George Mallory, the famous British mountaineer who lost his life ascending Mt. Everest, was asked in 1924 why he would attempt that climb. His reply is among the most famous about mountaineering: “Because it’s there”.
Similarly, IWC’s Grande Complication watches, especially the Portugieser Grande Complication, represent the pinnacle of traditional watchmaking. A great watch manufacture needs to make such a watch –because it’s there. This watch is at the peak of horology. There is a history of technical development and artisan skill, at the highest level, embedded in each Grande Complication watch that leaves the IWC factory.
Correspondingly, the watch collector who has the means must seriously consider owning such a watch –because it’s there. It represents all that is great about watchmaking. It represents the science and art of watchmaking taken to the nth degree. It becomes the pinnacle of any great watch collection.
But, unlike mountain climbing, the Grande Complication has a purpose. Beyond being a symbol of accomplishment, the watch serves several purposes with its multiple functions. It tells everything necessary about time: it tells the time and date, always. It tells elapsed time with its chronograph function. And it tells time not just visually, but also audibly.
A simple mechanical watch might contain perhaps 180 finely-crafted parts, with 18 or 21 jewels considered today as the minimum needed for a basic movement. These parts are all exquisitely finished and hand assembled. Edges are chamfered and pinions are polished.
Today’s time-only watches can be prime examples of fine design, production and assembly. When viewing the miniscule size of certain movement parts, some being a fraction of a millimeter in size, a watchmaker will defend this technology by saying: “but that’s watchmaking”.
If that is watchmaking, then what is a Grande Complication? It’s watchmaking to a different degree, which approaches a difference in kind. It doesn’t have 18 jewels, or even 42 like IWC’s fine Portugieser Automatic, Reference 5001. Instead, the Portugieser Grande Complication, Ref. 3774, contains a grand total of 75 rubies embedded in its Calibre 79091 movement.
Having more jewels in and of themselves is not necessarily better. But here they are not for adornment, but because the movement has exactly 657 parts. Those micro-sized parts are needed to produce 21 total functions, and they’re placed in a case no taller than 16.5mm and 45mm wide.
It’s this very complexity that defines the Grande Complication. Although there is no uniformly accepted industry definition regarding what constitutes a “grand complication”, most claim, that the watch must include perpetual calendar and repeater functions. Here, IWC has accomplished more: with great complexity and yet simplicity of operation.
Begin with the basics. The watch tells the hours and minutes, of course. A sub-dial tells the seconds. But that’s for starters, because the Grande Complication also has a calendar. Which tells the day, the day of the week, and the date. The date includes the month, the year, and unlike almost every other watch, even the century.
The calendar is, of course, perpetual. Keep the watch running, and the watch will show the correct date, even accounting for months consisting of 30, 31, 28 or even 29 days. It accounts for leap years. The calendar only needs to be “corrected” once –on March 1, 2100, if a fortunate owner survives so long. In that year, the normally expected leap year is skipped, and the calendar needs a watchmaker’s adjustment.
The calendar’s extraordinary complexity, which is simple for the user to operate, was developed at IWC by one of its genius watchmakers, Kurt Klaus. He realized that all date functions are mathematically related, and developed a complex gearing system to keep exact time despite the variations. As a result, setting the watch is ingeniously simple and user-friendly: simply use the crown. When the owner sets the date, everything is set.
As if that amazingly precise perpetual calendar were almost insufficient, the Grande Complication includes two other complications. One is a chronograph, which tells elapsed time and also has totalizers to keep track of that. The chronograph, though, is at best a prelude to the supreme complication: a minute repeater. The repeater audibly chimes the hours, quarter hours and minutes by depressing a pusher on the side of the case.
The owner of such a prized watch can both read and hear the time: this takes timekeeping to a new dimension. Producing a repeater, especially one that sounds the minutes, requires extraordinary artisanship. The sound functions involve especially intricate gearing, and also require a uniquely skilled watchmaker endlessly fine-tuning the miniscule hammers to coax just the right sound.
With all these complications, the total exceeds the sum of the parts. It is one thing to produce a calendar watch, another a perpetual calendar, and still another to produce a unique one, set with the crown and with exacting accuracy over centuries. It is still another to produce chronograph watches and it takes leaps more to produce a repeater. The sum-total of all these complications is greater than any of these complications, by themselves or in smaller combinations.
The Portugieser Grande Complication is not just another great watch, but perhaps the greatest of them all. It is the Mount Everest in watchmaking, and the pinnacle to which all can aspire. It’s useful, it’s symbolic, and it reflects the peak of watchmaking. It is indeed “Grande”. And to borrow a social networking phrase, “It’s complicated”.
All Wound Up
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Aesthetic appeal with a longer service life
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A Strict Head Timer and a Precision Watch
“Chef régleur” Jean Häberli won gold medals for IWC more than a century ago. He was responsible for the accurate timing of watches leaving Schaffhausen.