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Explaining Minute Repeaters and How They Work

A.Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater Honeygold

To put things painfully simply, a minute repeater is a wrist and pocket watch chiming complication that audibly repeats the hours, quarters, and minutes. As with many a complication par excellence, the origins of this concept trace back to early bell towers operated manually and later via mechanisms to signal religious events. But the first examples of minute repeaters, as we know them today, stem from the mid-18th century.

Celebrated watchmaker A.L. Breguet (because of course it was) devised a mechanism using twin hammers to strike two coiled wire gongs that produce distinct tones. The gongs resonate the hours, quarters, and minutes by alternating musical pitch, typically a third apart like a doorbell. On activation by the user, a low pitch would ring the hours in as many intervals. Following the hours is a high then low pitch in quick succession for quarters. For instance, you would hear a high and then low pitch once to indicate 15 minutes; this would then double for 30 minutes past the hour, then lastly three times for 45 minutes.

Breguet Pocket Watch Minute Repeater 1810

Breguet Pocket Watch from the 1800s, image credit: Bukowskis

When the quarters have rung out, the high-pitch minutes indicate the minutes past the hour or the last quarter. This requires a little addition if the minutes are past a quarter rather than just counting from the hour. For instance, 23 minutes past the hour would be one high then low pitch for the quarter, followed by eight high pitches. Basically, make sure you’re listening closely.

If the time is before the first quarter, the hammers would only strike the hours and minutes, skipping the quarters. Likewise, if the time is on the hour, you would only get low pitches for each hour, and the sequence would end. One o’clock is the least musical of the possible times, with only one low-pitch strike. Conversely, 12:59 has the maximum number of chimes, with 12 for the hour, three-quarter strikes equating to six chimes, and then 14 high pitch strikes for the minutes. Whenever I try out a minute repeater, I typically set the watch to this time, as it gives you the maximum potential of its musical qualities.

Breguet Pocket Watch Minute Repeater 1810
Patek Philippe Minute Repeating Pocket Watch 1905

Minute repeaters function by using a peripheral gong around the movement and a pair of hammers to sound them, image credit: Bukowskis and Phillips

It’s not just the sound the chime makes, of course; like a high-end audio system, it’s also about the quality. The pitch is important as dissonant tones can be jarring and unpleasant, similar to our reaction to music. While dissonance can be ominous in dramatic music or as the score to a horror movie, a pleasant harmony in thirds or fifths is ideal for chiming complications. Unless of course, you’re running late. Then the horror movie score fits a bit too well.

The minute repeater was a popular feature in pocket watches, typically before applying luminous material on watch hands. The acoustic indication of time was useful for telling the time in low light conditions. With the onset of radium, tritium, and then Super-LumiNova applied to watch hands and indices, the minute repeater became less of a necessity in the 19th century.

Blancpain Platinum Masterpiece Collection

Blancpain Platinum Masterpiece Collection, image credit: Dorotheum

Fast-forward to the latter part of the 20th century and the chiming complication was once again en-vogue. This was during the post-Quartz crisis mechanical watch renaissance when the mechanisms of the past were celebrated for their intricacy and provenance, while no longer being essential. Modern-day minute repeaters are hand-crafted by haute horlogerie maisons and reserved for high-end connoisseurs.

The barrier of entry for a Swiss minute repeater is north of six figures and can touch on seven figures when included within a grand complication – which they often are. Examples of manufacturers of minute repeaters include Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and Jaeger-LeCoultre. Under the ownership of Jean-Claude Biver, in the 1980s, Blancpain unveiled six ‘masterpiece’ wristwatches with complications seldom seen since the turn of the century. Among the editions was a slim minute repeater with a traditional two-hand and subsidiary seconds layout. The unassuming protrusion on the case side is the actuator that activates the chiming mechanism on demand.

A Lange and Sohne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater Gong

A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater gong

The reason for this actuator is simple: power. Chimes use a lot of the stuff and you likely don’t want that coming directly from the mainspring if you can help it, or wave goodbye to any semblance of a sensible power reserve. In the Blancpain, the manual manipulation of the slide lever quickly winds a power spring separate from the main spring.

