Vacheron Constantin breaks record for world's most complicated watch (pictures)

With a massive 57 complications, the Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260 blows the previous title holder out of the water.

Michelle Starr
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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It's complicated

In the world of haute horlogerie (high watchmaking), there's a title to which many watchmakers would love to lay claim: The most complicated watch. Previously, that title belonged to the 2010 Franck Muller Aeternitas Mega 4, a wristwatch boasting a massive 36 complications, the name given to watch functions.

The title is slow to claim because these timepieces are so intricate. The Aeternitas Mega 4 took 5 years of painstaking craft, designing and assembling the watch by hand. But Swiss luxury manufacture Vacheron Constantin has taken the lead.

The newly unveiled Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260 pocket watch took a massive 8 years to complete, designed and assembled by hand by 3 master watchmakers, and it's a glorious masterpiece. At 57 complications, and over 2,800 components, it's the most complicated mechanical watch the world has ever seen.

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Style at large

It's not actually a watch you would want, or even necessarily be able to fit in your pocket.

The Reference 57260 is by necessity a chunky beast. It measures 98 millimetres (3.85 inches) in diameter and is 50.55 millimetres (2 inches) thick, about the diameter of a hockey puck, but twice as thick.

It comes in at a massive 960 grams (2.11 lb), which would definitely ruin the lines of your waistcoat.

Its case is white gold, with enamel dials accented with yellow gold on both sides, the movements inside containing 242 jewels. It runs at a frequency of 2.5Hz (18,000 vibrations per hour), with a 60-hour power reserve.

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Stamp of approval

The Reference 57260 boasts the prestigious Hallmark of Geneva certification, reserved for the finest timepieces. Created in 1886 to protect Swiss watchmakers from "pretenders" to Swiss watchmaking excellence, the seal is awarded at the Geneva School of Watchmaking, where a team of inspectors will test all aspects of the watch for functional perfection. Its stamp, the Geneva coat of arms, on a timepiece means the watch has been entirely assembled, timed and cased in Geneva, and meets the hallmark's rigorous standards in both materials and construction.

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Start counting

The 57 complications have been divided into 10 families. The first of these is families related to the telling of time, in which the watch has six complications. It's possible Vacheron Constantin has been a little cheeky about what it classifies as a "complication."

A tourbillon, for instance, the part of a watch designed to counter the effects of gravity on the watch's movement, is generally not considered a function, but a feature.

For simplicity's sake, we'll follow the manufacture's list.

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Taking time

The six time-telling functions are:

  • Hours, minutes, seconds and average solar time (regular time)
  • The three-axis tourbillon
  • Tourbillon regulator with spherical balance spring
  • 12-hour time zone, second hours and minutes time zone (world time)
  • 24-hour city display for each time zone (an adjustable display with a selection of cities)
  • Day/night indicator for 12-hour time zone

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    You spin me round

    A closer look at the three-axis tourbillon, displayed proudly on the back of the watch, with a jewel bearing in the centre. Jewel bearings, usually made of synthetic ruby, are used in mechanical watches because they are highly accurate, lightweight and low friction, which is important with the intricate workings of a timepiece.

    Usually tourbillons rotate on a single axis. The three-axis tourbillon eliminates gravitational errors in all positions, which in turn makes the watch more accurate.

    The tourbillon is contained within a lightweight aluminium cage, which incorporates the Vacheron Constantin Maltese Cross logo. The cross appears in its entirety every 15 seconds.

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    Maintaining balance

    That's one sexy balance spring. In most watches, the balance spring, which regulates the component that controls the speed of the hands (you can see a video of this here), is a flat coil. In the Reference 57260, space isn't really as much of concern, so Vacheron Constantin has made the balance spring a sphere.

    This, the company says, helps eliminate variations caused by the discharge in the balance spring.

    When a watch with a flat coil balance spring is fully wound, the balance wheel oscillates with a stronger swing. As the power reserve runs down, the oscillations grow weaker as the distance the balance wheel travels grows shorter. The spherical balance spring, which is also harder to make, produces the most even oscillations as the watch winds down.

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    It's a date

    The second family of complications is perpetual calendar functions. The Reference 57260 has 7 of these.

  • Gregorian perpetual calendar, which automatically calculates leap years and the number of days in the month
  • Gregorian day name
  • Gregorian month name
  • Gregorian retrograde date (a semicircular display with a hand that snaps back to the first of the month when it reaches the end)
  • Leap year and four-year cycle display
  • Number of the day of the week
  • Week of the year (numbered in multiples of 4 to 52 weeks)
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    Technical genius

    In addition to the Gregorian calendar, the Reference 57260 also contains a family of complications related to a perpetual Hebrew calendar, the very first timepiece to do so.

    The Hebrew calendar operates over a 19-year cycle, which works out almost exactly to be a multiple of the solar year and lunar month. 19 solar years equals almost exactly 235 lunar months. This is called the Metonic cycle, and the reason it has never been included in a timepiece before is because it's very difficult to calculate and incorporate into the watch movement. Its inclusion in the Reference 57260 is a feat of technical genius.

