Before the calendar as we know it today, we used different methods to measure time. People measured days by the rising and setting of the sun, and years by the changing of seasons. However, they used phases of the moon to measure months.
You’ve likely heard of the moonphase complication in the world of watches. As the name indicates, this function displays the phase of the moon as it changes from full to new and back again over the course of about 30 days or one month. The contemporary variation of the moonphase complication is one of the most visually pleasing and highly sought after complications in watchmaking. However, its origins are traceable back thousands of year to the second century BC. This means the moonphase complication predates the birth of the modern clock by more than 1700 years.
The Earliest Moonphase Complications
The earliest found example of the mechanical moonphase is in the Antikythera, an Ancient Greek mechanism. It’s believed people developed the device to help predict astronomical events. These include the changing phases of the moon and even eclipses. The complexity of the Antikthera remained unmatched for nearly 2000 years, until the invention of astronomical clocks. The concept of the moonphase complication didn’t see integration into the functionality of clocks and watches until much later.
The first evidence of moonphase complications integration into modern clocks was in astronomical clocks built into churches and cathedrals during the Renaissance. These clocks depicted the belief that Earth was at the center of the universe with the sun, moon, and planets orbiting around it. As scientists discovered that Earth was not the center of the universe, the appearance of these clocks dwindled. However, the moonphase complication persisted through the 1500’s.
The sixteenth century brought about the use of the moonphase complication in standalone clocks. The complex grandfather clocks built in Germany and England often featured a moonphase complication. Soon after, the complication was constructed on a smaller scale to be incorporated into pocket watches and by the twentieth century, into wristwatches. At this point, the moonphase complication was no longer a necessary means to keep time. However, its allure illustrates our innate fascination with the cosmos, and its functionality became a key part of the development of the perpetual calendar complication.
The Evolving Depiction of the Moonphase Complication
Another interesting piece of the history of the moonphase complication is the ever-changing depiction of the moon. Just as the design of clocks and watches shifts with trends, as the styles of the period changed so did the representation of the moon. The early moonphase complications of the sixteenth and seventeenth century show a moon who’s almost cherub-like. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century, he evolves into a more mature “man in the moon.” In the early twentieth century, the moon gets an Art Deco spin, and by the mid-twentieth century, the moon has a distinctly minimalist design. In more recent years, moon representations are more realistic. Watchmakers use techniques, like engraving, to mimic the moon’s craters.
Today, the moonphase complication continues to be a focus of many prominent watchmakers. Each strives to create a more accurate variation of the mechanism and claim the title of the most accurate moonphase complication ever made. Most standard moonphase complications can become inaccurate and need adjustment after just a few years. However, brands like H. Moser & Cie, A. Lange & Sohne, and Patek Philippe have all developed moonphase complications that boast over 1000 years of accuracy.
Other smaller, more specialized brands have gone even further. The Swiss brand Ochs und Junior created a moonphase complication that’s accurate up nearly 3500 years. Dutch watchmaker Christian Van Der Klaauw designed a moonphase complication that’s accurate for 11,000 years. More impressive yet, Swiss watchmaker Andreas Strehler developed a moonphase complication that’s accurate for over two million years. These feats of watchmaking skill are pretty impressive and perfectly punctuate the rich and colorful history of the moonphase complication.