Timepieces

What Goes Into a $100,000 Watch

The ultimate guide to high-end timepieces -- and how to tell a chronograph from a tourbillon.
Tourbillon: The Hublot Classic Fusion Skeleton Tourbillon

This story first appeared in the inaugural Watches supplement to The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The basic purpose of any watch is to tell the time, but some watches do more — much more. A mechanical watch takes the power of its mainspring and uses it to drive the gears that let it keep time. But at watchmaking’s top level are timepieces that use that coiled energy to drive additional mechanisms known as complications — so named for the sometimes incredible complexity they add to a watch. It’s not just about more parts. Since the mainspring can store only so much energy, a complicated watch has to be made with extraordinary precision so no energy is wasted. While it’s easy to program a battery-powered watch for any number of functions, doing the same thing with gears, springs and steel levers is a centuries-old art. The high-craft skills involved make them some of the world’s most expensive personal luxuries, but to connoisseurs, such exclusivity merely whets the appetite for the unique charm only a complicated watch can offer. Here are three examples of the watchmaker’s art at its finest.

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Tourbillon: The Hublot Classic Fusion Skeleton Tourbillon

It’s one of the world’s most venerated complications: the tourbillon, whose name means “whirlwind.” The tourbillon was invented by one of watchmaking’s most fertile geniuses, the Swiss-French watchmaker Abraham- Louis Breguet, whose clients included Marie Antoinette; he patented it in 1801. Although quartz watches make us take accuracy for granted, in a mechanical watch it’s the result of extreme care in manufacturing. Breguet, who was obsessed with accuracy, wanted to solve the problem of disruption of accuracy by gravity — the timekeeping parts of a watch are so sensitive that they actually run at slightly different rates, depending on the position the watch is in. To address it, Breguet put the most critical parts in a miniature rotating steel cage so that they were never in any single position for more than a few seconds — and the tourbillon was born. Requiring a master’s touch, the tourbillon since 1801 has been made only in very small numbers. Today, it’s admired as much for its artistry and mesmerizing rotation as its utility, and Hublot’s Classic Fusion Skeleton Tourbillon offers a spectacular view of Breguet’s invention. The tourbillon rotates at the 6:00 position on the dial, balanced by the visible mainspring above it, and the movement — the gears and wheels that convey power from the mainspring to the tourbillon and the timekeeping components inside — has been skeletonized, or openworked. Openworking is the art of removing as much metal as possible from the movement so that the dozens of parts that make the watch run seem to float suspended in space. It’s a strikingly modern interpretation of one of watchmaking’s grandest achievements.

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Minute Repeater: The Corum Admiral’s Cup Legend Acoustica

The minute repeater is one of the oldest, most romantic and most expensive of complications. A repeater is a watch that chimes the time when a button or sliding lever is pressed — a classic minute repeater chimes the hours, quarter-hours past the hour and minutes past the nearest quarter. If it’s 12:59, for instance, you’ll hear 12 “dongs.” Then “ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong” (a high and low note in succession for each of the three quarters past the hour). And then 14 “dings” — high-pitched notes for each of the 14 minutes past the nearest quarter. (Connoisseurs always test a repeater by setting it to 12:59.) It’s both watch and musical instrument, and making one that sounds beautiful and has enough volume easily taxes a watchmaker’s skill; minute repeater lore is full of strange trade secrets like the rumor that the best fluid for tempering the steel gongs is the urine of a pregnant mare. What we do know is that tuning and adjusting a repeater cannot be done by machine and remains one of the highest expressions of artistry in watchmaking. The Corum Admiral’s Cup Legend Acoustica goes the traditional repeater one better by using not two gongs but four — the hours and minutes are struck on two gongs at once, each pair tuned to produce a pleasing chord. Unlike most repeaters, the Legend Acoustica is activated by rotating the faceted bezel, and the gorgeous sound of its four gongs is music to the ears of any connoisseur. Though it’s available in several models, many purists will opt for titanium, whose lightness and rigidity make it a near-ideal case material.

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Perpetual Calendar: The Breguet Classique Reference 5447 ‘Grande Complication’

“Thirty days hath September,” the children’s mnemonic verse begins — but as everyone knows, the Gregorian calendar is anything but predictable. One of the most sophisticated of all complications, then, is the perpetual calendar — essentially, a miniature analog mechanical computer that tracks which month you’re in and automatically jumps to the first of the month on the right day regardless of the length of any given month. A perpetual calendar is so called because it can do this even in a leap year. The calendar, therefore, never needs to be reset manually. Montres Breguet is the company founded by the inventor of the tourbillon, A.L. Breguet himself, and in addition to the tourbillon, he gave the repeater and perpetual calendar their modern form. A fitting homage to his genius and heritage is the Breguet Classique 5447 “Grande Complication,” which includes a perpetual calendar and repeater in a single, ultra-sophisticated watch. The dial is directly derived from the engine-turned dials pioneered by Breguet in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and to look at it is to recall the words of a great Breguet collector, Sir David Salomons, who wrote, “To carry a fine Breguet watch is to feel that you have the brains of a
genius in your pocket.”

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WATCH WORDS: A GLOSSARY OF COMPLICATIONS

Perpetual Calendar: A watch that automatically shows the correct date of any month, including
February, even in a leap year.

Annual Calendar: Slightly less complex than a perpetual calendar; shows the correct date of any month but does not correct for a leap year.

Equation of Time: Highly esoteric now, this complication shows the difference between “time zone,” or civil time, and local solar time (the time shown by a sundial). It once was essential for setting clocks by the sun.

Chronograph Used: for timing events, the chronograph basically is a mechanical stopwatch built into a conventional watch. Has a sporty aura that makes it one of the most popular of all complications.

Rattrapante Chronograph: Also known as a “split seconds” chronograph, this type of chronograph has two second hands, allowing two events (like the times of two runners in a race) to be timed at once.

Tourbillon: Developed in 1801 by A.L. Breguet, this complication places the timekeeping components inside a rotating cage to combat the effects of gravity on accuracy.

Minute Repeater: A “repeater” is any watch that chimes the time; a quarter repeater chimes only the hours and quarter-hours; a minute repeater chimes hours, quarters and minutes.

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Sonnerie: Another chiming complication, the sonnerie, unlike the repeater, chimes the time “en passant” — automatically, at every hour and quarter-hour, without the owner having to press a sliding lever.

Sidereal Time: One of the rarest of complications, a sidereal time watch shows both normal time and “startime” — based on the astronomer’s sidereal day, which is timed by the movement of the stars, not the sun.

Remontoir D’egalite: An insider’s complication if ever there was one. Basically, a second mainspring kept wound by the
first; meant to ensure that the amount of energy reaching the timekeeping components never varies. Invented by Englishman John Harrison for the world’s first practical marine chronometer.

Moonphase: A charming complication; shows the age and phase of the moon. Often paired with a perpetual calendar.

Grande Complication: Traditionally used to refer to a watch that combined a rattrapante chronograph, perpetual calendar
and minute repeater. Today, the term often is used for any watch that combines several “high complications.” Very rare, very costly, especially in its traditional form.