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    The Hebrew calendar

    There are eight complications relating to the perpetual Hebrew calendar.

  • Hebrew perpetual calendar and 19-year cycle, which is made up of 12 simple years, and 7 years to which an extra month is added to align it with the sidereal year.
  • Hebrew day number
  • Hebrew month number
  • Hebrew date
  • Hebrew secular calendar, calculated from the presumed date of the world's creation, 3760 BC (which would make this year 5776, starting at Rosh Hashanah)
  • Hebrew century, decade and year
  • Age of Hebrew year (12 or 13 months)
  • Golden number, or indicator of the point in the Metonic cycle (out of 19 years)

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    Watching the stars

    Astronomical functions are a little more commonplace in grand complications. The Reference 57260 has 9.

  • Seasons, equinoxes, solstices and signs of the zodiac, around the outside of the back dial and indicated by a central gold hand with a sun-shaped counterweight
  • Star chart, at 12 o'clock on the dial, adjustable to the watch owner's city
  • Hours in sidereal time, or time calculated by the position of the Earth relative to the stars, rather than the sun (a sidereal day lasts 23 hours, 56 minutes and 41 seconds)
  • Minutes in sidereal time
  • Equation of time, a small indicator in the centre of the dial that displays the difference between true solar time and conventional mean time
  • Sunrise time, automatically calculated and adjustable for the owner's city, controlled by cams connected to the perpetual calendar mechanism
  • Sunset time
  • Length of day
  • Length of night

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    Phases of the moon

    The lunar calendar, in the middle of the dial at 12 o'clock, is precisely calculated to display the phase of the moon to a cycle of 29.5306667 days. The moon's actual cycle is a tiny fraction shorter at 29.5305882 days, which means that, every 1,027 years and 108 days, the Reference 57260 needs to make a moon phase cycle correction of one day.

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    Yom Kippur

    The most sacred day in the Hebrew calendar is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It falls on the 10th day of the 7th month. The Reference 57260 calculates and displays the date of Yom Kippur with a retrograde hand at 6 o'clock on the front dial.

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    Chronograph functions

    The front dial has a number of retrograde displays that perform chronograph functions and can be used simultaneously.

  • Retrograde seconds chronograph, on the right side of the rim of the dial, inside the minutes circle
  • Retrograde split-seconds chronograph, on the left side of the rim
  • Hours counter at 3 o'clock, outside the Metonic cycle display
  • Minutes counter at 9 o'clock, outside the Metonic cycle month display

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    Don't be alarmed

    There are seven alarm functions integrated into the Reference 57260.

  • An alarm with its own gong and gradual striking
  • An alarm position indicator, which shows whether the alarm is set to silent or strike
  • Option to choose normal alarm (a single gong struck with a hammer) or carillon alarm (which plays the Carillon de Westminster)
  • An alarm mechanism, coupled with the carillon striking mechanism
  • Option to choose Petite Sonnerie (which strikes the hours on the hours and quarter hours on the quarter) or Grande Sonnerie (which strikes the hours on the hour, then on the quarter hour it strikes the hour on one gong and the quarter on a second gong)
  • An indicator that shows when the alarm is set to chime
  • System that blocks the striking mechanism when the alarm barrel is unwound

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    Sounds of Westminster

    The Westminster Carillon has a range of functions unto itself.

  • First, the fact that it can play at all is marvellous. It requires five separate gongs, played with five separate hammers, playing the carillon that is played at the Palace of Westminster's Clock Tower in London.
  • Grande Sonnerie
  • Petite Sonnerie
  • Minute repeater, which can be used to activate the striking mechanism at any time. It will then sound quarters, minutes and hours in order. For example, at 9.45 am, it will play three bars of the Carillon de Westminster, then a number of notes indicating the number of minutes that have passed since the last quarter, then nine notes for the number of hours that have passed
  • Night silence feature, allowing the alarm to be turned off from 10 p.m. to 8 a.m.
  • System that blocks the striking mechanism when the alarm barrel is unwound
  • Indicator for Petite or Grande Sonnerie modes
  • Indicator for silence, striking or night mode

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    Wound up

    The remaining six complications fall under miscellaneous watch functions

  • Power reserve indicator for the movement, which shows time remaining before the motor spring needs to be wound
  • Power reserve indicator for the striking train
  • Winding crown position indicator, allowing the winding crown to be used to control three separate parts of the watch: the strike barrels and movement barrels; the star chart correction and alarm setting; and the time setting
  • Dual-barrel winding system, which allows the winding crown to wind both strike barrels and movement barrels
  • Time-setting mechanism
  • A secret mechanism flush with the case which, when the pendant above the crown is pressed and turned slightly, pops out to reveal the alarm winding crown
  • Vacheron Constantin hasn't revealed how many iterations of the Reference 57260 will be made, but a timepiece of this calibre is usually one-of-a-kind.

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