In the 21st-century world of hand-held infotainment devices which pack more computing power than the space rockets of yore, the mechanical wristwatch is a clockwork dinosaur that should have become extinct long ago. Yet our appetite for craftsmanship has ensured that watches made from springs and wheels and gears are more popular than ever — and the more complex their innards, the better we like them.
Which could explain why the function most coveted by connoisseur collectors is the one which is also the least necessary for modern life: the minute repeater, a horological complication first seen (and heard) in the 17th century, when dim streets and gloomy rooms lit only by smoky oil lamps and guttering candles could make time-telling after dark decidedly challenging.
So, in an exquisite case of necessity being the mother of invention, portable timepieces began to incorporate tiny hammers and gongs which, when activated by a discreet slide on the case, would sound out the hours on one note and the minutes on another, higher note, in order to provide an audible report of the time.
This basic system remained popular for more than 200 years before being refined to include ‘grande sonnerie’ chimes which sound the hours and quarters every 15 minutes and, ultimately, to feature the so-called ‘Westminster carillon’ which replicates the four quarter bells that accompany the Great Bell (or ‘Big Ben’) in the tower of the Palace of Westminster.
It wasn’t until the 1940s that any maker proved brave enough to reduce a minute repeater to wrist size, with all the problems of tiny parts and creating resonance within a far smaller case than that of a pocket watch. When Patek Philippe reignited interest in the complication with its Calibre 89 pocket watch of 1989 work began in earnest on perfecting the minute repeating wristwatch. Here are four of the best.
Jaeger-LeCoultre Duometre a Grand Sonnerie
A snip at around £900,000, at least compared with the GrandMaster Chime below. As its title suggests, the watch features the rare capability to replicate the chimes of the four quarter bells that accompany the Great Bell in the tower of the Palace of Westminster — and unlike any other watch it is able to reproduce all four sequences in succession. One of the keys to achieving that was to endow the movement with two separate power sources — hence the ‘Duometre’ in the title — one of which runs the time functions and the other the Grand Sonnerie, which will operate for up to 12 hours between rewinds. Jaeger-lecoultre.com
Patek Philippe GrandMaster Chime
Recently announced to mark the brand’s 175th anniversary, the GrandMaster Chime is the most complicated wristwatch ever made. Comprising 1,580 separate components — 1,366 for the movement and 214 for the 47mm case — it boasts 20 complications, the most impressive being its grande and petite sonnerie chimes (which sound on the hour and quarter hour), a minute repeater and a repeater that sounds the date. Of the seven watches being made, one will be displayed in the Patek Philippe museum and six will be sold — for a reported £2 million each. Patek.com
Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Contemporaine
Many horophiles believe Vacheron Constantin to be the quiet king of haute horlogerie, not least because it is the oldest watch company to have remained in continuous production. Since its founding in 1755, Vacheron has established an unrivalled reputation for its ultra-thin watches, as demonstrated by the remarkable Patrimony Contemporaine which measures just 8.1mm from top to bottom. Its slimness is down to the superb, 265-part Caliber 1731 movement — itself a wafer-thin 3.9mm and stamped with the prestigious ‘Geneva Seal’ to denote its exceptional standard of decoration and finish. £291,150, vacheron-constantin.com
A. Lange and Söhne Grand Complication
This remarkable watch took seven years to develop and just six will be made. It features a split-seconds chronograph mechanism, a perpetual calendar and a five-part enamel dial — but its most impressive feature is the minute repeater which invokes a tiny, low-pitched gong to sound the full hour, followed by a double strike of the low pitched gong and a higher pitched one to mark the quarters. In ‘petite sonnerie’ setting, meanwhile, it indicates the elapsed quarter hours with one, two or three double strikes on both gongs. About £1.5 million, alange-soehne.com