In the days before electric lighting, working hours were determined by the length of the day. Candlelight made for tired eyes and people’s schedules largely followed that of the sun. Theaters and train cars were dark in the era before ours, when bright smartphone screens are both a help and a nuisance. It was in this earlier age that the repeater watch was created so a man could check the time in the dark.
In the beginning, repeater pocket watches — which grew from their forebears, chiming clocks — only chimed the most recent hour that passed. So whether the time is 10:00 or 10:52, an hour repeater would still chime 10 times. As watchmaking advanced, repeaters got more precise and more configurations appeared, from quarter repeaters, which chimed the hours and the quarter hours, to five-minute repeaters, which would chime the hour followed by the number of five minute intervals after the hour in two different tones. The most precise repeater, as you might imagine, is the minute repeater which sonically tells the exact time down to the minute.
Repeaters are not alarms, nor do they chime on their own, which would quickly become tiresome. Instead they operate on demand when the wearer wants to check the time, in which case he pulls a spring-loaded slider on the side of the watch case to activate it.
Adding a sonic element to a watch movement is not easy, much less one that “knows” the time.
By the early 1900s, artificial lighting rendered the repeater largely obsolete. But the charm of the complication has never lost its appeal, and it is one of the most enduring and beloved ones. Due to the skill required to design and build them, they have always commanded premium prices and have historically been the province of wealthy collectors. The big names in haute horology, including Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Breguet have built some of the most legendary repeater watches which remain rare but prized by watch collectors.
Adding a sonic element to a watch movement is not easy, much less one that “knows” the time. Space is one issue; in a wristwatch case, it requires shoehorning the synchronizing, striking and separate winding elements alongside the rest of the watch movement. And then there’s the matter of tuning the acoustics to not only be loud but have a clear and pleasing sound, in multiple tones to differentiate minutes from hours.
A repeater mechanism is wound separately from the timekeeping components of the watch. The required tension to sound the gongs is not as great as that for the watch’s mainspring, which is keeping constant time, so “arming” the repeater is accomplished by tensioning the spring that powers the chiming mechanism. This is done by pushing the slide on the side of the watch case, which tensions the chiming spring in the same way that pulling a toy race car backwards gives it the power to move forward when released.
Once this slider is released, two hammers are activated, striking the gongs to read out the time. The gongs are thin strips of metal arranged around the perimeter of the case; in order to achieve different tones for the hours, quarter hours and minutes, they differ in thickness and shape.
The hammers are small, pivoting levers, typically mounted on opposing sides of the bottom of the watch movement. One strikes one of the gongs while the other strikes the opposite. The sequence of the striking is what tells the unique time of day. Usually a lower tone indicates hours while a higher tone is for the minutes and the quarter hour is a quick sequence of high and low tones. In this way, the two gongs can be used to indicate three distinctive time measurements. As an example, at 3:00, the lower toned gong will be struck three times in succession: “dong dong dong”. At 3:04, the higher pitched gong will be called into action, resulting in, “dong dong dong ding ding ding ding”. But at 3:31, the full sequence of the chimes is actuated, and you hear, “dong dong dong ding-dong ding-dong ding.” In this way, the wearer needs only listen and pay attention to this sequence to tell the time. 11:59 becomes quite the lengthy symphony.
Repeaters occupy a special place in the hearts of watch enthusiasts and, despite the obsolescence of this complication, it has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance of late.
The chiming part of the movement keeps track of the time using tiny gears called the “snails”, which are small semi-circular cams that have precisely cut steps in their outer radius that precisely determine how many times the hammer strikes. There is one snail dedicated to the hours, one to the quarter hours and one to the minutes, with the hour snail having 12 steps, the quarter hour one three steps and the minute snail having 14. These snails are geared to the timekeeping mechanism of the watch movement, and constantly in synch with the current time.
