In Part 1 of Sound Investments: The Genius of Patek Philippe Minute Repeaters, we covered the heritage and innovations perfected by the Genevan manufacture. Today, Part 2 will cover the advancements and mechanical technologies heralded by the birth of the Calibre 89.
Named for the sesquicentennial (150th) anniversary year of Patek Philippe’s founding, it was simply the most complicated minute repeater ever made. But behind its glitzy debut in 1989, the Calibre 89 had minute flaws which bothered the development team led by calibre engineer Jean-Pierre Musy.
“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
Indeed, each step opened a new door, but each door also brought new problems which needed to be solved in order to produce a minute repeater of such sublime and unblemished sound; and so, our insatiable watchmakers were off on another quest to create the perfect mechanical timepiece.
Good vibrations (and not so good ones)
Released as a single by the Beach Boys in October 1966, Good Vibrations was a critical and commercial hit in both major anglo-saxon markets. Like the Calibre 89, it was characterised by many revolutionary new innovations to the industry in which it was released. And like the Calibre 89, ‘Good Vibrations’ would become recognised as one of the great masterpieces of our time.
“Good Vibrations” may yet prove to be the most significantly revolutionary piece of the current rock renaissance; executed as it is in conventional Beach Boys manner, it is one of the few organically complete rock works; every audible note and every silence contributes to the whole three minutes, 35 seconds, of the song.
Patek Philippe’s Calibre 89 delivered a renaissance unto the watch industry in two discernable ways. First, new paradigm in the manufacture of highly complicated timepieces dawned with its design and execution process. Second, it was the catalyst to solve the issue of that “whrrring” background noise which plagued minute repeaters for the last 144 years since their conception.
The joie de vrie of a minute repeater is felt with each chime, ring and silence but since 1845, the recoil anchor that regulated the strike speed of the chiming mechanism at the last wheel of the train caused a cacophony akin to a chorus of cricket chirps – while not unpleasant, certainly distracting from purist aural pleasure. Thus, the next frontier in minute repeater engineering became a quest to solve the intolerable buzzing and it took 50 years before Neuchatel watchmaker Charles-Ami Barbezat-Baillot would patent a friction governor which would render the clamor of the recoil escapement silenced. However, the flywheel braking device was still too thick and with the departure from the refined aesthetics for the gentleman’s pocket watch, pushed to the fringes of smaller, less notable watchmakers. It was an invention regarded with such suspicion, that chiming purity in complete silence became a recognisable attribute of a minute repeater of lesser prestige; until the arrival of the Patek Philippe Calibre 89.
The Genius of Patek Philippe Minute Repeaters: The Inertial Governor and other improvements
Jean-Pierre Musy and his team made elimination of the “buzzing” sound an all consuming quest and in the nine years of development, they found that to prevent the physical forces of the striking action from being influenced too overwhelmingly by spring tension or the recoil anchor, Musy’s team envisioned an inertial swivel arm which automatically adjusted speed and rhythm of the striking action to an optimal rate. However, to do so, the team would have to break tradition from the standard recoil anchor used in Patek Philippe minute repeaters. It was with some dread that Musy brought the team’s innovation to then CEO Philippe Stern; such is the importance provenance and tradition in the watch industry. Thankfully, minds prevailed over hearts that day and Musy was given the go ahead to overhaul close to 150 years of minute repeater engineering with one simple device.
The second was the creation of a self-winding minute repeater. If the thickness of Charles-Ami Barbezat-Baillot’s drum-shaped friction governor was an anathema to the classic styling and artisanal decorations of heritage minute repeater makers, imagine the obvious disgust when it comes to slapping on such a pedestrian, proletariat invention of a self-winding rotor – Misters Patek and Philippe would be turning in their graves should they learn of the day where a gentleman doesn’t have the time or wherewithal to wind his own minute repeater watch. But Jean-Pierre Musy and team would find a compromise.
