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Enter the Dragon

The horological world celebrates Chinese New Year

The traditional Chinese calendar is a complex system, developed over millennia, according to astronomical phenomena and calculations of the correlation of the solar and lunar cycles. Typical features of early calendars included the use of the sexagenary cycles based on the rotation of 10 Heavenly Stems and 12 Earthly Branches (the animal zodiac signs). At first glance, this should equal a 120-year cycle, but the 10 Heavenly Stems have a minor and major part (a ying and a yang) that combine to produce the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) in a 60-year cycle. The new year starts on the second or third moon after the winter solstice, and hence the varying dates for the beginning of each year under the sexagenary cycle.

The complexity of the traditional Chinese calendar comes from layering a moon-based seasonal observation with western astronomical concepts related to the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

The dragon has a special place in the Chinese calendar. The fifth animal in the Chinese zodiac is a symbol of imperial power and authority; it represents good luck, strength, health and also, the male element, Yang. The forthcoming new year of the “wooden dragon” starts on 10th February 2024, where the dragon combined with this element is a harbinger of calm determination; the creature’s natural fervour being tempered by the wood. It will be a year of questioning and control, but also about negotiation and generosity. 

Every year, the horological world takes up the challenge to create timepieces that represent the creature leading the Chinese calendar; and 2024 is no different. The watches you’ll see here range from a full implementation of the Chinese calendar through to artistic limited edition dials.

Parmigiani’s Tonda PF Xiali Calendar offers the most complete representation of the Chinese calendar.  

Parmigiani’s Tonda PF Xiali Calendar is the purest representation. Its dial features the complex numbering system of the ten Heavenly Stems and the twelve Earthly Branches. The outer edge of the dial displays the 24 solar terms that dictate key events in the year. On the subdial at 12:00, there are three levels: the first is the name of the year; the second, is the creature; and the third, is the ying/yang. The one at 3:00 shows the day number and an indicator if the day is long or short. At 9:00, we find the months. The moon phase, and the counting for the months in the Chinese calendar, is found in the subdial at 6:00. Despite its complexity and completeness, the watch only requires adjustment every 12 years. More about this watch in this article.

Watches that combine the Gregorian and the Chinese calendars into one dial. Left, Blancpain Villeret Traditional Chinese Calendar; and right, H. Moser & Cie Endeavour Chinese Calendar.

Blancpain were the first brand to introduce a Chinese calendar in a wristwatch (2102, year of the water dragon) with their Villeret Traditional Chinese Calendar timepiece. In 2024, it is completing its first 12-year cycle. For the year of the wooden dragon, the watch now comes in a red gold case with a green grand feu enamel dial, and the mythical creature engraved on the winding rotor. The Villeret Traditional Chinese Calendar also includes the Gregorian calendar as a direct comparison. Limited edition of 50 pieces.

Rather than produce a display with different subdials, H. Moser & Cie have ingeniously reduced the problem to two retrograde indicators and a display at 12 o’clock. The Endeavour Chinese Calendar displays the months and days of both the Chinese and the Gregorian calendars, moon phases, and the signs of the Chinese zodiac. It also calculates the 13th “embolismic” months added every two or three years to keep the lunar years aligned with the four seasons. Limited edition of 100 pieces.

Roger Dubuis integrates a sculpture of a dragon within the movement of their pink gold-cased Excalibur Monotourbillon watch. Made of pink gold-plated brass, with black PVD edges, the creature coils around the movement, made up from 27 different parts each at a slightly different level, 25 to be exact, to give the dragon a unique 3D appearance. Limited edition of 28 pieces.

Left, Roger Dubuis Excalibur Monotourbillon Dragon; right, Vacheron Constantin Métiers d’Art “Year of the Dragon” platinum and rose gold.

Vacheron Constantin celebrate the year of the dragon with their latest Métiers d’Art Chinese Zodiac watch. The “Year of the Dragon” completes the set of limited series (25 each) that started 12 years ago. This release combines the familiar display with a beautifully executed dial, where the engraved mythical creature chases a flaming pearl across the enamelled sky. The watch is available in either rose gold or platinum.

Arnold & Son celebrates the year of the dragon with two watches: Luna Magna (left), and Perpetual Moon (right).

Arnold & Son has produced two ornate versions emphasizing the symbolism of the moon in the Chinese calendar (both in limited editions of 16 pieces). The moon is the pearl of wisdom that, according to legend, is inseparable from the dragon, who ceaselessly attempts to catch it. The first watch, Luna Magna Year of the Dragon features a hand-sculpted oriental dragon in red gold, where the body coils around the dial so that its head stares at the large sphere. The second, Perpetual Moon Year of the Dragon, shows a panoramic moon illuminating a nocturnal garden and a sinuous rose gold dragon watching the night sky between the trees. The dial is made from aventurine, where the metallic powdered glass gives the illusion of a star-studded sky. The large, mother-of-pearl moon is overlaid with Super-LumiNova and placed next to the constellations of the Great Bear and Cassiopeia.

Left, Breguet Classique ref. 7145; right, IWC Portugieser Chronograph.

Other watch brands have created limited edition watches with red dials and a gold dragon within the design. There is a new Breguet Classique 7145 issued in rose gold with a red grand feu enamel dial, featuring a gold hand-engraved dragon, in a limited series of eight; and an IWC Portugieser Chronograph with a burgundy and gold dial, contrasting gold-plated hands, and a rotor in the form of a dragon, visible through the sapphire glass case back. Limited to 1,000 pieces.

From left to right: Hublot Spirit of Big Bang Dragon with artist Chen Fen Wan, and Bell & Ross BR05 Artline Dragon.

Hublot and Bell & Ross have produced artistic forms of regular models, where watch and strap combine as an integrated work for a limited-edition piece. The Bell & Ross BR 05 Artline Dragon introduces a tattoo artwork, where the dragon face appears on the dial, and the bracelet represents the body and tail. In a similar vein, Hublot teamed up with Chinese paper artist, Chen Fen Wan, to design a multi-level dial with a 3D effect for their titanium-cased Spirit of Big Bang, along with a scale-patterned rubber strap. Limited edition of 88 pieces.

Left, the Hamilton Ventura Skeleton Dragon in a rose gold case; right, the Corum 47 Bubble Dragon Eye.

Hamilton has inventively taken its iconic Ventura case shape and fashioned a skeletonized dragon’s head for the dial. There are two versions of the Hamilton Ventura Skeleton Dragon; the first features a rose gold PVD-coated case and black skeleton dial, framing the dragon’s piercing green eyes; the second highlights the dragon in black PVD with flaming red eyes. A red second-hand sweep across the mythical creature’s face.

Corum also released two 88-piece limited editions of their iconic Bubble watches to celebrate the Chinese New Year. The first features a vibrant red dragon’s eye dial made from a scale-patterned gold-toned dragon skin, with the eye in gloss lacquer. To provide an uninterrupted view, the hands are a black-lacquered skeletonized leaf design. The second shows a gold-toned dragon on a sunray black dial, capturing a mother-of-pearl moon.

Swatch Dragon watches. From left to right: Dragon in Cloud, Dragon in Wind Pay!, Dragon in Waves, Dragon in Motion, and Dragon in Gold.

Last a bit of easy fun, brought by Swatch, which celebrates the year of the dragon with a range of five watches from their various collections with dials decorated with a dragon design, from the red and gold styled chronograph Dragon in Motion to the technologically advanced Dragon in Wind Pay! that features SwatchPAY! for secure, contactless payments. All are made from bio-sourced materials and inventively come in packaging that matches the color scheme of the watch.

Words: Dr Andrew Hildreth and Julia Pasarón

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