The Ultimate Hold-My-Beer Watch: Patek Philippe’s Ref. 6301P Grande SonnerieBy Wei Koh
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Patek Philippe minute repeaters in every precious metal they were made in. These horological gems were arrayed in front of Thierry Stern and he proceeded to pick up each watch, deftly activating the slide integrated into the side of the case and sending each into sonic ignition. It was a transcendent moment for everyone present.
There is a reason that the horological faithful universally laud Patek’s minute repeaters as the best in the world, and this is all down to an extraordinary combination of tone, clarity, volume and, for lack of a better word, “voice”. While they may not necessarily be the loudest repeaters in the world — nor have they ever chased this comparatively pedestrian goal — but the music they produce is, without a doubt, the most aurally stunning to experience and the watchmaking equivalent of Sam Cooke, Van Morrison, Aretha Franklin or Janis Joplin, in that no other repeater comes remotely close to their sonic signature. I was forever changed by this moment, my understanding of repeating watches so immutably and indelibly forged by it that I’ve decided I will never own a striking watch until the day I can own a Patek Philippe repeater.
So when word broke that Patek would unveil its new Grande Sonnerie upon this day of our Lord, 10 November 2020, my heart rate shot into palpitatious overdrive (yes, I made up that term). Of course, the first question that came to mind was, what would the aesthetic execution of this watch be? This was, after all, not Patek Philippe’s first Grande Sonnerie.
That accolade belongs to the amusingly hip-hop-sounding Grandmaster Chime launched in 2014 to celebrate Patek’s 175th anniversary. This panjandrum of a timepiece, ref. 5175 to be exact, featured a second time zone display, instantaneous perpetual calendar, an alarm that sounded the full time in the form of hours, quarters and minutes two minutes before the selected hours and quarters, a striking date function in decimal format, a minute repeater, and of course, a grande and petite sonnerie on four hammers. Incidentally the rationale for playing the time two minutes before the preselected alarm was so that if you set it to one o’clock, the watch would actually play 12 hours, three quarters and 13 minutes, instead of playing just one strike on its lowest of its four gongs. The ref. 5175 was made in a small series of seven watches — six sold to very lucky collectors and one kept at Patek’s museum. A single piece was made in steel for the Only Watch auction.
In 2016, the Grandmaster Chime became part of Patek’s regular production as the ref. 6300, with more discreet hand engine-turned engraving on the case-middle than the elaborately hand-engraved ref. 5175. Both the ref. 5175 and the ref. 6300 were massive, totemic double-sided timepieces measuring 47mm and 47.7mm in diameter, respectively — not precisely the type of understated watch one could wear with any measure of discretion taking a postprandial stroll around town.
In other words, what I really wanted to know was: “Will the new ref. 6301P be discreet enough in styling to wear every day?” And the answer to that is yes. Despite its not-inconsiderable size, at 44.8mm in diameter and 12mm in height, the new ref. 6301P is a masterpiece of sublimely refined stealth design.
“That was precisely Thierry Stern’s objective with this watch: to create an expression of understated elegance,” says Jasmina Steele, Patek Philippe’s public relations director. Indeed, original plans for his design actually omitted the indications for the power reserve of the movement and of the sonnerie, which are found at nine and three o’clock on the dial, respectively. “Of course we understood why we wanted to do this, to create the ultimate expression of restrained and pure Patek Philippe design, but in the end, we convinced him these indications were important enough to keep,” says Philip Barat, also affectionately known as “Mr Plexi” to those Patek devotees who have had the pleasure of his technical discourses aided by large plexiglass models of watch movements and parts.
Regarding the size of the watch, whose dial is a full 2.8mm wider than François-Paul Journe’s 42mm grande sonnerie, Barat explains, “Actually, keeping the watch as thin as possible was Thierry Stern’s objective, and I think at 12mm, this is quite a significant achievement for a watch with three gongs and three hammers.”
