The Sound of Time

Published: March 8, 2012   
PARIS — For most of the past decade the watch industry has been entranced by the tourbillon’s hypnotic revolutions, with brands spinning out the cagey little complication in ever greater numbers and more ingenious ways.       

But recently watchmakers have broken free of the spell, shifting their attention from the visual fascination of the tourbillon to the tuneful appeal of the minute repeater.   

Minute repeater clocks and pocket watches were invented in the mid-18th century, before the advent of electric lighting. Their practical function at that time was their ability, though chiming gongs, to sound the hours, quarter hours and minutes in separate tones, enabling people to tell the time even in the middle of a pitch black night.

Over the past year, close to two dozen new minute repeater models have been introduced in the luxury wristwatch market, by brands as diverse in style and heritage as Bulgari, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Louis Vuitton, Audemars Piguet, Speake-Marin, Van Cleef & Arpels, Breguet, Patek Philippe, Cartier, Hublot, Ulysse Nardin, Girard-Perregaux and Parmigiani Fleurier.

The number of new minute repeaters on the market is staggering, considering that there is no real need for them in the modern world. But that irrelevance — the sense of belonging to another world — is part of their appeal.

“There is a true fascination in being able to hear the time, it harks back to another lifetime,” Peter Speake-Marin, an independent watchmaker, said by e-mail ahead of the introduction of his first venture into the genre, the Renaissance Tourbillon Minute Repeater, at Baselworld this week. “When it is visible, to see the levers, cams and springs moving, it is a thing of curious beauty,” he added.

While the minute repeater function is no longer particularly useful, the complexity of the mechanism gives makers serious bragging rights.

At the Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie in Geneva in January, the minute repeater watches garnered the biggest buzz.

Cartier’s haute horlogerie watchmaker, Carole Forestier-Kasapi, proudly showed her Rotonde de Cartier Minute Repeater Flying Tourbillon. The brand’s first in-house-manufactured minute repeater, it took five years to complete.

“The minute repeater is complex because in this mechanism you need to have in mind not only hours and minutes but also to be able to translate them into sound,” Mrs. Forestier-Kasapi said. “That’s why a minute repeater mechanism includes a large number of components: Their number increases the complexity of the mechanism in an exponential way.”

Mrs. Forestier-Kasapi complemented her minute repeater with the added eye candy of a tourbillon complication. Just like the minute repeater, the tourbillon — a gyro device to counter the distorting effect of gravity on vertical timepieces like clocks and pocket watches — serves no useful function in a wristwatch. But by putting an additional spin on the complication, in a variant known as a flying tourbillon, the watchmaker was able to demonstrate her brand’s high creativity and growing technical prowess.

The technical difficulty of building a minute repeater, which incorporates an additional spring to power the chiming mechanism, is a clear way for watchmakers to distinguish themselves. To sound the hours, quarters and minutes, the mechanism uses three snail cams — tiny rotating devices, shaped like a cross-section through a snail shell, that transmit a repetitive bumpy motion as they turn, like a wheel with a bent rim. The bumpy motion cocks and releases the hammers that strike the chimes.

And then, there are the chimes themselves to build and tune, a painstaking process using wires of varying tension and thickness, like miniature piano strings.

While some watchmakers like to flaunt their skills in see-through skeleton designs, Van Cleef & Arpels has chosen to conceal its minute repeater complication behind the richly decorated faces of its new Poetic Wish watches, which tell a romantic story of lovers seeking one another against a backdrop of the Paris skyline.

For Nicolas Bos, Van Cleef’s global creative director, this discretion is in keeping with the brand’s philosophy that a watch’s complications should serve, not dominate, its narrative.

“Jean-Marc Wiederrecht helped us determine this was the best movement to illustrate the story,” Mr. Bos said by e-mail, paying homage to the Geneva watch designer who has conceived Van Cleef’s Poetic Complications watch line since 2005. “The minute repeater was able to add a sensorial layer” of sound that accompanies the visible movements of the lovers whose passage across the dial traces the passage of time.

But it is Michael Parmigiani of Parmigiani Fleurier who is truly setting the pace in the minute repeater revival, introducing several new models this year: the Toric Westminster Eiffel; the Toragraph Tourbillon Minute Repeater with Chronograph; and the Toric Questor Minute Repeater, offered in a limited edition of just two watches, one in platinum and one in 18-karat rose gold.

Why so many?

“While we already have a great collection at Parmigiani Fleurier, we felt we needed to have a minute repeater in the Haute Horlogerie segment as well as a minute repeater with Cathedral gong, chronograph, perpetual and annual calendar,” Mr. Parmigiani said. “It is a way to achieve excellence in the profession and to prove our know-how by creating such rare models.”

Source: New York Times
A version of this article appeared in print on March 9, 2012, in The International Herald Tribune

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