Tick tock you don't stop

Robin Swithinbank is seduced by full calendar watches that won’t need adjusting for a century or more

A perpetual calendar watch, that will give you the correct date without adjusting for the next hundred years or more, is the ultimate prestige item, says Robin Swithinbank

Not every watch aficionado appreciates a date window on a watch, but even the date deniers would admit that when it comes to fine watchmaking, there’s little that can obscure the glory of a perpetual calendar, the ultimate date watch.

Perpetual calendar watches show the date in full, which is nifty enough, but what makes them truly remarkable is that they are mechanically programmed to take into account the complexities of the Gregorian calendar for a hundred years, and, in some cases, many more. Assuming it’s kept wound, that means a perpetual calendar watch will never need adjusting for irregular month lengths or leap years – at least, not in any of our lifetimes.

Dial-side up, the typical perpetual calendar shows the day of the week, date, month and moon phase, and sometimes also the year in four digits and leap year indication. Owners await midnight on New Year’s Eve with baited breath to watch all of these indications advance at once as one year segues into the next.

Because of their undeniable charms, perpetual calendars are highly valued by collectors, and cost tens of thousands. “A perpetual calendar is a very classical, historic complication,” says Stefan Ihnen, associate director R&D at IWC, whose techy, titanium aluminide Ingenieur Perpetual Calendar Digital Date Month has just arrived on the market. “When you come to understand the complexity of a mechanism that can take into account the Gregorian calendar, it’s hard not to appreciate it.”

As with IWC, purveyors of perpetual calendars reside in the upper strata of fine watchmaking. Patek Philippe is a long-time master of the form. It filed a patent for a pocket watch with a perpetual calendar in 1889, and produced its first wristwatch with the same function in 1925. The most recent example in Patek’s line-up is the cushion-shaped 18-carat yellow gold Ref 5940J, arguably one of the most beautiful the famous Geneva marque has ever made.

If round cases are more your thing, you’ll find no less horological prestige in Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Master Ultra Thin Perpetual. Its case is just 9.2mm thick; its date function is programmed until 2100; and it’s adjustable via a single pushbutton. Jaeger-LeCoultre routinely prices its watches below many of its peers – all this cleverness, wrapped in steel, will set you back an industry challenging £13,600.

Not all perpetual calendars are as traditional-looking as these two, mind. Breitling for Bentley has just released the Bentley Light Body QP Midnight Carbon, a 49mm black titanium behemoth that’s also a highly precise chronograph. (QP, incidentally, is short for the original French term for perpetual calendar, ‘quantième perpetuelle’).

An intriguing take on the idea is the hand-wound Moser Perpetual 1, a Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève winner (think watchmaking Oscars) made by the impressive but little-known H Moser & Cie. Doing away with moon phases and such, it’s furnished with no more than an oversized date window in the conventional 3 o’clock spot and a small central arrow hand that points to the 1 o’clock position for January, the 2 for February and so on.

If a perpetual calendar on its own is not enough, a select number of brands add further functions to create so-called grande complications. Cartier is the latest in a small but select number of brands to combine chronograph and QP functions in one wristwatch. The Rotonde de Cartier Perpetual Calendar Chronograph has an in-house movement, and, if previous examples made by Patek and Vacheron Constantin are anything to go by, could become a serious investment piece. This time last year, a 1987 Patek perpetual calendar chronograph owned by Eric Clapton sold at auction for a cool $3.6m.

But the real attraction of a perpetual calendar lies beyond any future return it might bring, or even its usefulness. “They evoke notions of perpetual time,” says Stéphane Belmont, Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Creative and Marketing Director. “They’re complex to design, engineer and produce, and they create a great sense of fascination among watch connoisseurs.”

No watchmaking complication explains our continued obsession with mechanical watches so elegantly – a perpetual calendar is a watch for all time.

Master Perpetual
Ultra-Thin in steel.

Patek Philippe
Ref 5940J perpetual
calendar in rose gold.

Rotonde de Cartier Perpetual Calendar Chronotraph

H Moser & Cie
Moser Perpetual 1

Perpetual Calendar
Digital Date Month