Minute Repeaters: A Brief History

The minute repeater has a status in the eyes of watch collectors and enthusiasts that still surpasses that of any other complication. With the tourbillon increasingly challenged over the last ten years to retain its cachet, the minute repeater’s complexity, and the difficulty of making one that works at all, much less one that works reliably and produces a good sound, has made the minute repeater the darling of watch connoisseurs, even as prices (never low) have risen to levels so high as to put the complication out of reach of all but the very wealthy.

This combination of high price and low production has made connoisseurship in minute repeaters something very exclusive as well. Unlike many other watches, which can be appreciated by visual inspection at boutiques and retailers, or vicariously through images on the Internet, appreciating the nuances of repeater performance has to be based on actually hearing them in operation and, ideally, feeling how the slide or pusher that activates them responds to the touch as well. Needless to say, it’s a rare experience to hear any minute repeater, much less have the opportunity to compare one to another.

The Repeater Mystique

patek nautilusCalibre R TO 27 PS as used in the discreetly perfect Ref. 5539G.  Hand-wound minute repeater with tourbillon.

Minute repeaters are the final evolution of a tradition in horology that goes back to the earliest mechanical clocks; many of the first mechanical timepieces in Europe were created for monasteries, or were tower clocks and it was not unusual for the earliest to have no dial or hands at all – the time was told through the chiming of bells. Hour-striking portable clocks as well as spring powered portable alarm clocks both existed by the late Renaissance, but the first known watch to strike the time on demand – the essential difference between a striking timepiece and a bona fide repeater – is generally thought to have been made by the English watchmaker Daniel Quare, in 1687, although another Englishman, the Rev. Edward Barlow, is thought to have invented the rack and snail mechanism for use in a clock somewhat earlier, in 1676.

patek philippe aquanaut

Very early hour-striking alarm table clock, by Pierre de Fobis of Provence, circa 1540, in the Patek Philippe Museum, Geneva; an early spring-powered clock with verge-and-foliot escapement

The first repeating watches were quite bulky, not only thanks to the large number of extra parts required for the repeating mechanism, but also because they struck the time on bells which occupied a great deal of space in the movement. The only other solution was the repeater “à toc” (also known as a “dumb repeater”) which was invented by the Frenchman Julien Le Roy around 1750, in which a hammer struck the inside of the case, allowing the time to be felt rather than heard. The invention of the circular gong of hardened steel wire is usually credited to Abraham Louis Breguet; the invention of the minute repeater per se (that is, a watch that chimes the hours, quarter hours and minutes, rather than merely the hours, or the hours and the nearest quarter) has for many years been credited to the English watchmaker Thomas Tompion. Nevertheless, a 2010 article in the journal of the Antiquarian Horological Society (as well as earlier research) suggests that both the country and date of the first true minute repeating watch are in need of re-examination, thanks to the discovery of minute repeating watches from Friedberg, Germany, which are from at least 30 years earlier than the date (also around 1750) usually thought to be when Tompion is supposed to have made his first minute repeater.

Essentially Artisanal

While there have been attempts to make more democratically priced repeaters over the years (one of the more notable recent examples is the five-minute repeater by Nivrel, and throughout the history of watchmaking it’s possible to find many quarter repeaters made with an obvious eye to keeping down costs), in general chiming watches and especially the minute repeater, have resisted the tendency of mechanical watches in general, and complications in particular, to fall in price and complexity over the centuries.

Moreover, minute repeaters remain something of a mystery even to those who make them: as each one is essentially a miniature musical instrument, each repeater, even different examples of the same model, sounds different. Minute repeaters remain, alone among watch complications, an inherently artisanal product, requiring careful manual assembly and adjustment in order to function, and extremely careful hand-tuning to produce a good sound.

philippe watch

Ref. 5078P, self-winding minute repeater, 38mm; introduced in 2005.

Fine-tuning a repeater is a major undertaking, and there are a number of factors that have to be controlled in order to produce a good sound. The sound of a repeater is affected by the distance between the gongs and the hammers, the length and shape of the gongs, the gong material and how it’s tempered, the force with which the hammers strike, the shape and composition of the case, how the gongs are attached to the movement, how the movement as a whole is mounted in the case, the presence or absence of other complications, and so on (and on; even the presence of gems in the case alters the sound.)


All images by Jack Forster for Revolution except where noted; all rights reserved.  Nick ’em and you die.  Sincerest thanks to Patek Philippe USA, Patek Philippe Geneva, and Thierry Stern for access to, and permission to photograph, this remarkable assembly of minute repeaters.

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