Unlike the main spring with a regulator, this toothless gear unwinds instantly, delivering power to the repeating mechanism for a short burst of chiming the time. Alongside the sound of the resonating gongs is often the whirring of the power spring, or centrifugal governor, as the inertia is released. Some brands refine this mechanism to reduce any unwanted sounds. Top watchmakers also continually strive for better intonation and acoustic volume with case materials and resonating cutouts.

F P Journe Répétition Souveraine Calibre 1408
F P Journe Répétition Souveraine Calibre 1408

F.P. Journe Répétition Souveraine Calibre 1408

It’s debatable what the best case material is for perfect tonality. F.P. Journe opts for stainless steel with its Répétition Souveraine Calibre 1408 as the dense molecular structure reverberates. Many top-echelon brands produce precious metal cases such as gold and platinum to match the movement’s prestige. Each brand can argue the merits of either, but other factors, such as size, acoustic holes, and resonance space, can vary the pitch and volume. Bulgari’s ultra-thin Octo Finissimo take has substantial holes in the titanium dial, meaning it offers some serious volume despite its svelte silhouette.

Christopher Ward Bel Canto

Christopher Ward’s Bel Canto displays the minute repeater chime on the dial

One certain thing is the high-end craft of decorating the minute repeater movements. While manufacturers may approach acoustic delivery differently, a common factor is displaying the intricately decorated mechanisms via exhibition windows. Watchmakers consider the minute repeater complication top of the range and deserve bespoke hand decorations. Even on the lower end, this spectacular movement is why the Christopher Ward Bel Canto puts their novel chiming hour dial-side.

Techniques include chamfering, straight brushing, mirror polishing, and detailed facets to accentuate the movement’s complexity. The gongs strive to appear as a smooth curve to maximise the harmonic quality and dazzle the owner. In particular, the striking hammers receive much attention with alternating brushing and polishing techniques to further highlight the animation and play with the available light.

A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk 142.025 142.031

A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater

While I’ve described how quarter-minute repeaters operate, there are variations, such as decimal repeaters, including the A. Lange & Söhne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater. As per the decimal name, the dual strike chimes in ten-minute intervals instead of quarters.

The same can apply to 20-and five-minute stops; however, this is far rarer, and the most common is the quarter repeater. But by no means is a minute repeater a commonplace complication. The minute repeater is among the rarest on the market among all calibre variations. Usually, one watchmaker is assigned to hand assemble a minute repeater with a longer production turnaround compared to simpler movements; they require a whole new realm of expertise.

A Lange and Sohne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater Minute Repeater Hammers

A. Lange & Sohne Zeitwerk Minute Repeater Minute Repeater hammers

Generally minute repeaters and their ilk are finished with some of the most ornate dials in the industry, but there is a consideration for the base dial to be robust due to the reverberation of the striking hammers, potentially cracking brittle enamel and porcelain dials. But that’s the kind of challenge that Patek Philippe revel in in models such as reference 5078P-001. It is sometimes a knowing nod that the dials of minute repeaters can match those of time-only calibres, leaving would-be buyers confused at how two seemingly identical timepieces can have a vast variation in price. Yet, the esteemed watch collector can spot the telling slide lever or push-piece that activates a hidden gem in chiming the precise time on demand.

From their roots in the distant pass of timekeeping to their resurgence in the 1990s, minute repeaters and other chiming complications are emblematic of the highest of high watchmaking. They are as gloriously superfluous as any moon phase indicator or tourbillon, but with the kind of mechanical wonder that enraptures more than confuses – sound as a form of timekeeping. And whether that sound is the angelic chime of a grail watch or an audible expression of too much money, chiming watches are here to stay.

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About the author

Ben Hodges

Ben has been an avid watch collector since 2014 and spends his time keeping up to date with all things horological. As an editor with Fratello Watches since 2019 and an ex-president of the Oris Social Club London from 2020-2022, Ben somehow squeezes in a regular 9-5 day job. But writing about watches is his main passion and keeps him sane on the evening train. Ben yearns for a gold watch one day but makes do with a few bronze watches for now.