It’s a typical day in the late 1600s. You have been called to yet another meeting with the king. As one of the monarch’s trusted courtiers, you wouldn’t dare offend his highness by glancing at your pocket watch to check the time. So, instead, you trigger a slider on the watch’s side that activates the watch’s repeater. Suddenly, the watch buzzes with a series of vibrations—a sort of code that gives you a rough approximation of the time. Congratulations: You’ve just used the earliest example of what will eventually become known, about halfway through the next century, as the minute repeater.
The earliest minute repeaters were in fact used to “discreetly check the time...during tedious levees and royal councils without offending the monarch.” The repeater also proved useful, before the age of luminous iPhone screens and electric lights, to those who wanted to check the time after dark. The visually impaired were also grateful for watches that chimed out or vibrated the time. The earliest versions of the repeater were rudimentary: a muffled sound inside a pocket watch that only bzzd for the hour—so it would go off nine times whether it was 9:01 or 9:59—or the hour and the nearest quarter hour.
The full minute repeaters with audible chimes were created toward the end of the 18th century. The minute repeater was the most advanced form of this complication. In that case, the slider set off a flourish of chimes that signaled the hour, the quarter hour, then, finally, the minutes. The chunky bells were even tossed out inside earlier versions of repeaters and replaced with thin metal around the interior walls of the watch, which acted as a sort of gong.
Centuries after the invention of the minute repeater, it’s still known as the apex of haute horology. Comparing the craftsmanship that goes into a tourbillon and minute repeater is like the difference between climbing the Matterhorn and climbing Mount Everest. A watchmaker will spend 200 to 300 hours assembling a minute repeater alone. The minute repeater isn't like a grandfather clock that chimes at regular intervals. Instead, the wearer pulls back on a slider that tenses up the spring mechanism inside the watch. This powers the two hammers that strike against the gong and varies in sound based on the thickness and shape of the metal. Hours, quarter hours, and minutes are all represented by certain sounds—typically, hours are lower tones and minutes reach into the Mariah Carey octave.
The minute repeater serves as a reminder that watches, even if they are sold by large, household-name brands, can still be the work of a singular individual. The complicated nature of these watches might be why they fell out of favor in the early 20th century. Hardly any were made that century a Geneva based watch brand reintroduced the technology on the company’s 150th anniversary, in 1989. Others followed up with a minute repeater of their own since 1992.
The minute repeater is now treasured among collectors, and watches at the absolute tip of the iceberg come with their own customized sounds. Earlier this year duplicates the tune played by London’s Big Ben were introduced. So too did the most expensive watch ever sold, a 1930s-era Supercomplication commissioned by a banker named Henry Graves. Like most things that have to do with expensive wristwatches, the minute repeater may now be considered as completely unnecessary—but it’s hard to think of a more gorgeous way to find out the time during a painfully dreary meeting.