Complications: the Mystery Dial

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Allow me to begin with an admission; a mystery dial isn’t really a complication. That is to say there isn’t any extra functionality or information being added to a watch that features a mystery display. However, it’s not an unimpactful embellishment either. A mystery dial is a visual and modest structural change made for visual appeal and autotelic charm; an interesting look for the sake of, well, looking interesting. Thankfully, and for the most part, any observable changes aren’t offset by a more troublesome time-telling experience. In many cases, the watch is just as easy to read, but let the gaze linger for a second or two longer you can be won over by the secret hiding within the dial.

A fairly quick and dirty definition of a mystery dial is pretty much all that can be offered. There are no real rules, boundaries or technicalities that must be satisfied. A mystery dial is simply one that gives forth a sense of mystery about how it works. The very first mystery clocks gave no clues about how the hands seemed to float in mid-air while moving about and keeping time. The level of “secrecy” has been watered down over time in favor of simply using the same basic technique to create an offbeat timepiece.

Three-Mystery Clock.

Way back in 1839, stage magician Jean-Eugène Robert-Houdin—himself an inspiration for a young Erik Weisz, who would later adopt the stage name, “Harry Houdini”—hit upon the idea of a mystery clock and began using it in his shows. A magician making significant changes to the inner workings of a clock isn’t as outlandish as it may sound—Robert-Houdin formerly trained as a watchmaker.

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His first dumbfounding timepiece had only an hour hand, which appeared to be disconnected from the rest of the clock. Even if you correctly guessed that the hand was attached to a transparent dial, then that still doesn’t solve the mystery of how the hand was able to move. After all, it was clear to the audience that there was no clockwork mechanism behind that transparent dial.

All the mechanisms were cleverly hidden, usually in the base of of his clocks (like the Three-Mystery Clock shown up top). That glass rod in the center holds the key to the transmission, concealing a secret second rod that connects the movement inside the base to one of the transparent dials in the frame. Pretty clever.

Cartier’s Model A was the table clock that brought the mystery to potential buyers in the 1910s. Designed and created by Louis Cartier in collaboration with jeweler and clockmaker, Maurice Couet, the Model A was very clearly inspired by Robert-Houdin’s original stage clocks, and included both hour and minute hands to make it an object of function as well as art. The hands are incorporated into sheer crystal discs, each of which have a toothed circumference hidden from view within the frame of the clock dial. The clockwork mechanism sits inside the base with racks and gear trains extending through the case to meet each disc, rotating them at the necessary speed.

Cartier has continued to fly the flag for mystery dials. The 2006 Santos Mysterieuse and 2013 Rotonde de Cartier Mystery both use the same principle as those first mystery clocks. As beautiful as these watches may be, I can’t help but think the illusion falls a bit flat when you get to see your own wrist through the mystery window.

Rotonde de Cartier Mystery.

Mystery clocks enjoyed their greatest share of the limelight during the early part of the 20th century, and though mystery dial watches never quite gained the same level of prominence for any extended periods, they have never truly fallen out of fashion either. As such, there are relatively few genre-defining watches to look back on through the decades.

LeCoultre Galaxy Mystery.

Although not the first to extend the concept of the mystery clock into a wristwatch, the LeCoultre Galaxy Mystery from the 1940s was one of the earliest mystery dial watches to gain real popularity—though not on the same level as the Reverso, Memovox or Master Control, and certainly not with the same longevity. In the example shown here, diamond markers act as the hour and minute hands and appear to float above the solid dial.

Throughout the next decade or so, many manufacturers made what we would now regard as classically styled watches using the same concept of rotating discs, but with the discs forming part of the dial itself rather than seemingly floating above. The Longines Mystery Dial of the 1950s, for example, replaced only the hour hand with a rotating disc, while a standard minute hand remained.

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Replacing a hand with a disc driven from the same hour or minute wheel leaves one with not a whole lot of sorcery left to ponder, but such watches would still fall under the same heading of mystery dials. Assuming the discs aren’t so heavy as to take too much energy from the gear train, then very little modification is required.

Fast forward to the 1970s and mystery dials were once again reinterpreted, seizing on the aesthetic of the era to express the time in a bolder and funkier way. The two distinct approaches seen decades earlier remained. Zodiac’s Astrographic series replaced one or more of its hands with transparent discs and floating dots, blocks, or batons.

Via Big Ben Watches.

The Longines Comet goes all out with a huge arrow minute hand splayed across the central disc, with an hour dot orbiting around the perimeter of the dial. The bold color choices and unusual case shape make this my favorite of all mystery dial watches. Whereas the Astrographic has seen a reissue in recent years, Longines doesn’t appear likely to look to this area of their back catalog for a “heritage” release any time soon.Maurice Lacroix’s Masterpiece collection contains some incredible interpretations worthy of a few minutes of YouTube clips at the very least.  The Seconde Mystérieuse makes a focal point of the second hand that weaves around its sub-dial in a rather unexpected way. The opposing tips of the hand patrol the horizontal and vertical axes back and forth, and the center point of the second hand appears to be driven by these movements as it floats around the dial. In fact, the “Revelation” version of the same watch opens a window to the sorcery within. The whole dial and the central pivot point of the hand are rotating in a smooth circle. If you’ve been paying attention, then that shouldn’t come as a surprise. Where Maurice Lacroix go one step further is to also rotate the hand from that moving axis point. Given the high price tag, and that the aesthetics aren’t geared towards legibility, such watches are firmly in “novelty” territory.

Excepting the showpieces from Cartier and Maurice Lacroix, the dearth of modern mystery dial watches is noticeable. One release from Baselworld earlier this year did catch my eye though. The Zodiac Olympos is a pretty faithful reissue of the original series from the 1960s. Sitting within the jet-black dial, and housed within a beautifully expressive case, is a simple mystery dial hour hand, and it looks fantastic. As small as this visual embellishment may be, it’s quite impactful, and I’m happy to see the mystery live on.

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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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