This article on the best minute repeater watches 2014 looks at timepieces that tell the time by chimes as well as by the usual hour and minute hands. They are complicated and very expensive. They are nearly always limited editions because, even though the luxury market continues to thrive and the number of millionaires in the world is increasing to rise, finding those individuals who can pay a few hundred thousand euros for a watch is in any case a problem.
The problem with repeater watches is that, just like any watch, they have to have a degree of water and dust resistance, which means that they are close to being air-tight. How does the sound get out? The heavier the metal of the case, the more it absorbs sound, and so gold and platinum, the usual materials for a high-end watch such as a minute repeater, are detrimental in this case. Some manufacturers incorporate titanium into part of the case for this reason. Most minute repeaters are not in fact classified as water-resistant. But in any case, the tings of the chimes are always very low in volume. One of the ways of increasing volume is by making the circular gongs larger, so that each gong encircles the case not just once, but twice. (A gong is described as a “cathedral gong” if it goes around the movement one-and-a-half times or more).
The first minute repeaters in their modern form were created by Abraham-Louis Breguet and his team in Paris in the early 19th century, and they invented the circular gong, replacing the tiny bell that had been used in preceding repeater watches. Typically there are two gongs, to differentiate hours, quarters (usually sounded on both gongs) and minutes. A few minute repeaters have four gongs and four hammers so that they can chime the quarters. Probably the most famous melody linked to four-gong chiming timepieces is the so-called Westminster Chimes (in the video below).
This is a cunning way of using four notes in different sequences to mark the four quarters. The melody was composed for a clock in Cambridge in 1793, but it is believed to be based on part of a composition by Handel (and so they are also sounded by the bells of the Red Tower in Halle, Handel’s birthplace), “I know that my Redeemer liveth” from The Messiah. The relevant bars can be heard at 0:09 in the video below:
At the Elizabeth Tower, Palace of Westminster (“Big Ben”), the notes are in the key of E major, so B, E, F# and G#; the Big Ben bell itself is tuned to E an octave lower. In the Big Ben clock room, there is an inscription with lyrics to the tune:
All through this hour
Lord, be my guide
And by Thy power
No foot shall slide.
Back to today, and to the watches presented in 2014. Minute repeaters were one of the great themes of the year, and so here is a selection of the finest pieces, in alphabetical order, plus the A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Striking Time right at the end because it is a striking watch and not a minute repeater.
1. Bulgari L’Ammiraglio del Tempo
The repeater has four gongs and four hammers so that the watch can play a Westminster chime. The watch has a lot of technical innovations, such as a repeater slide that is camouflaged as the bottom left-hand lug, and an unusual detent escapement and constant-force mechanism. The latter two features are from marine chronometer tradition, and the detent escapement, perfected by John Arnold in about 1775 and improved by Thomas Earnshaw a few years later, became considered the most accurate type of escapement, with reduced friction and a single impulse delivered to the balance wheel each cycle (in comparison to the two impulses of the lever escapement). It is rarely used in watches because of the difficulties involved in miniaturizing it. This watch has 516 components, housed in a very large case, 45.75 mm wide and 50 mm high, 14.9 mm thick, reflecting Daniel Roth’s design style (Bulgari purchased Daniel Roth’s brand in 2000). The movement is hand-wound, running at 14,000 vibrations per hour (2 Hertz), with 48 hours power reserve. The deconstructed dial provides views of the chiming mechanism and the detent escapement. The watch is made in two limited editions, 20 pieces in pink gold, and 10 in white gold. The edition number of each watch is shown on the sapphire crystal disc on the crown. Price in the order of €320,000.
Below, the lug that becomes the minute-repeater slider:
Below, detail of the movement showing the balance at the bottom, the circular gongs, and the hammers on the left:
2. Christophe Claret Soprano
Christophe Claret’s Soprano combines a minute repeater with Westminster quarters and a 60-second tourbillon, in a piece in which the stepped bridges and liberal use of transparent sapphire opens up the watch as seen from the front. Claret dedicated a lot of attention to sound quality, and each gong encircles the perimeter of the movement twice. The hammer has to strike the gong with a fair degree of force, and it has to retract immediately so as not to deaden the sound. The watch’s central caseband is in titanium, a metal that transmits sound better than others. When the repeater slide is activated, the movement strikes the hours on the deepest note, C, and then the quarter is chimed on the four notes of the Westminster chime (unless the time is before 15 minutes after the hour). Then the number of minutes after the quarter are sounded.
