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The Best Attainable High Complications

June 3, 2024

A $10,000 Swiss perpetual calendar? A chiming watch for $4,000? Traditionally expensive complications may be cheaper than you think.

In the last few years, watch enthusiasts have gone mad over new dial colors and 1mm increases in case size. As the watch industry becomes more and more obsessed with brand, design, and exclusivity, genuine horological complexity has become less prized. Luckily for those looking for a slice of complicated watchmaking, less prestigious brands offer an array of remarkably attainable high-end complications. Below are a few of the most notable options.

Christopher Ward Bel Canto: $3,975

The release of the Bel Canto last year took the niche microbrand market by storm. Demand for the new model far exceeded Christopher Ward's expectations, and the company struggled to keep up. The model would even go on to win the Petite Aiguille at the 2023 GPHG, a major accomplishment for a small brand coming up in the industry. How did a $4,000 timepiece from a company primarily known for entry-level watches attract this much attention? You need only glance at the dial to get an idea.

When viewing the Bel Canto head on, you are greeted by a complex array of mechanical components. Importantly, this assemblage of gears includes a hammer and gong mechanism similar to those seen in minute repeaters, the most impressive complications a watchmaker can produce. Of course, the function of the Bel Canto is far less impressive; the movement only chimes once every hour, and it can thankfully be switched off with a button on the right side of the case.

This information begs yet another question: how did this small British company develop such an impressive complication for a price under $4,000? The answer lies behind the expensive-looking mechanism on the dial. The caliber FS01 is a modified Sellita SW200-1, a workhorse movement used by a number of affordable brands. Still, the value offered by the Bel Canto is hard to debate. The watch offers a taste of Patek Philippe for the price of a Tudor Black Bay. More importantly, there is also the simple fact that the model has no competition; if you want a modern chiming watch below $4,000, the Bel Canto is your only choice.

Frederique Constant Highlife Perpetual Calendar: $9,895

The term "affordable luxury" is an oxymoron. One of the essential parts of a luxury product is its very lack of affordability. However, Frederique Constant's vision of attainable luxury highlights our capacity for cognitive dissonance. How can something be this expensive yet seem affordable? Priced below $10,000, the Highlife Perpetual Calendar is a paradox. On the one hand, the watch offers one of the most impressive and excessive complications in watchmaking. On the other hand, the price is astonishingly low, suggesting some corners have been cut. Is this truly a luxury good or simply a poor imitation of an unobtainable high complication?

The automatic manufacture caliber FC-775 that powers the watch is full of caveats. Its 38-hour power reserve falls short of expectations for high-horology brands. The finishing, while decent, looks to be executed by machine without hand craftsmanship. The balance features a regulator instead of a more expensive free-sprung balance wheel. However, all of this can be overlooked after a single glance at the price tag. Add to that the appealing 41 by 12.65mm case and familiar sports watch form factor and the model starts to look even more appealing. The Highlife Perpetual Calendar places one of the most prohibitively expensive complications within reach, and it does so in style.

Horage Lensman 1.1: $10,925

Developing a Swiss-made tourbillon presents a major challenge to any watch brand. To do so as a small, independent company that started on Kickstarter is unheard of. Of course, Horage's movements are built in partnership with manufacturing workshops and not by the company itself, a caveat which also allowed the brand to develop its first caliber: the K1.

The K-TOU caliber inside the Lensman is still an incredible feat. Horage's original partnership with Swiss movement-maker La Joux Perret fell through, meaning the brand needed to complete the project fast to fulfill pre-orders. Using the knowledge it had acquired in the development of the K1 caliber, Horage went from the drawing board to having working movements in eight months in the middle of the pandemic. The result is an impressive tourbillon caliber with a 5-day power reserve, in part thanks to a lowered frequency of 3.5hz and an escapement that is 55% more efficient than its counterparts. Other features include a free-sprung balance and a silicon escape wheel, anchor, and hairspring.

The rest of the watch is somewhat unremarkable by comparison. The 41mm case is rated to 100m of water resistance and is made of grade five titanium, helping the watch achieve its remarkably low weight of 64 grams. The dial features simple indexes filled with red lume. A cyclops lens magnifies the flying tourbillon aperture at six o'clock. All things considered, however, the package that Horage offers for the price is fairly astonishing.

Frederique Constant Classic Manufacture Tourbillon: $15,695

The second offering from Frederique Constant on this list applies the same philosophy from the Highlife Perpetual Calendar to watchmaking's most unnecessary complication: the tourbillon. Limited to 350 pieces per color, the Classic Manufacture Tourbillon lives up to the idea of attainable luxury better than its calendar counterpart. The finishing of the tourbillon is remarkably clean and crisp, and it should be as well–a massive aperture at six o'clock lays bare the symphony of springs and gears that turns the watch from a $3,000 dress watch into a $15,695 high complication.

Meanwhile, the rest of the timepiece does its best to not distract from the showpiece. The dial is highly minimal with its applied, diamond-cut indexes and simple sunray finish. At 39mm in diameter, the steel case strikes the sweet spot for most buyers. Frederique Constant has also managed to keep the watch relatively thin at 10.99mm–judging by the precision of the measurement, the brand was clearly determined to keep the case under 11mm thick.

Glashütte Original Senator Excellence Perpetual Calendar: $21,000

While two times more expensive than the perpetual calendar from Frederique Constant, the Glashütte Original Senator Excellence Perpetual Calendar delivers a higher level of quality. That step up is most apparent in the movement. Although the level of finishing is far from that of A. Lange & Söhne's manufacture down the road, the caliber 36-02 certainly scratches the surface of high-horology movement decoration. The three-quarter plate and skeletonized rotor both feature Glashütte stripes, the visible screws are heat blued, and the plates are finely beveled. Most importantly, the balance cock is engraved by hand.

On the technical side, the watch is equally impressive. Unlike the Highlife, the balance is silicon and free sprung. Beyond its ability to accurately display the time until 2100, the movement features Glashütte Original's "Panorama" big-date display. Unlike Lange's outsize date, the Panorama cleverly leaves no gaps between the two discs. Lastly, the power reserve is an impressive 100 hours with a high frequency of 4Hz.

Aesthetically, the watch is very traditional. The silver dial features elegant Roman numerals at six and twelve and recessed apertures arranged symmetrically. The spade-shaped hands have been heat blued in the traditional fashion. The steel case is on the larger side, measuring 42 by 12.8mm. The sides are brushed while the bezel is polished. Overall, the Senator Excellence Perpetual Calendar is a remarkably well-executed watch for its price tag, going farther than any other timepiece on this list toward meeting high-horology standards.

TAG Heuer Carrera Chronograph Tourbillon: $24,050

In 2023, TAG Heuer adapted its in-house tourbillon chronograph caliber to the Glassbox style. The new model was a significant improvement over the previous edition of the watch, offering a more wearable case size of 42mm instead of 44 and the appealing form factor of the iconic Glassbox chronograph. However, the release also came with a significant price increase. Although you certainly get less bang for your buck, the ultra-complicated watch may still be compelling to some prospective buyers.

In addition to offering both a chronograph and tourbillon, the caliber TH20-09 features automatic winding and an impressive 65-hour power reserve with a 4Hz frequency. The dial is clean and relatively minimal for a Carrera. The watch loses the tachymeter scale in favor of plain indexes with a minute track around the outside. While it may not offer the finishing of the Glashütte Original or the value proposition of the Frederique Constant Perpetual Calendar, the TAG Heuer Carrera Chronograph Tourbillon has something those two watches lack: an iconic model name. If this mix of complications and branding is appealing to you, a price tag nearing $25,000 may well be justified.

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