Value is always relative — that’s true of any industry. But when it comes to watches, specifically complications — an additional, mechanical function that goes beyond just telling time — discerning where the best value lies is, well, complicated. You can find plenty of lovely watches that look nice and tell you the time for a couple hundred bucks (some for even less). But a complication is one of the things that bring a watch into enthusiast territory, packing on price and mechanical complexity.
The first step for a novice watch lover is to learn what the hell all these complications mean. (Start here.) Next, they can start lusting after them. But actually buying one is tricky. Some complications are simple enough to warrant a small premium; others are so complex and so rare that they cost as much as a car. Which means that bringing a range of the most affordable complications together proves that in watchmaking — again, just like many industries — “affordable” is a relative word. Here’s a guide to some excellent starter options.
Longines Conquest Automatic
The GMT is one of the simplest mechanical complications you can buy. Since an hour hand revolves around the dial twice a day, all that’s needed for the GMT is an additional hand that’s geared to run half as fast as the hour hand, and a 24-hour scale on the chapter ring or bezel. That means that, while GMT’s aren’t that common, they can be found relatively easily at affordable price ranges, even from a Swiss brand like Longines.
Hamilton Spirit Liberty Auto Chrono
If you’re looking at entry-level automatic chronographs, odds are your prospective purchases will be powered by the Valjoux 7750 in some shape or form. For instance, the 7750 is the base of the caliber H-21 in this Hamilton chronograph, though it’s been modified for a longer power reserve (60 hours rather than the standard 42). Aside from the workhorse movement, the Spirit Liberty Chrono has a handsome 42mm case and nice finishing touches such as a brushed sunburst dial and gold-colored hands and indices.
Christopher Ward C9 Moonphase
A moonphase complication is half mechanical engineering, half art. Because a lunar cycle is approximately 29.53 days, the moon inside the moonphase display is driven by a gear with 135 teeth that moves one notch every 24 hours — enough to keep it accurate within a day for 122 years without the need for adjustment (assuming it stays wound for that long). Christopher Ward claims its C9 moonphase is accurate to 128 years, and because half the appeal of a moonphase is the artistry of the moonphase display, the C9’s moon is made from 3D stamped nickel and is eclipsed by a midnight-blue guilloche dial.
Alpina Alpiner 4 Manufacturer Flyback Chronograph
The flyback is an enhanced form of the classic chronograph. Normally, to reset a chronograph the function needs to be stopped, but a flyback can be reset, “on the fly,” without needing to stop it. Supposedly, this was particularly useful to pilots and racers and any other folks who needed to record multiple times in quick succession. Resetting the chronograph’s seconds hand on the fly puts a considerable amount of strain on the movement, so a particularly robust build is necessary. That, in addition to the flyback’s relative rarity, means you should expect to pay a reasonable premium over a standard chronograph.
The jumping (or dead-beat) seconds hand is one of the greatest ironies and stealthiest complications in watchmaking. It ticks once a second — just like any cheap quartz watch — but a specialized escapement is needed to create the effect. Jumping seconds watches are rare, and most tend to cost closer to five figures, which makes Habring²’s Erwin an anomaly, especially considering it’s powered by an in-house movement from an independent manufacturer.
Montblanc Heritage Spirit Perpetual Calendar
Frederique Constant received much acclaim (including a GP100 nod) for manufacturing the industry’s cheapest perpetual calendar. But before Frederique Constant’s watch came along, Montblanc’s Heritage Spirit Perpetual Calendar held that record. It’s still a fantastic timepiece, with an elegant and slim 39mm case with lovely dial design and finishing. Perpetual calendars are particularly tricky to develop, and for both Montblanc and Frederique Constant to make them at a fraction of the competition ($20,000+) is quite the feat.
IWC Portugieser Minute Repeater
Yes, this $86,500, red gold IWC can be considered “entry-level,” at least relatively speaking. Minute repeaters are by and large the most difficult complications to build, requiring hundreds and hundreds of intricate components and hours to make — IWC claims its repeater took over 50,000 hours to develop. Of course, if you’re a serious collector with the cash to spend, it might be worth it to hear the chimes of a minute repeater, especially considering only the heaviest hitters in watchmaking make repeaters, most costing well beyond $100,000.