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A Closer Look at the Berkley Grand Complication by Vacheron Constantin

During Watches and Wonders Geneva 2024, Vacheron Constantin released the world’s most complicated watch. This timepiece is also the world’s first Chinese perpetual calendar. However, because it was commissioned and almost out the proverbial door to the collector, its hands-off status put it behind glass walls, almost shrouded in secrecy.

By Roberta Naas
Special Correspondent

It was never Vacheron Constantin’s intention to hide the new Berkley Grand Complication – currently the world’s most complicated watch and the only one thus far with a perpetual Chinese calendar – from the world.

After all, the brand invested 11 years of its top three Atelier Le Cabinotiers watchmakers’ time into developing the substantially sized double-sided pocket watch, so secrecy was not an option. But protecting the anonymity of the collector who had commissioned the work was a must. Until the collector told the brand executives that they could reveal his identity, that is.

Who is William Berkley?

Suddenly, the grand pocket watch, with its mind-boggling 2,877 components and bordering on the absurd weight of about two pounds – had a name: The Berkely Grand Complication, named after American William Berkley, Founder and Chairman of Berkley Insurance.

Named to Forbes’ 2024 World’s Billionaires List, Berkley’s net worth is about $4.4 billion – putting him in a prime position to commission extravagant pocket watches (which is good because he is reputed to be an avid pocket watch collector).

So, while no sale price for this eponymous watch has ever been disclosed, nor has any formal appraisal been revealed to the public, one can easily imagine a $20 million valuation as perfectly understandable.

Pushing the Limits

The almost 3,000-part movement has 31 hands, nine discs, and 245 jewels. The intricate and complicated calibre – containing 31 hands, 9 discs, and 245 jewels, totaling nearly 3,000 parts – is packaged inside an 18-karat white gold case measuring 98mm (3.85 inches) and sporting a massive 63 complications. This watch beat Vacheron Constantin’s previous “world’s most complicated” watch – the 57260 pocket watch from 2015, which featured 57 complications, including a Judaic calendar – also commissioned and made for Berkley.

In 2013, while the Ref. 57260 was still in the works, Berkley asked for another pocket watch with similar aesthetics but even more complications – including the heretofore thought-to-be-impossible-to-incorporate-in-a-watch Chinese perpetual calendar. This request was, of course, joined by other desired complications.

It seems that Berkley is fond of pushing Vacheron Constantin beyond its limits. After all, all the commissioned pocket watches we know about each had a new perpetual calendar challenge to overcome. However, it is clear that Berkley’s faith in the brand to always rise to the occasion never faltered.

Why Now?

There is also much speculation as to why, this time, Berkley allowed his name to be revealed: Some say it could be because he wanted a watch named after himself (think: Henry Graves or William Ward Packard).

Others say it was because, with so many other collectors coming forth in print profiles, Berkley thought it a good time to ease into publicly acknowledging his vast collection and interest in complications.

A few pundits even suggested that he wanted to give Vacheron Constantin credit where credit was due, and by releasing his name, he could also release a credible statement about the brand’s incredible technical prowess.

In fact, in a statement he wrote for the Vacheron Constantin press release, Berkley said, “My decision to commission Vacheron Constantin to create a Grand Complication watch with a Chinese perpetual calendar has resulted in a true horological masterpiece and the world’s most complicated timepiece. It is unlikely that any other Maison would be prepared to undertake such a Herculean challenge.”

One has to wonder which other, and how many, Vacheron Constantin pocket watches Berkley has in his collection.

Secrecy Abounds

Returning to the concept of keeping the watch – or its making – under wraps, we need to discuss the unveiling of the Berkley Grand Complication: Because the watch was already owned and slated for delivery during (or right after) the Watches and Wonders 2024, it was revealed in person only to a select and very small group of journalists (myself and Watchonista, included) before the fair opened.

We were allowed to photograph it and take videos while the master watchmakers who made it presented the stunning piece. However, we were not allowed to touch it – even with gloves.

