Monday, July 1, 2013

Watch Primer #14: The Sliding Scale of Mechanical Complications, As Exemplified by Date Functions

Today's Watch Primer entry looks at how complicated the watch on your wrist should be, and the pros and cons of having all those functions at your beck and call.

To start off, what is a complication?  My view on the subject goes back to the most primal function of a wristwatch:  telling time.  Truth be told, a watch needs only an hour hand (or its functional equivalent) to serve its purpose as a watch - and, in fact, some models adhere to that somewhat myopic minimalist ideal.  But the vast majority of watches out there will, at the very least, feature hands for hours and minutes.  In my view, any contrivance designed to provide information beyond those two factors - hours and minutes - is a complication.  Thus, in my view, many of the barest watches come with at least one complication:  namely, a second hand, whether central or subsidiary.

The next most common complication is the date window, which I'd hazard to guess more watches today have than have not.  The perfunctory inclusion of this complication is something of a pet peeve of mine, because it requires tedious resetting if the watch were ever to wind down, or, as occurred between yesterday and today, when a month with thirty days concludes and the date window must be advanced manually from "31" to "1."  Nevertheless, my time working at court - where the date as well as the time is an important consideration - has impressed upon me that a date function can be a useful reminder for a harried mind.  The date window can be accompanied by a day-of-the-week indicator, whose marginal utility is I think outweighed by the added hassle of resetting it along with the date when the watch is wound down.

Additional date-related complications takes you into more rarefied company, starting with the annual calendar, which is designed so that the watch's date displays will only have to be adjusted manually once a year (excepting wind downs).  Often at this point a watch may gain indicators for the month in addition to date and day-of-the-week. The perpetual calendar accounts for the vagaries of the calendar for roughly a century at a time, meaning that, if kept running, the watch will need a servicing long before it requires a date adjustment.  In the most complex perpetuals, a year display may be added on top of everything else.

Somewhere in the play in the joints left between these incrementally more complex date functions is the moon phase complication, which is by its very nature included mostly for show and aesthetics.  I must profess a profound ignorance as to lunar cycles or the utility of tracking them; whenever I see such a complication, I only see a complication in non-watch-related parlance.  The prospect of trying to resync a moon phase to lunar cycles is enough to keep it off of my wrist.

So what do I mean by sliding scale of complications?  The general principle is this:  The more complicated the watch, the less utility you gain from each additional function; at the same time, the cost - in time and money - spent on maintaining those functions increases.  Taking a look at any watchmaker's table of servicing costs will demonstrate that the cost of maintenance scales exponentially as the watch in question grows ever more complicated.  At the same time, by the very nature of those complications, setting and utilizing them becomes an increasingly onerous task as the list of added functions grows longer and longer.  At some point - both in the amount of time you spend attending to it, and the amount of money you spend on keeping it in good working order - I would argue that you begin to cease owning the watch, and the watch starts to own you.

There is a certain purity in being able to pick up a watch, reset the time, give the crown a few turns, strap it to your wrist, and be done with it.  That purity easily translates to ease of use and legibility of an uncluttered dial, and even can make the cost of servicing a far more palatable necessity.  There is no one-size-fits-all answer for how complicated your ideal watch should be.  That is largely a function of your needs, means, and values.  But a guiding principle can be derived from economics' cost-benefit analysis:  You can determine the complexity of your ideal watch where the marginal cost, in both money and effort, of the complication at at least counterbalanced by the marginal benefit the complication provides.  For me personally, this sweet spot occurs where functionality shifts from telling time to marking the date.

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