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Review: IWC Da Vinci Perpetual Chronograph

Say you’ve got £10,000 weighing down your wallet and you’re looking to trade it for a watch. If you’re lucky, you could grab Rolex’s latest, greatest ceramic Daytona, but what about this instead: a mechanical perpetual calendar chronograph and change.

As far as complications go, the perpetual calendar is right up there, one of the most intricate and highly revered mechanisms in watchmaking. You may think that sounds like hyperbole, especially in an age where a device small enough to sit on your wrist can access all the information in the world, but there’s something really quite remarkable about the perpetual calendar that’s worth digging a little deeper on.

It’s worth bearing in mind that the units of time measured by a perpetual calendar—that is to say, seconds, hours, minutes, days, dates, months, moonphase, years and leap years—took thousands of years to perfect. Establishing time is no easy task, and with each generation of civilisation, from Palaeolithic humans tracking the moon 6,000 years ago, to the astronomical calendars of the Mayans 4,000 years ago, and on to the Roman Julian calendar 2,000 years ago and even the Gregorian calendars we use today, our gauge of time has been slowly, slowly refined to sync perfectly with our place in the universe.

Time and timekeeping fall hand-in-hand—rather, the improvement of technology allows for better measurement and recording of the astronomical events that gave birth to the system of measurement that we now consider to be our fourth dimension. Now we know that we are on a planet spinning at 1,000mph, orbiting the sun at 100,000 mph, which orbits our galaxy at 500,000 mph, which itself is travelling through the universe at over 1,000,000 mph, the way we determine the particulars of time has become more and more refined.

For horologers 300 years ago, however, much of that information was still a mystery. What we did know is that the orbit of the Earth around the sun is 365.2422 days, and that poses something of a problem. A day is based on one rotation of the Earth, fine, but as bad luck—or rather, the randomness of nature—would have it, a complete orbit doesn’t last an exact amount of days.

But 365.2422 is almost 365-and-a-quarter, so the solution was originally thought to be simple enough: make a year 365 days exactly and tack on another day every four years—the leap year. This is where the perpetual calendar meets its match, because the leap year just isn’t good enough, that pesky 0.0078 of a day causing slip over time—a lot of time. This is why every three out of four centuries the leap year is skipped, and why your perpetual calendar watch will need to be adjusted by a watchmaker in the year 2100.

So, here’s where we are with it: through lots of mathematics and hand-drawn blueprints, English watchmaker Thomas Mudge built a pocket watch that could tell the user exactly what day it was, leap year and all. This was in 1762, barely a decade after the Gregorian calendar was even adopted in England.

Some 223 years later, IWC watchmaker Kurt Klaus made a similar step forward, simplifying this mechanism that had tormented the minds of many a watchmaker in the centuries before such that it could be set entirely by the crown. Typically, an array of hidden pushers was necessary to control each part of the movement’s display, but by using a single program wheel, notched into four years’ worth of teeth to accommodate the length of each month including the leap year, Klaus made all that complexity completely redundant.

The space he saved left room for another remarkable complication: the chronograph. This is a device that doesn’t get as much recognition as it perhaps deserves. It may be common, but it is still remarkably complex. A typical perpetual calendar for example, has in the region of 300–350 parts; a chronograph is pushing 300, an indication of just how much is going on to make this on-demand complication work. It wasn’t until 50 years after the perpetual calendar that the chronograph was first invented by Louis Moinet, and another century still before a chronograph was developed for a wristwatch. A further 50 years were needed to get one running automatically. It’s the need to engage and disengage with the perpetual motion of the escapement at a moment’s notice that makes it such a fiendishly difficult complication to master.

It was on death’s door that this swansong from IWC emerged, the Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph. The development of Kurt Klaus’ perpetual calendar with a chronograph on top, in a case penned by IWC designer Hano Burtscher, was a last-ditch attempt to demonstrate the importance of a mechanical watch in a newly emerging digital world. They very much knew it could well be their last.

But it wasn’t. This revolutionary mechanism may have been no match for circuit boards and electricity, but its ingenuity, affordability and usability sold more perpetual calendar watches for IWC than the rest of the industry combined.

Today, the IWC IW3750 Da Vinci Perpetual Calendar Chronograph may not be the biggest, boldest, most exciting watch on the market, but for less money than a Rolex Daytona, it offers not just a slice, but a whole greedy handful of watchmaking history within its 39mm case. So many great names have touched the journey of this watch through its many centuries and even millennia of development, that to hold it all in the palm of the hand is really rather special indeed.

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