The watch complication of the 21st century hasn’t been invented yet

“I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time. Actually I never even wind it.”

– Andy Warhol

Since the inception of mechanical watchmaking, innovation and progress were measured against improvements to timekeeping precision and accuracy. Everything from the hairspring to many of the well-established (haute) complications served that mission. A.L. Breguet’s invention of the tourbillon served a fully functional role by maintaining a steady rate while pocket watches constantly changed position. The minute repeater was a pragmatic interface to know the time when spaces were dimly lit (or not lit at all). Even stop-watches and chronographs in their earliest forms were used as a simple interface to boost accuracy by stopping and resetting the balance against a superior timekeeper, mostly clocks in homes or public spaces. 

The direct link between complications and chronometry reigned supreme for nearly 500 years. It wasn’t always linear progress though. There were long periods of little to no innovation, and intense bursts of technological revolution over short periods of time. Step by step, things moved forward. That is, until the arrival of the quartz movement. 

With quartz, mechanical complications couldn’t compete on precision and accuracy any more than I can compete with Rafael Nadal on the tennis court. We do talk about the economics of the Quartz Crisis — how it nearly killed the mechanical watch industry during the 1970’s and 1980’s. We do not talk enough about how the Quartz Crisis changed the function of mechanical watchmaking forever. Quartz brought the industry’s 500-year-old raison d’être to its knees. Decades later, the industry is still grappling with what complication development in the 21st century means. 

Here, I want to think through how complications can evolve in the post-quartz era.


Form follows function, and when function changes …

Before diving in, I want to be clear that it wasn’t only quartz movements that brought us here. What started with quartz was completed only about a decade ago with the rise of mobile phones. If quartz made mechanical complications seem archaic, the mobile phone was a headshot to the bare logic of owning a watch to tell the time.  

The strangest irony, especially in retrospect, is that the mechanical watchmaking in the 1980s found salvation in the same haute complications that quartz movements rendered obsolete. Even when the function of the wristwatch in day-to-day life changed significantly, its form remained the same. It feels as if the luxury watch industry simply pretends that we are still living in the period before the Quartz Crisis, or better yet, that it never happened at all. Haute complications are all the same today as they were before. Indications of time have never really moved beyond hands and disks. The shape of wristwatches remains dominated by circular dials. As mentioned in a previous article, there is a group of outliers that comprise the “avant garde” art movement in watchmaking, but they occupy a very, very small niche. 

“Form follows function” is a two-way street. When function changes, so shall form. So what’s a truly 21st century approach to complications development?


The future of watch complications

If traditional watchmaking was dominated by pragmatism in the service of chronometry, this next wave of watchmaking will move toward more playful and fun creations. A self-conscious form of watchmaking that centers on pleasure for the collector – optical and tactile. This is by no means something completely new. There are examples of this underlying logic in watchmaking, some of which are well-regarded timepieces. 

I would say that Franck Muller’s Crazy Hours belong to this playful, thoroughly modern form of watchmaking. Others in the same category include Constantin Chaykin’s Joker and Ludovic Ballaourd’s Upside Down. There are aspects of this in singular watches, the design and development of singular components, like the roll-winding system on Urwerk’s UR-111. This is a non-exhaustive list, of course. Generally, I would love to see more complications developed in the same vein as these examples above. Complications that exist, not to serve fundamental chronometric performance, but ones that prioritize the collector’s experience and joy with the timepiece.

I can hear some readers groaning, decrying my intent to leave tradition behind. That is not my goal here whatsoever. Just as photography exists alongside painting, there will be no future where 21st century watchmaking blasts traditional watchmaking off the map. My intention here is to encourage the next wave of young watchmakers to focus on complications that elicit emotions and think beyond the tried-and-true tourbillons, chronographs, minute repeaters, etc. Maybe then, the complication of the 21st century will be invented this century.

Another day with the beast,

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