Lunar Luxury: the History Of the Moon Phase Watch
If you find yourself staring at the night sky from time to time and musing about the universe, you’re not alone. Fifty years ago just last week, Apollo 11 transformed those musings into a historic lunar landing. Here on Earth, we’ve continued to dream about the moon and the stars and integrate them into our daily lives, from escapist science-fiction fantasies to fortune-telling astrological horoscopes to—you guessed it—the most luxurious of timepieces. Mathematics and watchmaking go hand in hand, so it’s no wonder the moon has gone down in horological history. There’s a moon “hiding” in Manhattan’s Union Square, and another divinely gracing the Old Town Hall in Prague. Today, the feature also pops up on the most elevated of wristwatches. So what’s the story behind this celestial component? Read on as Fine Jewelry & Watch Valuation Manager Josephine Dvorak dives into the moon phase complication’s timeline, explores the artistry behind the horology and dives into the details of three superlative models.
What is a moon phase complication?
A moon phase complication is without a doubt the most romantic feature of all time. The complication allows you to observe the phases of the moon as it waxes and wanes. Watching the moon’s cycles float across your wrist brings an awareness to our connection with nature, and it certainly allows for watchmakers to embellish its appearance.
What’s the history behind it?
The complete lunar cycle—29 days, 12 hours and 44 minutes to be exact—was the first method to track the passing of months. This was especially important for agriculture in the early days of civilization. Farmers tracked the moon’s patterns, the shifts in season and the amount of daylight, adapting their planting and growing practices accordingly.
The first recorded moon phase complication dates back to an astronomical clock from the 2nd century BCE. Rouen, France is home to one of the oldest existing astronomical clocks, Le Gros Horloge, created in 1389, and many European towns feature clocks from the 16th and 18th centuries with moon phase complications. Pocket watches next included the moon phase for the well-to-do, and watchmakers have perfected the complication for wristwatches ever since.
How have different brands taken to beautifying the moon phase complication?
Wearing a moon phase watch is essentially like wearing a moving piece of art. Many watchmakers craft hand-painted, engraved and enameled designs, while others have become even more elaborate and creative with their lunar displays. Many watches include the complication as a subtle addition, while brands from Rolex and Blancpain to Jaeger-LeCoultre and Patek Philippe create timepieces that put the moon phase complication front and center.
One of these fabulous front-and-center watches comes from A. Lange & Söhne. The Grand Lange 1 Moon Phase “Lumen” boasts a glow-in-the-dark lunar display and a glass disc featuring a moon and 1,164 laser-cut stars. Cartier’s Rotonde de Cartier is another over-the-top timepiece, featuring phases of the moon in diamonds and sapphires at the bottom of its dial. Blancpain’s Carrousel Moon Phase shows a “man in the moon” within its lunar display, the full moon smiling mischievously out at the wearer. And Arnold & Son’s HM Double Hemisphere Perpetual Moon is a showstopper. Two gilded moons take up almost the entirety of the watch dial, displaying the moon’s position in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres.
Zenith’s El Primero timepiece is an exquisite and popular model. What can you tell us about it and its moon phase complication?
The Zenith El Primero Chronomaster Tourbillon Watch
Zenith’s El Primero model, which debuted in 1969, was a wild success for the brand. During the early 1970s, the brand released the first El Primero edition with a moon phase complication. The release of Zenith’s El Primero Chronomaster Tourbillon watch displays the immense amount of dedication and engineering required to produce such a rare timepiece. The marriage of the tourbillon—an addition that negates gravity’s effect on the watch and increases accuracy—and moon phase complication creates a symbiotic relationship of innovation and precision. But the real clincher? Only 50 of this limited-edition watch were made in the entire world. It’s one of those coveted finds that pops up once in a blue moon (pun intended) in the resale market.
Moon phase timepieces require a high level of skill and innovation to produce, and what’s perhaps most fascinating is the lunar cycle’s consistency. To be able to capture a natural phenomenon within a timepiece alludes to the immutability of the moon, an important factor for watchmakers as they continue to perfect the complication’s accuracy.
How does Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Quantième Perpétuel Automatique Watch compare to other watches?
The Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Quantième Perpétuel Automatique Watch
Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak is perhaps the brand’s most iconic timepiece. The watch entered the public sphere in 1972 at Baselworld, and its unusual octagonal bezel—plus the fact that it was Audemars Piguet’s first luxury sports watch—instantly made it a hit. The Royal Oak Quantième Perpétuel Automatique Watch was released in 1983, and the particular watch featured here was produced in the ‘80s. It’s truly a collector’s piece.
The Quantième Perpétuel Automatique not only has a beautiful yet minimal moon phase complication, but also a perpetual calendar, a masterful feat of horological work. These Audemars Piguet models are so complex and detailed that they are accurate down to the day, date, month, and lunar cycle for 122 years, even accounting for leap years! This watch was built to be a family heirloom, and there’s something magical about passing it down and looking at the same moon phase complication your predecessors did.
What makes IWC’s Portugieser Perpetual Calendar stand out from the rest?
The IWC Portugieser Perpetual Calendar Hemisphere Moon Phase Watch