Grandly Complicated

What makes a watch worth a million dollars? James Kaplan investigates.

On the brightly lit center stage of the microscope's field of vision a tiny clockwork miracle quivers—as wondrous, in its own way, as the fervent, sonogrammed heartbeat of a four-month-old fetus. A balance wheel whirls, too fast to see; a toothed escape wheel clicks around, caught and then released, caught and released, by two minuscule, darting, synthetic-ruby pallet stones.

But while this is beautiful, it happens in every mechanical watch. What is different here is that this entire whirling and clicking escapement (as the watch's central works is known) is centered on a second wheel that is slowly revolving, clockwise (of course!), within a tiny ring. And the miracle is that this miniature mechanism, known as a tourbillon (French for vortex, or whirlwind), counteracts the effects of gravity (which slows down, by an infinitesimal amount, even watch wheels weighing but a fraction of a gram).

"Nothing has surpassed this escapement," watch technician Kris Endress tells me, awe in his voice. We're standing in the maintenance facility for the American office of the high-end Swiss watchmaker Blancpain—now part of the Swatch Group—in Weehawken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from lower Manhattan. And what we're looking at, magnified ten and a half times, is the ticking heart of a wristwatch that, at the upper end of the scale, can cost $900,000.

The tourbillon, known as a complication, is found in many of the world's most expensive timepieces. Tourbillons, minute repeaters (tiny chimes that strike on demand the hour, quarter hour, and minutes), perpetual calendars, moon phase, and split-seconds chronographs—any one of these complications, or combinations thereof—can be found in wristwatches costing anywhere from $30,000 to nearly a million dollars.

These days, those of a mind (and bank account) to move up to a high-end mechanical watch have a bewildering variety of options, from Audemars Piguet to Roger Dubuis, from Blancpain to Vacheron Constantin, from Breguet to Chopard, from Girard-Perregaux to IWC, from Franck Muller to Parmigiani Fleurier, Patek Philippe, and Piaget. In fact the market for astronomically expensive wristwatches has simply exploded over the past 20 years, but especially in the last decade.

What's going on? At the root of this is the simple, unavoidable fact that ever since the caveman, men have had few ways to accessorize. Sure, every few decades we'll run through a terrible seventies-esque streak, where chains, dangling medallions, and the like seem cutting-edge with a certain segment of society. But apart from neckties, shoes, and watches, men have been very much limited in the way they are able to accessorize sartorially.

A generation ago, we were even more limited. In the early 1970s, the Swiss watch industry, which had been in glorious ascendancy for over 200 years (with much of its production centered in the heavily forested mountain-lake area Vallée de Joux, 30 miles north of Geneva), was suddenly at death's door. And there was one simple reason: the invention of the quartz crystal watch. An incredibly uncomplicated, incredibly accurate movement could be produced for a ridiculously low price.

Joe Thompson, senior writer for the magazine Watch Time, who has been covering the subject since the early Quartz Age, argues that "in one stroke a mechanical technology that had been around for four hundred years was outmoded, and the balance of power shifted from Switzerland to the Far East. The high-end guys stayed in there; what was under threat was the great industrial base for Swiss watch production. Patek Philippe made ten thousand watches a year—but you can't keep an entire industry going with those kinds of numbers."

Others, like Audemars Piguet and Jaeger-LeCoultre, added only several thousand units more. And so, by the early eighties, quartz appeared to have triumphed.

Then along came the flamboyant Luxembourger Jean-Claude Biver. In 1982, Biver purchased the brand name Blancpain for a reported $12,000. The company, which had been founded in 1735, had survived as late as the sixties by making diving watches for the U.S. Navy. Then it sank. But "Biver was a marketing genius who was bold to the point of lunacy," Thompson says. He relaunched the brand with a nonsensically catchy slogan ("Since 1735, there has never been a quartz Blancpain watch. And there never will be"), and soon he had sparked a veritable marketing counterrevolution.

The boom in world economies through the eighties and nineties had a lot to do with the rebirth of the complicated, and wildly expensive, mechanical watch, of course. All at once there was new money—and a lot of it—to spend on luxury items. Anybody with a fresh bundle could go out and buy the latest Ferrari or electronic thingamajig, but mechanical watches (like fountain pens, Thoroughbred horses, vintage cars, and other outmoded but fervently sought-after commodities) had mystique. There was something sublimely perverse and esoteric about the near obsolescence of the product. Soon dozens of little watch factories were humming again around Lac de Joux.

