand market for WW.TC chronographs are all over the place, from the high four figures to the low fives.

For the sake of comparison, take a look at the Patek Philippe 5930. This is Patek’s in-house world time chrono, and it’s certainly a superior watch in just about every respect. It has better dimensions, coming in under 40mm in diameter compared to the WW.TC at 43mm. And it’s better mechanically as well, with the pusher on the case’s left side adjusting the time zone disc step by step, depending on where you are in the world. But the impression left by the dials are remarkably similar, not just in layout but in how they use contrasting color elements to draw your eye to where it needs to go. As you’d expect, the 5930 has an enormous premium attached to it, with real world pricing in the realm of $60,000 (or over $100,000 for the red dialed variant reserved for the Singapore boutique).

Tourbillon

We rarely discuss tourbillons in terms of any kind of relative value (we rarely discuss tourbillons at all). But a TAG Heuer release from 2016 is definitely worth taking a second look at, particularly at a time when TAG is leaning heavily into the Carrera as a centerpiece for the entire brand. The Carrera Heuer Tourbillon 02-T made headlines upon its release for being the most affordable Swiss tourbillon ever produced. The retail price five years ago was $15,590, which undercut every other Swiss brand making a tourbillon by a dramatic amount. 

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This watch is pure Jean Claude Biver, and deserves a spot on the Mt. Rushmore of Biver-ish releases from his time at TAG Heuer and LVMH. His preferred aesthetic of exotic materials and skeletonized elements on the dials of sports watches remains pervasive among LVMH brands even after his retirement, and love it or hate it, there’s no denying that this look is an enormous part of contemporary watchmaking. The Tourbillon 02-T is every bit a modern watch, made from titanium with a 45mm case. If you compare this Carrera with recent heritage inspired Carrera releases from TAG, it’s hard to believe that they could all be put under the same umbrella, but if you look at the 02-T from a high enough level the Carrera case lines come through and it begins to make a bit more sense. 

This watch was immediately controversial upon its release, with none other than Patek Philippe’s Thierry Stern calling it a joke. This is not a finely made, traditional Swiss tourbillon with lots of hand finishing. In fact, it’s just the opposite, but it’s the needling of the old guard that is part of the appeal of the 02-T. It makes something that was once unobtainable actually within reach. 

Rather than look at tourbillons at the high end of the spectrum as a comparison point for the Carrera Heuer Tourbillon 02-T (there are many, and the upper price limit is effectively almost infinite in the tourbillon space), it’s instructive to look at what else you can get for around $15,000. There are plenty of Rolex sports watches that hover in this price range on the secondary market, and if you’re lucky enough to be offered a Daytona at retail, the price difference between this TAG and the Rolex is negligible. They are very different watches, of course, but it’s fascinating to consider what two of the largest watch brands in the world offer at roughly the same price. 

Picking up Stern’s criticism that this watch offends the sensibilities of hundreds of years of Swiss watchmaking handcraft, you might ask what you can find in the space of “finely made Swiss watches” at the $15,000 level. If you’re interested in gold, conservatively sized dress watches, you can find a variety of watches from Stern’s own brand on the second hand market at this price point, but you’ve got a ways to go before you can get into anything complicated. That said, if you jump ship to another brand in the Holy Trinity, you’ll likely be able to snag early 2000s examples of the Vacheron Constantin Overseas Chronograph for what the TAG would cost at retail. No tourbillons, obviously, but you do get an integrated bracelet sports watch in a 40mm case with a big date in a distinctive and wearable design.

Jumping Hours

The jumping hours complication isn’t for everyone. If you’re used to telling the time with a traditional handset, there may never be a time when a watch with a jumping hours complication doesn’t look jarring, regardless of how intuitive it is to read the time. Unlike almost every other complication we can think of, there’s never been a true renaissance for the jumping hours in recent contemporary watchmaking, so these watches are quite uncommon. 

While it doesn’t appear to be part of their current collection, Oris made a striking jump hour dress watch as part of their Artelier line. Zach W. reviewed it here back in 2015, and as you can plainly see from the photos, it’s not only a jumping hour, but also something of a regulator, with subdials for minutes and seconds separated on the dial. Combined with the digital hour readout at the top of the dial, this is a truly unique layout, and the dial has a lot of rewarding detail in the contrasting guilloche patterns throughout. 

The Cartier Tank a Guichets is not only one of the coolest jumping hour watches ever made, it’s also among the greatest under-appreciated Tanks. The Tank a Guichets was first produced in the late 1920s, and features a completely digital readout of the time, with a single small window for the hours at the top, and slightly larger aperture near the bottom for the minutes, which advances on a track. This watch doesn’t have a traditional dial – the case metal envelopes everything but the apertures that give you the time. It’s an extremely minimalist take on the classic Tank shape.

Image via Haute Time

These watches are extremely rare. They’ve only been reissued a few times, and always in small runs and precious metals. A small run of six watches (yes, six) was produced in 1996, and another small run in platinum followed the next year in honor of Cartier’s 150th anniversary. The year 2005 saw a 150 piece limited edition in pink gold. And, as far as we know, that’s it. This is a watch that’s never been mass produced, and it has always been a connoisseur’s pick. With so few on the market, pricing is hard to track, but Christie’s did sell one in platinum that was part of the 1997 run for CHF 40,000 in 2019. Given the extreme rarity of the Tank a Guichet, that doesn’t seem like an exorbitant sum, but it does underline the immense value of the Oris Artelier Jumping Hour, which sold for $4,600.

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Wandering Hours 

Similar to jumping hours, a wandering hours complication fundamentally changes the way you read the time and interact with your watch when you look at it. Unlike jumping hours, however, the idea of constant motion is central to what’s happening in a watch with a wandering hours complication. In a way, wandering hours is the opposite of jumping hours. The latter is all about stillness – if you blink you’ll miss the changeover from one hour to the next. With a wandering hours watch, you’re forced to constantly observe the mechanism that changes one hour to the next as it’s happening. The complex mechanical nature of a jump hour watch is usually hidden from view, but with wandering hours it’s at least partially on display, almost by definition. 

We’ve talked about the Gorilla Outlaw Drift before. It uses a module made by Vaucher on top of an ETA 2824-2, and time is told via three discs that are in constant rotation, and line up with a static minutes track at the top of the dial. As one hour nears its end and another is set to begin, the next disc has rotated into position, reading the correct hour. At any given time you can look at the watch and see all hours represented across all three discs, and if you’re not careful your brain can be completely broken imagining how they’ll rotate and wind up in the correct spot for hours on end. It’s a complication that’s fun and playful while also being technically impressive, and Gorilla has done a nice job of executing it in a watch that doesn’t take itself seriously at a price point ($3,950) that feels more than fair. 

When it comes to wandering hours watches, there’s no brand that’s more synonymous with the complication than Urwerk. They have built a brand on a futuristic and tech forward interpretation of the complication with many bold designs that stretch the definition of what a watch can be. The UR-100 (priced at $49,000) is a great example of their wandering hours aesthetic, and this particular watch also offers an additional complication that provides a reading of the distance the Earth rotates at the equator and the distance the earth moves along its orbit around the sun. Are these pieces of astronomical data useful in everyday life? To most of us, the answer is a definitive no. But it mirrors the wandering hours complication itself in giving us information that we don’t need. We don’t have to see the additional hour discs spinning around waiting to be read, but there’s a charm in knowing that they’re there, and in reflecting on the mechanical ingenuity that’s involved in getting them to the right place at the right time. So it is with the UR-100 – it provides between time telling and all the work going on in the background that we don’t really need to see to read the time, but it’s so much more satisfying to know it’s there. 

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.
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