There are watches and there are complicated watches, and then there are ridiculously complicated watches that are so mechanically intricate, it’s hard to imagine how they could possibly have been planned and assembled and made to work. Such watches are rare for all sorts of obvious reasons, and they are not in general exceptional aesthetically. The purpose of such a watch, indeed, is to take a certain aspect of watchmaking to its extreme, and in general, what you end up with is something that sacrifices, to some degree and in some cases almost entirely, most of the other horological utilities, including legibility and portability. What you get in return, though, is something that transcends the exaltation of a single quality, in the same way that, say, the Pyramids transcend their size, and becomes a source of amazement both with respect to its inherent complexity, and to human ingenuity.
Let’s take a look at what the Caliber 89 does, and how it came to be. In brief, the watch was created by Patek Philippe for the firm’s 150th anniversary, in 1989. The idea was to make nothing less than a watch that would be the most complex mechanical watch ever made, and to also make it, in terms of finish and general level of execution, a kind of portable museum of haute horlogerie â something that would contain in itself a full representation of the highest state of craft and knowledge achievable in mechanical, and specifically Swiss, watchmaking. In order to do that, not only were an enormous number of complications incorporated, but many were also included that would not be found even in a conventional grand complication watch â and certainly, which would not be found in combination with so many other complications.
In terms of physical characteristics the Caliber 89 is a behemoth, with a heft that puts pretty much any other watch in the shade both figuratively and literally (with, of course, a few exceptions, such as Patek’s Star Caliber 2000 and Vacheron Constantin’s reference 57260). It’s a whopping 88.2 mm in diameter, 41.07 mm thick, and, as shown, in yellow gold, it weights 1.1 kilograms. Only four were made, in white gold, yellow gold, rose gold, and platinum; in addition, there is a prototype in the Patek Philippe Museum. As you can imagine they don’t show up for sale very often; the last time was at Antiquorum in 2009, and the final hammer was $5,042,000. Â
The caliber 89 has a truly staggering number of complications; per Patek Philippe these are:
” . . . a full perpetual calendar showing the year in an aperture; the moon’s age and phases; a split-seconds chronograph; and a second time-zone. The reverse shows astronomical indications, with sidereal time, equation of time, times of sunrise and sunset, display of the seasons, equinoxes and solstices, and the signs of the zodiac, together with a rotating celestial chart. Acoustic indications offer grande and petite sonnerie; a minute repeater which chimes on four gongs; and an alarm on the fifth gong. Swiss patents are awarded for the date of Easter indication, which varies according to the ecclesiastical calendar, and for the secular perpetual calendar with retrograde date indication, displaying the day’s date based on a cycle of four hundred years, and requiring no adjustment until the 28th century.”
Above, one of the two main faces of the Caliber 89. Â This is the face with the perpetual calendar, moonphase and age, rattrapante chronograph (split seconds) and second time zone indication.
The other face of the watch is considerably visually more complex, and contains, predominantly, the astronomical indications.
Above, indication of the date of the moveable feast of Easter (the date of Easter is determined astronomically and differs from one year to the next) and the Zodiac indication. Below, the time of sunrise and sunset, with the Equation of Time. The Equation of Time is the difference between mean and true local solar time; it’s most easily thought of as the difference between the time told by a sundial â for which noon occurs at a slightly different time each day â and the time told by a clock, which is based on a 24 hour day that’s actually an average of the varying length of a true solar day throughout the year.
Above, the chart of the night sky. Â
This particular Caliber 89 is, as we mentioned, currently available for purchase, from Christie’s New York; price has been set at $11,000,000.
One of the most interesting features of the watch, by the way, is the date of Easter indication. The date of Easter is notoriously a troublesome feature of the calendar, based as it is on lunisolar cycles, and calculating the correct date is a complex problem. Constructing a gear train capable of carrying out the calculation is correspondingly difficult. The only mechanical calculator for the date of Easter I’m aware of is that in the great clock of the Cathedral of Strasbourg and there is unfortunately a dearth of material on the subject in English. That clock’s Easter date calculator is activated once per year, at midnight on the New Year. The Caliber 89 gets around the problem of actually calculating the date, by using an internal program wheel, similar to the program wheel you’d find in a perpetual calendar. You could, if you wanted to be picky, say that this is cheating, but to construct a gear train to handle the fully cycle of Easter dates is, to put it mildly, a non-trivial problem. A perpetual calendar handles a date cycle of four years (more sophisticated ones can handle the 100 year and even the 400 year corrections of the Gregorian calendar).
The full cycle of Easter dates is much more challenging â the amount of time that has to pass before the whole cycle of dates repeats itself is 5.7 million years.
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