For lovers of watches, there is probably nothing as alluring as a chiming watch. These melodious wonders actually chime the time out loud―without the need to look at the watch hands. A superfluous function, unless one is in complete darkness, the chiming watch is one of the most coveted and captivating complicated watches in the world.
Chiming watches are also one of the most difficult complexities to build―requiring intense research and development, hundreds (usually between 400 and 500) of tiny movement components and hundreds of hours of finishing and watchmaking prowess. As such, they are also one of the most expensive timepieces on the market today, and are offered for men and women in classical looks, a few bolder, sporty designs and as artistic beauties.
These watches that musically chime the time in alluring magnificence actually have very functional roots. Centuries ago, when people needed to know the time when it was dark, they had to light oil lamps to see the clock. The 17th-century invention of chiming clocks (its roots come from the chiming systems of 14th and 15th century clock towers) made it simple for people to learn the time in the dark.
The invention of the chiming clock is generally credited to English watchmaker Daniel Quare in 1678. It was predominantly a matter of miniaturizing a grand system into a clock that sounded the time via a bell attached to them. Later, in 1783, Abraham-Louis Breguet invented the gong spring that could sit within the clocks movement―eliminating the need for the bell. This was especially important, because the chiming system could move from table clock to pocket watches.
With the invention of electricity, chiming watches should have been rendered obsolete, but the beauty of their looks, the movement of the hammers against the gongs and the audible magic emitted from them saved them from extinction.
Made in very limited numbers today, by fewer than two dozen of the finest watch brands in the world, chiming watches are built in several different variations―all of which work using a long spiral gong within the watch, and tiny hammers that strike the gong to achieve the different tones of sound to strike the time. The number of hammers used, the materials from which the gongs (and even the case) are made and a few other factors all influence the final makeup and resulting sound of the watch.
The most traditional type of chiming watch is the minute repeater, which features a slide or button that,when activated, sets the tiny mechanical parts in motion to sound the hours, the quarter hours and the minutes using different tones for distinction. In addition to the traditional minute repeater, there are also quarter repeaters (that strike the last hour and the last quarter hour) and five-minute repeaters (that strike the last hour, the quarter hour and each five-minute increment since the last quarter hour). Most recently, as well, there has been development in the realm of the 10-minute repeater that strikes the hour, the 10-minute intervals past the hour and the minutes.
Additionally, there are grand sonneries and petite grand sonneries, many of which use Westminster chimes, that automatically chime the time without needing to be activated (but can also be activated at will). There are also five- and 10-minute repeaters that strike the time in the designated increments. Most of today’s watches also have a silent mode to silence the automatic chiming.
How the Chiming Works
Some repeaters work very much like each other, although in today’s world there are a few that stand out as exceptionally different (we will discuss those shortly). However, for the sake of simple explanation, the traditional minute repeater, as noted above, works via hammers and gongs. When the owner presses the slide to activate the chiming mechanism, the hammers jump to life―actually hammering the current number of successive hits on the gong. This offers a reverberation that projects the sound outward from the movement.
Minute repeaters usually work via two hammers, but some chiming watches are equipped with three, four and even five hammers of different strength or shape to chime different ones. This is especially true for grande sonneries and for watches that offer Westminster chimes (watches that chime the melody of Big Ben, the famous striking clock in Elizabeth Tower in the Palace of Westminster in London).
In the making of a chiming watch’s movement, some brands position the hammers on the front dial of the watch, while most are located on the back of the watch. They are usually visible via a transparent caseback. In addition to the enticing sound of the chiming watch, the hammers offer a carefully orchestrated dance of motion as they strike the gongs.
Over the past decade or so, many of the top-tier watch brands that build repeaters have invested heavily into research and development of chiming watches. In fact, many have their master watchmakers working side by side with engineers and scientists to perfect the melody of the sound, the amplitude of the sound and more. In fact, perfecting the pitch, tone, speed and vibration of the mechanical parts all play a role in the incredible sound emitted from these tiny music boxes on the wrist.
