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Why Are Minute Repeater Watches Desirable?

See K.T. from Singapore asks:

I heard a lot about the unique “chime” of a minute repeater watch – they are in the high-end luxury category.

Could you shed more light into this peculiar complication – its history, the cheapest minute repeater watch around etc..? Is it a worthwhile complication or something nice sounding but totally useless ?

Curiously how can one get to hear the chime without actually owning one ? BTW I like this site a lot. Have been a regular visitor! Great Job!

You asked a lot of questions here, so I will respond to as many as make sense in discussing more-or-less what a minute repeater is.

Long ago, watch makers wanted to engineer pocket watches with a way of telling the time in the dark (remember, electricity is a relatively recent development). Ideally, this could be done via a series of sounds that could be translated into the time. There was a precedent for this as clocks, both small enough to fit into a house, and large ones for towns, had bells or gongs that “rang out the time.” Not everyone was within eye-view of a town’s clock, though the bells gave everyone a chance of knowing what time it was from afar. Both the clock and pocket watch minute repeater were invented in the late 17th century. You can learn more on Wikipedia here.

So, going back to your question. A minute repeater is named as such because it “repeats” the minutes and hours to you. We, and many others, consider minute repeaters to be the most complicated of all watch complications. They use more parts and are more complicated to assemble than most tourbillons, though tourbillons have a constant visual appeal making them more popular. Minute repeaters cannot be produced in mass quantities given how each needs to be finely regulated to sound best. They are usually activated with a slider, that while pushing it, also winds a spring to power the repeater mechanism that lasts for about 20 seconds or less.

Given that a lot of high-end brands produce minute repeaters, they come with various levels of quality and functionality. There are also less expensive versions called quarter or five-minute repeaters that tell the time to the nearest 5 or 15 minutes. Good minute repeaters operated with relatively silent air regulators, and produce loud, clear chimes. The most complicated minute repeaters are often the full Westminster Carillon minute repeaters given their range of sounds.

When a minute repeater is activated, the first set of chimes is counted to learn the hours. A second set of chimes (ideally in a different sound) is then sounded to indicate the quarters (15-minute segments of each hour), and then the last chimes are to indicate the minutes added on to the quarters (if any). So 3 chimes, followed by 1 chime, followed by 2 chimes would mean 3:17.

Minute repeater watches are often very expensive, and some are wildly expensive. Most are very easily in the $100,000 plus range. Often much more. They are also to be distinguished from other complications that involve chimes (produced by hammers and gongs) such as a sonnerie. We don’t know who makes the cheapest minute repeaters, but if you need a budget solution look for a quarter or five-minute repeater.

Lastly, “Are minute repeaters useful today?” Well, they were useful to rich lords circa 1715 who needed to read the time in the dark, and the scant candlelight of their bed chambers didn’t offer a clear view of their watch dials. Today, we have better lighting technology and things like lume for your watch. Most people who appreciate minute repeaters do so because of their technical complexity and the beauty of their sound. But, as is the case with most high-end collectible things…. no one truly “needs” them. What would the fun be in that?

For a dynamically-updated list of the minute repeater watches we cover on aBlogtoWatch, you can always go here: Minute Repeater Watches. You’ll find videos with demonstrations and more information in those articles.

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  • JackForster

    Point of information –the minute repeater wasn’t invented in the late 17th century; the quarter repeater appears to have been invented in England (by Quare and Barlow, though Quare was awarded a patent over Barlow) in 1676/7.
    It was thought for many years that the English maker Thomas Tompion made the first minute repeater on or around 1750 but recent (in the last fifteen years) research seems to show that they were being made in Friedberg, Germany, roughly in the 1720s.