The real divas who can sing the most beautiful songs of time, however, are the carillons: Repeaters with three or more gongs and/or hammers. A good example of this type would be the Bulgari Daniel Roth Carillon Tourbillon Minute-Repeater. The skeletonized construction of this watch gives us a clear view of two of its hammers, and upon closer inspection you can notice a third. What’s most interesting about this repeater, though, is that while it uses the usual high and low tones to sound off the hour and minutes, it uses all three notes (E-D-C, for the musically curious) to count the quarters. To further demonstrate the difference that additional gongs and hammers can do, Bulgari has also created the L’Ammiraglio del Tempo. Featuring a full Carillon Westminster-style minute repeater with four hammers, this watch chimes the famous tune of Big Ben. And if that doesn’t sound impressive enough, Bulgari managed to fit a tourbillon into the case.
The wire gongs on one of Piaget’s minute repeaters
The Means of Repetition
The workings of some complex complications like, say, the tourbillon, can actually be summarized quite neatly (“the escapement and balance wheel are placed in a rotating cage”), but alas, such is not the case with the minute repeater. So, please bear with us as we take a closer look.
Interestingly, repeater watches are actually older than tourbillons. The first patent for a repeater watch design was submitted in the 1680s (about a decade after the first repeating clock was invented and over a century before the tourbillon) by two prominent watchmakers, Edward Barlow (a priest, who also invented the aforementioned repeating clock) and Daniel Quare. The matter was resolved in 1687 by the council of King James II of England who favored Quare’s design as it only required the push of a single button to repeat the hour and quarter hours.
In hindsight, royal intervention in this case doesn’t seem like such an overreaction when we consider how popular pocket watches with repeaters became among the nobility. Interestingly, dumb repeaters were particularly favored by members of the aristocracy. These allowed them to discretely check the time in church (where openly looking at a watch would be a major faux pas) or in royal court in front of the country’s monarch (where openly looking at a watch would be a dangerous faux pas).
The next major improvements to repeaters were the addition of an independent set of springs to power the repeater and the replacement of bulky bells with thin wire gongs (this was pioneered by Abraham Louis-Breguet, inventor of the tourbillon).
Ulysse Nardin’s Stranger
And now comes the parts that regulate how those gongs are struck. The process of creating the chimes to tell the time is called rack striking, and this process, in turn, relies on a mechanism called a “rack and snail.” The snail refers to a cam shaped like a snail’s shell that will rotate following the hour and minute wheels. A minute repeater would have three snails: One that turns with the hour hand and has 12 different settings; two that turn with the minute hand, one with four settings for the quarter hours and one with 15 for the remaining minutes.
The rack, meanwhile, is a lever that will move toward the snail when the repeater mechanism is triggered. The diameter of the snail-shaped snail, by the way, is at its longest at the 1 o’clock position and shortest at 12. Conversely, the space available for the rack to move is the smallest at 1 o’clock and becomes progressively wider during the later hours. How far the rack can move (how many times the teeth of the rack triggers the chiming mechanism) determines how many chimes you hear.
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