Stranger Things: A Guide to Unusual Complications

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Part of the magic of mechanical watches is the way they can be made to do all kinds of things other than tell the time. As if a complicated series of gears and springs giving you the time within a few seconds wasn’t impressive enough, many watches can also give you the date, time events, and even remind you of appointments and meetings, all with technology that made its most significant advancements in the 19th century. 

Today, watch complications are inherently fascinating largely because they’re so unnecessary. In fact, there’s often an inverse relationship between a complication’s actual utility and how cool we think it is. A simple date display often doesn’t get a second glance, but for those moments when you’re making out a check and have a momentary lapse in memory, that often maligned date window sure does come in handy. But a realistic portrayal of the planets as they orbit the sun? Not exactly useful, but it may evoke an actual emotional response. Not something you get with even the most well implemented calendar complications. 

Today, we look at some of the most unusual watch complications. From highly specific chronographs, to tools for adventurers, and some head spinning astronomical complications, this is your guide to the strangest complications we’ve come across. 

Alarm

We’ll start off with something relatively simple: the mechanical alarm complication. Alarm watches are less common now, but for a period of time in the middle of the 20th century they were something of a sensation. The idea behind these watches is simple. The user, not wanting to miss an important meeting or appointment, sets their watch to alert them at a particular time. Once the hour hand passes the time for which the alarm is set, the watch begins to loudly buzz, alerting you that it’s time to join that meeting, or wake up, or change over the laundry. 

Image courtesy Analog/Shift

Alarm watches are fun because they don’t really match what we currently think of when we hear the word “alarm.” These things obviously don’t produce an electronic tone that repeats forever until you hit the snooze button or tap on your phone. An alarm watch is as much about tactile feedback as the audible sensation – the buzz of the alarm often produces a distinct vibration that you feel on the wrist (like a low tech Apple Watch). Or, if you’re not wearing the watch and have it sitting on a surface, that buzzing can take on different characteristics depending on what, exactly, the watch is vibrating against. 

How does an alarm watch work? There are of course small differences between alarm watches made by different brands, but the basic principles hold tight regardless. While some alarm watches operate off of a single mainspring, the most historically significant alarm watches, the Vulcain Cricket and Jaeger Lecoultre Memovox, made use of a two barrel system. One used for powering the timekeeping mechanism, the other for delivering power to the alarm. The alarm was wound by turning the crown counter-clockwise (on most Crickets) or through the manipulation of a second crown (typical of the Memovox). The alarm is triggered when energy is released from the alarm’s mainspring via a cam activated lever. That energy powers a crude hammer that vibrates rapidly against a gong, creating a racket that winds down automatically once all the energy is expelled, or on command through the push of a button, or the pulling of a crown. 

Image courtesy Analog/Shift

There’s a charm to these mechanical alarms that is completely absent in a Siri activated iPhone alarm. While alarm watches are still made (and they tend to sound more pleasant than the alarms of 70 years ago) vintage alarms, if working properly, are the way to go. Like all vintage watches, they represent a portal into another time and place, but being able to use such a specific and, by current standards, unusual complication makes them even more transportive. JLC Memovox


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Parking Meter

Chronographs these days are pretty normal watches. There are plenty of modern collectors who are only interested in chronographs and collect nothing else, and quartz technology along with the prevalence of good, mass produced automatic chronographs means that just about anyone who wants a watch with a bunch of subdials for timing almost anything can have one. But chronographs can be highly specialized, and we shouldn’t forget that many events that need to be timed don’t fit too well with the typical chrono layout. 

Image courtesy Fratello Watches

That’s where the “parking meter” watch comes in. This is a watch that has both an extremely specific use case, as well as a much more general one. The idea here is that you park your car, actuate the chronograph, and the minute counter tells you how much time has elapsed. The dial is even a stylized representation of old school parking meters, with a semi-circle counting the minutes on the dial’s upper half. The trick here is the minute counter is always running. The pusher at 2:00 just resets the counter to zero. This is essentially a flyback chronograph, with a 60 minute limit, that is constantly timing something, whether you are or not. 

These parking meter watches were produced by many brands, including Buren, Lip, and Vulcain. They were most often powered by Durowe movements, a manufacturer like so many others that was lost to the quartz crisis. There’s a certain quaint utility about these that’s incredibly fun, and the movement nerd can take some pleasure in the fact that what you’ve basically got here is half of a fly-back chronograph.


Thermometer

Watches with integrated thermometers are fairly common in the realm of digital, multi-function timepieces. And with a smartphone in your pocket, you’re never too far away from an approximate outdoor temperature reading. Mechanical watches with thermometers, then, are definitely something of a novelty, and quite rare.

