Why minute repeaters are the musical instruments of time

A collection of 13 vintage and modern Patek Philippe minute repeaters comes to auction at Christie’s in July. Our head of watches in Asia Pacific, Alexandre Bigler, explains the minute repeater’s unique and fascinating charms

‘Minute repeaters are the musical instruments of time,’ says Alexandre Bigler, vice president and head of Watches at Christie’s Asia Pacific. ‘Relative to the complexity of minute repeaters, tourbillons are just standard. Minute repeaters fascinate because the sound they produce engages the emotions, like music. People have a childlike fascination with them. There’s a real charm to them.’

Bigler is as charmed by them as the next person, possibly even more so now that he has a collection of 13 vintage and modern minute repeaters made by Patek Philippe to auction at Christie’s in July. It’s the most valuable single-owner collection of such watches ever offered in Asia, and is expected to fetch some US$11 million.

‘Like fine pianos, even physically identical watches will inevitably sound slightly different. That makes each one unique’

In other words, it takes a fine appreciation of materials and their interaction to make a minute repeater with an audible but not obtrusive chime that is also set at the right tempo, pitch and duration to sound appealing. Like fine pianos, even physically identical watches will inevitably sound slightly different. That only makes each one unique — and explains why, in the eyes of collectors, the minute repeater surpasses all other complications.

After all, these are watches that hark back to the beginnings of the mechanical recording of time. Early mechanical clocks didn’t show the time, but sounded it. The repeater mechanism, which dates from 1687 and was invented by the English clockmaker Daniel Quare, appealed in part because it allowed people to tell the time in the dark of night, without having to light a candle. 

The first minute repeater was produced in Germany by an unknown clockmaker in 1720, and in the late 1700s, Breguet introduced the idea of a two-tone chime. In 1839, Patek Philippe sold its first repeater pocket watch. And 85 years later it created its first minute repeater wristwatch, producing various references over the following years, many of historic importance, each highly collectible.

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‘Patek Philippe may not have pioneered the minute repeater, but it was arguably the first to master the building of it on a commercial scale, and with a great sound,’ explains Bigler. ‘Only five or six brands have ever been able to do that, and only a few now have the watchmakers with the necessary knowledge.’ 

It was also Patek that brought minute repeaters back into public consciousness by taking the decision to start making them again in 1989. ‘Such watches still take a lot of time and money to produce, which means very few are made,’ says the specialist. ‘But that only adds to their romance.’

Patek Philippe ref. 5033

Arguably the star of the collection, this ref. 5033 automatic minute repeating annual calendar watch was, atypically, made with a titanium case. This lightweight material is not only extremely challenging to work with relative to steel, but it is also difficult to make work sonically. 

That’s why all titanium Patek Philippe minute repeaters, with the exception of this one, have been produced exclusively for the ‘Only Watch’ charity auction. The result is, Bigler notes, ‘an unusual lightweight, high-tech, contemporary-looking watch that still retains all of Patek’s tradition and classicism.’

Patek Philippe ref. 5029

‘Collectors might be drawn to the rare champagne dial on this piece,’ says Bigler of this 18k gold limited-edition minute repeating wristwatch with Breguet numerals, made in 1997 to mark the opening of Patek Philippe’s Plan Les-Ouates workshops. ‘And they will certainly notice the smaller details that make this watch special.’

 Bigler is referring in particular to the ‘JHP’ stamp on the case back — denoting that the case was made by the esteemed independent case-maker Jean-Pierre Hagmann. ‘Patek would not typically advertise outsiders working for the company, so the stamp is a sign of even greater quality,’ says Bigler. ‘It shows that this case was made just by him, not handed to one of his apprentices.’

Patek Philippe ref. 5074

This minute repeating perpetual calendar watch with moon phases and both 24-hour and leap-year indications is rare enough already with its black dial and pink-gold case. That it was bought from Patek Philippe’s historic boutique on Geneva’s rue du Rhône makes it even more appealing. 

The icing on the cake of this slightly larger piece, however, is the cathedral gong with its deep, rich, high- and low-tone chime and longer-lasting sound. ‘Some people love the cathedral sound for its resonance,’ says Bigler. ‘The tone is beautiful and impressive.’

Patek Philippe ref. 2524/1

There’s a standout quality to this 18k gold minute repeating watch that transcends its superlative build quality (the case was made by Emile Vichet) and the graphic simplicity of its almost modernist dial. And that, Bigler stresses, comes from the fact that, despite dating to 1955, it has never been subject to what he calls ‘careless polishing’. 

‘When watches are serviced it is typically to make a watch look as new. But most collectors don’t want the original quality of the watch altered. They want a watch as a time capsule,’ the specialist explains. Like people, he adds, some watches age better than others — and this has aged with particular character.

Patek Philippe ref. 3974

It’s not just the watch itself that appeals to collectors — the backstory can be just as important. ‘It’s like knowing who the subject of a painting is, and why they were painted in that particular way,’ says Bigler. And so it is with this 18k gold automatic minute repeating perpetual calendar watch with moon phases. 

The reference was launched in 1989 to mark Patek Philippe’s 150th anniversary, and was, at the time, the world’s most complicated wristwatch. Indeed, the piece marked the company’s return to making minute repeater watches, after a gap of some two decades during which production of minute repeaters had ceased. 

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