The tourbillon was invented in Paris in the latter part of the 18th century, amid the whirlwind of the French Revolution, by Abraham-Louis Breguet. But his tourbillon was meant to go into pocket watches, and clockwork-wise, pocket watches had two advantages over the wristwatches that would start to supplant them in the early 1900s: They moved very little under normal use, and they could be reasonably large—small clocks, in effect. Early watchmakers tooled their own parts: It was part of their dazzling ingenuity to be able to cut springs and wheels and screws that would accommodate such early complications as minute and hour chimes and moon-phase dials. (Not for nothing had Sir Isaac Newton conceived of God as a kind of super-clockmaker.) The culmination of Breguet's art was the watch possessing "every known complication" that he finished (somewhat belatedly) for Marie-Antoinette in 1819.

As the fine art of watchmaking advanced in the 19th century, Breguet's successors devised ways of fitting ever more complications into a pocket watch. With the progression of the Industrial Revolution and the ability to machine-tool parts, the possibilities became dizzying. The Le Roy 01, made in 1904, had 20 complications; the 1916 Packard watch by Patek Philippe had 15. But the Graves Supercomplication, which was completed by Patek Philippe in 1933 for the New York financier Henry Graves Jr., held the record for 56 years thereafter: It had 24 complications, including perpetual calendar, moon-phase, chimes for hours, quarter hours, and minutes, dials for sunrise and sunset times, split-seconds chronograph, and a moving map of the northern night sky for New York. This amazing timepiece also happened to be three and a half inches in diameter, and just under an inch thick. A big pocket, not to mention a very deep one, would have been necessary for such a pocket watch.

The Graves Supercomplication fetched $11 million at auction at Sotheby's in 1999. Ten years earlier Patek Philippe had come out with the Caliber 89, the most complex pocket watch ever created, with a total of 33 complications. And late last year, Patek introduced the Star Caliber 2000, a pocket watch that incorporates 21 complications, including six patentable inventions. Five sets will be made of the Star Caliber 2000. The first four sets will consist of four timepieces (one each in yellow gold, white gold, rose gold, and platinum) for approximately $7.5 million. The final set will be entirely in platinum, each piece with a different engraved motif on its case. Only one set will be available each year.

But we digress. These quite large and gorgeously complex watches are strictly collector's items, to be treasured, shown off—and heavily insured.

A complicated watch—from the outside—is a beautifully simple thing. A few small dials on an exquisite face, perhaps a glimpse of gold moon and stars against a midnight-blue sky. A winding crown and a couple of buttons on the side of the perfectly polished case; perhaps a discreet lever or two. The crystal, an aluminum-oxide compound that's been heated to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, has the hardness of sapphire and can be scratched only by a diamond. In some watches, there is a similar crystal on the reverse side so the works can be seen (as in Girard-Perregaux's Three Golden Tourbillon President); still others have a cover that snaps open and shut over this rear crystal.

The watch case is usually gold or platinum but may be stainless steel. The strap is usually alligator or crocodile; metal bands are generally seen on sporting watches—although a Geneva watchmaker tells the tale of one très sportif (and très riche) client who wore his $900,000 Blancpain 1735 motorcycling, skiing, and boating, then brought it in, ingloriously banged up, for repair.

The "complications"—the involved inner workings of a complicated watch—are what lend the timepiece its necessary heft. Aside from an ultraslim movement, these are the most sought-after complications.

Tourbillon
Theoretically, the tourbillon allows the timepiece that possesses it to steal a tiny march, where accuracy is concerned, on the timepiece lacking this complication. But since simple quartz watches are super-precise, tourbillons are prized more for their rarity and expense than anything else.

Minute Repeater
This complication, which chimes, in different tones, the hours, quarter hours, and minutes, was invented in the days before electric light, so the owner of a pocket watch could discern the time without looking.

Split-Seconds Chronograph
This is the most visually stunning complication. Say you're timing a race in laps. You start the stopwatch by pressing a button and a hand starts ticking around the dial. When one lap is complete, press another button, and the hand literally splits in two—one part keeps going, the other stands still at the lap time. Press the button again, and the stopped hand instantly catches up with the ticking one, the two merging into one.

Moon Phase
This complication, representing the waxing and waning of the moon as it circles the earth, dates from the early to the mid-17th century. (The average period of a lunar cycle is 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds.)

