Sign of the Chimes

Words by Ken Kessler

6 min read

It’s the most redundant, the most complex and yet the most desirable of mechanical watch complications. And the minute repeater, that miniature marriage of time and sonics, still keeps evolving.

You have to appreciate the irony: the most complex, most coveted high-end watch complication of them all has been obsolete for well over a century. The repeater, a watch that chimes its information, was devised to allow its owner to know the time at night, when there were no electric lights, and a candle or oil lamp may not have been within reach. Slide a lever or press a button, and the table clock or pocket watch would ring out the hours, quarter hours and — in its ultimate form — the actual minutes.

Despite its uselessness in modern, practical terms, the appeal of the minute repeater has increased to match the sophistication of contemporary watch enthusiasts. As it represents the pinnacle of watchmaking, its allure is palpable for those who already own chronographs, perpetual calendars and other complicated timepieces.

One might imagine that the inherent nature of the minute repeater as a means of telling the time in the dark, its birth in the last quarter of the 17th century and its overall air of past glory would mitigate against it evolving from its origins in clocks and pocket watches. If anything, the small size of the wristwatch — which supplanted pocket watches nearly a century ago — mitigates against the minute repeater. But that is to undervalue the ingenuity of the 21st-century watchmakers.

Anthony de Haas, product development director at A. Lange & Söhne, explains that this shortage of space was the biggest challenge in designing the movement of the company’s first minute repeater. He says: “The movement of the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater has more than twice the number of parts than the already highly complex calibre L043.1.” If you’re wondering why the single function of chiming the time can rival the number of components in a chronograph or triple calendar, you have to think of chiming watches not only as timepieces but also as musical instruments. To complicate matters even further, the tiny enclosure of a pocket watch, typically half that of a pocket watch of a century or two back, doesn’t lend itself to amplifying the sound so that one can hear its ringing. A pocket watch minute repeater can be heard from two metres away. A wristwatch repeater? Increasing the volume is one of the trials that has tested contemporary designers.

Patek Philippe’s Ref 5531R Worl Time Minute Repeater

All minute repeaters are subject to two primary design considerations, and these are related to sound — not to timekeeping — even though the sounds they produce tell the time. The two issues, exclusive to chiming watches, are how they sound and how loud they go. The first attests to the quality, and the best minute repeaters are ‘voiced’ just like musical instruments. The volume, however, is a practical function. Its operation is more scientific than artistic, the latter adjective certainly applying to the sound quality. Sound quality, however, is a matter of taste, but it speaks volumes that Thierry Stern, the CEO of Patek Philippe, personally approves the sound of every minute repeater the company produces. True aficionados of minute repeaters select them in the same way a professional violinist will choose an instrument. This is wholly subjective, but then it’s almost impossible to find a minute repeater that doesn’t issue mellifluous sounds.

Volume, unlike sound quality, can be measured, and brands such as Bulgari and Audemars Piguet are doing their best to create wrist watch minute repeaters that don’t require the listener put an ear right up to the watch. Audemars’ Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie launched in 2015/6, was the first to attempt to break this limitation, the company actually demonstrating it alongside pocket watches to measure the sound levels. According to them, the Supersonnerie delivers “acoustic intensity… equivalent to 10-minute repeater wrist watches with traditional construction striking at the same time”. The complex science takes its cue from instrument making, fixing the gongs to a hermetically-sealed copper alloy sound board rather than, as is more typical, the dense and rigid main plate. Another problem overcome was the fact that use of a robust case — the Supersonniere is water resistant to 20 metres — typically muffled the sound quality. By switching to low density titanium, Audemars Piguet found that sound travelled through the case much easier than it would if steel or gold was used. “In most modern watches the sound tends to be much weaker. It would typically be better in my grandfather’s pocket watch, which for me was a great frustration,” explains Olivier Audemars, the great grandson of one of the founders of Audemars Piguet. “We spent a lot of time, eight years or so, working with physicists, musicians, material scientists to get the harmonics right. One interesting idea we played with is the fact that [thanks to the way the auditory cortex of the brain works] you don’t actually hear the sound the watch produces, so we kind of worked back from the sound we wanted to hear. And thanks to the way the sound is amplified, you really can hear it. You can’t say that about many minute repeaters.” Loudness is just one way the watch companies are dragging the minute repeater into the modern era. Another trend has been to pair minute repeaters with other complications or design features previously not combined. Patek Philippe’s Ref 5513R World Time model adds a minute repeater to one of the company’s most adored specialties: the world timer function. While many minute repeaters only reveal their status via the slide mechanism that activates the chimes, some looking deceptively plain or simple, the 5513R features the display of all 24 time zones, against a cloisonné dial that is a work of art in itself. A. Lange & Söhne’s aforementioned Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is the first mechanical watch that combines the chiming function with a jumping numerals display. This also makes it visually unlike any other, while the sound is both melodic and of sufficient volume to inform listeners a few feet away.


Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater in carbon

For Ulysse Nardin, a bit of drama has always been crucial to its minute repeaters. Nearly 30 years ago, the brand produced the first of its Jacquemart models, which featured moving blacksmiths hammering on an anvil as the watch chimed. Over the years, we have seen models produced in its Classics Collection featuring all manner of animation, the new North Sea Minute Repeater demonstrating its homage to the oil industry with a remarkable view of an off-shore oil rig in gold and champlevé enamel. Its three 18-karat gold cranes actually move and sound when the minute repeater is activated, indicating the hours, quarter hours and minutes.

Bulgari is locked in battle with makers such as Piaget for creating the thinnest watches of a given type; its Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater was enough of an achievement for its slimness. This year, the company upped the interest quotient by producing the watch in carbon. And to prove that even a house best known for tool watches for pilots can make timepieces that sing, Tutima has launched its first repeater, the Hommage. Add models from Jaquet-Droz, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Vacheron Constantin, Greubel Forsey, Parmigiani Fleurier, Breguet, Blancpain and a few dozen others, and one can safely assume that there are more minute repeaters being made today than in the era when they were actually needed.

Ulysse Nardin’s oil rig-inspired piece, the North Sea Minute Repeater

“But minute repeaters are a little like cars,” notes Marcus Margulies, the legendary high-end Bond Street watch retailer who is probably responsible for selling more chiming watches than anyone. “You get what you pay for.” To which we can add, “… at Ferrari prices.”

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