Other influencing factors in producing top-quality sound (which have been getting a great deal of attention) include the material of the case and the gong, along with how that material is tempered, and the size, shape, strength and material of the hammers. Several watch brands are reshaping the hammers so they hit the gongs with different strength to produce a different sound. Today’s top brands are also looking to cut away metal in the dials or cases to enable sound to pass through more easily.
There is much debate about which case metal produces the best sound. Some brands claim the best sound comes from the softer metal alloy of rose gold, while others insist it comes from the newer more high-tech hard metals and alloys such as titanium and carbon fiber.
The Race for the Best
With all of the factors that play a role in perfecting a chiming watch, it is no wonder that the best brands are working with musical institutes, engineering institutes and other outside experts to bring the best knowledge together into a single chiming watch.
German watch brand A. Lange & Söhne, for instance, is the brand credited with bringing the exciting aforementioned 10-minute repeater to life. The Zeitwerk Minute Repeater watch, which carries a near half-million-dollar price tag, is equipped with a 771-part patented in-house-made movement. The chiming mechanism sounds the hours, the 10-minute intervals past the hour and the minutes. Instead of the traditional hands to display the time on the dial, the watch offers a jumping hour and jumping minute time indication. Crafted in platinum, the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater displays the hammers on the dial side for added beauty.
Panerai also has unveiled―in a made-to-order timepiece only―a unique chiming watch that strikes the hours, 10-minute increments and minutes―in two time zones. The Radiomir Minute Repeater Carillon Tourbillon GMT is equipped with two complete sets of three hammers and gong in the watch to enable the chiming of both time zones.
When it comes to sound, Audemars Piguet is a leader. Working with the experts at the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL) science and engineering institute, the brand has unveiled the Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie, and its sound can be heard from an astounding distance. The more than half-million-dollar watch was more than five years in the making and offers not only perfect pitch and tone, but also the most optimal projection of that sound. Apparently, the frequency of the chime (4,000 Hz) is likened to the frequency of a baby’s cry. To achieve its strength and frequency, Audemars Piguet has invented a new construction for the chiming mechanism that involves separating the gongs from the mainplate and recreating a sort of echo chamber.
Several companies that offer ultra-slim minute repeaters include Piaget, a master at ultra-thin movements, and Bulgari, which earlier this year unveiled the Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater, the world’s thinnest hand-wound minute repeater. The 362-part ultra-thin movement features gongs and hammers that have been reconfigured for optimal sound.
Also working to reshape and rethink the gongs, Jaeger-LeCoultre has introduced an all-new crystal gong for its Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater (with 437-part movement). The specially developed crystal gong, with a square section made of a secret alloy, is designed to create a richer sound. The watch also is equipped with two patented hammers that make a single strike on the gongs (which are welded to the upper sapphire crystal) for an ingenious loudspeaker effect of the melodious sound. Due to the complexity and time involved in building this watch, only an extremely limited number will be made―to the tune of more than half a million dollars.
Other newness comes in the variety of chiming watches combined with automatons (figures on the dial that move with the chiming of the hours, minutes and seconds) and in the form of watches that actually incorporate tiny music boxes (complete with drum and pins) to play musical songs. Ulysse Nardin is a master at this art and has unveiled a host of highly alluring Jacquemart Repeaters over the years. Additionally, Jaquet Droz offers a unique singing bird automaton, and Van Cleef & Arpels offers a series of Midnight Poetic Wish watches that feature moving people on a dial that recalls Paris.
Other brands combine the chiming watch with other coveted complexities, such as the tourbillon escapement (that compensates for errors in timekeeping due to the effects of gravity when the watch is in different positions on the wrist). Patek Philippe and Breguet are masters at this feat.
