Chimes tinkle melodiously from behind tiny watch faces. Here, Time abandons its severity and sounds an ode to mankind’s pursuit of mechanical perfection.
Parmigiani Toric Quaestor Labyrinthe
A unique jade green dial and two cathedral gongs. The innovative chime rhythm regulator flywheel provides the watch with ample power and ensures the minute repeater operates free of mechanical humming.
parmigiani.ch, At Palladio, 604 685 3885
As tools to be viewed, watches are bound to be artistically built. But employing sounds to audibly chime the hours has a much longer history than the use of handheld timekeepers: from resonant church bells in their towers, to the sounds of gongs and clappers beaten by night watchmen in ancient China. When people don’t have access to a watch, hearing the time is certainly second-best. But combine a watch with a repeater, and time is doubly on your side.
A repeater is a complication in a watch which uses hammers to strike chimes that tone for the hours, quarter-hours and minutes. Universally recognized as one of the most complex types of horology complications, repeaters are nonetheless tidy things: often only an on-off button signals their presence. A repeater’s mechanical principles are easy to grasp but its production is exceptionally difficult. Long acoustic wires, historically known as “gongs,” plus hammers and multiple gears need to be placed perfectly into an already crowded case. Producing a musical repeater, with well-arranged, clear chimes, requires three or more sets of hammers and gongs. The most well-known chiming repeater is the Westminster repeater, which imitates the Westminster Chimes inside Big Ben. Four gongs and four hammers are required to perform the famous tones which have gradually spread around the world.
Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Contemporaine Ultra-Thin Calibre 1731
Offering a body thickness of only 8.099 mm and a 3.90 mm-thin movement, its minute repeater is complemented by an elegant small seconds dial at 8 o’clock.
vacheron-constantin.com, At Palladio, 604 685 3885
A minute repeater’s materials and assembling also need to be carefully considered. The length of an ordinary repeater’s gong equals the length of the watch’s perimeter. Deeper gongs, called cathedral gongs, wrap around almost twice inside the circumference of the dial. High-quality Sandvik steel or grade five titanium, with its excellent hardness, resistance and acoustics, are the materials of choice for these instruments.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon
Features the world’s thinnest minute repeater, with a thickness of only 7.9 mm. In addition, the timepiece features a flying tourbillon and a peripheral self-winding system.
jaeger-lecoultre.com, At Palladio, 604 685 3885
Crafting the gongs puts the watchmaker’s workmanship to the most difficult test. Any slight mistake or deformation is likely to affect the watch’s final sound quality. Despite the introduction of high-tech aids in watch manufacturing, the production of minute repeaters still relies on manual work. The entire mechanism requires more than 300 parts, each polished and assembled by hand. In addition, when a craftsman is making a case shell, he has to precisely control the shell’s thickness, so the case can accurately disseminate sounds. And, in practice, even if the gongs resonate perfectly on the workbench, after being placed inside the watch, they are affected by the entire internal structure of the watch. Therefore, repeated experiments are required to ensure the gongs’ complete success.
Around 1796, with the invention of music boxes, horological masterpieces began to appear: musical watches. Ingenious Swiss watchmakers found room inside of a wristwatch for a miniscule but otherwise ordinary music box mechanism: imagine a revolving cylinder and a set of tuned teeth on a steel comb, perpendicular to the cylinder. Pins placed just so on the cylinder pluck the teeth when the cylinder revolves and the right notes ring out.
The enormous technical challenges of placing a relatively large music box’s sounding device into a wristwatch’s tiny space were relieved somewhat when Swiss masters Philippe Subliai and Nicolas Court replaced the traditional cylinder with rotating discs in 2006. Musical watches are increasingly smaller and acoustically more pleasing, as new materials, technologies and techniques yield ever more whimsical and amazing creations.