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The Apple Watch has “complications” — a weird centuries-old watchmakers’ obsession

The Apple Watch, with visible "complications."
The Apple Watch, with visible "complications."
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Phil Edwards is a senior producer for the Vox video team.

If you've been monitoring the obsessive reviews of the Apple Watch, you've probably seen the advertising copy inspired by classic watchmaking terms.

The Apple Watch marketing for its "complications."

An example of "complications" in Apple Watch promotional material. (Apple)

This "horological tradition" includes the "crown" (the wheel on the side) and the liberal use of the phrase "timepiece." But the most intriguing lingo might be in the "complications."

On the Apple Watch, the complications are the tiny widgets that sit next to or above the time. They could be an alarm, weather, sunrise times, or any other little doodad. They were on the Porsche watches Steve Jobs favored, and they're on the watch that continues in his legacy. So why are they called "complications"?

The term has its heritage in traditional mechanical watchmaking, and the desire to improve them has obsessed watchmakers for years.

What complications are — and why they fascinate watchmakers

The interior of a watch illustrates how complications typically work. (DEA/G. Cigolini/Getty Images)

The interior of a watch illustrates how complications typically work. (DEA/G. Cigolini/Getty Images)

Complications in traditional watches are a lot like the ones on the Apple Watch — they are typically anything that adds information beyond the time. If you have a traditional watch with a window for a date, you have a complication. They're called complications because they "complicate" the watch and watchmaking process.

The desire to have complications is as old as watches themselves — even Marie Antoinette's watch had an alarm. Common complications might include a calendar or alarm, moon phases, a stopwatch function, or the time of sunrise and sunset. Unlike today, in the past these complex watches were achieved through mechanical means — like adding additional tiny gears and other parts.

Stacy Perman studied complications in her book A Grand Complication, focusing in particular on an early-20th-century battle to create one of the most "complicated" watches ever. She says the appeal for both collectors and watchmakers is simple: "They are a marvel of micro-mechanical engineering."

That led watchmakers to make increasingly complex watches — both to follow their own interests and to meet the demand of collectors. The term is informal, but any watch with three or more complications is called a "grand complication." These watches have been around for centuries as a tool and, more important, as a status marker.

Knowledge of the exact time used to be a scarce resource, and collectors could be proud of owning a timepiece. "Watchmakers were the most innovative engineers," Perman says, "and watches were considered amusements for the wealthy. They would come up with timepieces to dazzle a sultan or a king or whomever." When the Industrial Revolution happened, American elites imitated the European fetish for watches.

The pinnacle of mechanical watchmaking was the Supercomplication — and it's sold for millions at auction

The Supercomplication when it was for sale. (Fabrice Coffrini/Staff/Getty Images)

The Supercomplication when it was for sale. (Fabrice Coffrini/Staff/Getty Images)

The most complicated mechanical watch was the Supercomplication, an intricate model made by watchmaker Patek Philippe & Co. It took years to design and build and included features like a full chart of the night sky at the home of the owner, Henry Graves Jr. Its creation was inspired by a watch rivalry between Graves and James Packard. Years later it set auction records, and as recently as November 2014 it sold for $24 million at auction.

The two men came at watch collecting with different motives. Graves had a competitive zeal for luxury, while Packard — the engineer behind the Packard car — had an intellectual curiosity. Both pushed watchmakers to exceed their boldest dreams for complications, and instead of buying old watches, they sought to build new ones that broke records.

Mechanical watches and the Apple Watch have similar appeal

Consumers eagerly examine the Apple Watch. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Consumers eagerly examine the Apple Watch. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In the watch collector's zeal, it's easy to see similarities to the lust for the Apple Watch. Of course, any watch collector will tell you that comparing a finely tuned mechanical watch to an Apple Watch is facile, and that's worth considering. Especially with respect to aesthetics and the difficulty of design, the Apple Watch has very stiff competition. But the centuries-old desire to heap on complications isn't all that different from the modern interest in the hot new thing.

"Mechanical watches were the apex of the gadget world," Perman says. "I think it's kind of smart of Apple to appropriate these horological terms, because they're trying to sell a watch. And it is a watch — and the Supercomplication was the iPhone of its day."

Perman is careful to point out the difference between the computer-programmed Apple Watch and the intricate mechanical watches it competes with. It's true that in some ways, the Apple Watch represents a grand departure from the "horological tradition" it invokes. After all, instead of requiring exacting mechanical precision, you can add a complication to an Apple Watch with a few taps.

But even though Henry Graves and John Packard might not recognize the screen on the Apple Watch, they'd probably understand the desire of its many complications, as well as the appeal of a luxury product that's not merely the best, but is on the bleeding edge of the technology. For Apple and for watch lovers like Packard and Graves, there's always "one more thing."

WATCH: 'It's finally here- Reviewing the Apple Watch'

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