27. October 2020

Watch Basics Part III – The Minute Repeater

After releasing part I and part II of our Watch Basics series earlier this year, we are happy to share part III of IV with you today. While part I was dedicated to the different types of horological mechanisms (click here to read the full article) and part II to the most common functions of mechanical watches (click here to read the full article), this article addresses one of the most stunning and admired complications among watch collectors – the (minute) repeater.

In general, a repeater is a complication in a mechanical watch that chimes the hours and often minutes on demand by activating a push button or a slide-piece. There are different types of repeaters that are distinguished by their precision. While a simple quarter-repeater chimes the number of hours and quarters, the more complicated minute-repeater strikes down the hours, quarters and minutes, each in a separate tone. 

The repeater function was originally invented to determine time in the dark and its origins can be traced back to the end of the 17th century. At that time, artificial illumination of the hands hadn’t been invented yet and watches were useless at night. The sound of the repeater was, however, used by people who were visually impaired. Over the course of the years, the repeater function – especially the minute repeater – became one of the most eminent complications for watch collectors and enthusiast all over the world.

Let’s have a look on the different types of repeaters.

Minute Repeater
As mentioned before, the minute repeater is coveted by collectors as it presents a brand’s prowess in haute horology. The minute repeater chimes in three different sounds to distinguish hours, quarters, and minutes. The hours have a low tone (“dong”), the quarters are signaled by a sequence of two different tones (“ding-dong”), and the minutes by a high tone (“ding”).
For example, if the time is 02:35 the minute repeater will sound 2 low tones representing 2 hours, 2 sequence tones representing 30 minutes and 5 high tones representing 5 minutes: dong, dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

One of the most sought-after minute repeater is reference 5207G of Patek Philippe.

Patek Philippe 5207G
Patek Philippe 5207G

Decimal Repeater 
The decimal repeater works similarly to the minute repeater but, as the name suggests, the watch chimes the number of ten-minute intervals after the full last hour and then the minutes. If we take the same example as above, at 2:35 the decimal repeater would chime 2 times at a low tone representing the hours, 3 sequence tones representing 30 minutes and 5 high tones representing 5 minutes: dong, dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding.

One of my favorite decimal repeaters is the A.Lange & Söhne Minute Repeater.

A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater
A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater

Grande Sonnerie
The Grande Sonnerie, which is French for “great strike”, is technically not a repeater watch. But a Grand Sonnerie watch in today’s haute horology is often a special case as it is a striking mechanism combined with a repeater. The watch strikes the time automatically and without the wearer’s intervention. On every quarter of an hour, the chimes show the full hours as well as the quarters. On every full hour the watch chimes only the amount of hours passed. As mentioned, certain Grande Sonnerie mechanisms are combined with a minute-repeater which repeats hours, quarters and minutes on demand. Modern Grand Sonnerie watches can be muted by a simple button on the case as its not always favorable to have a watch that chimes every 15 minutes.

Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860
Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860

The Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860 is one of the most beautiful examples of Grand Sonnerie watches.

Dumb Repeater
One very unusual repeater is the dumb repeater. You won’t find a dumb repeater in the world of modern haute horology, but I would like to mention it as it was one of the first examples of striking watches. The dumb repeaters were used by its wearer to discreetly check the time in their pocket during boresome events without offending the host, e.g. during a Royal event. Rather than chiming audibly, the dumb repeater produced vibrations. This means that instead of hearing a sound, you feel the vibration on your wrist as the hammer strikes a solid metal block inside the watch, producing vibrations that could be felt on one’s hand.

All the above-mentioned repeaters contain over 100 unique components; each manufactured to extreme standards that must be combined to create a luxury timepiece. As you see the world of fine watch making, it is craftmanship. We hope you enjoyed our part III of the Watch Basic series.

Photography by the respective brand:
Patek Philippe 5207G by www.patek.com
A.Lange & Söhne Minute Repeater by www.alange-soehne.com
Vacheron Constantin Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860 by www.vacheron-constantin.com

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