Minute-Repeater Watches - Nice Sounds of Accurate Timekeeping

Oct 12, 2006
Minute-repeater watches represent one of the most remarkable achievements of the traditional horology. These are true mechanical marvels that are even more precious if to consider they are confined to the limited space of a watch case.

The invention of the initial repeater mechanism dates back to the before-electric-lighting time when people were wearing pocket watches that 'sounded' the time for their owners.

'Striking watches' sounded the hours and quarter-hours with help of tiny hammers that were striking a bell or gongs built into the watch's movement. The owner of a pocket watch had to press a push-piece or pull a bolt to switch on the repeater mechanism.

Minute-repeater watches are created to strike the hours, quarter-hours and minutes. Every strike is characterized by its own distinctive sound and frequency. This effect is achieved with the movement incorporating two different hammers with strike gongs that produce contrasting vibrations and tones.

To make a minute repeater watch sound the time, the watch's owner has to push a special lever. For example, if the owner activates the minute repeater at 11:59, he will listen to a mini-concert performed by the wristwatch that will altogether strike 28 times. The minute repeater watch will strike 11 times to indicate the hours. Then, it will strike another 17 times to indicate the minutes: 3 times for the quarter-hours (for 45 minutes) plus 14 times for the remaining minutes (45+14=total of 59 minutes).
The movement of a minute repeater watch is of complicated nature. According to Blancpain, the development and fine-tuning of a minute repeater watch requires about 10, 000 hours of meticulous work.

Some minute repeater watches incorporate a 'grand sonnerie' (grand strike) mechanism that automatically strikes the hours and quarter-hours, repeats the hours at every quarter, and on demand strikes the hours, quarters and minutes. You will also come across a 'petite sonnerie' (small strike) mechanism that automatically strikes the hours and quarters but doesn't repeat the hours at every quarter.

A Glance Back
Quarter-repeater watches initially appeared in England somewhere in 1675. They were equipped with 'sonnerie au passage' devices that were developed to automatically strike the hours - one strike for every hour, the half-hour and quarter-hour. Over time, quarter-repeater watches were replaced by minute-repeater following the introduction of the first minute repeater developed by Thomas Mudge in Britain in 1750.

Minute repeaters were in great demand until the appearance of safety matches in 1845. Safety matches allowed lighting candles and then oil and gas lamps with the reduced risk of fire.

Audemars Piguet in Search of the Lost Sound

Nowadays, mastering sound in minute repeater watches enjoys high competition among the brands belonging to high-end watch-making.

The Audemars Piguet Company, founded in Le Brassus, has been accumulating the experience in the field of striking watches since 1875.

In 1889, the manufacture presented a Grande Complication timepiece equipped with a minute repeater mechanism striking the hours, quarters and minutes.

Audemars Piguet also introduced a range of technical innovations in order to miniaturize minute repeater mechanisms:

  • in 1891, a minute repeater model measuring just 18 mm in diameter;

  • in 1892, the first minute repeater wristwatch;

  • in 1910, a minute repeater pocket-watch equipped with a unique movement highly appreciated for its elegant aesthetics treasured by the Vallee de Joux's watchmakers;

  • in 1992, a wristwatch that united a minute repeater mechanism with jumping hours;

  • in 2007, the Jules Audemars Jumping Hour Minute Repeater in a limited edition of 20 pieces.

Today, through organizing the Alliance industrial liaison program, the brand is eager to recapture the benchmark sound lost decades ago, and perpetuate this art while applying the latest watch-making technologies.

The art of the sound mastery reached its peak around 1925. The appearance of radium and fluorescent dials gradually replaced this technology, with watchmakers losing their precious expertise in the field.

A great number of modern watches are watertight - this implies new challenges related to the sound transmission. Watchmakers also strive for the higher level of quality and take into consideration the increased requirements as for mastering watch production and testing.

Specialists in the field work on achieving a beautiful, strong and clear sound to be also reproduced from one timepiece to another. They have taken up a challenge of defining the sound quality related to its aesthetic and sensorial characteristics and want to better understand the operation of a minute repeater and sound transmission. This precious knowledge is meant to be applied to developing, producing and testing new innovative timepieces.

Audemars Piguet managed to put together a top-rate multi-disciplinary team. The effective cooperation inside the team enables it to benefit from a whole range of skills. The project was initiated in 2006 and is to run until 2009.

Managing and funding the project, the Audemars Piguet Company provides access to the know-how of its watchmakers and its present-day and historical models. It demonstrates close involvement in the project, expecting it to result in the creation of innovative timepieces.

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