For centuries, ancient clock towers in European villages have marked the passing of time with the ringing of bells. In the 15th and 16th centuries, early watchmakers sought to replicate this ritual by producing timepieces with small bells in the movements. Technology advanced, and the first minute repeaters—watches that tell the time with music—emerged in Germany in the 1720s. Sixty years later, the visionary watchmaker Abraham-Louis Breguet advanced the art of striking watches by replacing bells with steel blades curved around the movement to produce a thinner watch with clearer sound. That paved the way for the modern minute repeater, which is widely considered watchmaking's ultimate complication. Minute repeater mechanisms eventually made their way into wristwatches in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
When activated a minute repeater will chime the time to the nearest minute on demand. Tiny hammers strike finely tuned wire gongs, allowing you to count the hours, quarter hours and minutes, to discern the time musically rather than visually, which was helpful in the pre-electric age—or even today at times when it's inconvenient to view the watch dial. Not surprisingly, carrying a miniature version of a clock tower in your pocket, and later on your wrist, has always been a privilege of the very, very wealthy. Today's minute repeaters, especially when combined with other ne plus ultra complications, such as tourbillons, frequently climb into the mid-six figures and well above. But you don't have to be able to afford a minute repeater to appreciate the art form.
In recent years, even as the luxury watch market has suffered a lull, precious minute repeaters have undergone something of a renaissance with both old guard and younger brands strutting their technical stuff while bringing the traditional minute repeater into the 21st century with unconventional, even avant-garde, designs and space-age materials, such as titanium and sapphire crystal. Computer technology is being leveraged to analyze the tones for purity and test for sound quality, and the old-world complication is being paired with contemporary practical functions such as GMTs and power reserves. Dials are opened up to reveal the mechanism in operation and to allow the sound to travel, and cases are also being tweaked to amplify sound. Overall, a number of innovations have advanced the minute repeater to become more reliable and less delicate, so it can be worn daily, rather than stored in a safe for a special occasion.
Arguably the most romantic and poetic watch complication, a minute repeater is a testament to the mastery of the watchmaker who produces it. And while they are now aided by modern technology that can scientifically test various parameters of the watch's performance, the beauty of the song is in the ear of the beholder, so the human element remains essential. Because each piece is painstakingly assembled and tuned by ear, each minute repeater is unique, like any other handmade musical instrument.
Patek Philippe, historically one of the most revered makers of minute repeaters, staged an event recently in which a number of its minute repeaters were tested side by side for comparison. To evaluate a minute repeater, you listen for certain qualities, such as a harmonious tone with a warm full pitch, rather than thin, metallic or sharp/flat notes. The volume and tempo should also be steady and consistent through the longest chime—12:59—which ideally lasts 18 to 20 seconds, per Patek Philippe. And the buzz created by the centrifugal governor mechanism that drives the hammers should be minimal so as not to distract from the song.
Achieving these goals requires a rare and studied expertise. For a watchmaker to know how to make a single gong correctly, he will have to make about 100 gongs in training. Then he must select the individual gongs for each watch, choosing from Patek Philippe's 21 different classes of gongs of differing diameters and lengths. Then the gongs must be soldered to the main plate correctly to avoid vibration that can spoil the sound. Fine-tuning follows, as the watchmaker trims the length of the gongs to produce an ideal sound.
In 2003, the brand, which produced its first minute repeater in 1845, was the first to use computer analysis of the notes to get an objective measure of the quality of the sound. Once the watchmaker is satisfied, they place the watch in a safe-like box fitted with two microphones that feeds into a computer to create a "sound picture." If the watch passes the analytics, it progresses to the head of the grand complications department for approval, and from there, the watchmaker who produced it presents it to Thierry Stern, Patek's president, who personally tests and approves each minute repeater before it leaves the factory. The song of each watch is stored on a computer so when the watch comes back for servicing or repair, they can test it to make sure its original sound is preserved before it is returned.
If you want to purchase this year's resolutely classical Ref. 5539G Minute Repeater Tourbillon (price upon request, patek.com) with seconds sub-dial and blue enamel dial, or any other Patek minute repeater for that matter, you must first be approved by the brand, which initiated an application process to thwart speculators. "A few years back, people were buying these pieces, and they were not even being opened—they were stuck in a vault, and people were using them as speculative watches," explains Larry Pettinelli, the brand's U.S. president. "Mr. Stern said, we're making so few of these, I want to know my customer and make sure they are being worn and not being used as baseball cards."
Vacheron Constantin, another historic brand, also stayed true to aesthetic traditions with this year's Traditionnelle minute repeater tourbillon powered by the new hand-wound Caliber 2755 TMR, which was designed, developed and produced in-house in keeping with strict quality standards of the Hallmark of Geneva, or Geneva Seal, ensuring excellent finishing and performance criteria have been met. Available in rose gold ($482,000, vacheron-constantin.com), considered superior for sound propagation, and platinum ($536,000), the watches' dials are engraved with a pattern exclusive to the brand using the 18th-century technique of hand-guilloché.