The ref. 6301P took its inspiration from the ref. 5370 Split-Seconds Chronograph — more specifically, from the platinum-cased model with black grande-feu-enamel dial and applied Breguet numerals that was discontinued this year and replaced by an equally stunning blue enamel-dial model. This is what is so great about the ref. 6301P: if you were to close your eyes and come up with a dream list of Patek Philippe design attributes for a grande sonnerie, you would probably arrive at almost exactly the watch that they have created. Platinum Calatrava-style case? Check. Black grande-feu-enamel dial? Yes. White printed chemin-de-fer-style minute track? You got it. Sublime applied Breguet numerals, one of the most revered Patek design codes of all time? If you insist, sir. Luminous leaf-shaped hands? OK, just for you.
On top of that, Thierry Stern made a tremendous effort to make this watch Patek’s ultimate masterwork of understated elegance by first combining what are normally two switches — one for selecting grande or petite sonnerie mode, and the other for turning the strike mode on or off — into one. Then, they essentially hid this switch between the lugs at six o’clock, causing the diamond normally found in Patek’s platinum cases to have to relocate to 12 o’clock. And, instead of a repeater slide, they created a pusher that is integrated into the crown, meaning that unless you looked really closely, or knew exactly what visual cues to identify, you might easily mistake the ref. 6301P for an oversized and extremely beautiful time-only Calatrava.
I can already hear the conversation in my mind when a less-informed collector looks at this watch and remarks, “I didn’t know Patek made an oversized ref. 5196 with a black dial.” To which, of course, the knowing reply would be, “They don’t,” with a wink as the watch’s grande sonnerie bursts into song on cue, complete with a three-part melody for the quarters. Cue the Snoop Dogg pimp-life meme.
Anyway, my point is, the ref. 6301P is everything you could possibly want in terms of iconic Patek Philippe styling — it is that ravishing. There are two additional indicators on the dial, one at nine o’clock and one at three o’clock, which give you the power reserve for the barrels of the movement and sonnerie respectively.
Finally, the magnificent sub-seconds dial framed by a second white chemin-de-fer track — this time for the sub-seconds — actually contains a secret: the movement’s jumping-seconds function where the seconds hand jumps precisely on the second, rather than creeping incrementally forwards. Again, unless you looked closely, you would be hard-pressed to notice this. This indication was, of course, the subject of some attention as it is both thrilling and unusual to find a jumping seconds indicator on a grande sonnerie.
Philip Barat explains, “I do not like to call this a ‘dead seconds’ mechanism. The dead seconds was the predecessor to the chronograph for measuring time and uses a different system involving an anchor and escapement of its own. The jumping seconds, in comparison, was first introduced in the ref. 5275P launched for our 175th anniversary. This was a tonneau-shaped watch with jump hours, a chiming function on the hours and this method of displaying the seconds.
“The calibre 32-650 HGS PS was derived from the movement in the Grandmaster Chime. In this movement, we do not have a way to create a direct seconds hand. There is a seconds wheel, but it is turning in the reverse direction. So we decided that if we are going to create an indirect seconds, we should do something more. We came up with a system where the energy of the seconds wheel is stored for up to eight oscillations before it pulls the jumping seconds wheel forward. It is made out of silicon to keep it very light, and so, that the spring tension stays uniform throughout its life.”
Before I get into the extraordinary movement and the technical innovations and patents it represents, let me pause to place the ref. 6301P in sociological context. To me, it is precisely the type of ultra-complicated watch that the very best manufactures should be making in the context of this year and in the years ahead — a watch with incredible technical achievement, but executed in a beautiful and elegantly understated way.
At a time when so many people have been economically affected, to me, it is just downright tasteless to rub everyone’s noses in by flaunting how wealthy you are. Of course, no one is trying to tell you not to enjoy yourself if you can afford one, but at the same time, there is no need for you to join Dan Bilzerian, Kim Kardashian and other vulgarian assholes out there in their overt and tasteless celebrations of vapid, mindless and profoundly wasteful opulence. Anyway, that’s just my opinion. To me, the ref. 6301P militates against this orange Lamborghini arriviste barbarism and shines a path to the future of classic, understated, elegant high complications for the rest of the industry.
To be fair, a grande sonnerie is already vested purely within the rarified realm of the horological ultra-elite — meaning, you have to be educated enough to appreciate what it is from a technical perspective and also affluent enough to afford its correspondingly sky-high price tag. There are only five brands in the world that are capable of making a grande and petite sonnerie: Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet, Gérald Genta (now under Bulgari), François-Paul Journe and Jaeger-LeCoultre. The first grande-sonnerie wristwatch was produced by independent watchmaking legend Philippe Dufour.
