At its heart, a mechanical watch is a fancy spring. A metal coil stores power when the crown is wound tight. A series of gears harnesses that energy in even increments. It spins a central wheel, whose oscillations are geared to turn the watch’s hands.
Once gears spin, it’s possible to add more complications, as watchmakers call them. A date display, for example, can be accomplished by adding a reduction gear mechanism to cause a calendar disc to rotate every two full revolutions of the hour hand. A similar mechanism can track the phases of the moon. A more complex one, called a perpetual calendar, can account for months less than 31 days and even leap years. The more complications, the more complexity, cost, labor, value, and mechanical drama.
The Swiss watchmaker Vacheron Constantin recently announced a remarkable mechanical movement with 23 complications. The mechanism contains 514 components but measures less than 9mm thick. In addition to such picayune matters as the perpetual date, the device is geared to track, in part: the Earth’s elliptical orbit, solar time, the zodiac, solstices and equinoxes, tide levels, the position of the sun, and the night sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Dubbed Les Cabinotiers Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication 3600, it is encased in 18 karat gold, and can be had for a cool $1 million.
It’s easy to sneer at such preposterous ostentation: a couple free smartphone apps can do all that astronomy, and more accurately too. But the Celestia Astronomical Grand Complication still does something digital devices cannot: provide delight via mechanics rather than integrated circuits. And it’s alone in that spectacle. Today, the watch has become the final resistance against the supremacy of computers.