Some years ago I wrote in these pages about the beginning of tourbillon fatigue and the growing interest in minute repeaters, which strike the hours, quarters and minutes using a combination of high and low notes sounded when small hammers hit a pair of gongs: strips of metal that curl around the movement. At that time there were only a few watchmaking houses that offered this refined complication. Since then things have moved on, and now it seems that the chiming watch is becoming an increasingly varied genre.
An indication of how mainstream striking watches have become was in the list of prizes being offered at this year’s Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève, which has added a separate category for the genre. According to the rules, this comprises “watches with at least one acoustic indication or complication, notably watches equipped with repeater, striking, musical or any other acoustic function”. It seems that today a watch with a sound mechanism is a sine qua non for any brand with the remotest pretensions to being taken seriously by collectors of haute horlogerie.
And as more brands enter the space, collectors have become increasingly discerning. After all, when you are spending a six- or seven-figure sum on a timepiece, you want to know exactly what you are paying for. Should one choose, for example, normal or cathedral gongs (slightly longer gongs delivering a richer sound); a movement with a governor (a type of constant-force device for the wheel train of the repeater mechanism that keeps the rhythm and speed of the striking constant and also cuts out the whirring background noise) or a traditional anchor system. And if the combination of dings and dongs that signals the hours is a little lacklustre – and you can afford it – there’s a Westminster chime, which uses multiple gongs and hammers to replicate the peal of bells that rings out from the Houses of Parliament.
With the increasing focus on the “manufacture” ethos that is closely linked to the perception of value in the minds of many modern collectors, mastering a minute repeater brings huge watchmaking credibility to a brand, especially a relative newcomer such as Louis Vuitton, which in 2011 launched a minute repeater for travellers that told the time in one timezone on the dial and tolled another on the gong. Its president of watches and jewellery, Hamdi Chatti, hints at more advanced chiming watches along this line in the near future and says that by the Basel fair next year he hopes to have something remarkable to show.
His caution in not revealing too much ahead of time is understandable, as it takes years for a brand to interpret this very special complication in a way that is coherent with its heritage. Fabrizio Buonamassa, director of Bulgari’s Watch Design Centre, is as eloquent on the subject of the elegant way in which the repeater mechanism of the Ammiraglio del Tempo (£268,000) is activated by making one of the lugs the trigger as he is on the technical achievement of creating a four-gong Westminster chime. Meanwhile Piaget, a long-time specialist in ultra-slim watches, was proud to claim in 2013 that it had launched what was then the slimmest self-winding minute repeater on the market, designed and assembled totally in-house using a special case with hollow walls to enhance the sound.
Indeed, sound conductivity is something that has been obsessing the industry – Piaget worked with acoustic engineers from Besançon, and Chopard too has been consulting research scientists. Breguet uses an engine-turned metallic-glass membrane that acts as a Helmholtz resonator to broadcast the sound. Jaeger-LeCoultre, meanwhile, is rightly proud of its “crystal gong” technology, which is not a gong made of crystal, but rather a gong that is thermically bonded to the glass caseback, which it uses as a resonating surface. The brand has also changed the profile of the gong, giving it a straight side with a larger surface area for it to hit, and redesigned the hammers to create a trebuchet effect. This technology features in watches such as its Master Ultra-Thin Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon (£284,000).
However, there are striking watches and then there are striking watches, and this autumn Patek Philippe set the bar at a new level with the Grandmaster Chime (price on request). This watch was Patek Philippe’s 175th birthday present to itself, a timepiece that takes its place alongside the epoch‑making Calibre 89 of the firm’s 150th anniversary. I may be biased because I am writing the official biography of the storied Geneva marque, but I think it is safe to say that this is a watch that not only improves and refines the chiming concept – it also brings a new dimension to the striking watch. This watch does not merely give an acoustic indication of the time to the nearest minute, it also sounds out the date and features an alarm that, as well as waking you up, gives you the time in case your eyes are still misty with sleep. There is of course a lot more to it, but for that you will need to get hold of the book‑sized instruction manual, which describes the pièce de résistance of this watch as being the grande sonnerie.
The grande sonnerie is seen by many as the apotheosis of watchmaking. It is frequently described as a horological Himalayan peak that few brands can scale.
For “straightforward” minute repeaters, the wearer moves a slide at the side of the case that winds a spring, activating the repeater mechanism. “A grande sonnerie,” explains Christophe Claret, “is generally an autonomous mechanism equipped with two barrels, one for the movement and a more important one that activates the striking mechanism automatically at the passing of the hours and/or quarters, as well as chiming on demand, like church bells.”