In short, the race to perfect the chiming watch comes in all forms, and we are sure the brands will continue to offer new and exciting fully researched pieces. But in the end there is only the human ear to decide what they like best. This may well be why Patek Philippe never releases a single minute repeater without it first having been heard and approved by owner and president of the brand, Thierry Stern.
The A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater, with incredibly complex 771-part movement, is a decimal minute repeater. It strikes the hours, 10-minute intervals and minutes passedusing three different tones. The manually wound caliber that enables this features a constant-force escapement and a pusher system to engage the chimes. The hammers are visible from the dial side of the 44.2mm platinum case. $467,700.
Patek Philippe Reference 5539G-010 Grand Complications watch houses a mechanical, manually wound 336-part Manufacture-made movement, the Caliber R TO 27 PS, with minute repeater chime with two gongs. It also features a tourbillon escapement and carriers the Patek Philippe Seal. The 37mm 18-karat gold watch features an enameled dial. Price on request.
Piaget Emperador Coussin Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater 48mm timepiece in 18-karat rose gold. Equipped with the Manufacture Piaget 1290P ultra-thin automatic minute repeater mechanical movement, tit is the thinnest automatic minute repeater in the world at 4.8mm thick. Price on request.
Bulgari Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater watch set the world record earlier this year for the thinnest hand-wound minute repeater. The complicated 362-part Caliber 362 measures just 3.12 mm thin (and 6.85 mm thin when cased). Several years in the making, the titanium watch has handmade newly configured hammers and cutout hour makers and small seconds counter for sound to pass through with more resonance. Just 50 pieces will be made. $155,000.
Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie titanium-cased watch was designed in the brand’s Acoustic Research Lab with help from the École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne (EPFL) science and engineering institute. Eight years in the making, its sound, pitch and volume are extraordinary and the chimes can be heard from down a hallway. $520,000.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition à Répétition Minute watch houses the caliber 942 automatic self-winding 437-part movement with minute repeater. The dial of the stunning watch is an enamel masterpiece that is inspired by the genius of Van Gogh. Just 18 pieces will be made, and each is unique due to the hand-enameling. $214,000.
Jaquet Droz The Charming Bird is the newest in a series of very special watches, wherein the bird is a singing automaton. The new timepiece features a hand-painted and engraved mother-of-pearl dial with the landscape of the Swiss countryside. Available in white or rose gold, just eight pieces of each will be made. $430,500
Breguet Tradition Minute Repeater Tourbillon 7087 in 18-karat rose gold features an inverted right-angle lever escapement with silicon pallets. The self-winding movement incorporates both a minute repeater and 60-second tourbillon. $460,700.
Ulysse Nardin “Hannibal” Minute Repeater Westminster Carillon Tourbillon Jaquemarts is one of the most complex and alluring chiming watches on the market. Ulysse Nardin is a master at these creations and doesn’t let us down with this watch that features a minute repeater that strikes four different chimes (Mi-Do-Re-Sol) in three different sequences. As the chimes sound, the automaton figures on the dial move. Housing the UN-78 manual wind caliber, the platinum watch also offers Westminster Carillon Tourbillon. Just 30 will be made. Price on request.
Harry Winston Midnight Minute Repeater. Crafted in rose gold with HW1006 mechanical manual-wind movement and featuring a large opening for viewing the hammers. Just 20 pieces will be made. Price on request.
Hublot Big Bang Tourbillon Chronograph Cathedral Minute Repeater in Full Magic Gold. The 45mm watch also has a microblasted black plated titanium caseback with center crystal for improved sound. It houses the 427-part HUBB110 Manufacture manual-wind movement with tourbillon, chronograph and minute repeater. Just 20 pieces will be made. $295,000
Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Poetic Wish watch was first unveiled in 2012 and is still being made. It is crafted in white gold and houses automaton and 5-minute repeater complications. The dial features a miniature enamel painting with sculpting and stone setting. The movement developed exclusively for Van Cleef & Arpels by Agenhor.
Price upon request