Despite a long history in the niche, Audemars Piguet took an avant-garde approach with the record-breaking Royal Oak Supersonnerie (520,000 Swiss francs, audemarspiguet.com), which debuted as a concept piece last year and became available this year. Hailed as the loudest minute repeater ever produced, the Supersonnerie can be heard from across the room, while most repeaters require listeners to crane their ear to the wrist.
Even with its laundry list of patents, design innovations that amplify sound and a high-tech aesthetic, the Supersonnerie traces its origins to a 1924 watch in the brand's archive. Brand ambassador Claudio Cavaliere points out that during the 1920s and '30s, more people sang and played musical instruments for leisure, perhaps explaining why minute repeaters from that period were exceptional. "They were quite good at tuning musical instruments and good at tuning minute repeaters as well," he says. "Like monks in the Middle Ages making good wines who had no idea why the wine was good, those watchmakers were capable of properly tuning the sound, but did not know exactly how."
Now armed with modern technology, the brand could enlist engineers, musicians and acousticians to define 200 parameters that were influencing the sound, both technical and subjective, to replicate the tones of the vintage watch. "If you tune a piano just with a machine that measures the frequency, it doesn't sound so good," Cavaliere explains. "You need someone to tune it in a human way, where our brains perceive the frequencies the best. You can make a very pure sound technically, but if perception of that sound is ugly for the human brain, it's not a good sound." So while the machines can provide the watchmakers targets to measure up against, they still require the soulful qualities of the human ear and brain to complete the final tuning.
Aside from unprecedented volume, Audemars also sought to produce a minute repeater rugged enough to wear every day. And the Supersonnerie's 44 mm titanium (a material hailed for sound-propagation qualities) is water-resistant to 20 meters, should you decide to take a dip with a half-million dollar watch strapped to your wrist.
Cartier also chose titanium for the latest version of its Rotonde de Cartier minute repeater flying tourbillon (price upon request, cartier.com) powered by the manual winding 9402 MC in-house movement, which is individually numbered and certified with the Geneva Hallmark.
For their first forays into the minute repeater field this year, Bulgari and Panerai took audaciously modern approaches to create stylish, contemporary repeaters that are robust enough to stand up to everyday wear and tear.
Bulgari's Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater ($155,000, bulgari.com) went a step further, claiming the record for the world's thinnest minute repeater at 6.85 mm thick. "We wanted the minute repeater to be worn on the wrist, not stay in the safe," says Guido Terreni, managing director of Bulgari Watches, who points out the bold, faceted case imparts a disruptive attitude that contrasts with the dial's rather understated appearance. "You bring it to life when you activate it," he explains. "But when it is not functioning, it can seem an ordinary watch, and that's part of the beauty of it."
Sound propagation is a challenge in the compact confines of an ultra-thin case, which is the reason why they selected titanium for the metal. Bulgari's engineers also opened up the dial, laser cutting the brand's stylized numeric and stick indexes in the thin wafer of titanium to allow the sound to travel through the case. And like the aforementioned brands, Bulgari also tests the sound for intensity, tempo and the purity of the notes, among other parameters.
Panerai also focused on the case to enhance the sound of its Radiomir 1940 Minute Repeater Carillon Tourbillon GMT (price upon request, panerai.com), which is the most complicated watch the brand has ever built. Inside the red-gold case, which is constructed of two soldered halves, they hollowed out a channel to create an acoustic chamber that serves as an amplifier. The 5Npt alloy includes platinum, which adds density and weight to the metal, further enhancing resonance. Clients can also choose white gold and possibly even titanium down the road. The skeletonized movement imparts an edgy aesthetic to the Radiomir design, whose case proportions pay tribute to the brand's original tool watches produced for the Italian Royal Navy in the mid-20th century. And in a modern twist, you can customize various elements including the case metal, finishes, hands and even the color of the luminous SuperLuminova markings.
The addition of a GMT (tracking two time zones) makes a contemporary statement, and, in an unprecedented flourish, the watch can chime both home and local times by manipulating the crown. The Radiomir is designed with four barrels, two dedicated to the time and the 30-second tourbillon, and the other two work the chiming mechanisms. Thanks to this, says Frederic Dreyer, Panerai's director of research and development, "you can play with the chiming mechanism and you will never reduce the four-day power reserve of the movement, which is really nice."
As Panerai prides itself on reliability, the team developed layered security systems to protect the movement from damage caused by unintended user error. Therefore, it is impossible to activate the repeater while you are setting the time and vice versa. "We have expertise in long power-reserve movements and chronographs, so the goal was the same: to make a reliable minute repeater," says Dryer. The watch must pass shock tests as well as sound tests, and, it is water resistant down to 30 meters.
