Ring Out The Bells: A History of Repeating and Chiming Watches

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This article was first published in Arabic in the September/October issue of Alam Assatt wal Moujawharat

The most charming of all complications, repeaters and sonneries are also considered by watchmakers to be the most challenging and rewarding mechanisms to build. Why is that?

Two of the most desirable complications in watchmaking, the repeater and sonnerie, are also a perfect analogy for mechanical watch collecting: an outdated technology that is utterly charming in every conceivable way. Watchmakers continue to make these complications because they want to further their art, not because there is a need for them.

Repeaters and sonneries are both chiming watches but there is an important difference between them.  A repeater (like a chronograph) is an actionable complication, meaning that the wearer activates the repeater – by pushing a button or lever on the side of the case or crown. This sends levers and gears whirring into motion to 'learn' the time from the movement and, moments later, the hammers strike the time against metal gongs.

 Two sliders that control the alarm and sonnerie of a Vacheron Constantin pocket watch. Photo courtesy of Vacheron Constantin.

Two sliders that control the alarm and sonnerie of a Vacheron Constantin pocket watch. Photo courtesy of Vacheron Constantin.

A sonnerie is a non-actionable complication, which (like calendar indications) acts automatically, needing no input from the user. A Petite Sonnerie (French for Little Strike) will chime the hour at the hour and will chime every quarter of the hour. A Grande Sonnerie (Grand Strike) is more complex and will chime the hour at the hour and, every quarter-hour, will chime both the hour and the quarter. Usually, the time is chimed out on two gongs, low-pitched for the hour, high-pitched for the minute, and a quick high-low strike for quarters.

Given its autonomous operation and the amount of energy needed to operate the hammers, a sonnerie complication typically requires a separate power source (barrel). A repeater can take its power from the mainspring because the action of pushing a button or a slider 'tops up' the mainspring with enough power to activate the chiming complication.

A MECHANICAL BREAKTHROUGH

Examples of pocket watches using a strike mechanism to sound time date as far back as the late 15th Century but they were very unreliable. The real breakthrough came in 1676 when English clockmaker Edward Barlow created the 'rack and snail' method of striking time, which ensured that the chiming mechanism remained synchronised with the hands. The 'snail' is a wheel that looks like a snail shell and the rack is a flat cam that looks like a lobster claw. The snail wheel has steps cut into it: an hour wheel has 12 steps and a quarter wheel has 4 steps. Each snail wheel is directly connected to the relevant hand so that, as the hands turn, so do the snail wheels.

HOW THE STRIKING MECHANISM WORKS

THE RACK AND SNAIL

 A pair of F.P. Journe hour and quarter hour racks. Photo courtesy of F.P. Journe

A pair of F.P. Journe hour and quarter hour racks. Photo courtesy of F.P. Journe

Suspended above the snail wheels are the racks, which have teeth like saw-blades along both sides. The inner teeth mesh with the steps of snail wheels, and the outer teeth connect to the striking mechanism. As with the steps on a snail wheel, the number of teeth on a rack depends on what that rack is measuring, and how many strikes of the gong it is looking to create.

For example, it's 10:45 and the sonnerie activates. The racks drop into place, with the position of the snail wheel against the inner teeth dictating the number of outer teeth available. As it's 10:45, there are 10 steps available on the hour snail and 3 steps on the quarter snail. The racks rotate to the end of their travel with their outer teeth engaging pallets, which in turn engage the striking mechanism to strike the correct number chimes to sound the time.

After chiming, the racks rise to their original position ready to strike again. If kept wound, a grande sonnerie will repeat this process 96 times a day and 35,040 times a year. This frequency is what makes the grande sonnerie complication so difficult to produce in wristwatches as the required energy to power the complication is near impossible to store in a small mainspring.

 A set of gongs used in a chiming watch. 

A set of gongs used in a chiming watch. 

In 1750, Thomas Mudge made the first minute-repeating pocket watch. By adding a third snail wheel and rack, it became possible to chime the individual minutes. All chiming watches used small bells to ring out the time until the 1820s, when Abraham-Louis Breguet replaced them with steel gongs. These gongs reduced the thickness of chiming watches and produced a cleaner and brighter sound. Watchmakers realised that altering the size and weight of the gongs can change the pitch and tone of the chime – and eventually the 'cathedral' gongs were developed. These elongated gongs run around the inside of the watch in a circle, with the added length producing a richer tone.

Changing the case material can also change the tone produced by the chiming mechanism. Gold cases create a warm sound, platinum cases are more muted and titanium is very crisp and clean. None of these is a 'bad' material to use but a watchmaker must use the chosen material in a way that amplifies its strengths as a resonator, rather than trying to impose a particular sound on it.

THE CHALLENGE OF SCALE

When pocket watches evolved into wristwatches another issue arose. The large case of a pocket watch allows sound to better reverberate inside it; a wristwatch case is not so forgiving. The available space is minuscule so it is difficult not only to create a pleasant tone difficult, but also to fit everything inside! Little wonder that watchmakers consider chiming complications are considered to be the ultimate challenge.

