Traditional, analog time telling is pretty practical and elegant, and there are seemingly endless ways of rendering hands that point to numbers around a dial. Maybe, though, you've seen enough traditional watch styles. Some watchmakers feel the same, and a wide range of modern brands offer watches with what might be termed "alternative time-telling displays" — but the idea is older than you might think. A special type of display called "wandering hours" is one of the most intriguing features in watchmaking, and its origin dates back centuries.
To read the time on a wandering hours watch you need to know that the minute hand itself displays the hour — but that explanation probably needs a little unpacking: In its most common form, a zero-to-sixty scale occupies a third of the dial and the current hour displayed as a number travels along it, pointing to the current minute. For traditional, classically styled examples, this is all you can see, and you might be left wondering how the hell it works.
Many modern watches with this feature prefer to display the whole, crazy-looking system. In this case, you'll see that there are three centrally mounted arms, and that each has a disc (or more arms) at its tip. The discs each have four numbers which rotate into position at the end of the arm. (That's the basic concept, but it can also be executed in other ways, including with more or fewer arms.)
The wandering hour mechanism is best observed when the hour changes: When 6 o'clock begins, for example, a "6" will be pointing to zero while the outgoing 5 o'clock hand is at 60. At that exact time, you'll also be able to see the third disc rotate from displaying "4" at its tip to "7" at the far end of the dial before it reaches the minutes track. It's all unnecessarily complicated, of course, but the effect is mesmerizing, and the earliest known example is said to have had a practical origin.
In 1656, such a clock was produced for Pope Alexander XII by the Campanus brothers in Italy, and its purpose was to allow the hour hand and minute scale to be backlit by a lantern so the insomniac pontiff could read it at night (which probably didn't help his insomnia). Later clocks and pocket watches also featured wandering hours, but this feature has since found its way onto modern wristwatches with a notable example in Audemars Piguet's Star Wheel first made in 1991.
Wandering hours watches are complicated and inevitably more expensive than simpler watches. They're also relatively rare today, but some notable and smaller brands alike still produce this obscure but captivating horological curiosity.
Using a custom automatic movement based on a modified Miyota 90s5, Xeric's Vendetta is just about the most affordable wandering hours watch you'll find. The indie brand is all about funky design concepts and alternative displays, and there's always a twist: Another unusual feature of the Vendetta is that there are three different colors for the minutes scale, which the user can select by turning the crown at 2 o'clock.
Movement: Modified Miyota 90s5 automatic
Gorilla Outlaw Drift
With aggressive sizes and styles inspired by automotive themes, Gorilla is a young brand founded by a former Audemars Piguet designer. The Outlaw Drift actually has a relatively conventional look among the brand's wider lineup, but remains a loud, avant-garde timepiece — and the funky look of the fully exposed wandering hour mechanism fits right in. It uses the common ETA 2824-2 automatic movement but with a wandering hours module from Vaucher.
Movement: ETA 2824 automatic with Vaucher module
H. Moser & Cie. Endeavour Flying Hours
Moser always has its own twist on conventional horology, and its interpretation of the wandering hour feature is no exception. Here, rather than the hour discs moving to point to a stationary minute scale, the minute scale itself moves. The hour discs remain in place but rotate to display the hour — so each time they change the hour will be read at a different place on the dial, but highlighted in white so it's easy to find. The discs themselves are luminescent and the backlighting for the current hour is in a different color of lume.
Movement: H. Moser & Cie. HMC 806 automatic
Vacheron Constantin Metiers D'Art Tribute to Great Explorers
Thankfully, there's also an interpretation of the wandering hours concept that takes an elegant and restrained form. Vacheron Constantin is one of very few brands that is regularly making watches with this feature, and they tend to have a classical style and artistic theme leaving the time display itself as the only indication of the unconventional mechanics inside. This is one of the brand's latest examples in a series using Grand Feu enamel dials, which each take a month to produce.
Movement: Vacheron Constantin 1120 AT
Urwerk takes the concept of avant-garde, over-engineered alternative time displays to its extreme in a way that only ultra high-end Swiss companies could. Associated with wandering hours more than any other modern watchmaker, Urwerk's best known watch tweaks the concept by replacing flat, rotating discs with three-dimensional cubes featuring the hours on each of four sides. The UR-220 features a minute hand that's separate from the hour display but which moves in tandem with it and then jumps back to zero. This results in a lot of animation and an incredible visual effect.
Movement: Urwerk UR-7.20 manual