Image Courtesy Watches by SJX

Leave it to Ball, the masters of the tritium tube, to create a mechanical timepiece with an old fashioned thermometer integrated into the movement, giving you a constant reading right on the dial. The Trainmaster Kelvin, at first glance, looks like a fairly typical watch, save for the odd date placement at 1:00. It runs right in line with the classic vintage inspired style of many Ball watches. But take a closer look at the register at 6:00 and you’ll notice how unique the Kelvin really is. Using temperature sensitive alloys that are coiled into a spring and mounted onto the modified ETA 2892 movement inside, the Kelvin displays the temperature as each end of the metallic strip expands and retracts as the ambient temperature changes. When paired with a reserved and tasteful array of tritium tubes to provide illumination to the dial, this watch has an old school charm to it and is a definite conversation piece.


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Altimeter

The Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter is credited as being the first automatic mechanical watch with a built in mechanical altimeter. This version, a special edition made to pay tribute to Rega, Switzerland’s air rescue service, is a super tactical tool watch in gray plated stainless steel. Unlike a lot of watches on this list that feature complications that are merely curiosities and unlikely to ever be used in a practical way, the altimeter in this Oris was definitely conceived as a tool that anyone who finds themselves at altitude, for work or pleasure, could rely on. 

While integrating an altimeter into a wristwatch might seem complicated, it’s actually fairly straightforward, if not a little cumbersome (this ProPilot measures 47mm in diameter). Oris uses an aneroid barometer to measure atmospheric pressure. That measurement is then converted to the scale that you see on the outer edge of the watch’s dial. To actually operate the altimeter, you unscrew the crown at 4:00, pull it out to the second position to calibrate, then move it back to the first position. Now that the altimeter is calibrated, you’ll get a reading as your altitude changes (the altimeter is not functional when the 4:00 crown is screwed all the way in). It’s a neat parlor trick (assuming your parlor is, perhaps, the face of a mountain, or the cockpit  of a plane) and certifiably unique. 

Image courtesy Matthew Bain

While the ProPilot Altimeter is considered the first automatic wristwatch with a built in mechanical altimeter, other brands have also successfully incorporated altimeter scales in watches, dating back to the 1960s. Favre-Leuba, a Swiss manufacturer whose roots date back to 1737, carved out a bit of a niche for themselves in the heyday of midcentury sports watches with the Bivouac, a manually wound sports watch with an altimeter/barometer scale that was meant to warn alpinists of impending storms, which would be preceded by a drop in air pressure. Vintage Bivouacs have an under the radar charm about them – besides a case that was notably thick for its day, there’s nothing about these watches that screams out that they possess this unusual feature. Favre-Leuba is still making watches under the Bivouac banner, but these have a far more aggressive look – they present as serious adventure watches right from the start. Oris Big Crown ProPilot


 

Depth Gauge

A depth gauge is the literal inverse of an altimeter. Both use sensors to measure pressure, just in different ways. While the Oris described above measures atmospheric pressure to provide information on relative altitude, a depth gauge takes a water pressure reading that can tell you with a certain level of accuracy how deeply a watch is submerged at any given moment.

IWC has made a series of depth gauges over the years. The Deep Three seen here actually contains two mechanical depth gauges: one designed to tell you how deep you are at any given time, another that tells you the deepest you’ve been on your current dive. The delta between your deepest point and where you are now, along with time spent underwater, are critical pieces of information to any diver, and are available at a glance with the Deep Three. 

Oris takes a slightly different approach with their Aquis Depth Gauge. On this watch, water actually enters the watch through a gauge built into the sapphire crystal. The idea here is that water enters a narrow channel on the crystal at 12:00. When the watch is not submerged, this channel is filled with air. As the watch goes deeper, water enters the channel as air leaves it. Rather than a mechanical needle or other indicator telling you precisely how deep you are on the gauge, you read your depth on the Oris by visually referencing where the air and water meet. It’s an ingenious non-mechanical depth gauge that takes advantage of some high school level physics knowledge. Oris Aquis Depth Gauge


 

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Chiming Automaton 

In the realm of strange complications, this type is a personal favorite for its combination of complete uselessness with a display of technical mastery. We say it all the time: watches are tools to get things done, and we’ve seen evidence of that even with many of the unusual complications in this guide, made for very specific tasks. But the chiming bird does not help us actually do anything. It doesn’t serve a purpose beyond being something amusing to look at, but of course many would argue that this is the highest purpose of all in watchmaking. 

