When the little known Patek, Czapek & Cie first founded the now eponymous Patek Philippe in 1839, it was with scant knowledge that their humble maison on Quai de Bergues, Geneva would become a purveyor of high horology. After all, the year of their founding was likely reminiscent of our own witnessing of the first iPhones; we had taken our first photograph of the moon, the first commercial electric telegraphs became operational and even Michael Faraday, a name which would soon be associated with horology for his concept of the “shielding cage”, would present his scientific treatise – Experimental Researches in Electricity. How could astute entrepreneurs, living in an age of electrical sciences, have envisioned the longevity of their non-electrical creations?
That said, in the scant five months of operation, Patek Philippe would sell 18 watches but make their 19th sale their first Minute Repeater. Sold 4th September for a princely sum of 450 Swiss Francs; the Patek Philippe minute repeater enjoys poetic testament to its immortality, the Minute Repeaters we know and love today are only slightly different (albeit mechanically improved) from the modified Victorin Piguet calibres from that period, yet the first camera sold by Louis Daguerre that same month are vastly different creatures from what we recognise today.
Victorin Piguet & Patek Philippe Minute Repeaters
Born to Daniel Henry Piguet and Louise Françoise LeCoultre, Victorin Piguet, a name woefully forgotten, can be considered one of the world’s premier watchmakers. While he was not particularly inventive like Breguet, Victorin Piguet was a natural mechanical genius. He worked within the limitations of existing technology to create some of the era’s most sophisticated movements including the computation of sidereal time and eventually the famed Henry Graves Supercomplication which included “Grande sonnerie” (Westminster chimes) and “Petite sonnerie” with carillon functions.
Thus, it can be intuited that his mechanical contributions were instrumental in propelling the fledgling Genevan firm in the rarefied realm of striking watches; in the 12 years before Patek, Czapek & Cie would become Patek Philippe & Co with the new partnership with Jean-Adrien Philippe in 1851, the company had already built upon that initial foundation with other chiming watch firsts like a quarter-repeater with independent seconds, a half-quarter repeater and finally, the pinnacle of haute horlogerie – the vaunted minute repeater. In the wake of such historical gravitas, Patek Philippe developing a reputation as a maker of watches which were literal sound investments.
Until the widespread proliferation of electrical light sources, pocket watches like Patek Philippe minute repeaters and quarter repeaters with tactile hands (that is a watch which could be read by fingertip) were the main sources of time telling in the twilight hours. For over 150 years, chiming watches which could deliver acoustic readings of time were by their very nature, practical rather than artistic technologies and so, it could be argued that the dawn of modern era hastened the demise of the minute repeater. Sadly, even before the mass perpetuation of quartz watches, Patek Philippe had virtually stopped making such an integral complication by the early 1960s.
For whom the Bell Tolls – A brief history
One might be familiar with John Donne’s Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, Meditation XVII: Nunc Lento Sonitu Dicunt, Morieris; in which he professed: “Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill, as that he knows not it tolls for him; and perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that.
It was this expression which espoused that we are all part of mankind and any person’s death is a loss to all of us. Thusly, the death knell of the minute repeater complication would have diminished the industry (and its evolutionary connotations) as a whole.
The first repeater mechanism was arguably (due to non existent patent protections) attributed to Daniel Quare by King James II in 1686 but worldwide, the pursuit of a mechanism which could chime time in the dark was an idea pursued fervently across continental Europe as well – from the tiny chain strike actuator to eventually the slide in the case flank, that particular field of horology invigorated the industry as a whole. More importantly, it can be argued that minute repeating or chiming technology, heralded a new wave of lateral thinking championed by Abraham-Louis Breguet. We went from literal miniature “church bells” to ring shaped gongs; in the space of less than 50 years, Breguet had miniaturised chiming pocket watches of formerly gargantuan proportions.
However at the time, acoustic time indication wasn’t a “to the minute” display equivalent of reading time off a dial either, and so English, French and Swiss watchmakers began a horological arms race to the next logical stage – minute repeating.
While history credits English watchmaker Thomas Mudge with its invention in 1750, recent discoveries unveiled pocket watches from Friedberg, Germany, exported to London and signed with the names of more established watchmaking marquees. Even then, the minute repeater was still a rarity, that is until the birth of Patek Philippe.
While we often tout “provenance” as currency of the realm, the other less celebrated but no less important achievement is a maison’s ability to perfect and refine what already exists. To decry a maison’s achievements for not being first would be heap disdain on something like Apple’s iPod; while they weren’t first (Singapore’s Creative Technologies was), they were benchmark executors of the music delivering mp3 player. Patek Philippe occupies a similar position on the technological chain of horological evolution – before the Genevan factory’s existence, the diversity and quality of minute repeaters were lacking and it’s the founding fathers’ foresight which pushed Patek to craft their first pocket watch with Grande and Petite Sonnerie, that is – grand and small strike, six years from their founding.