Claret is something of an expert on striking watches, having worked for many of the best-known names in watchmaking before creating his eponymous brand specialising in chiming watches of all sorts. However, his admirably concise description of the grande sonnerie’s functions does not convey the huge leap in terms of watchmaking culture that is required to effect it. The repeater mechanism is already almost another watch movement in itself, a small clockwork computer that conveys the time from the watch movement to the hammers using a system of racks with different numbers of teeth that act upon snail-shaped cams to cause the hammers to strike the correct time.
But for the grande sonnerie that is only the beginning. The grande sonnerie needs to function perfectly, striking automatically four times an hour 24 hours a day, giving a different combination of notes on each occasion to tell the story of the passage of time. Tony de Haas, technical supremo at A Lange & Söhne, which recently launched a Grand Complication with grande sonnerie (€1.6m), put it into perspective for me when he compared the grande sonnerie to another high complication: the perpetual calendar, which has to operate just once a day at midnight when the date changes. A grande sonnerie needs to function automatically 96 times as often. For the movement designer this is a headache, as the consumption of power is prodigious, especially when the grande sonnerie is combined with other functions, in Lange’s case a split second chronograph and perpetual calendar.
Assembly is another huge challenge. “A grande sonnerie is a self-striking watch, a so-called grand strike, and you have to be sure that every quarter of an hour the right amount of strikes are made. That takes a long period of adjustment and testing,” explains Haas. There are 48 different permutations of strike and if just one of them is wrong then the whole striking mechanism – a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle of tiny components squeezed into a space just a few millimetres in height – has to be taken to pieces very carefully (so as not to disrupt the functioning of the other 47 permutations) and then rebuilt. What is even more frustrating for the watchmaker is that he is unable to test the watch immediately, as can be done with a minute repeater. Instead the watch has to run through an entire 12-hour cycle to verify that it all works as it should. And even though it costs more than €1.5m, buying one of these wristwatches is as much of a waiting game as making them. Lange estimates that assembling and adjusting its Grand Complication with grande sonnerie will take about a year, and only six will be made.
The unique nature of the complication and the skills required to work on it are mastered by only a handful of companies. It requires more than mere resources to make these watches; a special kind of mindset is required from the watchmaker, who may spend three months or more adjusting a grande sonnerie, which may be why a number of the most respected creators of grandes sonneries are independent makers with a touch of the maverick about them.
Philippe Dufour, for instance, is a legend for first having made a wristwatch grande sonnerie in the early 1990s. And, as already mentioned, Christophe Claret makes chiming watches his speciality. He showcases his workshop’s skills with a minute repeater Westminster called Soprano (£380,000). The late Dominique Loiseau was another name associated with this complication.
A further strong-willed character is François Paul Journe, whose Sonnerie Souveraine (about £465,000) took six years of development and makes use of 10 patents, of which perhaps the most salient is the winding stem and striking-control blocking lever. It is this mechanical refinement that, he claims, would enable a child of eight to use his creation. Such is the delicacy of the grande sonnerie that to change the date or even the time while the watch is striking is to run the risk of wrecking the carefully tuned system; however, Journe’s patented system stops the striking system from operating when the winding stem is pulled out and prevents the winding stem from being pulled out when the striking mechanism is running.
At this level, watchmaking is so rarefied that only a small number of watchmakers will ever master the necessary skills and temperament, and only a few connoisseurs will ever be able to afford the watches. Nevertheless, there are signs that the VIP enclosure of brands capable of this sort of exigent work is getting bigger. As well as the recent arrival of A Lange & Söhne, Blancpain is working on a new grande sonnerie; and it cannot be long before Vacheron Constantin joins the club – last year the brand launched the world’s thinnest minute repeater (£291,150) and this year it unveiled a multiple complication with astronomical functions. Greubel Forsey is also known to be interested in this type of complication. Looking a few years into the future, Hublot is working on a grande sonnerie, but nothing is expected before 2018.
As technology advances, it will be interesting to see what miracles watchmakers can coax from the hundreds of tiny components that make these elaborate complications. For instance, Patek’s head of watch development Philippe Barat, who led the technical team that worked on the Grandmaster Chime for seven years, told me that computer-aided design assisted in the process of making its many complications into a wearable wristwatch by, as he put it, filling the holes in the movement: minute spaces into which components crafted to ever-more-exacting tolerances could be tucked. When I heard this, I asked if it would be possible to make a grande sonnerie Westminster chime with five gongs (for purists a “real” Westminster chime needs this many); so far the Geneva brand has only pulled this feat off in pocket-watch form, with the Star Calibre. Then for good measure they might like to add a chiming calendar that gives the day and month as well as the date. To squeeze all that into a wearable wristwatch is a tall order – but then the 200th anniversary is not for another 25 years.