The Soprano has no dial, partly to improve sound transmission, but above all to provide a good view of the movement and striking mechanism. The tourbillon can be seen at 6 o’clock, with the mainspring barrel at 12 o’clock. Both are supported by the characteristic cantilevered bridge, a style known as Charles X after a French king who reigned from 1824 to 1830 and was a great patron of watchmakers. The mainspring barrel has a transparent sapphire cover, so that power reserve can be gauged approximately from the closeness of the spring leaves. At 3 o’clock, the inertia governor of the repeater also has a sapphire cover: it spins to regulate the speed of the chiming hammers.
The Calibre TRD98 movement has 450 parts, and a power reserve of 72 hours. The case is 45 mm in diameter, and 15.32 mm thick. The watch is made in two limited editions, eight pieces each, in red or white gold. Price from about €390,000 + VAT. In the video below, you can hear the watch striking the time at 0:40:
Below, detail of the minute repeater slider that activates the chimes:
Below, white gold version of the watch, with the attractive red spinel hands:
3. F.P. Journe Repetition Souveraine
Minute repeaters should really be rated in decibels. This watch by François-Paul Journe seems to differ from most minute repeaters for a louder sound, at least to judge from the video below. It is also distinctive for its slim case (the brand describes it as an ultra-slim repeater), diameter 40 mm and thickness 8.65 mm, and its unmistakably FPJ dial design, with a window through which the two hammers can be seen operating when the discreet slider on the left-hand side of the case is operated. Also on the dial is the power reserve indicator at 3 o’clock and small seconds at 7.30. The acoustic equipment is unusual in several ways. First, the case is in steel, chosen for its good sound transmission. Second, the gong is flat and under the dial. The striking mechanism strikes first the hours, then the quarters with double chimes, and then the minutes. If there are no quarters, the movement inserts a pause between the hours and minutes. So the hours and minutes are on the same note. The Calibre 1408 movement, with pink gold baseplates and bridges, 312 components, runs at 21,600 vph, with twin barrels in parallel providing 56 hours power reserve. Price about €135,000
4. Hublot Classic Fusion Cathedral Tourbillon Minute Repeater
This is Hublot’s second tourbillon minute repeater, presented at Baselworld in 2014, with a new in-house movement, the HUB 8001. The absence of a dial reveals the movement in all its complication, with the large tourbillon at 6 o’clock, rotating once every 60 seconds, and a total of 319 components. It is manually-wound, with a power reserve of 5 days (120 hours). The slider that activates the repeater is incorporated in the left-hand resin lug on the side of the case at 9 o’clock, preserving the clean lines of the Classic Fusion case. The large case, 45 mm in diameter, is in King Gold (an alloy containing 5% of platinum , reference 504.OX.0180.LR) or titanium (reference 504.OX.0180.LR). The sound of the gong is in part transmitted by the case itself. The gold version is a limited edition of 50, the titanium 90 pieces. The watch won the Striking Watch Prize at the 2014 GPHG Awards. Prices start at about €191,500.
Below, the version with case in King Gold:
5. Jaquet Droz Bird Repeater Openwork
This is a new version of the Bird Repeater, which chimes the time on demand while two bluetits feed their chicks, an egg hatches to reveal another chick, and one of the birds spreads its wings. On the left of the dial, a waterfall rotates continuously. The openwork version is more modern than the previous version, and the nest is no longer present. The dial for hours and minutes is in black onyx; the Jaquet Droz RMA88 movement is hand-wound with a power reserve of 48 hours and a total of 508 components. The piece in white gold is a limited edition of eight. The animation is fully in the Jaquet Droz tradition: the brand’s founder became famous not only for his watches but also for his automatons, such as “The Writer,” a boy who could take a pen and sign his name, and a variety of singing bird clocks. The price of the Bird Repeater Openwork is about €399,000.
6. Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon
Nearly all the watches in this post are manually wound (because an automatic winding system takes up space in the movement that is already at a premium because of the need to accommodate hammers, gongs and the extra parts for the striking mechanism) and large, thick pieces. This watch by Jaeger-LeCoultre presented at SIHH in January 2014 is rather different, part of the remarkable depth of the new collection comprising many models, with many technical innovations, and a whole series of fine jewellery watches in the Hybris Artistica collection. The Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon succeeds in doing a lot, with some features that have never been seen before in the category, while preserving the classic minimalist appearance that is a hallmark of the Master collection. Its description of “ultrathin” is entirely justified by its thickness of 7.9 millimetres, about half the thickness of most of the other watches described here. The slim lines are preserved by an ingenious system of hiding the repeater slider. The volume of the chimes is increased by using gongs in crystal, that are affixed to the sapphire crystal which resonates the sound.
