TIME FOR SALE: WATCHMAKING MYSTERY
HOROLOGICAL HISTORY - MINUTE REPEATER
Timepiece connoisseurs feel a like reverence for the minute repeater and sonnerie, watches that chime the time on tiny gongs fitted inside the case. Of all complicated watches, they are the most challenging to make.
Today mechanical watches can be made entirely by robots. Machines made modern watches dependable, but it's the hand and ear that make the repeater inimitable.
BIG TIME :: HOROLOGICAL HISTORY: MINUTE REPEATER
Chiming watches, however, are in principle impossible to make satisfactorily through purely industrial means. The repeater, which chimes the hour, quarter hour, and minute "on demand" when a slide in the case is pressed, and the sonnerie, which, like a mantel clock, chimes the hour and quarter "in passing," require both a musician's ear and a surgeon's hand to construct and adjust. What makes a repeater special is that it chimes on demand.
A GOOD WATCHMAKER HAS A CALM, COOL, COLLECTED MIND...
As watchmaker Donald de Carle wrote nearly 50 years ago in his famous manual on complicated-watch repair, the repeater, more than any other type of watch, necessitates a mind that is "calm, cool, and collected." Absent the human judgment involved in the final adjustment of the mechanism, repeaters would function poorly, if at all. That gives them an aura that no other complication watch can match--and a price tag as well. It usually starts in the low six figures.
Daniel Quare is thought to have invented the repeater in the mid-1680s. His first ones sounded the hour and the quarter hour on demand, and in 1687 King James II granted him the patent for the quarter repeater. More than 20 years passed before the five-minute repeater, which chimes to the nearest five minutes, appeared, and it would be 40 more years before the first true minute repeater appeared. No one knows the exact date or even whether the credit, usually attributed to Englishman Thomas Mudge, is correct.
It took the great A.L. Breguet, who counted among his clients the court of Louis XVI, to evolve the species decisively. Repeaters before Breguet were ungainly because the dome-shaped bells occupied a lot of space. He streamlined the watch by using gongs made of tempered-steel wire, which could be wound more than once around the inner circumference of the case. The result: a flatter, more elegant watch with good sound quality. Wearing one really is "like having the mind of a genius in your pocket," as Sir David Lionel Salomons, history's most ardent Breguet collector, once said. (Although today the Breguet Classique Grand Complication Minute Repeater Perpetual Calendar would be on your wrist.) The final step in the repeater's maturity, the creation of a wristwatch repeater movement, was accomplished by Audemars Piguet in 1892.
Machines made modern watches dependable, but it's the hand and ear that make the repeater inimitable.
But it's human touch more than tech that makes a great repeater the subject of great everence. "Manual adjustment is what elevates the production of minute repeaters to an art form. It's what makes each timepiece unique," says the Patek Philippe master watchmaker. Even the ultra-high-tech Grand Complications Caliber 89 has to pass muster with an expert's golden ear before it's released.
:: TIMEPIECE AS ART: WATCHES WORTH BUYING
Gérald Genta Octo Grande Sonnerie Tourbillion
It rings the time in passing and on demand by playing the Westminster Quarters, the same melody rung out by London's Big Ben. $810,200.
Audemars Piguet Jules Audemars Minute Repeater with Jumping Hours
A stunning Art Deco–style jumping hour repeater from the company that in 1892 put the repeater on the customer's wrist for the first time. $231,100.
Patek Philippe Ref. 5074R
A perpetual calendar that adjusts for length of the month and for leap year, combined with a minute repeater. Patek Philippe chairman Philippe Stern still insists on hearing and approv-ing each Patek repeater personally. $518,500 (subject to change)
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Minute Repeater
One of the new breed of repeaters that mix high mech and high tech: The gongs are attached directly to the sapphire crystal for unparalleled bell-like clarity and volume. $142,000.
IWC Portuguese Minute Repeater
For the connoisseur who likes big secrets: The sapphire caseback shows off the pocket-watch movement that gives this 43-millimeter watch its heft, but only the slide in the case band--and the ringing of its gongs--reveal its musical heart. $86,000.
F.P. Journe Repetition Souverain
Both a hard-core traditionalist and a game-changing iconoclast, François-Paul Journe has done it again, creating the world's thinnest minute repeater. $165,400.
Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Traditionnelle Calibre 2755
In full court dress, this masterpiece combines a tourbillon, minute repeater, and perpetual calendar, and with its open dial, wears its heart on its sleeve. $585,000.