The Sound of Time
"Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life." - Ludwig van Beethoven
Pardon the ever-contrived "quote to start a story" spiel but nothing from my vernacular can quite convey the sentiment as words from the maestro himself. If there's anything I've learnt, the breadth of music and what it means to each person is a conversation topic I’m willing to invest hours (and bottles of whisky) in any time. The beauty of music stems for me, from the need to take into account the tastes and different frequencies attenuated by different ears. This usually results in long and intense discussions of what people like or don't – some don’t quite care for the classical greats, while others shun the sounds of modern hip-hop but at the end of the day, it all comes down to personal taste.
Therein lies the allure of minute repeaters. Amidst the chronographs, the tourbillons and the perpetual calendars of high-end brands, the minute repeater reigns as my favourite complication for the sheer fact that each minute repeater will never sound the same to anyone. Granted, the average man is more than likely go through life without ever hearing the beautiful chime of a minute repeater however – a scarce number are produced and for Patek Philippe, they aren't even featured in stores but you can sneak a peek of my absolute favourite chiming here.
A Little History
The minute repeater was first created to tell time in the chambers of royalty some 300 years ago. In a time without electricity, I imagine a king/duke/royal-Person-of-Interest stirring awake in his bed, wondering why the dogs were barking so madly at that hour then proceeding to curse and swear that he’d have to wait to daylight to get around the issue. What horologists all of that era invented was first, the dumb repeater – a complication that “struck the time on the inside of the case producing a muffled sound and could only be detected if the watch was held in the hand,” much like the vibration-only setting on smartphones these days.
Over time, this soon evolved to a bell that was struck by the hammers at the back, making it somewhat the first repeater. Abraham-Louis Breguet soon changed the way repeaters worked, replacing the bell with a set of coiled wire gongs reducing space and providing different tones. This was in the late 18th century, between the years of 1783 and ’87.
Patek Philippe have been doing repeaters for nearly that long. Just four months after Antoine Norbert de Patek and Francois Czapek founded the firm Patek, Czapek & Co. in Geneva, 1839, they sold a quarter repeater. This was only the duo’s 19th watch sold – a sign of what Patek Philippe would mean as a brand in this day and age.
What We’ve Learnt About Patek Philippe and its Minute Repeaters
Patek Philippe currently has 21 classes of traditional gongs and 21 classes of cathedral gongs to choose from when assembling a minute repeater. The choice of gong is based on the different cases which results in different resonance in different materials. The composite of the alloys used to make the gongs are a secret and there is no formulaic way the gongs are chosen. It’s all dependent on every complication added, the size of the case and the materials of the case.
When setting the gongs, the master watchmakers secure them to the movement then activate the hammers. The resulting tone is then studied by ear (I cannot for the life of me, emphasize how crazy this is) and if it’s off, the gongs are removed. The spring is then cut then bent again and reinstalled to be re-tested with the hammer. As Patek Philippe states, “This process of attaching, striking, disassembling and resetting the springs can go on for days or even weeks.”
The hammers used in Patek Philippe’s minute repeaters are mirror-polished steel ones and need to be adapted perfectly to the corresponding gongs that they strike. This takes into account the weight and position of the hammer, and more importantly, the strength of the spring that controls the hammer. Too weak, too strong – the watchmaker needs to tune the springs accordingly (adding in another crazy amount of hours). Each hammer is then mirror-polished by hand.
What secures the gongs to the movement is a piece of metal that’s known as a block (or boss). The gongs are then soldered into this block by EPFL, a research institute in Lausanne, Switzerland with clear sand and a cold paste to minimise vibration that would compromise the sound.
Close to where the gongs are soldered into the block is where the absolutely stringent process of fine tuning comes into play. To fine tune the sound, the master watchmaker files away a bit of the gong to adjust the sound. Now imagine a metal ruler that you hit. If you were to cut a millimetre off it, the sound would change ever so slightly. That in essence, is what the watchmaker does.
- Recorded in an anechoic chamber
- Computerised listening through MATLAB to check against older records of the same model
- Human element of listening
- Mr Thierry Stern, president of Patek Philippe then listens to it
(I would not want to be the watchmaker that has a disapproved minute repeater)
- If approved, the information of the sound is completely logged in order to replicate the exact sound if the watch is sent back for servicing.
At Patek Philippe’s recent workshop on minute repeaters, we had a chance to go through the exact same marking benchmarks that Mr Stern goes through with every minute repeater that the brand makes. The criteria were elements such as volume, pitch, harmony, duration – steps that are graded by A, B or C marks. If any of the elements are graded with C, the watch is disapproved and sent back for more tuning.
A Personal Touch
At Patek Philippe, the minute repeaters clock in between 40 to 60 dB and when activated at 12:59 (the longest duration of chime), should take between 17 to 18 seconds to fully ring out the hours, quarters and minutes. The brand also prefers a lower pitch in its chimes.
Because every minute detail that goes into a minute repeater watch changes its sound, the minute repeater is art at its highest level. It is a complication that has evolved to a sophisticated art form and based on an appreciation for sound rather than function.
Big thanks to Patek Philippe for clueing us in on horology’s greatest complication.