The design team evidently decided what the watch should do, and then set about thinking how to do it. Eight patents later, they achieved it. One of the features of the watch is the oscillating weight, which is not the usual semicircular weight on the back of the movement, visible through the caseback, but a peripheral weight that revolves around the rest of the mechanism, and can be glimpsed through narrow openings on the front of the dial. This adds interest to this side of the watch. It also helps make the movement thinner.
The tourbillon was designed to be as visible as possible, and so it has a flying balance-wheel, with balance spring fixed above. It is described as “flying” because the top bridge has been removed. The spiral spring is in a new type of blued gold, with specially-designed terminal S-curves. Another design objective for the regulator was to make it as quiet as possible, in order not to detract from the sound of the repeater.
The gongs and the hammers can be seen through the transparent caseback, and for this part of the movement, the team had to deal with what is always a problem: how to make the sound loud enough to be heard outside the case. They achieved this with patented trebuchet hammers, that strike two crystal gongs, which are in turn fixed to the sapphire crystal, helping transmit the sound from inside to out. The designers also introduced a system that solves a little problem typical of repeater watches, which strike hours, quarters and minutes when a slider button is pressed. When the time is, say, seven minutes past ten, the gong strikes ten for the hours, then there is a long pause because there are no quarters, and then it strikes seven for the minutes. This ultra thin minute repeater eliminates the pause when there are no quarters. You don’t think it’s important? Well, no-one else had thought of it.
There is more. Jaeger-LeCoultre make supremely elegant watches, above all in the Master collection, and the idea of a sliding lever on the left-hand side of the watch to activate the repeater evidently struck the designers as a bit too obtrusive. So there is a system in two stages, a discreet locking system at 8 o’clock. Pressing this brings out the pusher for the minute repeater at 10 o’clock, and this pusher has to be pushed for just 2 millimetres to activate the striking mechanism. After operating the repeater mechanism, the pusher returns to its recessed position, leaving the watch with its pristine beauty.
The design of the case is a reinterpretation of a Jaeger-LeCoultre pocket watch dating to 1907. It is made in white gold, chosen for its excellent acoustic qualities. It is a 41-millimetre diameter watch, with a black alligator leather strap. The Calibre 362 movement has a 45-hour power reserve. The watch, Reference 131 35 20, is a 75-piece limited series. Price about €294,000.
7. Parmigiani Fleurier Toric Résonance 3
The dial curiously focuses all the attention on the super-large date, with two numerals whose discs necessarily go right around the outside of the movement. It’s a perfect piece for people who find the usual date window too small to be of practical everyday use. The seamless operation of the date function is attained by a system that gradually accumulates energy over the 24-hour period and then releasing it when the date changes at midnight. The date is adjusted by means of a pusher on the crown. The minimalist simplicity of the Toric case, with its lovely guilloché that creates ever-changing visual effects, means that the only sign of the repeater function is the slider on the left hand side of the case. The gongs are visible through the sapphire caseback, and they are given a louder sound by making two circuits of the movement, and by giving them a zig-zag shape to increase their total length. The case is in white gold, 45 mm in diameter, 14.1 mm thick, housing the manually-wound PF359 movement with 459 components, power reserve 48 hours.
8. Patek Philippe 5078R Minute repeater
Patek Philippe is simply in a different league. Just consider that its minute repeater collection currently comprises 13 watches, many of which combining the repeater complication with others such as tourbillon or perpetual calendar, and not counting the incredible Grandmaster Chime 5175R-001 made for the brand’s 175th anniversary.