Audemars Piguet made the first minute-repeating wristwatch in 1892 and would continue making one-off repeating watches for special clients until the latter decades of the 20th Century (after which the company started serial production of watches). Along with Jaeger-LeCoultre, Lemania, Frédéric Piguet and many independent workshops, AP cemented the reputation of the Vallée de Joux as the source of the finest chiming mechanisms throughout the 20th century.

There have been many repeating wristwatches since the 1930s and the adding one to the catalogue became almost a rite of passage for any truly high-end watch brand – and even for some outliers, such as Angelus. Best known for its chronographs, Angelus created the world's first automatic, waterproof quarter repeater in 1958, the Tinkler. Unfortunately, it was not commercially successful and production ceased after about 100 watches.

 
 The Angelus Tinkler. Photo courtesy of analog/shift.

The Angelus Tinkler. Photo courtesy of analog/shift.

 

While watchmakers continued to refine and improve repeater watches (clearer sounds, more accurate timekeeping, smaller cases), the Sonnerie complication proved more elusive; it was considered too large and too demanding of power to work in a wristwatch. This changed in 1992. Philippe Dufour had worked with Audemars Piguet in the early 1980s to produce five chiming pocket watches, but it irked him that he had to remain silent about his contribution. So he set out on his own and made a better watch. In 1992, he unveiled the world’s first grande sonnerie wristwatch – with a minute repeater into the bargain.

Since then, only a handful of makers have successfully created a sonnerie wristwatch, including Christophe Claret, Gérald Genta, Daniel Roth, FP Journe, Audemars Piguet, Patek Philippe and Jaeger-LeCoultre. That it took such a great company as Vacheron Constantin until this year to finally join the exalted ranks – with its Les Cabinotiers Symphonia Grande Sonnerie 1860 – implies just how difficult the sonnerie is to master.

MODERN MASTERS

For many years François-Paul Journe had clients asking him to make a sonnerie. He turned them all down. Journe wanted to make a sonnerie but he wanted to make it his way. It had to be easy enough for a child to use without breaking and it must have only one power source. In 2005, after years of development and dozens of patents, Journe released the Sonnerie Souveraine – the first wristwatch sonnerie with one power source for both timekeeping and the chiming complication. In silent mode, the watch can run for five days and with all striking mechanisms activated, it can run for two days. To child-proof the watch, Journe created a mechanism that blocks power to the sonnerie if the power reserve is below 24 hours, and he made it impossible for the sonnerie to activate during time-setting, and vice-versa.

The battle for the thinnest watch has long been waged between watchmakers and it extends to making the thinnest repeating watch. The current record for thinnest repeating watch is held by Bulgari’s Octo Finissimo, released in 2016; it measures 6.85mm (cased) and beats the previous thinnest by 1.16mm. That is a margin of almost 25 per cent – huge in watchmaking terms. The savoir-faire behind this watch, and Bulgari’s other chiming watches, is a result of its having bought Daniel Roth and Gerald Genta in 2000 and integrated their knowledge – and their high-complication watchmakers – into Bulgari.

Two of the most recent accomplishments in chiming watches are the Audemars Piguet SuperSonnerie and Greubel Forsey’s Grand Sonnerie.

While called a sonnerie, the AP is in fact a minute repeater but is considered by Audemars Piguet to be a crowning achievement in chiming watches, due to the quality of its sound. (The 2016 GPHG jury agreed, awarding it the Mechanical Exception prize.) To produce this sound, the gongs are not attached to the movement plate as per tradition, but to an inner case-back that acts as a resonating membrane within the titanium case. Audemars Piguet also managed to make the regulating organ of the chiming mechanism, which governs the speed of the hammers striking, almost perfectly silent. What’s more, the SuperSonnerie's striking mechanism removes the pause that occurs when changing from chiming the hours to the quarters.

The Greubel Forsey Grande Sonnerie is a true accomplishment in independent watchmaking, incorporating a minute repeater, an inclined tourbillon for greater chronometric accuracy, and 11 different security functions to prevent the wearer from breaking the delicate movement. Moreover, it is one of the few chiming watches to be water-resistant to 30 metres. Water-resistance is a challenge for chiming watches as the rubber seals that keep water out, tend to keep sound in. Patek Philippe's chiming watches are dust-resistant only and most other chiming watches make no claim to being water-resistant.

Both of these watches were labours of love for the watchmakers involved, with the Super Sonnerie taking eight years to develop and the Greubel Forsey’s eleven years. It is ironic that these complications, which need years to create, can be judged by a newcomer to watches. An newbie can't spot a misaligned tourbillon but even to even an untrained ear will instantly notice a less-than-beautiful chime.

Despite striving for a universally recognised standard of ‘beautiful sound’, every chiming watch made is unique. From a bespoke 19th-Century grand sonnerie pocket watch to a modern, serially produced minute repeater, each has a sound and character of its own. No other complication can beat that.