And the strike is going on again
The repeater is considered the king of complications with good reason. There the noble ideals of antiquity coexist balanced with the latest achievements of engineering thought. Moreover, when titanium gongs rap out a century-old tune of Westminster Abbey, the very notion of time regains its original, almost sacred meaning.
Snails and racks
The most time-consuming, fragile and, as a consequence, prestigious complication came into the world in Britain late XVIIth century and at dawn of his long journey could boast an enviable design diversity. Among the oldest extant specimens come up hour, half hour, quarter, half- quarter, and even a five-minute repeaters. The prototype of the nowadays most common repeater — the minute one — appeared only in 1750 through the efforts of the famous English horologist and inventor of the lever escapement Thomas Mudge.
It was he, who first thought of to fit the module of a pocket watch with a spiral fourteen ripples wheel. After all, if the chosen bronze bells first announced hours and quarters, counting the minutes until number fifteen made no sense. Because of the similarity with the familiar shell of a mollusk, a key detail, like its fellows, responsible for the aforementioned hours and quarters was called snail. Synchronized with the wheels of the main timeline display, they constantly gave indications to the adaptation of strike mechanism by means of two toothed racks. Therefore, the module always knew what time it was, and, powered, immediately began to strike the melody, bypassing the computing stage.
Time to listen
As it often happens with fundamental chorological inventions of the past, this could not do without Abraham-Louis Breguet. The great Swiss replaced bells with much more compact gongs used the body of the product as a resonator and marked the beginning of endless experiments on the module location inside the watch, which continue to this day.
In conversation about the repeaters, it is a good style to mention the rational background of the discovery, in particular the need to know the exact time at night in the epoch before electricity. In theory, it does look very logical, especially if not to take into account some domestic and social realities of the XVIIIth century. Still, the people who could afford a watch with the most expensive complication, most likely did not to save on lighting and dwelt in the centers of large cities either with innumerable lamps and shop-windows, or in private estates. One should not forget the famous fragility of the mechanism: would you risk to press buttons blindly and to pull levers of such a rare and prestigious accessory, risking a breakdown and a costly repair?
Having moved safely from pocket watches to wristwatches in the 1920-ies by the mid-twentieth century, the repeaters virtually disappeared and took a second lease of life only with the end of the quartz crisis. At that since then no significant changes in their operation happened. The main source of sound are still the gongs: the most common are two cylinders, reminiscent a string bent in a circle and responsible for the height of pitch. Two hammers hit them: the lower note represents the number of hours and the other, the higher one, represents the number of minutes. Quarters are marked by their pair combination.
The sound of music
Of course, no one denies the watchmakers to go beyond the narrow bounds of the eternal classics. In the most complex models are sometimes used up to five hammers and some can even easily play a 16-notes tune of Westminster Abbey. It is interesting that there is no pair of absolutely identical repeaters at all, even if we mean one series. Harmonious tone of tune and resonance is a very subjective idea, and, in contrast to the number of decibels, it is impossible to calculate on the computer in the form of a mathematical model. Watchmakers always adjust each item manually, and as a part of the resonator plays a case itself, the final details often are added after the assembly.
Instead of playing time on demand, mechanically similar functions of the petite and grande sonnerie (FR. small and large bells) always announce each passed hour and hours with quarters, respectively. These complications with their own rich history are not connected to a repeater, and for the first time they were with it in one case only in 1992, thanks to the legendary Philip Dufur and his revolutionary models Philippe Dufour Grande and Petite Sonnerie.
The new face of the classic
A significant contribution to the modern vision of tiny gongs and hammers made also an independent Swiss watchmaker François-Paul Journe. Wishing not to sell his customers a priori capricious and prone to breakage watch, he began to develop a brand new reliable module. Classical design was often subjected to breakage while trying to set the time at the strike moment, due to misusing of buttons, and just in case of unpreparedness of the owner. But the whole point of the device is the constant desire to turn it on and to hear the fondest tune!
The way from the idea to the first prototype took six years, and in the middle of noughties Journe presented to the public an unconditional masterpiece – F. P. Journe Sonnerie Souveraine – without question, the most reliable and easy-to-handle repeater in the world. According to the author, even a child would be able to use it. The product was also limited to only one winding drum, powering as the main mechanism as complications, but if the winding stayed less than for a day, the module effect was blocked.
And yet because of the by watch standards enormous amount of energy required for the hammers to work, most manufactures usually provide a repeater with a separate winding drum. The easiest way to estimate the challenge engineers are facing is to study it on an example of the most acoustically sophisticated playback time – 12:59. It will sound as 12-hour strikes, 3-quarter strikes and 14-minute strikes and the most resistant model of today Chopard L. U. C Full Strike can theoretically repeat it only 12 times before the force of the spring finally runs out.
The production of repeater watches stays traditionally a prerogative of a relatively small number of prestigious brands. Without this module does not do any product, claiming the record for the number of complications, like the Patek Philippe Grandmaster Chime 5175 or Vacheron Constantin ref. 57260. Even the repair procedure of a suitable item, causes most watchmakers genuine delight. If there is an unspoken vertex in the world of haute horlogerie, then this is it.
Although many innovative materials are initially inferior to traditional metals in their acoustic possibilities, in the capable hands of Swiss artisans have already managed to resound carbon, titanium and even sapphire crystal. Designers are also not sitting idly by. For example, the authors of the last year sensation Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Tourbillon Chronograph Concept Supersonnerie abandoned the age-old practice of mounting the hammers on the main plate and placed them directly on the case. An ideal sound is a relative concept, and hence the pursuit of it will never end. For fans of high mechanics that can mean only one thing: every year more and more new exciting acquaintances are waiting for us.