Master watchmaker Paul Buclin assembling the Star Calibre 2000.
Style Watches

Why the minute repeater remains the highest form of the watchmaking arts

The modern world should have rendered Patek Philippe minute repeaters obsolete, but nuanced craftsmanship is its own excuse for being.
Rheea Hermoso-Prudente | Feb 07 2019

Minute repeaters were created out of necessity back when people had to hold a candle or a lamp to a timepiece to check the time darkness fell. Today, owning a minute repeater is an end in itself, desired for the sheer pleasure of marveling at its beauty and craftsmanship, and hearing the passage of time marked by a symphony of pitches in perfect tone. For Patek Philippe, minute repeaters rank as the highest form of watchmaking art and occupy the top of Patek's product list.

No minute repeater made by Patek Philippe leaves the workshop without the final approval from the company's president. Think of the final product as an audition, with the company's president as chief arbiter personally judging every timepiece made based on the purity and perfection of its tone.

A custom-made Patek Philippe open-face pocket watch with minute repeater from 1912.

Each hour is marked by a low-pitched gong, the minutes by a higher-pitched one, and the quarter hours by both. At 9:42, for example, a low-pitched gong would sound nine times, followed by the low- and high-pitched gongs playing two times, and finally, the high-pitched gong striking 12 more times. More than 100 miniscule parts are required to bring this symphony to life. The watchmaker needs not only a skillful and steady hand, but also an ear attuned to the nuances of sound.

Two gongs, two hammers, and the springs make up the orchestra that plays this symphony of time. The weight of each hammer must be precise—just enough to strike the gong with the force required to make the appropriate sound without being too loud or too muffled. The spring that controls the hammer also needs to be adjusted so that the hammers strike with the right amount of force.

The Ref. 5208P (released in 2011) is a triple complication wristwatch with minute repeater, chronograph, and instantaneous perpetual calendar —a first for Patek Philippe.

A minute repeater requires three snails (a cam that resembles a snail), one each for the minutes, hours, and quarter hours. The minutes snail has 56 steps, one for each minute except for the four minutes that are part of the quarter snail. The quarter snail and the hour scale have four and 12 steps, respectively. The steps on each of the snails help track the time, so the watch knows exactly what to chime when you request for the time.

After each piece is painstakingly put together, tested and adjusted by a master watchmaker, and finally given the final approval by the president of Patek Philippe, it is recorded in the Patek archives for posterity.

 

This story first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 2, 2011