In another break from tradition, the Panerai has a decimal chiming sequence rather than the typical quarter format. In a melodic flourish, it is equipped with three hammers and three gongs, endowing it with the term carillon, a reference to a musical instrument with numerous bells. The chiming sequence allows you to determine the time in a format that parallels a digital watch. When you activate the push piece at 8 o'clock, the watch strikes a single low note for hours, each 10-minute segment is marked with a three-note high-to-low melody, and a single high note counts off the minutes. "The 10-minute chime pattern makes it easier to understand the time when you hear the song," says Dreyer.
A. Lange & Söhne's director of product development Anthony de Haas agrees, which is why last year's Zeitwerk Minute Repeater ($467,700, alange-soehne.com) is equipped with a decimal chime sequence. "We wanted to create a modern interpretation of a classical complication," says de Haas. "A decimal system is more modern."
Using a push button rather than a typical slide lever to activate the chiming sequence, Zeitwerk is also equipped with safety systems that prevent you from setting the time while the striking system is activated. Another feature disables the power-hungry repeater when power drains below 12 hours, which preserves time-keeping accuracy. A patented delay-of-time setting compensates for when the chiming sequence is started at the turn of the hour. For example, if you activate the repeater at 12:59, the hands will stay in place until after the sequence finishes, then they will instantly snap to the correct time.
De Haas points out that while it would have been expected for the German brand to launch its first striking watch in the über-classical 1815 range, he relished the element of surprise generated by introducing the Zeitwerk striking watch. "That's the thing you should always try," he says. "Because, to be honest, how many hundreds of years have mechanical watches been made? You have to be different, take a different approach, otherwise no one has a reason to buy your watches."
Chopard debuted its first minute repeater, the L.U.C. Full Strike (price available on request, chopard.com) this year to mark the 20th anniversary of its manufacture in Fleurier, Switzerland. Chopard spent more than six years developing the showpiece that employs sapphire crystal-rather than metal-gongs to attain the acoustic quality of a silver spoon tapping a crystal goblet. The 42.5-mm case is made of the brand's proprietary Fairmined rose gold, which is ethically sourced in South America. The clear sapphire gongs are connected to the dial crystal creating the effect of a loudspeaker to amplify the sound, and an aperture at 10 o'clock provides a window into the mechanism.
The calibre 08.01-L movement is the result of almost 15,000 hours of development. Like in other next-gen minute repeaters, the movement features security systems to prevent you from unintentionally damaging it. Move the crown in one direction to wind the movement and in the other direction to wind the striking mechanism, which has the energy capacity to strike 12:59 12 times. The dial features a double power reserve indicator at 2 o'clock with superimposed hands that display the energy remaining in the strike mechanism's reserve as well as the main movement's reserve.
Jaeger-LeCoultre pioneered the concept of integrating gongs with the watch's crystal to amplify sound, dubbing it "crystal gong." The heel of the gong is soldered to the crystal that spans over the dial to magnify the sound created by two trebuchet hammers. The regulator that controls the energy delivered to the barrel of the minute repeater is nearly silent at 20 decibels, so nothing interferes with the pure sound of the notes. This year, Jaeger introduced the now-evolved technology in its first automatic minute repeater, the 39mm Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater ($180,000, jaeger-lecoultre.com), which pays homage to 19th-century pocket watches. The mechanism is activated with the push of a button with its own built-in security system: if you push the button accidentally while the chime is ringing, it will not start again, preventing damage to the movement. The 22-karat pink gold oscillating weight bears the brand's logo.
Breguet also took a novel approach to the development of the gongs in its Tradition Répétition Minutes Tourbillon ($460,700, breguet.com), which debuted in 2015 and became available to order this year. Intending to rethink the minute repeater, which its founder Abraham-Louis Breguet played an integral part in developing, Breguet started with a blank slate. They sampled about 100,000 synthesized tones to choose two and then built the watch to reproduce them.
They also took a radical approach to the gongs, which spread horizontally across the dial—rather than encircling the movement—and attach to the bezel, which is designed to project the sound. The hammers of the striking mechanism, activated by a push button, strike the gongs vertically from beneath. Breguet even took poetic license with the classical minute repeater melody, rewriting the quarter-note chime to play low to high, instead of vice versa. The watch's peripheral winding system provides you with an unimpeded view of all the mechanics at work.
While technology may have ushered in a new golden age of minute repeaters, it is still one of the hardest complications to industrialize, because the quality of the song relies on how it is perceived by people rather than machines. "The minute repeater was the last complication that was not, in a way, industrialized," says Audemars Piguet's Cavaliere. "You need specific know-how to make the finest tuning of the gongs. You need to get this balance with the technology helping the man to be better. You cannot replace everything with technology, specifically with sound. Machines cannot measure emotion. It's like a sports car: you can measure the power, but you cannot measure the smile it puts on your face when you drive it."