A long time ago, a repeater watch was used to indicate the time in the dark or by those who were visually impaired. Today, we use clock radios, phones, or even a properly lumed wristwatch to be able to read the time in the dark. For those who are visually impaired, there are other solutions (like a brail watch or ‘talking watch’). Still, repeater watches are one of the most sought-after complicated mechanisms on the market and unfortunately only available to those with a substantial budget.
Where some markets in the world seem to be concentrating on tourbillons – and watch manufactures are more than happy to fulfill that demand – a minute repeater seems to be something for the more knowledgeable and sophisticated collector of watches. It is seen as a more ‘useful’ complication as well, although one could debate whether it is practical and whether the price of such a useful complication makes sense enough for its functionality that can be had through other devices as well. Mechanical watches and usefulness are topics for debates in any case, but let’s save that for another time.
Repeaters have a complex mechanism of gongs and hammers to indicate the hours, quarters (or 10 minutes) and minutes. Furthermore, their energy source is of great importance. Putting mechanical parts in motion requires a lot of energy (force), you will probably remember when you played with these Tonka cars as a kid that needed some ‘winding’ so they could run for a couple of meters until the spring was totally unwound.
Let’s get back to the minute repeater watches. In most cases, there is a slide that needs to be activated. This slide is – most of the time – located at the left side of the case. The slide needs to be pulled and winds a separate spring to give power to the repeater mechanism. As soon as the slide is let go, the chiming sounds begin. Tiny hammers hit a gong to indicate the time. Actually, there are two gongs used to indicate three different sounds. The two gongs can be used at the same time to create a different sound for indication of time. One gong is used to indicate the hours with one hammer (dong dong dong), two gongs are used (with two hammers) to indicate the quarters (ding dong ding dong) and the other hammer is used on the second gong to indicate the minutes (ding ding ding).
Another important aspect of the repeater watch is the sound. Without a proper sound, or volume, the repeater functionality is of little use. The length and material of the gong as well as the material and dimensions of the case of the watch can be of great influence. It was Audemars Piguet that demonstrated one of their Royal Oak Concept watches last year, with an amazing high volume minute repeater. Sound engineers worked together with watchmakers to create the best sounding minute repeater. Or at least the loudest.
Patek Philippe for instance, is well known for their minute repeaters and the quality of their sound. It is being said that the owners of the company, Stern Sr. and Stern Jr., are personally involved in every minute repeater watch that leaves the Patek Philippe premises in Geneva. Acoustic perfection is what Patek Philippe refers to and they claim that the assembly of a repeater watch takes between 200 and 300 hours.
Lange & Söhne introduced their Zeitwerk Minute Repeater during the last SIHH fair in Geneva. This timepiece works a bit different from most other repeaters. First, it is a decimal repeater. A decimal repeater strikes each 10 minutes instead of on the quarters. Second, the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater is activated by a pusher instead of a slide. It consumes the necessary energy from the mainspring so it doesn’t need to wind an alternative power source for the minute repeater function.
Another interesting repeater, that also happens to be a decimal repeater, is Seiko‘s Credor Sonnerie with its Spring Drive movement. Besides this somewhat unconventional movement (without a traditional escapement and balance wheel), the chiming sound is also a bit different from the repeaters described above. Instead of hammers directly hitting two gongs to create the chiming sound for hours, decimals, and minutes, the hammers of this Credor hit the heads of strike pins that in their turn will hit the gongs. A beautiful crisp sound is the result.
If you are fortunate enough to add a minute repeater watch to your collection, there is enough to choose from. If you aren’t fortunate enough, then at least try to listen to a minute repeater at some point.