With Advent upon us, we consider the date window that’s with us all year long, chocolate calendar or no – strangely ubiquitous, much-maligned, and occasionally rather useful
By Alex Doak
It speaks volumes that it even has its own hashtag: #nodate.
Yes, the popular feeling towards the little frame with a number inside, usually with generic, black on white typeface, situated at 3, 4.30 or 6 o’clock whether the dial design dictates it or not, is that of animosity. Your correspondent must even admit to having deployed the “#nodate” bomb with appropriate smugness, when Instagramming his now-discontinued, time-only Longines Legend Diver. The collector’s choice; the discerning choice; the faithful choice.
Arguably, such dogma is justified here. And it’s Longines that’s the serial offender – a brand whose rose-tinted Heritage collection would be millimetre-perfect if it wasn’t for its insistence on spiking every reissued piece with a modern date. Just leave out the hole in the dial! You needn’t even bother removing the date wheel from your ETA..! [Ed. Breathe, Alex, breathe…]
It wouldn’t be so bad if the length of every month was more consistent. Many would be more willing to rely on their watch’s date display without reaching for their phone or diary if we could be sure we hadn’t forgotten to skip things on last time it was just 30 days. A situation that can largely be blamed on the vanity of Emperor Augustus in 8BC. The son of Julius Caesar, who’s broadly acknowledged as the architect of our 12-month, 365-day calendar, he was recognised for his conquest of Alexandria and the overthrow of Anthony and Cleopatra in the sixth month, then called Sextilis, of 31BC.
In his honour, Sextilis was renamed Augustus. However, unlike Caesar’s honorary July it only had 30 days, so he gave August an extra day to bring it in line, which meant that September and October had to be reconciled and February had to be shortened to 28 days and 29 in every leap year. So the longest period we can be sure our non-perpetual date function is in accord with the calendar is 92 days, from 1 July to 30 September.
Sadly (for this stickler at least) such laments will always fall on deaf ears, as watch brands will always tell you that the majority of customers expect a date function, no matter what. Which is surprising when you consider that, despite there having been plenty of previous examples of perpetual calendars with day, month and year windows, or co-axial hands pointing to a 1–31 calibration around the dial (a functionality first seen in pocket watches around 1915), the date window as we know it took a while to appear.
The solo date indication with circumferential disc showing through a square dial aperture first until 1945 to appear, with Rolex’s so-called Datejust, driven by the new calibre 740. The date window was located on the right edge at 3:00 o’clock because most wearers have their watch on their left arm and the date window can easily peek out from under a shirtsleeve – a format that has persisted almost universally.
In the earliest models of the Datejust – the “just” standing for “just in time”, as the date advanced precisely at midnight – the date would begin its switch-over a couple of hours before its midnight rendezvous, not completely disengaging the switch tooth from the date wheel until around 2am. This made date changes mechanically dangerous anywhere around the late evening or early morning, unless you manually changed the indicated time first – a roughly four-hour no-go-zone still warned about by watchmakers using basic Sellita or ETA date calibres.
It was Rolex again who innovated the get-around, adapting the date-change mechanism in 1955 to operate instantaneously. A spring is gradually loaded by a levered cam pushed against it by a post attached to the going train, released at midnight with blink-and-miss-it speed. The same breakthrough model also had the now-immortal “Cyclops” magnifying lens thrown in for good measure, as lore has it that Hans Wilsdorf’s wife could not read the date particularly easily.
Indeed, it was the introduction of the 1680 Submariner model in the late 1960s –the first Submariner to be equipped with a date function – that many believe marked the completion of the Submariner’s transition from specialist tool watch to mass-market fashion accessory, so popular had the date window become, so quickly. Wisely, the option has always been retained however, purists or keen divers invariably choosing the time-only ref. 114060 Sub’ fitted with the 3130 calibre, over the 116610LN with the dated 3135.
More recently, there has of course been an easier way to magnify the date without a crystal bubble: by enlarging the date display itself. In terms of the mainstream, it was the then-Vendôme Group’s freshly relaunched Glashütte brand, A. Lange & Söhne who debuted the first ‘Outsize’ date complication in its hero watch of 1994, the Lange 1. Inspired by the ornate, dual-frame five-minute clock above the stage at Dresden’s Semper Opera House, it really does count as a complication, thanks to Lange’s ingenious cross-shaped tens unit wheel sitting above and co-axially with the single units wheel. Read our latest piece on the Lange 1 here, as A. Lange & Sohne upgrades the flagship model slightly.
This wasn’t a new idea though. In 1932 the Swiss company Solvil caused a stir with its rectangular “Calendar” model which used two separate discs – one for the tens the other for units. In 1934 Helvetia introduced a similar model followed by Mimo in 1939 with its Mimo-Meter.
Lange’s next-door neighbour Glashütte Original, also rebooted by Swatch Group around the same time, soon consolidated their Saxon village’s newfound reputation for “grande” dates with its own clever system, shown at the top of the page: concentric, flush-mounted tens and units discs. It is arguably the more elegant solution, the discs’ near-imperceptible join doing away with the need for Lange’s heavy, dual-framed window. Most recently, Glashutte Original has added a big date to the Senator Excellence.
Naturally, Switzerland was soon provoked into catching up on the grande date thing, with Girard-Perregaux coming up with the best example: a shaped movement for the 1945 collection, combining aspects of Lange and GO: two discs superimposed even more imperceptibly thanks to the upper one’s total transparency (save for the numerals of course). Even the likes of TAG Heuer and its accessible Grand Carrera and Aquaracer ranges come with grande date varietals these days, thanks to an ETA/Sellita-compatible module made and fitted by Soprod.
Whether you’re hashtag no-date, or a devoted window dresser, the choice, at the very least, is more varied than ever.
3 DATES THAT WORK JUST BEAUTIFULLY…
Nomos Glashütte Metro Gangreserve Datum
The movement forming the core of Nomos’ manually wound collection is based (more and more loosely) on a no-date ETA (originally a Peseux, in fact) but because Nomos added their own date mechanism with their own exacting eye for detail and in-house typographical expertise, the result is balanced, unobtrusive and just lovely.
Porsche Design Chonotimer Deep Blue
So often a dark dial design is ruined by a fleck of generic white date ring. Not so Porsche Design, with its own proprietary date ring with its proprietary typeface keeping things clean and consistent.
Glashütte Original Senator Seventies Panoramadatum
The most pared-back incarnation of GO’s ingenious outsize date, given space to breathe and hold its own.
… AND 3 THAT, ER, DON’T
Longines Heritage 1918
The clue’s in the title, Longines: date windows weren’t around in 1918. This is forced, and looks it. Ruins an otherwise gorgeous design.
L. Kendall K6
Shame enough that Larcum Kendall’s pioneering English chronometry of the 18th century is being co-opted so clumsily; more shocking for that Batman logo of a date window. Just… bizarre.
Edox Grand Ocean Decentrique
Just in case you were in any doubt as to how sequential numbers work…