Recent history hasn’t been so kind to the lunar phase complication. Between the mid-nineties and the late naughties, watchmaking was rapt by a braggadocious bro culture that favoured the rambunctious over the refined. Classical style and size were shelved for in-your-face outlandishness. Vivid colours and gargantuan cases dominated. The time for a patient, relatively static complication like a moon phase was passed. Its days in the sun seemed over. It seemed likely that this interesting mechanical exercise would exist as a throwback addition, more to recall the past than take us into the future.
And then everything changed. The financial uncertainty of the last decade brought watchmaking back into line. Gone were the days of customers throwing money at retailers in a deliberate effort to wear the most expensive thing; welcomed was the era of frugality, of quality, of value. Customers still want the very best, but they want it wrapped up in a more permanent package. They want heirlooms not bragging rights. And what does that mean for the aesthetics of watchmaking? A return to class…
The Outside Affects the In
Moon phase complications have been used on hypermodern watches, but in this writer’s opinion, it never looks quite right. Something about the richness of the colours often used in the decoration of a lunar disc (often blue and gold) makes this complication automatically ostentatious. It needs an elegant housing. Sure, it looks okay in an Audemars Piguet Royal Oak case (basically because that case could make any complication look good), but it looks at home in something more retro like a Patek Philippe 5396.
So, this aesthetic reversion favoured the moon phase, but so have the advances in technology and the market climate that demands evermore unnecessary levels of accuracy to justify a purchase that would have seemed more throwaway ten or 20 years ago. Some watchmakers have taken this to heart, like Roger W. Smith of the United Kingdom, and produced top-of-the-range in-house calibres that push the boundaries of accuracy.
The standard moon phase disc would only feature 59 teeth, so the lunar disc would rotate once for every 29.5-day lunar cycle. The problem is that the lunar cycle isn’t exactly 29.5 days – in fraction terms it’s quite a bit more; so much more in fact, that a lunar disc with 59 teeth will actually need resetting by one day every two and half years or so.
That may not sound too bad, but from a timekeeping perspective it’s the same as your watch gaining one and a half minutes a day. That’s hardly the kind of chronometric accuracy most luxury watch buyers demand in 2017.
In the past the moon phase has been a curiosity, an aesthetic embellishment that enlivens a dial; now it is the plaything of geniuses, hell bent on bringing this complication into the 21st century, and ensuring, in some mind-boggling cases, that it will be able to run unadjusted for so long that the actual relationship of the moon and the Earth will have changed sufficiently as to make all modern day calculations moot.
In an era of caution, placing your money in one of these complicated watches designed for the long term, made in extremely limited series, and created by some of the most desirable and watertight companies in the world seems like a good investment that’s more likely to was than it is to wane.
About the Author: Fell Jensen is a Swiss-trained watchmaker working as an industry analyst.