So, what exactly is a grande sonnerie? To refresh your memory on striking watches, here is a quick breakdown. A minute repeater is a watch that plays the time on demand in the form of music. The complication was created by English watchmaker Daniel Quare, but perfected in the form of wire gongs and hammers by none other than the GOAT of watchmaking, Abraham-Louis Breguet. It was created so that noblemen would not have to undergo the banality of lighting a candle to check their pocket watches in the dark.
A minute repeater works as follows: the hours and minutes have star cams set with steps for readings on them. The minute repeater has a feeler system that, when activated, reads these cams almost like a visually impaired person reading Braille. It then translates this into a certain number of strikes of its miniature hammers on its wire gongs.
Traditionally, there are two gongs: one high and one low in tone. Hours are represented by the low-pitched gong, minutes up to 14 by the high-pitched gong, and quarters by a combination of a high-low melody. The minute repeater is considered, by far, to be the most challenging complication to fine-tune and perfect. Minute repeaters are judged by the quality of their “voice” — the clarity, brightness, beauty and volume of their song. Accordingly, there are all sorts of arcane techniques relating to repeaters, such as hardening gongs in horse urine, etc.
A carillon minute repeater is a watch with more than two gongs. Oftentimes, this is in order to play the melody of Big Ben for the quarters, and a watch with that capability is called a Westminster repeater.
OK, so if a minute repeater were the equivalent to wearing a black belt in terms of horological badassitude, then the ability to make a grande sonnerie would be analogous to the top Tiger Style master monk at Shaolin Temple in terms of martial arts prowess. A grande sonnerie always has a minute-repeater function, and moreover plays the time in passing, which a repeater cannot do. So, it plays the hours on the hours, and the hours and quarters on the quarters in passing. Grande sonneries also have a “petite” mode, which means the watch plays the hours on the hours, and only the quarters on the quarters. As I’ve mentioned, there have only been six watchmaking firms or watchmakers who have achieved this lofty goal.
Philippe Dufour was the first to introduce his masterpiece back in 1992, and has made a total of four grand-sonnerie watches with enamel dials and five with transparent sapphire dials; it is rumoured that he still occasionally cranks one of these out. What many people don’t know is that Dufour’s project was financed by Henry Tay of Singapore’s The Hour Glass.
The second person to achieve a grande sonnerie (a carillon with three gongs and three hammers) was the late Pierre-Michel Golay who was at Gérald Genta at the time and was able to modify an ébauche from an old Vallée de Joux pocket watch. As a result, Genta, and now Bulgari, has the ability to make this complication, which they combine with an automatic tourbillon no less.
Audemars Piguet has the capacity to make a grande-sonnerie carillon, thanks to their ownership of Renaud & Papi — one of horology’s most storied high-complications specialists. Then there is François-Paul Journe, whose grande sonnerie innovatively uses two banana-shaped gongs, and Jaeger-LeCoultre with its Hybris Mechanica created by David Candaux with three trebuchet, or “catapult”, hammers and three gongs.
Finally, there is Patek Philippe, who introduced their Grandmaster Chime in 2014, thus ascending to the Valhalla of high-complication demigods. But what distinguishes Patek from the other brands, is that they make what are universally acknowledged to be the best repeating watches in the world. So, when they took the leap to include a grande sonnerie in their repertoire, you could be certain that it was the best-sounding one in the history of modern watchmaking.
While the Grandmaster Chime’s many complications are packaged in an ornate case, the ref. 6301P’s absolute zen-like focus on being the best grande sonnerie in the game, is reflected in its pure, sober and wonderfully elegant design. However, its apparent simplicity is an act of cunning subterfuge, as the watch is actually a vessel for extraordinary innovation and holds three patents.
