The minute repeaters 

The history of time is attached to all the way to announce it. And among them, the most emotional is certainly the one called in music. Also, the minute repeaters watches are the one which, in a crystalline tinkle, are the most likely to say how much the one which has it has time powers.

By Vincent Daveau
Pose du timbre fil dans la montre Octo Finissimo Répétition Minutes.
Assembly of an ultra-thin Bvlgari Octo minute repeater calibre.

The minute repeaters: the art of expressing its power in music 

Ring the time or announce it differently of a way or another has always been, for the princes and influential people, a way to show their power. Very quickly in the history, from mid-12th century in the West, the cities have adapted the mechanical time and have managed to make ring the hours to the belfries to confirm their power in the countryside. 

Montre de carrosse à répétition à la demande avec ses boîtiers de protection. Milieu XVIIIème siècle
Pocket watch with repetition on demand and protective cases. Mid-18th century– © Antiquorum.

This hour, rung to be heard from far in the absence of reading it at the clocks dial, was announced with a regularity of a metronome. This new division of the day and work was opposed to the solar time, changing with the seasons. We have too often read that the minute repeater watches had been invented to allow their owners to know the time during the night. That is not the case and these tools have been invented to allow those who had the money to afford it, to make their inner circle know, in the salons or in a party, their level of power by their ability to say time in music like before them the Church and the big cities. Do not underestimate the power of announcement!

Genesis of an acoustic time 

In the 17th century, the watch still too inaccurate, has often in the high-level functions, calendars with astrological and scientific indications. However, very quickly, as indicate the craft guilds of Geneva in 1601, obtaining the title of watchmaking master impose the creation of a timepiece displaying the astronomical indications and having the alarm clock function. The watch was then able, rather early, to give the time in sounds in the watchmaking history.

Breguet Tradition Répétition Minutes réf. 7087 en or avec calibre contemporain inspirés de ceux du maître fondateur. Le timbre est bien visible au dessus du cadran et n’a pas une forme traditionnelle.
The Breguet Tradition 7087 Minute Repeater in gold with modern calibre inspired by the minute repeater of the master watchmaker and founder. The bell is well visible above the dial and does not have a traditional shape.  

This is in 1676 that the English Daniel Quare (1649-1724) offers a mechanical piece able to ring the fifteen minutes thanks to a mechanical assembly consisting of balances, spirals, springs and levers. However, it is said in some publications, that the oldest watch with repetition known to this day would be a piece made in Friedberg, in Germany, around 1710. The British watchmaking is then dominant, and it is credible that this invention is British. But the piece of news is spread, and the competitors also start to vie to be the most ingenious to offer mechanical assemblies allowing to go even further. The competition is in full swing when Thomas Mudge, another English man and pupil of George Graham (working from 1738 to 1794), offers the first watch equipped with a function allowing to its owner to make ring on demand: the hour, the passed fifteen minutes but also the minutes passed from the striking of the last fifteen minutes. From this date and by convention, the watchmaking world calls this striking mechanism mode: the minutes repeater.  

Mouvement mécanique avec répétition minutes. Eclaté du calibre de la montre Louis Vuitton Tambour Répétition Minutes.
Mechanical movement with minute repeater. Exploded view of the Louis Vuitton Tambour Minute Repeater’s calibre.

The golden age of the minute repeater

The men of the 18th century, waste no time in doing the watch an emblem of progress. Aware of the difficulties of creation of the watches, they considered the « minute repeater » like the « queen » function, that only the best craftsmen could create and obviously, only the richest enthusiasts could afford themselves. Thus, John Arnold, talented English watchmaker had to offer to the king George III a ring watch with repetition of a size so scaled down that its creator immediately had a reputation of excellence. 

Montre Louis Vuitton Tambour Répétition Minutes en or blanc.
Louis Vuitton Tambour Minute Repeater Watch in white gold. 

To have an idea of the value of the instruments at that time, it is necessary to remember that a minute repeater watch does not cost less expensive than today, and this despite of the ability for the current brands to mechanise a part of the manufacturing. In this competition, the French does not lack of talent. 

Antoine Thiout the elder, watchmaker wrote the treatise that bears his name, obtains very satisfying results in 1741. Julien Le Roy still improves the system later. The pieces offered are thinner and have better auditive quality. In the momentum, Jean-Antoine Lepine, born in Chalex in the commune of Gex (in the Ain department in France) in 1720, creates at his height of his career a new simplified repetition system for the orders of wind and the striking mechanism mode. In 1763, he got specialised in the toc repetition, a mechanism where the hammers, according to the versions, strike directly on the case middle rather than on a bell or a gong to make a vibration only perceptible by the bearer of the instrument. 

La montre Bvlgari Octo Finissimo Répétition Minutes
The Bvlgari Octo Finissimo Minute Repeater. 

Ring the right hour 

The minute repeater is the acoustic materialisation of an almost ultimate luxury. These pieces created by the biggest maisons express the very essence of the watchmaker savoir-faire because the movements equipped with this function ring on demand the hours (deep tone), the fifteen minutes (high-pitched and deep tone) and the minutes passed (high-pitched tone) from the last fifteen minutes passed. However, due to very high manufacturing costs, many watchmakers have tried various mechanical developments to offer to the public, timepieces with more economical striking mechanism. 

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition Répétition Minutes. 
Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Grande Tradition Minute Repeater.

There are pieces that allow to make ring the hours and the fifteen minutes passed. Watches with half-quarter repeater have also existed. These pieces developed by Breguet throughout the second half of the 19th century, have then been put aside for the instruments equipped with 5-minute repeats. These very upper-middle class instruments in principle are in many gold hunter watches from the end of the de 19th century that it is now possible to have at the price of the case’s weight… The opportunity to afford a low-priced watch with repetition. 

Credor Spring Drive Minute Repeater watch, a piece with decimal repetition. A creation from the Seiko Group.

But in looking carefully, it is also possible to find a few modern pieces offered by small maisons, equipped with a calibre including this function offered to the Dubois-Dépraz maison’s functions. To be complete, we will notice that it exists also a few brands like Credor (Seiko Group) that have kept a time rung on a decimal basis, in other words, 10 minutes by 10 minutes.

Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Minute Repeater Ultra-Thin. A piece of this style… 

It is efficient, but we need to know it in advance for not getting wrong. Because, the goal, of course, is not hearing the time to read it after, but just hearing it and to know how to transcribe the music in time… Because, in the end, it is also money. Moreover, is there anything to be gained by having a good ear?

F.P. Journe, Repetition Souveraine. A wonder with balance, designed and made in the very centre of Geneva. A rare and powerful with a classic balance luxury.

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