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Editorial - The End Of Complication

Editorial The End Of Complication

Get ready to have your mind blown…

All right, confession time. I’m not really saying we should put an end to complications — that was just to get your attention. I am, however, completely serious about blowing your mind. Most people (okay, I mean most people reading these words right now) would say that they know the definition of a horological complication. They can list a whole bunch of watch functions and indications that fall within the category of Horological Complication.

Or can they?

Strictly speaking, a horological complication is any sub-assembly of a mechanical movement that gives time-related information, apart from the hours, minutes and seconds. When I say “sub-assembly of a mechanical movement”, I’m referring to a discrete set of movement components that is expressly associated with an additional function — in the case of the chronograph, it would be the clutch mechanism, the column wheel, various actuating levers and chronograph wheels. It should give time-related information, so an automaton that just sort of moves around without telling you anything new is not a complication. A tourbillon is not a complication, because it doesn’t offer new information, it enhances the precision of existing information. A depth gauge is not a complication, because it is not driven by the movement, and the additional information it offers is not related to time.

The key is in the name; these are horological complications, not atmospheric or aesthetic complications. They have to be horological in nature, which is to say, they should relate to time measurement. It’s an academic distinction, of course, because the word “complication” — in the sense that we use it in watchmaking — is largely disconnected from the dictionary definition of the word. This is how technical language works; words that have one meaning in common usage have quite different meanings in technical contexts.

 An ultra-thin, hand-skeletonised time-only watch is extremely complicated (normal usage of the word) to execute, but it is not complicated (technical usage of the word). In comparison, a chronograph moonphase watch equipped with an off-the-shelf movement is relatively easy to produce, but it is technically considered to be a complicated watch. You see how unhelpful the concept of "complication" can be when trying to evaluate a watch in an objective and meaningful way?

So what does this mean in terms of how we talk about watches? First of all, we need to stop seeing the line between complication/non-complication as a line that demarcates superior/inferior. Clearly, this is a complete fallacy. Secondly, we can recognise that there are features of a watch which require great skill and expertise to execute, even if they don’t strictly fall within the category of horological complication, and we should value them accordingly.

But why don’t we just expand the boundaries of the category? Because there is literally no general consensus on what a horological complication actually is. I’ve had countless debates (some verging on arguments) over the years about this — some brands count certain features as complications, others don’t, journalists and collectors flip-flop according to which brand or which watch they’re discussing and it’s confusing for everyone. Past a certain point, confusion gives way to loss of interest and indifference. 

Let’s be coherent and clear about what a complication is. Let’s give mechanically complex non-complications the respect they deserve. Let’s stop this facile interpretation of watchmaking that equates “more complications” with “superior watch”. Let’s use terminology and definitions that actually communicate the same thing across the board. Because, my friends, definitions are only useful when they define something definitively