The first relates to the total isolation of the sonnerie mechanism in the silence mode, helping to extend the watch’s power reserve considerably. The second relates to the selection switch for the modes. As I’ve mentioned, normally, there are two switches in a grande sonnerie — one for grande or petite mode, and one that is essentially an on/off switch. Patek managed to combine both into a single slide switch, hidden from prying eyes at six o’clock. Push it all the way to left, and you are in petite-sonnerie mode; slide it to centre and you are in grande-sonnerie mode; slide it to the right and you’ve turned the strike off. You can still activate the minute repeater, of course, but the watch won’t play the time in passing.
Lastly, the third patent relates to an all-new jumping-seconds mechanism. The seconde morte complication preceded the chronograph as the most accurate way to measure time, and is one of the coolest complications around. Normally it functions by having a second escapement with a pallet and escape wheel that engages the seconds hand, but this system robs the watch of energy. As described earlier, Patek’s innovation does away with levers and springs, and functions only using wheels and a release lever, which consumes far less power and is easier to regulate and control.
Flip the ref. 6301P over and revel in the new calibre GS 36-750 PS IRM, with a movement diameter of 37mm and a height of 7.5mm. What I love about Patek, is that when it sets about designing a movement, it does so with function as well as architectural beauty as its focus. A masterpiece of balance and harmony, It features two sets of two stacked barrels (four in total) in series, one for the going train and one for the sonnerie’s strike mechanism. If you look at the bridge on the left of the movement the ruby on the top retains the barrels for the striking train and the ruby at the bottom for the movement. Turn the crown clockwise to wind the movement and anticlockwise to wind the barrel for the sonnerie. The power reserve provided by the sonnerie barrels guarantees that you can have the ref. 6301 on grande-sonnerie mode for a full 24 hours without having to rewind it.
Just to give you some perspective, that’s a full 1,056 strikes the watch will perform in this 24-hour period. If that sounds like a lot, that is because this new grande sonnerie is a carillon with three hammers and three gongs. Each quarter is played as a high-low-medium melody. “There was a lot of discussion about the number of hammers and gongs for this watch,” says Philip Barat. “Essentially, it is the movement of the Grandemaster Chime without the additional alarm, date striking or calendar functions. As such, we were able to really focus on the sound. We made prototypes with four hammers and even five hammers. But as you increase the number of hammers, the strikes become less powerful, and eventually, Thierry Stern decided on three hammers and three gongs to get the right balance of power and beauty in the sound. Also while the Grandmaster Chime played alternating melodies for each quarter, here, it plays the same melody, which is always the combination of high-low-medium gongs in that order.”
Jasmina Steele says, “Collectors know that Thierry is involved in every aspect of the design, but he also oversees the movement both in terms of its aesthetics and its technical details. One nice detail here is the skeletonised Calatrava Cross is positioned over the fusée of the watch, so for the first time, you can see the flying regulator which Patek first created in the Calibre 89 without anything covering it.”
Beyond all its technical street cred, you can also see Patek’s unrivalled high level of finish lavishly and lovingly applied to the entirety of the movement — particularly evident in the sharp internal angles on the bridges, which can only be performed by the most skilful hands. The watch also comes complete with Patek’s signature Gyromax free-sprung balance and its Silinvar silicon hairspring; the latter enables the watch to be impervious to magnetism. As an aside, Silinvar is silicon with a deposit of silicon dioxide on it to compensate for the material’s reaction to thermal variation. This balance is found on a full traversing balance bridge for added stability.
Finally I love that Patek made the case in platinum because this is the hardest material to craft a great-sounding striking watch in. Because of platinum’s density, it is notorious for being a poor amplifier of sound. Journe overcame this by making his 700,000-euro 42mm sonnerie in steel, but to me, that has always seemed to be a bit of a copout. But this is not the path Patek decided to take. Instead, they decided to demonstrate that not only could they make the world’s best-sounding grande sonnerie, but that they could design it to be a masterpiece of stealth elegance and craft the case from the most challenging material possible — and still have it set a benchmark in terms of tonal quality that exceeds all others. I just love the sheer badassness of this statement from Patek Philippe to the rest of the watch world that essentially proclaims, if you will forgive my use of vernacular: “Y’all think you make grande sonneries? Here, hold my beer.”
The ref. 6301P is priced at CHF1,115,000 and will only be allocated to the very lucky few approved by Thierry Stern.