The 5078R, new for 2014, is a paradigm of understatement, with a white enamel dial on which the only sign of movement is the small seconds subdial. Even when you turn the watch over you may be surprised, because the watch has an interchangeable solid back and sapphire crystal display back. It looks back to the golden age of watchmaking when the microengineering was not something to be seen, but entirely dedicated to ensuring precision and reliability. Another vintage feature is the case size, just 38 mm in diameter. The movement, Calibre R 27 PS, is automatic, with 342 components, and power reserve from 43 to 48 hours. The minute repeater slider can be seen on the left of the case. The case is in pink gold, with chocolate alligator strap, and a pin buckle. A commendable feature of the Patek Philippe website is that it enables you to listen to the sound of a repeater, actually a different model, and it has a more complex sound with more harmonies when compared to repeaters by other brands. Price on request from Patek Philippe boutiques, probably of the order of €250,000.
Here is the sound of the 5539:
9. Piaget Emperador Coussin Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater
Piaget are famous for their ultra-thin watches, and this is no exception, with an automatic movement (rare for minute repeaters) 4.8 mm thick, and a case 9.4 mm thick, with 30 metres water resistance. The Calibre 1290P movement required three years work by six engineers, developing it from the Calibre 1200P, the world’s thinnest automatic movement. The 48 mm pink gold case plays an important part in sound transmission, hollowed as far as possible for good resonance, and connected to the gongs. Piaget commendably provide an indication of volume of the two gongs, 64 decibels (virtually the same as a conversation, 65 dB), with hours at G# and minutes at A#, and gongs designed to produce extra harmonics for a richer sound. Parts of the movement are visible through the sapphire watchglass, with more, including the hammers and the pink-gold-colour platinum oscillating weight, through the sapphire caseback. There are hour indicators on the dial side, as well as a sunburst guilloché design on the bridges that cleverly marks the minutes. At bottom right, there is a circular signature piece that is a new Piaget feature for exclusive pieces with haute horlogerie finish, a circular medal with the lettering “Toujours faire mieux que necessaire – La Côte-aux-Fées”. Always do more than necessary. The cushion-shape of the case itself indicates that this is a special watch, because this format is reserved by the brand for its complication timepieces. The movement has 407 components, each of which costs on average about €584: this is rhetorical of course, but just another way of saying that the watch costs about €238,000. In the video below, you can hear the sound of the watch at 2:58.
10. Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731
The Piaget Emperador Coussin Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater is a prodigiously thin automatic repeater at 9.4 mm thick, and the Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731 is the thinnest manually-wound minute repeater in the world at 8.09 mm case thickness. The wonderfully minimalist dial design, silvered with pink gold hour-markers, and the 41 mm diameter case, makes it a perfect dress watch as well. The Calibre 1731 movement – both watch and movement have this number in reference to the date of birth of Jean-Marc Vacheron who founded the brand in 1755 – has 265 components (a remarkably low number when compared to the other watches described here), and a power reserve of 65 hours. The acoustics of the gongs are improved by the case design, with gongs connected to the caseband, and airflow between movement and case carefully designed to optimise sound propagation. At Vacheron Constantin, each watch of this type of complexity is assembled by an individual watchmaker, who then works with acoustics specialists to ensure that the sound is satisfactory. The time used for the tests is always 4.49, when there are four hour strikes, three quarter strikes, and four minute strikes. Reference 30110/000R-9793, price about €270,000. www.vacheron-constantin.com
11. A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Striking Time
Not a minute repeater but rather a striking watch, this incredible piece presented at SIHH 2014 has a jumping digital display and a visible chiming mechanism that strikes the hours on a low-pitched tone and the minutes on a higher note. Every quarter-hour, the right-hand hammer strikes once, and on the hour, the left-hand hammer strikes once. So if an hour was compressed into three seconds, the sound would be like the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The two stainless steel hammers can be seen towards the base of the dial, on either side of the continuous seconds subdial. The gongs are suspended between dial and bezel. Between the hour and minute digits, a screw on the left of the time bridge is balanced by a sapphire jewel endstone on the right. At the top, the power reserve indicator, particularly important in a manually-wound watch. The pusher at 4 o’clock blocks the hammers to silence the striking function. It is also deactivated when the crown is pulled out to set the time. The watch is powered by the Lange manufacture calibre L043.2 hand-wound, with constant-force escapement and 528 components, superbly finished and visible through the sapphire caseback. The balance runs relatively slowly at 18,000 semi-oscillations per hour; even though the digital jumping display and the striking mechanism absorb a lot of power, the watch has 36 hours power reserve. The case is 44.2 mm in diameter and 13.1 mm thick. Price about €100,400 for the platinum version (reference 145.025), €91,000 for the white gold version (reference 145.029). Also available in pink gold, reference 145.032.