In a wristwatch, any function beyond merely telling the time of day is called a “complication”. This term encompasses simple functions such as the date, poetic ones like the phases of the moon or even something as esoteric as sidereal time. But perhaps the most useful watch complication is the ability to tell the time in more than one time zone. Of course, this complication was not really necessary, or relevant, until after 1884 when the International Meridian Conference convened in Washington D.C. to establish the world’s 24 time zones once and for all. Up to that time, countries and even individual cities set their own times based on sunrise and sunset times. Needless to say, this made for interesting and sometimes maddening timekeeping for the intrepid traveler of the day. A few early 20th century pocketwatches had world time displays, but in those days of slow boat and train travel, this was more novelty than necessity. It really was the dawn of the jet age when the traveler’s watch hit its stride.
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In the 1950s, Pan American, at the time the world’s largest airline, was beginning regular service across the Atlantic thanks to its new fleet of Boeing 707 jets. Now six or seven time zones could be crossed in mere hours, ushering in the new, unpleasant concept of jetlag. The other new development Pan Am helped bring about was the Rolex GMT-Master wristwatch. Pan Am approached Rolex and asked them to develop a watch for its long-haul pilots. The Geneva-based brand responded with an iconic watch, the first to display two time zones simultaneously thanks to a second hour hand that moved around the dial once every 24 hours. The rotating red and blue bezel, on which the 24 time zones were marked, allowed for the instant reading of “home time” while the standard hour and minute hands showed local time. This was the first so-called “GMT watch”.
A refinement of this GMT function uncouples the 24-hour hand from the main hour hand, allowing it to be set independently. This makes setting to a second time zone more intuitive and, matched with a rotating bezel, actually allows for tracking three time zones at once.
The third (and most sophisticated) kind of travel watch complication is the world timer. These watches feature an outer ring of cities — one per time zone — that is rotated using a separate crown. As the city ring is rotated, another ring with corresponding hour indications instantly displays the time in all of the cities on the outer ring. So you not only know the time in Geneva and New York but also in Pago Pago and Auckland.
Since the advent of the traveler’s watch, we’ve seen every conceivable variation — for pilots, divers, businesspeople — but all still live up to their raisons d’êtres: keeping track of the world’s times at a glance, no matter the complication style. Here are five of the best out there (yes, we said best, so gird your wallets) that are ready to take flight.