Let’s not forget: It took one watchmaker an entire year of his life to “merely” assemble the watch. Following our heart-grabbing moments of awe, the watch was whisked away and placed behind glass windows in Vacheron Constantin’s exhibit space at the show.

At the viewing, those in the know could admire the incredible craftsmanship – albeit still somewhat cloaked in mystery. After all, to this day, even though the watch released last month could hold several patents, the brand opted not to file any – in the name of, well, secrecy.

According to Christian Selmoni, Vacheron Constantin’s Style and Heritage director, in order to protect the proprietary rights inherent in the developments of the Chinese perpetual calendar and other systems within, the concept of filing patents – where you have to bare your soul to the world – was eschewed.

The Complicated Chinese Calendar

Those 11 years spent in the research and development stages are worth protecting. The fact that these watchmakers could determine a mathematical way to translate a Chinese perpetual calendar into a mechanical watch – accurate to the year 2200 – is mind-blowing because, as many reading this already know, the regular, non-perpetual Chinese calendar is one of the most complicated in the world.

According to Chen Ji, a postdoctoral research fellow affiliated with the University of Science and Technology of China and PSL-Paris Observatory, “Unlike the Gregorian calendar, which is a solar calendar based on the Earth’s orbit around the sun, the Chinese calendar, taking into account the movements of the sun and the moon together, is a lunisolar calendar.

“The month is determined according to the moon phase, and each month begins with the new moon. Months are annotated as either long (30 days) or short (29 days), and the average length of months is a synodic month. Thus, a 12-month period is about 354 days. However, the average length of years is equivalent to a tropical year, around 365.25 days, which is about 11 days more than 12 synodic months. If we have 12 months every year, with time going by, the New Year will start in different seasons.”

Essentially, the Chinese calendar year consists of non-uniform months with variable start and end dates, which means when a month starts and ends varies every year. It even has different numbers of months (12 or 13) depending on the year.

Mastering the Impossible

Incredibly, the Berkley Grand Complication’s manually wound calibre 3752 takes all of these irregularities into account. According to Mr. Selmoni, once Vacheron Constantin accepted the challenge from Mr. Berkley to create a pocket watch with a Chinese perpetual calendar, the master watchmakers had to find a way to understand all the irregularities and build one watch to track it all.

The Chinese perpetual calendar alone boasts 11 functions, including the tracking and display of the sexagesimal cycle comprised of the 60 different combinations created by the Chinese calendar’s 10 celestial stems (which include the five elements and their yin or yang aspects) and the 12 terrestrial branches (or animals) of the Chinese zodiac.

Other traditional Chinese calendar indications include the date, day, month, moon phase, age (precise to 1,

027 years), and the 24 periods of the Chinese agricultural calendar, with the date, day, month, and leap year indications all retrograde displays. The astronomical calendar includes an equation of time, sidereal time, and a sky chart with constellations, sunrise and sunset times, and the duration of the day and duration of the night, all calibrated for Shanghai.

The Chinese perpetual calendar is joined by a host of additional complications, including but not limited to a Gregorian perpetual calendar (accurate to 2100), the Chinese agricultural calendar, a split-seconds chronograph, six alarms, and eight Westminster Carillon chiming functions.

A host of complex systems of multi-axis tourbillons and double cams assist in timekeeping precision. Extra discs had to be made and supplied, as well, for the date of the lunar New Year – visible at 6 o’clock on the front of the dial.

Meanwhile, for easier readability, the display for the Chinese calendar’s 60-year sexagesimal cycle was divided among three 20-year discs (a watchmaker will need to change the disc every 20 years).

Additional functions include a night and day indicator, a 24-city world timer, a second time zone indication, two power reserve indicators, and more.

Even the watch’s four mainplates (one each for the chronograph, the Gregorian perpetual calendar, the chronograph and Chinese perpetual calendar, and the astronomical calendar) bring a complexity not typically seen in watchmaking because each is entirely sandblasted.

Why does that matter? Because if touched by the human hand during assembly, it can be ruined.

I doubt any watchmaker wants to start the one-year assembly process all over again.

To learn more about Vacheron Constantin, visit the brand’s website.

(Images © Vacheron Constantin)

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