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Feature: Bell Whethers

James D. Malcolmson

For all its expressive sound, a minute repeater still could be considered a blind purchase. These coveted, highly complicated musical timepieces are so exclusive that rarely would you have the opportunity to hear one before placing your order, much less compare it to others. Indeed, it is unlikely that you ever would see two of these pieces side by side—which is why Robb Report recently gathered five of them in New York to conduct its first horological test-drive.

 

 

The brands that participated—Audemars Piguet, Blancpain, De Witt, IWC, and Jaeger-LeCoultre—have diverse histories and experience in producing this specialized complication. The panel of testers spanned an equally broad spectrum, ranging from a recognized watch expert to an executive in the sound engineering business to a musician who never before had seen or even heard of a minute repeater.

 

Producing music with a watch mechanism is one of the oldest and most delicate skills in horology. Repeaters were invented in the early 17th century as a means of telling time in the dark, but since then, the chiming watches have come to be appreciated for romantic reasons as well as the technical challenge they represent. The sound results from tiny hammers striking wirelike gongs—pieces of resonant metal that coil around the periphery of the movement. In fine-tuning the quality of the tone, a watchmaker demonstrates his artistry, as he adjusts innumerable facets of the watch’s construction, including the tension of the screws that hold the movement together or subtler manipulations involving the way it is placed in the case.

While all the pieces in our test shared the standard three-step chime sequence for hours, quarters, and minutes produced by hammers striking two separately tuned gongs, the sound each produced varied in volume, cadence, timbre, and resonance. Experts point out that a steady, strong cadence is indicative of a quality mechanism, one that best satisfies its historic purpose of telling the listener what time it is. Another priority is clear, resonant tones, which are enhanced by skilled tuning, case material (gold is preferred over the denser platinum), and the absence of sound-dampening components, such as sealing gaskets for water resistance.

While Osvaldo Patrizzi of Antiquorum auctioneers listened to each piece in rapid succession and ranked them in about a minute, the uninitiated panelists took their time, comparing pieces repeatedly, using the wholly nonscientific criteria of personal taste, with aesthetics often weighing as heavily as sound.

THE PANEL: Osvaldo Patrizzi, chairman, Antiquorum; Robert Artelt, chief marketing officer, Mikimoto (America); Bob Austin, communications manager, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars; Peter Cincotti, singer, songwriter, and pianist; Dan D’Agostino, CEO and chief engineer, Krell Industries; Bob Guttag, president, Black Prince Distillery; Doug MacFarland, financier and watch collector; Cindy Zobian, managing director, Frank Crystal & Co.

Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Grande Complication

As the only watch in our sampling that features complications in addition to the minute repeater mechanism, the one-of-a-kind Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Grande Complication ($658,900) initially appeared to be at a disadvantage. The piece’s perpetual calendar and rattrapante chronograph complications require significant space, possibly dictating some acoustical compromise, despite the Royal Oak’s oversize, 44 mm case. Still, with more than a century’s experience in producing minute repeaters, Audemars Piguet has the most vaunted reputation of all the participating manufacturers, and the Grande Complication did not disappoint.

A single watchmaker in Audemars’ Le Brassus manufacture assembles the Grande Complication’s caliber 2885 movement and tunes the gongs. His talent was validated by our panel’s most experienced professionals and collectors, who singled out the piece as best for sound quality. The case is made of 18-karat rose gold, a material known for sound propagation, to enhance the resonance of the chimes. Antiquorum’s Osvaldo Patrizzi also noted that the measured cadence of the chime and the steady volume and tempo throughout the chiming sequence are indicative of a very well-made mechanism.

Audemars Piguet,212.688.6644, www.audemarspiguet.com

Blancpain Villeret Minute Repeater

The villeret minute pepeater ($119,200) is powered by Frederic Piguet’s Caliber 35, the automatic version of the manual Caliber 33 that Piguet created in 1986 for Blancpain’s Six Masterpieces, a collection representing pure expressions of classic complications. The Calibers 33 and 35 remain the smallest minute repeater movements in the industry, with diameters measuring just 23.9 mm. Though dwarfed by the other watches in the test, which range from 42 mm to 44 mm, the streamlined 38 mm Villeret exhibits elegance and purity of form and has a quiet strike train—all qualities that collectors have long valued in Blancpain minute repeaters.

