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Hot Dates!

Calendar watches heat up the horology scene with new takes on an old problem
Laurie Kahle
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Daniels-The Newsroom, July/August 2012

In case you are not familiar with the Chinese calendar, 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, which explains the current preponderance of watch dials in the market that are embellished with the mythical creature associated with prosperity and power. It is also a reminder of the burgeoning Chinese luxury market, which Swiss brands are unabashedly courting. Blancpain, however, advanced beyond mere decoration with its Traditional Chinese Calendar watch. The dial uses Chinese characters in addition to Roman numerals to display the hours, minutes, and the Gregorian calendar alongside the main indications of the lunisolar Chinese calendar: traditional double-hour indication, day, month with indication of leap months, the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, as well as the five elements and the 10 celestial stems. A moon phase display makes the connection between the lunar cycle and traditional Chinese months.

The magnitude of such a creation—a watch that calculates both Western and Asian calendar data—comes into sharper focus when you consider that even a calendar watch based solely on our solar calendar poses challenges for watchmakers due to irregular months and leap years. For hundreds of years, watchmakers have understood how to display dates as well as time, but the latest takes on the genre offer such enhancements as improved setting systems, new representations of lunar phases, novel combinations of complications and, of course, ever-expanding design motifs. They also further explore a comparatively recent advancement, the annual calendar watch, which created a new watch category as well as its own market niche between the hyper-expensive models that almost never require resetting and the more affordable ones that need nearly bimonthly attention. And with the new annual category has come a new breed of collector.

An estimated 40 different calendars are used around the globe, but the one we—and the watches we wear—generally follow is the ecclesiastical Gregorian calendar, which was established by papal decree in 1582. Because that system includes months of varying lengths, a simple calendar watch, with a 31-day readout, must be adjusted five times a year to correct for those months with fewer days. The annual watch needs adjusting only once a year, on March 1, while the rare semi-perpetual calendar requires correcting on leap-year day only. Highly complex perpetual calendar mechanisms have existed since 1795.

Cartier Rotonde de Cartier Annual Calendar.
Cartier Rotonde de Cartier Annual Calendar
Attributed to the 18th-century watch-making genius, Abraham-Louis Breguet, a perpetual calendar will automatically adjust for monthly variations as well as leap years. Provided that you keep one running continually, a current perpetual calendar will track the day, date, month and moon phases without need for adjustment until 2100. You would then have to adjust on March 1, as that’s the next time that an end-of-century year will be a common year (365 days) and not a 366-day leap year. (The Gregorian calendar reconciles the fact that the length of a solar year is actually 11 minutes shorter than the 365.25-day cycle that the Julian calendar assumed. It did this by eliminating what would normally be the quadrennial leap year that comes on end-of-century years—except those years divisible by 400.) If you are still running your perpetual watch in the year 2400, you won’t have to bother to reset its date at the end of February.

Yet that is not to dismiss the first category of calendar watches. While it may technically be a simple triple calendar (showing day, date and month, but still running on a 31-day cycle), there is nothing basic about Maîtres du Temps’s Chapter Two, which takes on a sporty personality in its new round case made of Grade 5 titanium and black PVD. Maîtres du Temps’s hallmark is using turning roller displays, an inventive approach that was inspired by a vintage clock. Like the Chapter One, Chapter Two’s rollers indicate the day and month. For its second model, the young boutique brand partnered with independent masters, Peter Speake-Marin (who worked with Christophe Claret on Chapter One), and Daniel Roth, an industry veteran who sold his eponymous brand to Bulgari.

Still, perpetual calendars are the most highly sought after and expensive due to the technical challenges involved in creating them. “The perpetual calendar is one of the most amazing complications that has ever been,” says John Reardon, head of watches at Sotheby’s in New York. “The execution of it continues to evolve as companies look for novel ways to display the information conveyed through the dial, but the basic technology has remained the same.”

Patek Phillipe Ref. 5204.
Patek Phillipe Ref. 5204
Just as the engineering has changed little, the high level of skill required to produce a perpetual calendar has not faltered. “Each part of a perpetual calendar has to be adjusted by hand, so any perpetual calendar that we make is not something that can be put into regular production,” says Laurent Junod, Patek Philippe USA’s lead watchmaker. Patek Philippe garners particular reverence in perpetual calendars as it produced the first perpetual calendar watch meant to be worn on the wrist in 1925. This year, the brand introduced three significant perpetual calendars including the Ladies’ First for women, the ultra-thin automatic Ref. 5940J in a retro cushion-shaped case, and the Ref. 5204, which marks the latest evolution of the brand’s much-heralded in-house chronograph movement that debuted in 2009. Patek added a split-seconds mechanism and a perpetual calendar module to its chronograph, which has six patents either pending or accepted. Junod points out such clever 21st-century innovations as the way the clutch lever is adjusted by using the cap on the column wheel. The teeth on the two chronograph wheels have also been reshaped for heightened efficiency and smooth action when you stop and start the chronograph hand.

One of the most vexing aspects of owning a perpetual calendar can be the hassle of resetting all the different displays with a push pin if the watch’s mainspring runs down. Some of the most notable innovations in perpetual calendar technology over the decades have simplified this process. In 1985, master watchmaker Kurt Klaus of IWC developed the Da Vinci, a mechanical chronograph with a perpetual calendar and a four-digit year display. With only 83 components, the groundbreaking movement allows you to set all the calendar functions—date, day, month, year, decade, century, millennium and phase of the moon—via the crown, an industry first. As you pull out the crown to set the date and time, the other displays automatically adjust. The movement powers IWC’s latest pilot’s perpetual calendar, the Spitfire Perpetual Calendar Digital Date-Month, which displays the date, month, and four-year leap-year cycle digitally in a nod to cockpit instrumentation.

Such elegant solutions have defined the oeuvre of Dr. Ludwig Oechslin, the independent visionary behind Ulysse Nardin’s most complicated watches. His user-friendly design is the only perpetual calendar watch that adjusts forward and backward with the crown, even in the year 2100. The brand unveiled the patented Perpetual Ludwig watch in 1996 to mark the 150th anniversary of the company.

Oechslin’s particular genius is the ability to devise such original, integrated concepts to solve complex watchmaking problems, rather than simply adding parts to correct for problems that arise.  “I like to find the simplest solution—the less parts I need to make the same indication the better,” he explains. “This is my goal, which is not always so impressive for the public, but it takes a lot more work.” Oechslin’s new Ochs und Junior collection applies his less-is-more philosophy with an “intuitive” calendar display composed of patterns of dots that require you to understand the system to read the date. “It appears more challenging, but it’s actually a simple way to read a watch once you learn how to do it,” he adds.


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