Minute repeaters: Why are they still covetable?

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Minute repeaters: Why are they still covetable?
Originally invented to tell the time in the dark, the chiming minute repeater has lost none of its allure in the age of buzzing smartphones and smart watches. Alvin Wong explains why

Why do you need a watch that chimes? Well, you don't. As with all high complications, the superfluous mechanical acrobatics in these timepieces perform are an exercise in ingenuity, not necessity.

But that's not to say that the minute repeater was borne of idle imagination.  Essentially a watch that chimes the time for you upon activation, the complication has its roots as a striking pocket watch that was invented in the late 17th century to tell the time in the dark. Remember, this was a time way before the invention of luminescent hands and indexes.

So, if the chiming watch is all but obsolete, why then, does the minute repeater continue to be so sought after by collectors? The simple answer can be found in its duality: it is a musical instrument and timekeeper rolled into one.

The minute repeater entices with its discretion — it is a next-level complication for in-the-know collectors who don't require the sporty allure of a chronograph or the visual enchantment to announce that they've arrived. Minute repeaters are meant to be admired and enjoyed at close quarters, where collectors huddle close to ruminate over the quality and clarity of the chimes.

Minute repeaters are meant to be admired and enjoyed at close quarters, where collectors huddle close to ruminate over the quality and clarity of the chimes.

For aficionados, the minute repeater's refined and complex construction, which in turn guarantees exclusivity, is reason enough to feature in their crosshairs. Understandably, watch companies also place a premium on the complication. All Patek Philippe minute repeaters, for instance, do not leave the factory without first getting personally tested by its president Thierry Stern.

In recent years, watch brands' quest for sonic supremacy by way of new case materials, re-engineered hammers and gongs, and computerised audio tests have resulted in models that have excelled in breaking decibel barriers. So what makes minute repeaters chime? And what makes those chimes good? We unravel the mysteries here.

Vacheron Constantin’s Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731 is the world’s thinnest hand-wound minute repeater

Minute repeaters commonly use two gongs and two hammers to chime the time. Usually activated by a slide device at the side of the case, the hours are chimed with a low-pitched gong (dong), followed by the quarter hours on a combination of high and low-pitched gongs (ding-dong), and the minutes are chimed with a high-pitch gong (ding). For instance, if the time's 2:18, your minute repeater should chime: dong-dong (two hours); ding-dong (one 15-minute quarter); and ding-ding-ding (three minutes past the first quarter).  

To ascertain how good a minute repeater is, check the following: volume, clarity, resonance, duration (good repeaters complete their chiming cycles in approximately eight seconds) and level of unwanted noise in between the chimes. In turn, how well these chimes turn out is dependent on a number of factors, from the finishing of the movement, to the construction of the hammers, gongs, sapphire crystal (the thinner, the better) and case (steel is considered to be the best amplifier of sound).

In watch collecting circles, Vacheron Constantin's Les Cabinotiers skeleton minute repeater is widely considered to be among the best. It purportedly has one of the liveliest and prettiest tones, aided by an acrylic crystal case back that helps transmit a purer and louder tone.  

Vacheron Constantin’s Les Cabinotiers Skeleton Minute Repeater

There is no shortage of new charming chimers for collectors with deep pockets. Patek Philippe's US$2.5 million Grandmaster Chime, a hyper complication with grand and petite sonnerie, minute repeater, perpetual calendar among its 20 complications, created for the brand's 175th anniversary, is one to swoon over.

Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime

For a women's version, our vote goes to Jaeger-LeCoultre's Rendez-Vous Ivy Minute Repeater, set against diamond encrusted floral motifs, that runs on a newly developed movement, the Calibre 942A. 

Jaeger-LeCoultre’s Rendez-Vous Ivy Minute Repeater

For more on the latest movements in timepieces around the globe, download the latest issue of CROWN on the App Store or at Google Play. 

Text: Alvin Wong

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