Most of the time, grandes complications are the stars of watch industry gatherings such as Baselworld. Clients, collectors and distributors only have eyes for these intricate mechanisms that are worth their weight in gold, both literally and figuratively. Yet as a chill wind blows through markets and inventory piles up behind counters, channelling creativity towards watches that are apt to sell more than ten units may not be such a bad idea. And so it seems brands have done their sums and are being more reasonable in their product positioning, and more rational as to what goes inside. On this note, one complication is clearly making inroads and that is the annual calendar. It certainly has a lot to offer: simpler and therefore less fragile than its perpetual cousin, its less complex construction translates into a more affordable price. An annual calendar is also a neat way to add interest to a dial, particularly when combined with another useful function such as a chronograph, or why not a second time zone with a moonphase display.
As a reminder, an annual calendar is mechanically programmed to indicate date, day and month over a year, the one drawback being that it only recognises months with 30 or 31 days. Whereas a perpetual calendar is equipped to deal with the quirks and foibles of the Gregorian calendar, including leap years with their February 29th, the annual calendar must be manually set to the first day of March. Which isn’t much to ask considering that its simplicity of use limits the opportunities for potentially damaging manipulations. Despite this, the annual calendar has struggled to arouse watchmakers’ interest. Come the late sixteenth century, some pocket watches were displaying date, day and month, even before the advent of the seconds hand, but these were rudimentary calendars that systematically counted 31 days per month and therefore had to be corrected five times a year. Perpetual calendars were next in line, appearing on pocket watches as of the Enlightenment and much later, from the 1920s, on wristwatches. Not a sign of the annual calendar. Not until Patek Philippe stepped in, that is.
In all fairness, the annual calendar benefited from developments made by other brands in the 1980s, in particular Dubois-Dépraz for Kelek, which has since been integrated into Breitling. It is, however, Patek Philippe who in 1996 gave the annual calendar its true pedigree in the form of a patented movement which it fitted inside Reference 5035, the first ever annual calendar wristwatch. The Genevan manufacture opted for an additional module that made this new calibre easier to engineer than a perpetual calendar. Customers were immediately won over, and the annual calendar became a staple of the brand’s catalogue, lending itself to no fewer than twenty-one separate versions. Now Patek Philippe marks the twentieth anniversary of this patented Annual Calendar with a twenty-second iteration: Reference 5396 with Calatrava case. The arrangement of the day, month and date above and below a 24-hour indicator with moonphase display harks back to Patek Philippe perpetual calendars of the 1940s and 1950s. The very ones that now fly off the block at auction!
Impossible to resist
The number of annual calendars really took off once the Patek Philippe patent expired in 2006. This year’s Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH) in Geneva had its fair share, with models such as the Montblanc Heritage Chronométrie Annual Calendar Chronograph, the Big Pilot’s Watch Annual Calendar Edition “Le Petit Prince” from IWC, or Baume & Mercier’s Clifton Chronograph Complete Calendar. Baselworld confirms this trend. Alongside Patek Philippe’s offering, Ulysse Nardin unveiled the Marine Chronograph Annual Calendar whose calendar function rolls out “a mechanical solution of disconcerting purity” with just three additional wheels, ingeniously imagined by Ludwig Oechslin. The in-house UN-153 calibre is fitted with a silicon balance spring, a feature it shares with the Blancpain Villeret Quantième Annuel GMT, proposed for the first time in steel. The 24-hour subdial at 8 o’clock acts as reference time while local time is shown by the central hour hand that links to the date. The adjustment pushers are tucked away under the lugs, a patented innovation by Blancpain.
By choosing an annual calendar as the first complication in the Globemaster line, unveiled last year, Omega has also helped make it one of the year’s star turns. Omega has increased the case size to a 41-mm diameter, still with the distinctive “pie-pan” dial. The twelve months of the year are inscribed between the hour-markers and shown by a blued hand. “What made last year’s Globemaster truly unique was its position as the World’s First Master Chronometer,” notes the brand. “Again, the innovative edge of this series continues. The timepiece has been fitted with the new Omega Co-Axial Master Chronometer Calibre 8922, while the Master Chronometer certification card that accompanies it proves that the watch has passed the eight intensive tests established by the Swiss Federal Institute of Metrology (METAS).” Yet another feather in the annual calendar’s cap.