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The magic of mechanical watches

Few things capture the magnificent obsolescence of mechanical watches quite like the minute repeater movement

By Sidin Vadukut  August 8th, 2018

Mechanical watches themselves, of course, are quite obsolete. Even the finest in the world tell time with far less precision than the noname quartz watches you can buy at throwaway prices at your nearest supermarket. Mechanical watches also take less kindly to damage. A hardy Casio G-Shock will, without a doubt, give you many more years of hassle-free service than most high-end Swiss watches—all of which will need periodic service and careful nurturing.

Yet each year, millions all over the world spend eye-watering sums on these exquisite pieces of mechanical engineering. For instance, a Panthère De Cartier watch in pink gold and diamonds can set you back by as much as 18.33 lakh, approximately.

But of all the magnificent movements, the most magnificent one is the minute repeater. Recently, we have seen brands at the pinnacle of the industry unveil exquisite minute repeater watches. From the cutting-edge design of Audemars Piguet’s Royal Oak Concept Supersonnerie to the subtle complexity of Patek Philippe’s World Time Minute Repeater. The minute repeater owes its origins to twin tendencies within the history of timekeeping. The first is the development of clocks that signalled the time through audible signals. Some of the earliest clocks that marked the hours with the striking of gongs and bells date back to a thousand years. The second tendency was the emergence of pocket watches as personal tools of timekeeping. But then how to read these in the dark and on demand?

Audemars Piguet Supersonnerie

It is unclear who first invented the concept of a minute repeater. Two Englishmen, Edward Barlow and David Quare, both applied for patents around the same time—the 1670s. The story of their dispute is fascinating. But regardless of the outcome, both men struck upon a mechanical solution to the problem of telling the time in the dark that became, pardon the pun, quite timeless. To this day, minute repeaters are based on the essential technology developed some four centuries ago.

A minute repeater is, when you break it down, four pieces of technology working together. The first is the watch itself. The second is a mechanism that constantly remembers what time it is—a form of clockwork solid state memory. Remember that there are no electronic components inside mechanical watches. Everything is recorded, remembered and recalled using gears and shafts. Third, you need a means of activating the minute repeater. In other words, you need a way of summoning the time from the watch’s memory. And finally, you need a means of audibly indicating the time.


How do all these systems mesh together? Imagine that you wish to know the time in the dark. You pull a special lever or button on your watch. Much like pulling back the spring in a wind-up toy car, your push or pull activates the repeater mechanism inside the watch. The unwinding spring activates a series of cogs and shafts that have carefully kept track of the time. These activated cogs then lift and drop tiny hammers onto tiny little gongs. Depending on the type of repeater you own, the gongs will ring the hours and quarters, or hours, quarters and minutes. After which, the levers and buttons return to their resting position and the watch goes silent. This technology is complex, but not impenetrable. The essence of the system has remained unchanged since the 17th century. The great challenge, however, is to cram all this engineering into a form factor that fits a modern wristwatch. And an even greater challenge is to create a minute repeater that not only works, but also works beautifully, striking the time with rich sound. This is what makes the modern minute repeater such a coveted object. Brands such as Audemars Piguet and A. Lange & Söhne spend years developing a movement that is compact and efficient, but can still create rich sound. And when they do, they don’t make many.

In July last year, Patek Philippe unveiled the Reference 5531R World Time Minute Repeater New York 2017 Special Edition—names are often the least impressive aspects of these watches—and said that only 10 pieces of the watch will ever be made.

Patek Philippe Reference2

Go to any of the great horological workshops and minute repeater movement is the purview of only the finest watchmakers. It is the epitome of craftsmanship. Young watchmakers make nothing of working for decades before they are allowed to even try making their own minute repeater. Indeed only a few brands ever aspire to make one. Today, artificial lighting, luminescent hands and digital displays make the minute repeater a quaint oddity. A masterpiece of obsolete engineering. And yet it continues to thrill and amaze connoisseurs.

A minute repeater is a work of both art and technology. One that is both a century out of date, but also utterly timeless.