6 minutes

Three of the Rarest Complications: Function, Purposiveness, and Play

By Tim Breining

Three of the Rarest Complications

Complications are features on a watch that go beyond just showing of time. They set manufacturers apart from the competition in terms of quality and creativity, and range from mechanically simple “small” complications like a second time zone to very complex, “high” complications like a perpetual calendar.

Along with complexity, complications are also distinguished by their utility – or the lack thereof. Many a complex mechanism has been designed for merely to make figures dance around a dial, with no discernible use beyond pure mechanical interest. On the other hand, there are many well-known functional complications like power reserve indicators, additional time zones, and chronographs.

Among these many examples, ranging from the simple to the complex, from the functional-pragmatic to the purely artistic, there are a few particularly curious complications that stand out from the rest. We’ve selected three to introduce here.

Read more about complications here.

Parmigiani Ovale Pantographe: The Watch With Telescopic Hands

The problem our first complication sets out to solve is the incompatibility of rigid hands with non-round dials. But what if the hands could be shortened and lengthened at will?

There was a 200-year-old historic pocket watch with hands that could do just that in the collection of the Sandoz family, the founders of the brand Parmigiani Fleurier. Michel Parmigiani, who had made a name for himself primarily as a talented restorer, was asked to restore the piece in 1997. This later provided the inspiration for adding a telescopic hands complication to a wristwatch.

However, the dimensions of a pocket watch allowed for a much more stable design for the most delicate components. Manufacturing tolerances were also more generous, and external influences were also less significant. Transferring a complication from a pocket watch to a wristwatch requires much more than simply miniaturizing the components.

Perhaps that’s why it took a few years to get the technical implementation right. The first prototype was released in 2011, followed by limited edition models and, finally, serial production. All variants have skeletonized hands with struts and small rivets, which according to Parmigiani are reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower.

Uhr mit ovalem Gehäuse aus Silber. Weißes Ziffernblatt mit dunkelblauen Indizes (3,6,9,12) und Teleskopzeigern.
Parmigiani Ovale Pantographe

The conspicuously large steel cylinder in the center of the dial tells us that this is where the secrets of the telescoping mechanism are to be found. Although it’s not immediately obvious how the mechanism is controlled, it’s clear how the change in length works in principle. We know this type of scissor mechanism from children’s toys and aerial work platforms. However, the name “pantographe” refers to a less common tool used in technical drawing and precision engineering to translate large movements into small ones.

Parmigiani, however, translates a small movement into a bigger one. The bigger movement is the lateral movement of the hand, and the smaller one is the folding of the ends of the scissor linkage, which are hidden in the steel cylinder in the center of the dial.

Inside the cylinder is one cam disk per hand, each of which resembles the dial shape in miniature. The cam doesn’t rotate with the hands; instead, small pins at the end of the rotating hands trace the cams. Based on where the pins are on the cam, the pins are pressed together or pulled apart, and the hand extends or retracts. The length of the hand at any given moment is thus determined by the cam.

Silbernes Uhrengehäuse an Lederband mit Sichtboden auf automatischem Uhrwerk.
Case back of the Pantographe

With the removal of the Ovale Pantographe from Parmigiani’s active collection, this rare and unique complication also disappeared from the market. Will Parmigiani or another manufacturer ever take it up again? Unclear.

Topsy-Turvy Hours: The Ludovic Ballouard Upside Down

This timepiece continues the trend of unusual complications with questionable practical value. But that’s more than made up for by the entertainment value of this truly unique mechanism, which can be seen through the sapphire crystal case back. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first a few words about the watch itself and its creator.

The Upside Down is Ludovic Ballouard‘s signature timepiece. It was launched in 2009 and is still a part of the collection today, with new variants appearing regularly. In fact, the collection only has one other model. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that the eponymous founder lacks creativity. Ballouard spent most of his life as a watchmaker, first at Franck Muller and later at F.P. Journe, where he assembled the Sonnerie Souveraine. He then went into business for himself in 2009 during the financial crisis.

The concept for the Upside Down came about quickly, and Ballouard secured funding from future customers. His plan worked, and his atelier grew to six people. A later failed project for Harry Winston led to upheavals, but Ballouard established his atelier anew and now produces the Upside Down there.