In the 60 years which followed, Patek Philippe minute repeaters started to carry highly functional complications like perpetual calendars, chronographs and equations of time. In essence, the Geneva watchmaker had introduced the world’s first “smart” watches in combinations of two hammers and gongs, and three hammers and gongs variations – more importantly, the brand wasn’t just interested in heaping mechanical complexities after another, they ventured to make them thinner and lighter as well – the smallest was exhibited in 1896 Swiss National Exposition at 9 ligne or 20 millimeters for ladies’ pendant watches.
At its height, Patek Philippe Minute Repeaters were capable of “mute” chiming, that is to say “a toc” through vibration mechanisms, a gentleman’s godsend given the inherent crassness of visible time checking at events or during conversations. As a complication, it peaked just after the war and then began a steady decline before its eventual cessation of production.
The 150th Anniversary: a Rebirth
While 1989, the 150th anniversary of the Genevan manufacture, is the year that minute repeater production began once more in earnest. Philippe Stern was responsible for re-igniting Patek Philippe’s passion for the complication as early as 1980 when he commissioned two watches using new-old movement blanks from Victorin Piguet. The first incorporated a perpetual calendar with moonage and moonphase while the other, bore an integrated mono-pusher chronograph. Quietly, the watchmakers toiled, ending two decades of minute repeater drought and more importantly, under the direction of Stern, a new direction of in-house manufacture and the birth of the Calibre 89, so named for the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary year.
The Calibre 89 was a dream given form – conceptualised to be the most complicated and the metaphorical tentpole for watches like the Henry Graves Supercomplication which debuted in 1933. At its climax, the calibre 89 would pip the 24 complication Graves with 33 complications including minute repeater as well as Grande and Petite Sonnerie. It was also a watch that wasn’t designed definitive objective only an overarching one:
“The issue was to incorporate as many complications as possible without having a specific number. Each number defines itself and in the course of the project, each step opened a new door and closed another one.” – Jean-Pierre Musy, Calibre Engineer
It’s then that Patek Philippe minute repeaters enjoyed a second coming and while they were only produced in small numbers (due to its inherent complexity despite the arrival of industrial methodologies), the chiming mechanisms produced in that decade are representative of the ever evolving and perpetually improving watchmaking prowess of the once small maison. By 2000, the Star Calibre 2000 (which would inspire a specific collection of wristwatches) carried the complications that were intended for the Calibre 89 but never realised as the Westminster chime simply couldn’t fit the latter.
Patek Philippe Minute Repeaters Today
Embodying a Perpetual Calendar, moonphase display and 24 hour subsidiary dial set within the day display, the Ref. 5074 with two cathedral gong chime can be considered an evergreen, highly sought after minute repeater staple for first timers.
From 2005, the signature understated luxury of Patek Philippe found no better exemplar that within the Ref. 5078. As far as Patek Philippe minute repeaters go, the 5078 was particularly endearing to watch connoisseurs for its purity and visual simplicity. Yet, beneath the unassuming dial was a 342 component self winding calibre R 27 PS.
Launched in 2006, the Ref 5104 continued to follow in the high standards set by predecessor Patek Philippe minute repeaters. This time, the Genevan maison upped the stakes by delivering a wristwatch with wafer-thin sapphire crystal display disks which revealed for all who were mesmerised by its countenance, the intricacies and dramatism of the 515 part calibre R 27 PS QR LU.
As far as modern Patek Philippe minute repeater references go, the 5073 turns heads with its literal and metaphorical brilliance. 113 flawless baguette diamonds and 3 princess-cut diamonds front the superlative self-winding calibre R 27 Q minute repeater movement with cathedral gongs.
When it comes to the standard bearer for Patek Philippe’s indomitable watchmaking skills in the realm of minute repeater wristwatches, the Triple Complication Reference 5208 which debuted at Baselworld 2011 would be it (we would all love 2014’s Grandmaster Chime but let’s face it, the watch is in limited supply and we are mere mortals). Tracing the evolutionary steps taken by the Genevan manufacture bequeaths us exquisite insight which allow us to follow the genius that is Patek Philippe today.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of Sound Investments: The Genius of Patek Philippe Minute Repeaters where we will discuss how Patek Philippe solved the issues of background mechanical noise, the invention of the inertial governor and other interesting factoids pertaining Patek Philippe minute repeaters. Also, keep a look out for individual reviews and analysis of the watches we have covered today in the weeks to come.