Complications: Dates

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The humble date is one of the most ubiquitous complications in all of horology, so much so that it is almost taken for granted. Movements without a date complication are comparatively rare, such that even “no date” watches will often still have the crown position for date setting and have a date wheel hidden beneath the dial. In this installment of Complications, we look at when dates first appeared, why they have taken over to such an extent, and a few of the more common variations out there.


Calendar complications had existed in pocket watches since the late 19th century, but the first patents for a calendar wristwatch were submitted in 1915 by watchmaker A. Hammerly from the La Chaux-de-Fonds region of Switzerland. He had devised two complications: one that we would recognize today as a “pointer date’” and a second variant which featured the weekday in a window below 12 o’clock. By the end of the decade this movement was found in wristwatches from H. Moser and Waltham, among others.

A. Lange & Söhne Lange 1 with the signature oversized digital date.

Around the same time, Movado began work producing a wristwatch with digital date displaycloser to a modern date window display. However, due to the smaller size of watches at that time, the date display may have been difficult to read in many cases. Paul Ditisheim, who made great advancements in early chronometers, later displayed the date across two discs in watches presented under the Solvil namesomething that would later become known as the “grande date” or “big date” complication.

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The next major advancement in the date complication arguably took place in 1945 when Hans Wilsdorf introduced the Rolex Datejust, claiming it to be the first wristwatch with a self-changing date. This was improved further in 1955 with the date change also becoming instantaneous at midnight rather than a slow-roll over a prolonged period. Incidentally, the distinctive Rolex “cyclops” date magnifier arrived at the same time by all accounts as a result of Mrs. Wilsdorf’s poor eyesight.

First Datejust

The instantaneous date change is a feature which has been adopted and deliberately resisted in equal measure, the argument for a slow date change being that a single glance at the dates somewhere between 23:55 and 00:05 would not give much useful information unless the time of the instant jump is known to be perfectly accurate.

Despite several different methods of displaying the date being developed and implemented over the last 100 years, the most common variant is certainly for the date to be displayed through an aperture on the dial at, or near, the three o’clock position. This dial placement was chosen so that only a small portion of the watch needs to be exposed from underneath a shirt or jacket in order to check the date. With aesthetics arguably playing a bigger part in many people’s watch buying decisions than ever before, the placement and incorporation of such a date window has become as important as its functionality.

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Sinn 556 I with a matching black date wheel.

The standard date wheels for ETA 2824-2 movements are limited to either black numerals on white background or vice versa, or a seldom seen gold date disc with black numerals. The black and white versions are produced either with the date window at the three o’clock position, or oriented so that the date window is at the bottom of the dial at six o’clock.

Whereas most manufacturers will choose a “standard” date wheel configuration and orientation that best suits a watch design, occasionally the date wheel is reprinted with custom orientation, color or font to match the watch perfectly. It is sometimes these small touches that help to elevate the design of a watch above its competitors. For example, the date wheel on the Junghans Max Bill is reprinted in the same font as the numerals on the dial.

Date numerals matching the iconic typeface on the Max Bill dial.

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Day-date complications are usually much more difficult to include without detracting from the design or taking away a lot of dial real estate to make way for the elongated aperture. That’s part of the reason why I am personally not such a fan as the benefit of the secondary level of information is outweighed by the aesthetic compromise. Sometimes that compromise is lessened by clever design choices, such as Damasko who successfully balance the black day and date wheels at the three o’clock position with their logo at the nine o’clock position, or Hamilton who often place a curved day window above the 12 o’clock position to preserve both symmetry and dial design.

A day-date with custom wheels.

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Although the pointer date was one of the first date displays on a wristwatch, it isn’t particularly common on modern wristwatches with Oris as one of the few mainstream watch brands who still incorporate the complication across a reasonable number of their watches. First appearing on Oris watches in the 1930s, the feature made a comeback in Oris watches in the 1980s and has since become a distinctive feature. Pointer dates can often be easier to include without compromising symmetry or space within the dial itself, but its relative scarcity is likely due to the increased cost to produce and a different way of reading the date taking some getting used to. A direct read is always going to be easier.

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Pointer date via a sub-dial at six.

The big-date complication is arguably the most useful incarnation of the date display, though the bigger the date the more it needs to become a central feature in a watch’s design. Many big dates will be achieved by used of a Soprod module on top of a standard ETA or Sellita movement, and usually positioned at the twelve o’clock orientation. As such, the options for custom date wheels are even more limited. In such modules, the two digits of the date are shown by use of two separate discs, one for the tens and one for units, and because of the curvature of the discs each digit generally sits within its own window so as not to show the overlap or gap between the two. At the higher end, Girard-Perregaux came up with an elegant solution in their 1945 collection where one of the wheels features the number printed on a transparent disc that overlays the other so closely that the join is imperceptible.

Girard Perregaux Traveller Moon-Phase Large Date; photo credit: Dream Chrono.

Although the date complication certainly wasn’t one of the first to make it into the wristwatch, it has certainly proved its popularity and longevity. For some of us its presence, or location, on a huge number of watch dials can be a real eyesore at times when executed poorly. Thankfully, watch designs across all price ranges seem to be able to incorporate one of the most useful features very well with some good design choices and a little modification.

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Brad stumbled into the watch world in 2011 and has been falling down the rabbit hole ever since. Based in London, Brad's interests lie in anything that ticks, sweeps or hums and is slightly off the beaten track.
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