Taking the off-center micro-rotor of the Patek Philippe Calibre 240, the development of the References 3974 and 3979 would soon find the perfection compromise of a fully decorated movement not only unobscured by a central oscillating mass, but also one with enough free space for the minute repeater mechanisms and the thinness to add complications without making the watch too hefty. Thus, in addition to the Calibre 89, the Reference 3974 minute repeater with perpetual calendar, and the Reference 3939 minute repeater with tourbillon, would become the benchmarks for the modern chiming watch. But why rest on laurels? Patek Philippe had more to be done.
For many brands, the ability to add a myriad of complications from tourbillons to retrograde calendars would suffice but Musy and team was raring to go a step further – making a minute repeater watch in an unheard of case-shape.
“The ideal case for a minute repeater is round because it is the natural pick for the circular arrangement of the gongs.” – Thierry Stern
The tonneau shaped Ref. 5013 was experimental and avant garde for its time; case in point for Patek Philippe’s obsession, that said, there was no greater challenge for the Genevan manufacture than that of going in the direction of using unheard of case material for a minute repeater – platinum.
From an acoustic standpoint, gold is preferred due to the malleability and relative softness of the material and so to create a striking mechanism that sounds equally good in a platinum case where the material density is 30% higher than gold, the compromises could be disastrous – Patek Philippe is in the business of adding value through watchmaking prowess and not merely making things more expensive with diamonds and precious metals. Thus, it can be said that their successes in overcoming the challenges presented by heretofore unseen shapes and materials are a testament to their unwavering belief in heritage and the scientific prowess.
Patek Philippe: A combination of heritage and modern science
In the early years, the drought of minute repeaters meant that the gongs and the knowledge for making these key striking components all but disappeared. With suppliers going out of business, all that was left were a few new-stock vintage pieces and parts, left over from the cessation of production in the early 60s. Thankfully, Musy found tutelage from one of the last surviving makers of minute repeater gongs right before he passed. Meeting him in 1980, Musy met the 83 years old gent in his small atelier in Vallee de Joux, recreating precise blueprints and plans from movement components one by one.
Each rumour and secret to creating the perfect minute repeater components was investigated, at times disregarded but on others – surprisingly technical (if almost mystical like oriental martial arts) – right down to the rigidity and thus precise tone and chime of a gong: the shaping of each gong became an exact science right down to the water used; wherein some of the rivers from where the water was sourced, flowed through equine pastures, which meant that the chemical composition of the water would invariably affect the tonal quality of the gongs!
It was then that Jean-Pierre Musy and team would also begin to take steps on deciding whether all methods of minute repeater production should follow the old ways or develop new approaches. In that sense, the scientific method was introduced to the field of metallurgy in research gong production and so the study of material and acoustic phenomena became a project to which the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and Patek Philippe would embark.
“In this context, we developed the first acoustic measurements and standard tests that eventually led to the sound recordings which have since become standard practice. The results are provided in the form of graphic plots that have proven to be essential in the ongoing process of sound characteristic improvements. At the end of the day, every minute repeater has its own acoustic signature.” – Jean-Pierre Musy
Since 1989, Patek Philippe has fundamentally altered the landscape with minute repeater crafting with the addition of new sciences – specialists were hired to study acoustic issues with diagrams and charts rather than the age-old process of a tester putting watch to ear in a most scientific and arguably imprecise manner. This allowed the manufacture of minute repeaters to be a quantitative rather than a qualitative process. Even the material sciences began to benefit from study beyond “percentage of horse urine in the water” – Patek Philippe experimented with gongs made of metallic glass, a contradiction in terms but nevertheless, no extreme is too extreme for a watchmaker on the calibre of Patek Philippe.
Today, modern Watch Idiot Savants argue and debate the merits and prowess of everything from movement decoration to chronograph precision and even split-hairs on whether silicon balance springs can be considered authentic improvements to the field of horology. But invariably, when it comes to debate on whether Patek Philippe reigns supreme in the study and creation of minute repeaters, even critics fall silent. In this, the brand has no peer and when no effort or expense was spared in pursuit of perfect acoustic quality, the brand becomes more than something for the next generation, it has preserved an artform for all generations; and humanity is richer for it.