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Watch complications

Watch complications

More than the time

In watch terminology, a complication is any function other than telling the time. The more complications a watch has, the more difficult it is to build the mechanical movement that drives the watch. If a watch combines many complications — particularly intricate ones — it’s called a “grand complication.”

High horology

Very few watch brands have the capability of producing grand complication timepieces given the amount of skill, knowledge, and time it takes to develop the movements. You’ll often hear the terms "high horology" or "haute horlogerie" to describe these types of complicated watches.

Common watch complications

While high horology timepieces are few and far between, watches fitted with a few complications are not. Here's an overview of the most popular watch complications offered by luxury watch brands.


  • The simplest and most ubiquitous complication found on watches.
  • A date window on the dial is the most common way to display the date. It's commonly found at the 3, 4:30, or 6 o’clock positions.
  • Some watches feature a “big date” display, which usually features two adjacent windows — one for each numeral.
  • Sometimes, a subsidiary dial instead of a window shows the date.
  • A pointer date includes a hand on the dial that points to the date, which is displayed around the periphery of the dial.


  • Some watches include a day indication on the dial to accompany the date display.
  • The most common way to display a day complication is through a window but it can also be indicated via a pointer hand.
  • Sometimes the day is written out in full. Other times it’s displayed in an abbreviated format.


  • The month indicator can be displayed via a window or with a pointer hand.
  • While the most common way to show the month is by name, Rolex devised a month indicator on the Sky-Dweller watch using small boxes next to the 12 hour markers.
  • Depending on which month it is (1=Jan, 2=Feb, 3=Mar, etc.) the appropriate box is filled with a different colour than the rest.

Triple calendar

  • If a watch features the date, date, and month, it’s referred to as a triple calendar or complete calendar watch.

Annual calendar

  • Not only displays a few different calendar indications but also requires the wearer to manually adjust it once a year.
  • An annual calendar watch knows which months have 30 days and which have 31 days, so as long as the watch keeps running, it will automatically adjust the date on the first of each month (except for March.)
  • Since February has 28 or 29 days (depending on whether it’s a leap year), the wearer will have to correct the watch on March 1.

Perpetual calendar

  • One of the most admired complications in horology as it's programmed to know the number of days in every month and the leap year cycle.
  • As long as the watch continues to run, a perpetual calendar will automatically adjust to always display the correct day/date/month.
  • The year 2100 will require a manual correction because, according to the Gregorian calendar, that’s when the next leap year will be skipped.

Travel complications

While some complications are purely decorative, others can be quite useful, particularly for travelers. Common complications include features like world timers, dual time zones, and alarms. While not strictly necessary, these complications can be very handy for anyone who frequently jets off to different time zones. Of course, luxury watch brands often take complications to the next level with features like moon phase indicators and tourbillons. For the avid traveler, a watch with one or more complications can be a real asset.

Dual time

  • Displays two time zones simultaneously, which is practical for frequent travelers who need to know both local time and home time
  • Second time zone is usually displayed via a 12-hour subdial
  • Day/night indicator sometimes accompanies that subdial so the wearer knows if it’s A.M. or P.M. in that time zone


  • Stands for "Greenwich Mean Time"
  • A special type of dual time watch that uses a 24-hour scale for the second time zone
  • The most common layout of a GMT watch includes a fourth hand on the dial, which points to a 24-hour marked bezel to indicate the hour of the second time zone

World time

  • Indicates 24 time zones at once
  • Usually includes a rotating ring around the dial periphery that displays 24 cities that correspond to the 24 time zones

Chronograph complications

A chronograph watch includes a stopwatch function. A traditional chronograph watch has two pushers on the case, a central chronograph hand (in place of a normal seconds hand), and two or three subsidiary dials. The two pushers, which are normally positioned above and below the winding crown, serve to start and stop (upper pusher) and reset (lower pusher) the chronograph hand.

Chronograph complications

The subsidiary dials include counters to track how many minutes and hours have elapsed since the chronograph hand was activated. Although not a requirement, many chronograph watches will include a tachymeter scale, which measures units (miles and/or kilometers) per hour. Chronograph watches with two subsidiary dials are often called bi-compax while those with three subsidiary dials are called tri-compax.

Other chronograph complications

A flyback chronograph (a.k.a. retour-en-vol) does not require the chronograph hand to be stopped before resetting it. A split-seconds chronograph (a.k.a. rattrapante) features three pushers and a pair of chronograph hands to time two events that begin together but end separately (like in a race.) Finally, there’s also the single-pusher chronograph (a.k.a. monopoussoir) where one pusher starts, stops, and resets the chronograph hand.

Chronograph vs. chronometer

While people often confuse the terms, chronographs and chronometers are not the same things. A chronometer is a watch that has been officially certified to meet specific accuracy/precision ratings, while a chronograph is a watch with a stopwatch function. In Switzerland, the Swiss Official Chronometer Testing Institute (COSC) is in charge of testing and certifying chronometers.

Other complications

Although the above complications are the most popular ones used in luxury watches, there are plenty of other watch complications available too.

A power reserve indicator tells the wearer how much energy the movement has before it requires winding. A typical modern luxury watch can have anywhere between two to ten days of power reserve.

A day/night indicator differentiates between A.M. and P.M. hours of the second time zone display.

A moon phase display shows the lunar progression, from new to full, over its complete cycle (29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes, and 2.8 seconds.) It's typically displayed in a semi-circular window on the dial, to obscure the correct portions of the moon depending on the current phase.

An alarm watch will either make a sound or vibrate at a pre-determined time.

Striking complications sound out the time via tiny hammers striking tiny gongs either on demand or automatically. These are some of the most difficult complications to make and were invented before electricity so that the owner could know the time in the dark. The most famous are minute repeaters, which chime the hours, quarters, and minutes on demand.


  • Mechanisms that constantly rotate the balance wheel, balance spring, and escapement to neutralize timekeeping errors caused by gravity.
  • Not technically complications since they don't add extra functions to a watch.
  • Named after the French word for “whirlwind” and invented by A.L. Breguet for pocket watches in the late 1700s.
  • Debatable if they provide any timekeeping benefits but still highly coveted for their beauty and craftsmanship.