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Editorial - The Feminine Complication

Editorial The Feminine Complication

High time for a re-evaluation…

I have a question for you, and I can’t guarantee that it’s not a trick question.

Q: What is a feminine complication?

If you are a man, and your answer was something along the lines of, “my wife!” — congratulations! You have mastered time travel and have successfully returned to the 1950s. Enjoy your dysfunctional post-war economic recovery and lack of internet. If you are one of the few women making this wisecrack answer in order to (justifiably) highlight the fact that you live in an enlightened society with equal-opportunity marriage, you get a pass just this once. Don’t do it again.

If your awareness of watchmaking was formed any time before, well, now, you’ll be familiar with the concept that there are a few horological mechanisms that are associated with femininity. Here’s a (depressingly brief) list: 

  1. Moonphase indication
  2. Minute repeater (the so-called queen of complications)
  3. Emotive animated displays

Out of those three, only the moonphase indication is used with any regularity in a feminine timepiece, and can be counted as a true complication. The minute repeater, despite its gendered title, is rarely seen in a feminine timepiece. Animated displays, although complicated in a vernacular sense, are not complications in the traditional horological sense. 

Additionally, when you see the moonphase indication referred to as a feminine complication, it’s overwhelmingly in the context of the kind of watch that straddles the horlogerie/bijouterie divide. In these watches, the moonphase mechanism approximates the lunar cycle to 29.5 days, which is shorter than the actual synodic cycle of 29.530588861 days. After about 2 years and 8 months and 2 weeks, the moonphase display has accumulated an error of +1 day. 

The more sophisticated moonphase indications, those with over 100 years of mechanical accuracy, are of course rarer, but when you do see one, it is almost never described as a feminine complication. What is that supposed to tell us — that the one feminine complication ceases to be feminine when it appears in a mechanically superior configuration?

Now, I have a second question for you, and this is definitely not a trick question.

Q: Why is the moonphase indication considered a feminine complication in the first place?

One of the oldest known mathematical artifacts is the Lebombo bone, a section of baboon fibula dated to the Late Stone Age, or more precisely 35,000 BCE. On it are 29 notches, and the most widespread theories about the use of the Lebombo bone were that it was some sort of counting tool, perhaps man’s earliest attempts at making a lunar calendar. In 1991, American ethno-mathematician Claudia Zaslavsky posed the rhetorical question: what man needs to keep track of a 29-day cycle? She suggested that such objects were likely made by women — who not only had a biological reason to reckon the passing months, but were also the first agriculturalists, providing a second incentive to maintain awareness of calendrical information.

The moonphase indication is therefore linked to the first known artifact reflecting humanity’s efforts to measure time, an object that was most likely created by a woman. The only true feminine complication should be renamed as the earliest complication. Now, let’s try that opening question again.

Q: What is a feminine complication?
A: The first one.