Uhr an kaffeebraunem Lederarmband mit Gehäuse in Roségold. Ziffernblatt in Perlmutt mit kleiner Sekunde. Arabische Zahlen Upside Down.
Ludovic Ballouard Upside Down

The Upside Down is home to one of the more playful complications out there. At first glance, it looks like a two-hand watch with a minute hand and decentralized seconds – the hour hand seems to be missing. Instead of indices, the dial has twelve offset discs with upside-down numbers. Except for one! The one number that’s upside down indicates the hour.

Uhr an kaffeebraunem Lederarmband mit Gehäuse in Roségold. Sichtboden mit automatischem Uhrwerk.
The open case back of the Upside Down

While the feature is easily explained, the mechanics underlying it are surprisingly complex. One look through the see-through case back will confirm that, as the movement is anything but ordinary. The outside of the movement is surrounded by twelve Maltese crosses, each corresponding to an hour marker. Between this layer and the inside of the movement is a steel ring that is connected to a spring-loaded lever. In the center of the movement is a snail-shaped cam, whose contours are traced by a claw on the lever. The cam is connected to the movement and completes one rotation an hour, which triggers the shift in the ring via the lever. The ring then switches two Maltese crosses. The disc from the previous hour turns upside down, and the disc of the now current hour turns right-side up. As the ring continues to rotate, the game goes on in clockwise fashion.

Jumping Seconds

The third unusual complication in this illustrious group is jumping seconds, also known as dead seconds. It’s not as rare or unique as our last two complications, but it is rather special, as it allows a mechanical watch to “disguise” itself as a quartz watch.

When you first start learning about mechanical watches, you find out pretty quickly how to distinguish them from quartz watches based on the second hand. In a mechanical watch, the second hand glides smoothly across the dial, whereas in a quartz watch, it jumps every second. An unmistakable difference.

That test will work pretty much all the time – unless there’s a jumping seconds complication, which fits a mechanical watch with a jumping seconds hand. There’s a certain irony contained in this mechanism, as it goes to a lot of technical trouble to make a mechanical watch look like a supermarket model.

Historically, there was of course a different motivation behind jumping seconds. People were familiar with jumping seconds hands on wall clocks, but not on pocket and wristwatches. Their balances oscillate at higher frequencies than a pendulum, which determines how often the seconds hand moves in a second. It seemed necessary to invent a mechanism like jumping seconds in order to make the second hand tick to the exact beat of the smallest practical unit of time. The association with quartz watches is much more recent, and the second-by-second movement of the second hand simply makes more sense. However, this complication has not gained wide popularity, perhaps due to precisely that association.

Uhr mit Stahlgehäuse an blauem Lederarmband. Ziffernblatt in Stahl matt. Schwarze Zeiger und Indizes (3,6,9,12).
Habring2 Erwin with jumping seconds

A jumping seconds complication can be implemented in a number of different ways. The simplest is probably to not put the second wheel in the flow of energy of the gear train. Instead, a gear wheel with a spring is repeatedly preloaded by the barrel and released at regular intervals by the star wheel on the escape wheel. The movement runs continuously, but the second hand only moves once per second. Some well-known examples are the Habring2 Erwin and the Geophysic True Second by Jaeger-LeCoultre.

Another variation of jumping seconds as it’s usually implemented in high-end watches can be realized together with constant force mechanisms. They ensure a constant flow of force to the escapement and stop the gear train at regular intervals. Depending on the design, jumping seconds can be a free bonus of this mechanism. F.P. Journe uses this construction. Grönefeld created another variation with two barrels and separate gear trains. What all these variations have in common is that they’re complex in design and thus come with higher price tags.

Uhr mit silbernem Gehäuse an schwarzem Lederarmband. Beiges Ziffernblatt mit Tourbillon und "toter Sekunde" Komplikation.
F.P. Journe Tourbillon Souveraine with “dead” seconds

This list of three unusual complications may have fascinated, amused, or confused you: I, for one, find it interesting to occasionally turn my attention to the stranger relatives of GMT and power reserve. I hope I’ve also been able to spark your interest in some mechanical rarities.

About the Author

Tim Breining

My interest in watches first emerged in 2014 while I was studying engineering in Karlsruhe, Germany. My initial curiosity quickly evolved into a full-blown passion. Since …

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