Perpetual Calendar
Although they might appear to be nothing more than little dials on the watch's face, beneath them you will uncover a work of awesome intricacy, an elaborate mechanical memory designed to register not just months that vary between 28, 30, and 31 days but the 29-day February of every leap year. All this is set up by a mechanism that completes a full rotation once every four years. Since, by calendrical law, years that end in two zeroes but are not divisible by 400 are not leap years, perpetual-calendar watches will be off by one day in the year 2100.

We promise our customers an adjustment free of charge," says Patek Philippe president Hank Edelman with a wry smile. In the company's unostentatious Manhattan offices Edelman is showing me two velvet-lined boxes, each containing seven watches, ranging in price from $12,300 to $154,000. Most of them have at least one complication. Right now I am ogling a manual-wind model in rose gold, with a perpetual calendar and a chronograph, on a brown alligator strap. It is, quite simply, a glorious thing, at once discreet and transcendentally elegant. It will set you back $76,800. But does it qualify as a grand complication? And what exactly does that term mean? Must a grand comp have three complications, or four? And which complications are essential? Actually, grand complication is a term with no official definition, and the truth is that watchmakers tend to bandy it about a bit. Edelman prefers the term very complicated watch to grand complication.

"The same level of artistry goes int making every one of these," Edelman tells me about the watches in the two boxes, "as goes into our million-dollar watches." Edelman, a friendly, unpretentious man, is wearing a gray suit, a subtle tie, and on his left wrist, a 1950 Patek Philippe Calatrava. It's a simple gold model with no doodads on the face. Edelman bought the watch secondhand 32 years ago.

"I have a couple of watches," he tells me, "but I always come back to this one. To me it represents what Patek Philippe is all about." What he's saying, in essence, is that neither he nor his company has any need to boast. Almost alone among Swiss watchmakers, Patek has been in business continuously since it was founded in 1839, and it has been privately owned for those 162 years. Because the company's owner, Philippe Stern, isn't beholden to stockholders, he can unilaterally make big decisions—as he did recently when Patek built its glorious multimillion-dollar, high-tech workshops on the outskirts of Geneva. The pricey real estate was occupied by a château, which Stern renovated. He simply liked the property. "No shareholders in a public company would have ever stood for a move like that," says Joe Thompson.

If you want a very complicated Patek, you can buy one—but you'll have to wait. Watches with tourbillons and minute repeaters must be special-ordered from Geneva, and Stern himself must approve each order. "Supply just cannot keep up with demand," says Leon Adams, president of the Waldorf-Astoria branch of the Manhattan jeweler Cellini.

"They make only a few a year, and Stern has to decide who gets them," Edelman says. Allocation, he informs me, is by geography rather than status, but then status isn't overtly the point. "The classic look and the understated design of a fine watch are its most powerful attributes," says Marc Junod, president of Blancpain, U.S.A. "To the uninitiated, the ultrathin, manually wound watch for $8,000 has essentially the same appearance as the minute repeater for $120,000."

"This is the status symbol for very special people," says Alberto Uglietti, a journalist for the Italian watch magazine Orologi. "Out of one hundred people, ninety-five have no idea what a minute repeater is, four are in love with it, and perhaps one owns a watch that has one. For them," he adds, "it's a kind of religion."


The Watchmakers

According to Anthony J. D'Ambrosio, executive vice president of Tourneau, a complicated watch is any timepiece having more than three hands, while a grand complication is a watch possessing all, or most of, the main complications. Herewith are listed high-end manufacturers of some of the finest complicated watches. For additional information on these watches, contact Tourneau (800-348-3332) or Cellini (800-255-3310).

A. LANGE & SOHNE (Cellini) 800-255-3310
AUDEMARS PIGUET 888-214-6858
BLANCPAIN 877-520-1735
BREGUET 212-688-4500
CHOPARD 800-246-7273
FRANCK MULLER 212-463-8898 (ext. 205)
GIRARD-PERREGAUX 877-846-3447
IWC 800-432-9330
JAEGER-LECOULTRE 800-552-8463
PARMIGIANI FLEURIER 203-531-3276
PATEK PHILIPPE 212-218-1240
PIAGET 800-359-4538
ROGER DUBUIS 570-970-8888
ULYSSE NARDIN (Cellini) 800-255-3310
VACHERON CONSTANTIN 877-862-7555

James Kaplan, author of the novel Two Guys from Verona (Grove Press, 1998) spent a substantial part of his bar mitzvah money on a fine watch in 1965. He still wears it.