The Bird Repeater is a signature complication of Jaquet Droz, and has come in a variety of flavors over the years. It combines the principles of a repeating or chiming watch with an automaton. With a standard repeater, a slider is actuated on the watch’s caseband that begins the chiming process. Depending on the type of repeater, a chime rings out to indicate the hour, quarter hour, minute, or a combination of all three. Here, however, that slider not only begins a series of chimes (meant to mimic bird calls) but sets the birds on the dial in motion. Mechanically, it’s almost impossibly complicated. It serves no real purpose. But it’s also quite amazing. Jaquet Droz Bird Repeater


Planetarium Watch

Watches with astronomical complications could warrant a guide all for themselves. They are incredibly varied, complex, and at once whimsical and deeply rooted in science and pure chronometry. We’ll start with maximalist astronomical complication that is probably the most impressive from a visual perspective, the planetarium watch. 

When we hear the word “planetarium,” most of us probably think of the theaters where images of the solar system are projected upward onto a screen, simulating the night sky. You may have visited one on an elementary school field trip, or taken in the show at a museum. But a planetarium can also refer to any moving, three dimensional model of the solar system, making watches with this complication actual planetariums for the wrist. Some wrist planetariums show only the inner planets, and some show those beyond the asteroid belt as well. In the case of watches like the Van Cleef and Arpels Planetarium for both men and women, the orbiting planets represented on the dial are accented with precious stones and gems, giving these watches a deeply opulent impact. 

While planetariums certainly lend themselves to high jewelry applications, these watches also have a strong appeal among lovers of science and watch complications more generally. The planetariums made by Christiaan Van Der Klaauw are the smallest mechanical planetariums in the world, with the orbit of six planets represented in a single subdial, an impressive feat considering the precision in gearing needed to properly depict each planet’s orbit. This complication is the antithesis of something like the chronograph, where speed and tactile feedback are part of the pleasure of using it. A reminder from those childhood visits to the planetarium: it takes 29 years for Saturn to orbit the sun, making this a complication only for the most patient among us. Van Cleef and Arpels Planetarium


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Day/Night 

While the planetarium watch takes a somewhat high level view of the solar system, trying to cram as much information about the physical universe we all exist in as possible onto a watch dial, other astronomical complications look at the world around us in a much different way. The Day/Night complication as implemented by Ochs und Junior is downright humble by comparison, but no less impressive horologically speaking. The Day/Night seen here displays a range of information that could actually be useful to many on a day to day basis. The length of daytime and nighttime in a particular location, solar noon, sunrise and sunset, the position of the sun and moon in the sky, and the phases of the moon are all represented here.

The minimalist design of the Day/Night by Ochs und Junior means that you have to “learn” how to read it. At a glance, it doesn’t seem possible that such a simple design could provide all of the information outlined above, but once you understand what you’re looking at, the full scope of the detail provided by the Day/Night comes into focus. The centerpiece of the astronomical complications here are the rotating sun and moon discs that circle the outside of the dial. These discs move over alternating light and dark sections of the outside of the dial that represent day and night. To account for seasonal changes, these light and dark areas expand and contract throughout the year as necessary. Over the course of a month, the sun and moon discs will move closer to and further away from one another, enabling the user the see a representation of where each heavenly body resides in the sky. This concept also allows for a unique spin on the moonphase complication, as you can determine the phase of the moon by its position relative to the sun. 

The Day/Night is complicated in both the literal and watchmaking senses of the word, but there’s an elegance to the presentation of the information that is very appealing to astronomy buffs and fans of fans of complicated watches. The breadth of information this watch provides to its wearer (at least once he or she has mastered how to read it) is tough to match. Ochs und Junior Day/Night


Tidal Indicator

A tide indicator is, technically, an astronomical complication, in the sense that shifting tides are a result of gravitational forces at work between the earth, moon, and sun. In practice, however, a tide indicator complication works much like any simple calendar complication (a date that advances once every 24 hours, for example) because high and low tides always occur 12 hours and 24 minutes apart.

On the IWC Portugieser Yacht Club Moon and Tide seen here, a simple tide indicator has been combined with a moonphase which also indicates spring and neap tides (which describe the relative strength of a tide as a result of the position of the moon). Like the Day/Night above, and astronomical complications in a more general way, lots of information is provided, but in the case of this IWC it’s a bit more intuitive. And while a tide indicator is certainly not an entry-level complication in any sense, it’s also not as mechanically insane as the Day/Night, tracking several regular intervals simultaneously while moving a series of discs. 

Image courtesy Analog/Shift

This IWC  is a $33,000 solid gold super-watch, but tide indicators come in other more attainable packages as well. The Heuer Solunar takes the scientific principle of regular tides and expresses high and low tide through clever bezel indicators. The catch here is that they have to be set every two weeks to be accurate. The inner bezel displays this two week period, while the outer bezel tells us the number of hours before and the number of hours after a high tide. Lining up the hour hand with the day of the week and high tide mark will give you an accurate representation of when to expect high tide for a two week interval. IWC Portugieser Yacht Club Moon Phase and Tide


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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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