It’s Complicated: The Perpetual Calendar

It seems appropriate to start the It’s Complicated series with what many watch enthusiasts would consider the king of horological complications; the perpetual calendar.  While a perpetual calendar is not the most complicated of complications (that honor likely goes to a sonnerie watch) nor is it the most visually impressive (most would say that would be the tourbillion).  However the perpetual calendar is the complication that makes most watch lovers swoon and most non-watch lovers say “Wow, I didn’t know a mechanical watch could do that”.

What is a perpetual calendar?

A simple enough place to start.  A perpetual calendar is a mechanism that “knows” how many days are in each month as well as whether it is a leap year or not.  This means that the date function on a perpetual calendar will not need to be adjusted until the year 2100 (assuming you and your children and your grandchildren keep it properly wound).  The watchmaker credited with creating the first mechanical perpetual calendar mechanism is Thomas Mudge, a British watchmaker also credited with the creation of the level escapement.

Gold Calendar Watch
The earliest known perpetual calendar watch, made by Thomas Mudge in 1762.  Now kept at the British Museum

While I won’t go into the inner workings of a perpetual calendar (see here for a great description of the perpetual calendar gear-train) the notion that a watchmaker more than 250 years ago could devise a gearing system so accurate that it impresses even today is incredible.

The Evolution of the Perpetual Calendar

The history of the perpetual calendar falls quite dormant after Thomas Mudge until Patek Philippe patented their own perpetual calendar mechanism in 1889.  Patek quickly became the kind of perpetual calendar watches as their high end clients commissioned specialized pieces and a perpetual calendar became an integral part of a true grand complication.

stephen-s-palmer-550
A Patek Supercomplication made for American businessman Stephen Palmer in 1898

Patek put a perpetual calendar mechanism in a wristwatch for the first time in 1925 (although Breguet is credited with the first purpose-built perpetual calendar wristwatch movement in 1929) then in 1941 they created their first wristwatch with perpetual calendar and chronograph, the legendary Patek Philippe reference 1518.  For much of the 20th century the perpetual calendar was a pipe dream for most watch collectors, a complication reserved for those who could afford a Patek or Vacheron.  While brands began to delve into perpetual calendars in earnest after the quartz crisis, they remained out of the realm of reality for those not willing to spend $25K or more on a watch.  However in recent years this has begun to change.

Perpetual calendars today

Over time the perpetual calendar built a well deserved reputation as the pinnacle of form and function for watch complications in the eyes of many watch collectors.  A perpetual calendar is the jewel of a collection, a piece we pine for until we reach the age and income level where we can reasonably afford one.  The watch industry, including the companies not in the pricing stratosphere of Patek and Vacheron, realized this and so they set out to make a perpetual calendar that more people could afford and therefore more people would buy.  This begun in earnest with the Jaeger Le Coultre Master Ultra-Thin Perpetual.  This was one of the first ever perpetual calendars to retail for under $20K in steel with an in-house JLC movement.  The trend continued when Montblanc introduced their Heritage Perpetual Calendar, cutting $7K off the price of the JLC.  The trend has perhaps culminated with the Frederique Constant manufacture perpetual calendar, a full perpetual calendar under $10K.

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The Frederique Constant perpetual calendar, a full perpetual calendar automatic watch for under $10K

Now I’m going to take a quick step back here and acknowledge that $10,000 is still a huge amount of money considering your Iphone also has a perpetual calendar and can play music and show YouTube videos.  Consider though that this is the watch world we are talking about, where a Dufour simplicity costs $50,000 and just tells the time and a Gruebel Forsey costs $1 million or more and just tells the time a little bit better.  This is not an industry that tend towards delivering more value for less money to its loyal consumers.  As such, this trend in perpetual calendars is truly exciting.  I know personally a perpetual calendar is absolutely a goal in my long term collecting path and these companies are making that goal seem more and more feasible.  Certainly there are differences between a Montblanc perpetual calendar and one from Patek Philippe, and the fact that Montblanc offers a perpetual calendar does nothing to stop me from coveting the 5270 or even more the 5204 from Patek.  That said delivering more value for your consumer is an excellent thing and hopefully we will see the perpetual calendar continue to transition from a pipe dream to an achievable goal for more and more watch lovers.

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