The snails coordinate the number of times the gongs are struck, but the actual act of striking is controlled by racks, levers and cams that pivot the spring-loaded hammers. The entire sequence of events is something to behold, but many repeater watches have solid case backs to enhance acoustics, though the magic of modern watchmaking and materials science has seen the introduction of glass case backs that allow the owner to observe the performance, which is entirely ironic, given the raison d’être of the repeater in the first place.
Repeaters occupy a special place in the hearts of watch enthusiasts and, despite the obsolescence of this complication, it has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance of late, giving those of us living in a bright world a chance to still “hear the time.” Here are five of of our favorite modern repeaters.
A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater
In an ironic mashup of German repeater history, the Zeitwerk Minute Repeater pays tribute to Dresden’s Semper Opera House clock, which aimed to keep people from disrupting performances with their repeaters (akin to cell phones in movie theaters today). The large digital time display is directly inspired by that clock built by Johann Gutkaes, the mentor to Lange’s namesake founder, in 1841. Meanwhile, the chiming watch is actually a “decimal” repeater, meaning it chimes the 10-minute intervals instead of the quarter hours as part of its sequence, showing how the German masters always do things just a little bit differently.
Audemars Piguet Millenary Minute Repeater
One would be remiss to not include an Audemars Piguet in any discussion of repeater watches. After all, AP was the undisputed master of the chiming watch in the 19th century, building the mechanisms not only for its own timepieces but also for those of many other brands, including A. Lange & Söhne. The Millenary, unlike the geometric shape of AP’s more famous Royal Oak collection, is oval and whimsical and its open-worked dial reveals the workings of the double balance spring and the curved blue gongs that perform the watch’s pièce de résistance.
Patek Philippe 5078R Minute Repeater
Legend has it that former Patek CEO Philippe Stern never let a repeater leave the manufacture until he personally listened to its chiming in the quiet of his office. Now that he’s passed the reigns over to his son, Thierry, the tradition continues. The Sterns must have good ears because Patek repeaters are some of the sweetest sounding in the business. The simple form of the 5078R (the “R” is for red gold), with its spare white enamel dial and Roman numerals does nothing to distract from its aural perfection, tempting its owner to make it chime again and again.
Hublot Big Bang Alarm Repeater
Hublot is known better for its gargantuan sports watches and celebrity endorsers than for its delicate complications, and that’s too bad, because behind the bluster the brand makes some truly innovative watches. Traditionally, repeaters are made from precious metals that give them the warmest acoustics. Hublot turns that logic on its head with the Big Bang Alarm Repeater, which is housed in a titanium and ceramic case, somehow coaxing a lovely sound from those high-tech materials. The watch is also notable for its addition of another sonic element, an alarm, to the already complicated repeater.
Jaquet Droz Bird Repeater
In the 1700s, the Swiss watchmaker Jaquet Droz was well known for his mechanical automata, such as a small figure that could write a name, or a crawling caterpillar. The Bird Repeater carries on that tradition, on the wrist, with a stunning visual element to accompany the chiming of the time. The dial, which is hand-painted and engraved mother of pearl, features two three-dimensional birds that, when the repeater chimes, bend over to tend to the chicks and flutter a wing, while the egg in the nest cracks open to reveal a hatchling. If this display ceases to mesmerize, the incredibly complex movement that drives all of this is visible at the back.
Credor Spring Drive Minute Repeater
If you’ve never heard of Credor, you’re forgiven. The brand is at the highest end of the Seiko family of watches, bearing zero resemblance to that $100 dive watch you found on eBay. The Spring Drive Minute Repeater is pure artistry from the Japanese tradition of metalworking. The gongs for the repeater are made of Myochi steel, the same used for the wind chimes found in temples across Japan, and provide a sound clarity that rivals, or exceeds, the best from Switzerland. The Spring Drive movement, which turns mechanical power into electrical impulse for timekeeping, is also completely silent, so that it doesn’t interfere with the purity of the repeater chiming. All this artistry comes at a cost. Only a handful are made each year and sell for $400,000.