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Inside Bulgari’s Home in Le Sentier: Meet John Sheridan, Youngest Minute Repeater Specialist

by Jonathan Ho on March 9, 2017

Bulgari belongs to the very few brands that can make grande complications such as chiming watches from start to finish. The entire spectrum of the grand endeavour in the rarified realm of the highest of high horology is not a simple task – it first involves conception – a grand gesture of creative genius, taking for example the mental idea of close to 1,000 components as in the case of the Bulgari Grande Sonnerie Quantieme Perpetual calibre. Then, you need to have an idea of how all the components work together, a domino effect springing from the loins of the mainspring, stored potential energy transmitting through the many gear trains in a grand mechanical universe. And then production and assembly – where once the pieces fit together, you have to breathe life into a mechanical soul, unlike God, a watchmaker isn’t always successful the first time around – so they disassemble the thousand piece jigsaw and try again.

As a symbol of Bulgari’s expertise and legitimate watchmaking know-how, Grande complications like minute repeaters are a demonstration of the maison’s art, history and deft skill with mechanical sculptures. Whether equipped with 2, 3 or the pinnacle of 4 hammers, the chiming mechanism is easily the most complex of complications, no other mechanical device requires vast experience or knowledge.

A chiming watch of the prestigious carillon variety must incorporate more than two hammers; Bulgari’s Carillon Tourbillon chimes with three.

To describe the challenge of such a task, one would have to consider that a pure crystalline sound requires that a watchmaker painstakingly adjusts each gong manually in increments through a series of controlled trials, it may seem like trial and error to the untrained but for them, it’s artistic application of an aural science – steel filaments are filed and/or shortened until each achieves the perfect sound. At the Bulgari Haute Horlogerie Manufacture in Le Sentier, the brand can be considered by the definition and nature of their work on grande complications to be among the elite in Switzerland.

“In the whole of Switzerland, there are 12 watchmakers who can work on 4 hammer grande sonneries. Bulgari has 4 minute repeater specialists.” – Pascal Brandt, Communications Director

It’s for this reason that each watchmaker, chose to work in the minute repeater atelier within Bulgari’s home in Le Sentier is undeniably qualified and chosen from an extremely shortlist. According to Pascal Brandt, Communications Director for Bulgari, a general rule of thumb is that it takes 20 years of experience, starting from working on base calibres to mid complications like chronographs, the next stage of perpetual calendars and tourbillons before anyone would allow you near a chiming watch. Like the movement designers in the department next door, any one of the four minute repeater watchmaker specialists could choose to walk out the door and be employed in another brand that afternoon (the next day in poor market conditions like the one we are experiencing now).

 

“The tradition of Swiss high watchmaking in Bulgari today lies in the hands of one Irishman, two Frenchmen and one Portuguese!” – Pascal Brandt

Achieving crystal clear chimes in an ultra thin calibre is a rare and sophisticated breed of expertise and a degree of experience that very few watch brands can still claim to possess internally.

Meet John Sheridan, Youngest Minute Repeater Specialist at Bulgari (if not in all of Switzerland)

 

I noticed a music player on your work bench, what sort of music is best for working on a minute repeater?

I just listen to a soundtrack of church bells. [laughs]

Say you’re down at a pub..

Are you asking because I’m Irish? [laughs]

When queried for his official title, Brandt offers that Sheridan is Irish. His retort, “Being Irish is not a job, it’s a lifestyle.”

No God no.. it’s just where men go to hang out and unwind, is being a minute repeater specialist something to boast about to other watchmakers at the pub?

No, it’s not the kind of thing we talk about unless they come to you to ask about specific mechanical problems or want to know in general how to prepare and train to become a specialist of chiming watches. I wouldn’t boast about it, I wouldn’t even be able to pick a girl up, it’s just not that sexy a profession. [laughs]

 

How did you become the youngest watchmaker work on minute repeaters?

It takes years of practice. I got lucky because a position opened up when one of the previous watchmakers moved to another company and I was close to the manager at the time and I had worked to a certain level at the other workshops which put me on the shortlist.

The Carillon Tourbillon’s exquisitely transparent case back proudly displays this manual winding caliber as well as its impressive 75-hour power-reserve display.

Do you have to take a test or something to qualify?

You can’t really do a test for this. If you have never worked on a minute repeater before, it’s impossible to finish a test even if there was one. Mostly, you’re judged on the level of your previous work at the other departments and everyone has a general idea of where your skill level is at. All of us here (in the department) have worked our way through the different complications like perpetual calendars and tourbillons and it’s more of trying to get an understanding of how quickly a watchmaker learns before considering him suitable for the position. We generally don’t want a newbie coming in where we have to spend 50% of our time watching him, he gets 5% from me and he has to be able to figure things out quickly on his own. He can come to me with problems but he’s not going to be led from A to Z.

Is this like a regular job where when you get a bigger portfolio you stop to think “holy sh.. I’m not really sure what I’m doing here”?

Yes. I didn’t have a clue on my first day. Even though I had worked on many other complications before, I was shaking with my first chiming calibre.

How long did it take for you to get used to the idea that “hey, I’m working on minute repeaters”?

I think 2 weeks later after I had finished my first piece. That’s a piece that normally takes 3 weeks to make when you start. Once you finish one, you start to realise a minute repeater is just like any other complication and that you just have to figure out how everything works together. (Ed’s Note: On his first minute repeater, he took 2 weeks on what is usually 3 week job. Let the magnitude of his talent sink in for a moment.)

The Grande Sonnerie is the epitome of savoir-faire and sophistication in the world of Haute Horlogerie. Showcasing incredible technological prowess and a year’s worth of work by a master watchmaker, each timepiece consists of over 1,000 intricate components working in perfect harmony.

Is this the kind of thing where human resources says it takes 3 weeks to make a minute repeater but you’re taking a month, maybe making minute repeaters just isn’t in your skillset?

No no no. Especially on watches like this, we’re more concerned about the quality rather than the time it takes. A grand sonnerie will take 3 weeks but then you have to look at it and think about what could be better and improve on it. I’d rather you took that extra week and worked on it rather than submit a minute repeater on some arbitrary deadline.

So it’s not like big corporations where you have a fixed deadline?

We do have fixed deadlines but when we need to go over, we go over. Perfection is core to the job. The most important thing is that the watch is as perfect as possible. This workshop produces 3 a month, 4 at the most. Even if only one minute repeater came back to the workshop, that’s 25% of our output. At the other departments, a watch returning might not even be 1% of their output. These people are spending a lot of money and it’s our job to make sure what they get is perfect. We take the time to get it right even if we have to come in to work on Saturdays.

So, seriously, what’s your playlist?

It’s mostly football podcasts. [laughs]

 

 

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