Quiet, however, is also an apt description for the chime. Perhaps the case’s smaller proportions account for the comparatively lower volume and softer tone, as observed by the testers, who often used the terms “faint” and “thin” when evaluating the Blancpain’s sound. Musician Peter Cincotti described it with the musical term diminuendo, referring to its diminishing strength.

Still, the Blancpain’s refined, handsome appearance proved a strong counterpoint to the brawn and flash of its competition. The understated design and thin profile made a strong impression, particularly with Cindy Zobian, the only female member of our panel, who declared it her favorite for both its looks and sound.

Blancpain, 877.520.1735, www.blancpain.com

De Witt Academia Repetition Minutes

The youngest of the participating companies, De Witt has entered the minute repeater arena with a base movement made by renowned specialty house Christophe Claret, which produces complicated movements for some of the industry’s most prestigious brands.

 

 

The Academia’s Caliber 88 is one of the simplest of Claret’s many musical movements, which are known best for their classic, reliable design. Claret movements, however, also are recognized for their audible strike trains, which create a steady buzzing sound that is clearly discernible from the tones of the gongs.

 

While Claret produces the base mechanism, De Witt’s own watchmakers complete the piece’s assembly, finish the movement, and tune the gongs. Panelists described the Academia’s sound as “full” and “slightly lower” than some of the other watches. Many testers noticed the sound of the strike train mechanism, though not all found it objectionable.

With its complex modernistic case, the Academia has a bold profile recalling that of a gear wheel. De Witt has integrated the activation slide almost invisibly into the grooves on the side of the case and has cut away a portion of the dial to reveal the mechanism. The Academia ($255,000) is also water-resistant, a quality rare among minute repeaters.

De Witt,305.531.6004, www.dewitt.ch

 

IWC Portuguese Skeleton Minute Repeater

When IWC produced its first Portuguese Minute Repeater in 1995, the wristwatch sported a repeater mechanism integrated into the caliber 95 pocket watch base movement, which was the foundation for the entire Portuguese line. In 2004, IWC introduced a skeletonized version ($104,000), with the plates and bridges cut away to expose the movement’s inner workings.

 

Testers pointed out the Portuguese’s deep pitch and the slow cadence of its chime. Some listeners even mistook the long pause between the quarters and minutes as the end of the entire sequence. This pacing bothered some of the more experienced members of the panel, but others, particularly the artistically inclined, were charmed by the quality of the tones. “The melody on the slower watches tends to linger,” observed Bob Guttag of Black Prince Distillery, “and that is really the whole beauty of wearing a chiming watch.” Indeed, the IWC earned favorable marks from a majority of the panelists, particularly those who regard aesthetics as a priority.

 

 

IWC,800.432.9330, www.iwc.ch

Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Minute Repeater Antoine Lecoultre

Jaeger-Lecoultre's Master Minute Repeater Antoine LeCoultre ($175,000), released last year, was perhaps the most unusual entry in the field. Not traditionally recognized for minute repeaters, Jaeger-LeCoultre adopted an ambitiously innovative engineering approach for the piece, which features a cutaway dial to showcase its inner workings. Surprisingly, Jaeger-LeCoultre constructed the case in platinum, a material generally regarded as a poor sound conductor. For water resistance, the case incorporates sealing gaskets—another long-standing taboo in repeater design. To surmount these sound-tempering obstacles, the watchmakers devised an unorthodox chiming mechanism that anchors the repeater gongs to the crystal instead of the movement. Jaeger-LeCoultre then enlisted the expertise of sound engineers to help adjust the movement to produce exceptional volume and clarity.

Several panelists commented that the Jaeger-LeCoultre was louder than the other timepieces and that the tone was even and distinct. Antiquorum’s Osvaldo Patrizzi was particularly impressed by the dramatic improvements the company has made from its previous minute repeater efforts, describing the difference in sounds as “night and day.”

Jaeger-LeCoultre
800.552.8463
www.jaegerlecoultre.com

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Photo by René Gaens
Copyright by IWC