CHORUS LINE. All watches show the time, but a minute-repeater will tell you the hours and minutes through chimes and melodic tunes
The repeater button on Panerai’s first minute repeater,
the Radiomir 1940 Minute Repeater Carillon Tourbillon GMT
From simple cuckoo clocks at home to iconic clock towers like London’s Big Ben, there’s a timeless charm to timepieces that sound the hours with bells, gongs or the call of a bird. Obviously, we no longer need chiming clocks in this day and age, but it’s still nice to, say, hear an old grandfather clock strike twelve from somewhere deep in the house as you drift off to sleep.
The same principle applies to minute repeater watches—so named because they literally repeat the hours and minutes to you. No, we don’t necessarily need them; the same way we don’t technically need complications such as tourbillons and perpetual calendars. But there’s something inherently appealing to the idea that you can push a button on your watch and have it tell you the time in a series of melodious chimes.
How the repeater lever of the Bulgari L’Ammiraglio del Tempo is operated
The Song of Time
So, what does a minute repeater actually do? Well, a watch with a minute repeater usually comes with an extra button or lever. When the lever is pushed, it triggers a complex mechanism that, in turn, produces a series of tones based on the time.
A typical minute repeater uses three different tones to tell the time: Low (usually verbalized “dong”) for hours, high (“ding”) for minutes and a high-low sequence (“ding-dong”) for quarter hours. At 2:36, for example, the watch would produce two low tones for the hour, two high-low sequences for the two quarter hours and finally six high tones for the remaining six minutes (“dong, dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding”).
Minute repeaters are perhaps the most common type of repeater you’ll come across in the world of modern haute horlogerie. Other members of this “family” include hour repeaters that would give you just the hour (so, 2:00 and 2:36 would sound just the same), followed by quarter repeaters that indicate the hour and completed quarter hours (2:30 and 2:36 would give you a “dong, dong, ding, ding” or alternatively “dong, dong, ding-dong, ding-dong”).
Things get a bit more complicated with the half quarter repeater that can sound the time down to half quarters of an hour (which is seven minutes and 30 seconds, to be precise). There would be low tones to indicate the hour, a high-low combo for the quarter hours and then a high tone to indicate whether a half quarter has passed since the last full quarter. Taking our example of 2:36, a watch with a half quarter repeater would give two low tones, two high-low combos to indicate two full quarters and then stop. Push the lever at 2:40, however, and there’ll be an additional high tone since more than half a quarter has passed since the last full quarter.
A lot simpler to figure out are the five-minute repeaters and decimal or ten-minute repeaters, which chime to indicate the hour and how many five or ten minute sections have passed. Furthermore, we also have very specialized types, such as the dumb repeater which vibrates instead of producing an audible sound—quite useful for people who are hearing- or sight-impaired.