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The date display has become one of the complications that we find and appreciate most on wristwatches – and yet it was a long way until the date found its way onto the dial of classic luxury watches. Let's take a moment to learn more about how the date display works and its variations.

  1. The development of the date display
  2. How a date display works
  3. How to adjust the date display on a watch correctly
  4. Variations on the date display
  5. Luxury watches with a date display at Watchmaster

The development of the date display

Even though it may seem like a very common function today, the establishment of the date display in watch history still came after that of the repeater and chronograph functions. It was not until 1915 that the first patents for date displays were submitted. At the beginning of the 1920s, complete calendars began to appear on the dial and people started experimenting with date discs to make the date larger.

In the 1940s, Rolex launched the Datejust, marking another major step in the evolution of the date display. With the Datejust, the date changed independently. Until then, the date had to be set manually every day. Another disadvantage of the first date displays was that the date disc moved continuously, which only allowed an unhindered view of the date at noon. Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf also introduced the cyclops lens, which enlarged the rather small date by 2.5 times. From that point on, the challenge became making the changeover more precise and adjustment more convenient. For example, the quickset date mechanism was intended to prevent from cycling through every day of the month, for example when changing back from the third to the second of a month. Meanwhile, the date can conveniently be set using the crown's extra position without having to "simulate" the 24 hours of the day. 

Blue dial of a Rolex Datejust 126334 with date window and cyclops lens

How a date display works

The date display is relatively easy to install in electronic watches with a quartz movement. Mechanical movements, on the other hand, pose a greater challenge since they require a complication, even if only a small one. The most common variation of this small complication is the small date window at 3 or 6 o'clock or sometimes between 4 and 5 o'clock.

The date display gets the "information" for its timing from the cannon pinion, which is located in the middle of the movement. The energy is transmitted by a series of gears and translated onto a disc on which the digits for the date are marked. On the simpler models, a disc printed with the numbers one to 31 continues to rotate, but with the disadvantage that the current date is only perfectly displayed at 12 noon. For the rest of the day, the disc with the number continues to rotate and slowly disappears under the edge of the window. 

The masterminds of Haute Horlogerie have consequently devised a technically complex and more attractive jumping date change. Here, the disc with the date jumps forward one number exactly at midnight in order to display the date accurately throughout the day. Even more complex mechanisms go a step further and are not limited to the date alone, but also indicate the day of the week, as well as the month or possibly even the current year. 

IWC GST Chronograph IW370713 stainless steel watch with white dial and date display at 12 o'clock

However, in addition to the commonly used date window, there are two other forms of date display: the large date and the analogue date display. In the case of the large date, the date is represented by two separate discs. The inner disc indicates the numbers from 0 to 3 and the outer disc the numbers from 0 to 9. This makes it theoretically possible to display a 39th day of the respective month, but this only ever happens when the mechanism is defective. The analogue date has a certain vintage charm and indicates the current date with an additional hand or occasionally an additional totalizer on the dial. 

How to adjust the date display on a watch

If you are thinking of buying a watch with a date function, there are a few things you should bear in mind while enjoying this useful complication. The most important of these is the following: the process of changing the date in mechanical watches can take between 4 and 6 hours. Therefore, it is recommended to avoid adjusting your timepiece between 10 pm. and 4 am., as this could damage or, in the worst case, even destroy the gear train mechanism.

Variations on the date display

If you are interested in a luxury watch with a date display, you have a few options for variations on the complication. The most common is the small date window. It is classically located at 3 or 6 o'clock. Another popular position is between 4 and 5 o'clock. The idea behind this is that the date is easier to read because the watch is rarely held horizontally when worn on the wrist, and the slightly sloping position means that it is easier to see the date. Another variation is the large date, where the first and second digits are on two separate discs. The most sophisticated variation of the date function is almost a perpetual calendar and includes a display for the day of the week and/or month. If you are more interested in watches with a vintage look, you can also search for a watch model that uses an analogue date display. This variant features an additional hand on the dial, which indicates the date on a scale on the dial. This form was especially popular and widespread during the early days of date display. For example, with the Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Calendar (Ref. 140.8.87), the date complication moves once around the dial and is indicated by a separate hand.  

Silver dial of a Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Calendar 140.8.87 with central day and month display above the watch hands

Popular luxury watches with a date display at Watchmaster

  • The launch of Datejust represents one of the highlights in the Rolex' production history. It was the company's first water-resistant chronometer with a date display at 3 o'clock. Its unique shape with different bezels (domed, polished, fluted or set with diamonds) and the Jubilee bracelet specially developed for the Datejust laid the foundation for one of the most elegant series in Rolex' portfolio. The Rolex Datejust II follows in the footsteps of the legendary Datejust and even as a new edition has exceeded all expectations. The timeless design of the Oyster case is reminiscent of the early days of the Rolex brand and fits seamlessly into its owner's day-to-day life.

  • About ten years after the release of Datejust, Rolex took luxury watches with date display a step further. They unveiled the Oyster Perpetual Day-Date – a timepiece that displays the date and the day of the week. Paired with the use of such fine materials as diamonds and precious metals, the Day-Date has established itself as a prestigious luxury watch among the rich and powerful, including a number of US presidents.

  • A symbol of classic elegance and understated luxury, watches from Glashütte Original enjoy an excellent reputation worldwide. The watches in the Senator Panorama Date series are among the manufacturer's timeless models and seem to automatically adapt to their wearer. With its gold case and leather watch strap, the Senator Panorama Date will most likely never go out of fashion. The date window at 4 o'clock is also a refreshing addition.

  • The Seamaster 300M has definitely earned its place as Omega's best-selling and most popular model. The toughest competitor for the Rolex Submariner, the Omega Seamaster offers an iconic, sporty look and also features a dial with a date window at either 3 or 6 o'clock. The dial featuring a wave design has meanwhile achieved cult status and can easily be worn with both a suit jacket or a tuxedo.

  • The TAG Heuer Carrera Series has both a date and day display, depending on the model. The Carrera is one of the manufacturer's most popular and traditional models and has its roots in motorsports. However, it enjoys great popularity that goes far beyond its original target group in motorsports.

Brown dial of a TAG Heuer Carrera CV2013.BA0794 with date window at 3 o'clock

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